Grandma was more right than she knew

Common wisdom was right about nearly everything before “science” and “democracy” and “philosophy” turned wisdom into genocide and torture. Some branches of science are accidentally recovering old wisdom in recent years, while other branches (like “social” “science” and public “health”) are zooming out beyond the event horizon of infinite satanic lunacy.

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Here’s another story from Frank Edwards’s career biography. Talent always shows up early. As a teenager (around 1915) Frank ran away from home and hooked up with a classic Medicine Show. Frank became the doc’s assistant, running errands and taking care of the horses and equipment.

The doc was peddling a miracle medicine called Submarine Ear Oil, guaranteed to cure deafness. Supposedly the oil was derived from the inner ear of fishes, who have excellent hearing. Most people don’t think about fish audition, but fishermen understand it. The doc asked fishermen if they had observed fish darting away from footsteps or other noises, and indeed they had. Non-fishermen recognized that they were learning a fact from their friends, not from the doc.

Submarine Ear Oil could restore hearing by penetrating into the inner ear of humans from the outside, imparting youthful fish-like acuity to the worn-out human mechanism.

The doc used standard faith healer techniques. After stirring up the audience, he asked for deaf volunteers. Obviously these didn’t include totally deaf people, because they wouldn’t halfway hear the appeal. The typical volunteer was an old man or woman who had lost 80% of hearing from noise damage or aging.

Frank helped the codger onto the stage and stood by to serve as ‘spotter’. The doc grabbed the codger in a headlock and administered the Submarine Ear Oil to one ear, accompanied by several minutes of VIGOROUS AND PAINFUL RUBBING. After the pain and inflammation reached the requisite level, the doc forcefully released the victim, who staggered off to a corner of the stage, supported by Frank. The doc then said in a normal voice, slowly with emphatic mouth movements, Can you hear me? The victim said YES! to prevent another torture session.

And the audience rushed to buy the Submarine Ear Oil, just in case they ever lost their hearing.

The product was plain cottonseed oil, which is certainly beneficial to the skin. If you could get it into your ear, it would soften up a stiff tympanic membrane, but that’s not the usual cause of presbycusis.

If you take cottonseed oil by mouth, or incorporate it in your diet, vitamin E will in fact improve elderly hearing.

So the doc was more correct than he knew. He should have been selling gallon jugs for dietary use!

Well then, do fish have a magical oil in their inner ears? YES.

= = = = = START REPRINT:

Last week I claimed that radio was invented at “just the right moment”, not too early or late. Plenty of other pieces had to be in place before sound could modulate electromagnetic waves.

Well, I was off by 100 million years. As always, Nature got there first. Not just radio, but FM Stereo and LORAN! Nature approached radio from a different angle, working mainly on the electrostatic or capacitive side of waves. Our first approach (eg Faraday and Hertz) was via the electromagnetic or inductive side.

Electric eels are very well-known, and the fact that fish (and insects and plants) can sense electrostatic fields is moderately well-known. But the details of radio direction-finding and radio communication by a few fish are still obscure. Only a few researchers have been looking into this, and it’s only marginally understood.

Fish that talk and search by radio live mainly in muddy equatorial rivers where vision doesn’t help much. They use a variety of waveforms, from sine to single repeated pulses to modulated interrupted waves. The pulse-repetition frequencies are in the same range as mammal voices, from a few cps to a few hundred cps.

On the sending side their mechanism is relatively simple. Just a sequence of neurons that send positive and negative fields directly into the water, instead of sending positive or negative fields into the next neuron as they would do inside the nervous system.

In some fish the sending organ is a long antenna:

containing lots of neurons that can be pulsed or modulated together or separately. The length and width of the antenna vary by subspecies, specifically matching the impedance of the turbid water that each type normally lives in. (Aw come on, Ma. Do you have to think of everything? Yes.)

Other fish have sending organs on each side of the body, producing stereo waves that can be modulated differently for a LORAN-like direction sensing operation. Each fish constantly monitors its own pulses, and changes frequency when it ‘hears’ another fish using the same freq.

The receivers are more complex. They are inside pores in the skin on the fish’s head.

Here’s an animation of three receivers in their pores.

Each pore is filled with insulating jelly. The jelly makes contact with several hair cells, similar to the hair cells in our cochlea. As the varying charge field passes the face, the jelly expands and contracts in a form of electrostriction, similar to a crystal earphone. (In an insulator, charges don’t move around much. So an incoming positive field charges all the atoms of the insulator positively, which makes them repel each other. The insulator thus expands slightly. An incoming negative field does the same. When the field is zero, the insulator is relatively contracted, not repelling itself.)

The jelly is thus the ‘detector’ or first-level transducer, in a system that is otherwise similar to our hearing sense. [Later thought: These organs must ALSO pick up sound. No way around it. So the fish is hearing acoustically and electrically at the same time through the same system! Sort of like those humans who hear nearby radio signals through tooth-to-filling rectification while hearing regular sound through their ears. Researchers are focusing their observations and experiments on the electric stuff, which is definitely the more unusual and interesting part … but maybe they should also focus on how the fish separates the two types of input. Is the jelly designed to move in different directions for electrostriction and acoustic vibration, with distinct hair cells for the two directions?]

What does this communication sound like?

A couple of Youtube clips feature Brachyhypopomus fish interacting. These clips are undescribed, but there is apparently a ‘radio receiver’ or induction loop in the aquarium that picks up the waves and turns them into sound. We’re hearing the constant pulse stream from both fish, roughly 40 cps if my guess is right. (Sort of like communicating by turning the throttle on a lawn mower!)(I’ll leave the more accurate metaphor to the reader.)

In this clip, two males are interacting aggressively.

In this one, a male and female are courting and spawning. Note the moment of decision. Not quite Harry Meets Sally, more like “You’ll do.”

The earlier research back in the ’50s was headed by Ted Bullock, who was pretty much the wellspring of everything interesting in communication methods. The current kingpin is Carl Hopkins at Cornell. I took the antenna pic from Hopkins’s online material, and based the animation on one of his figures.

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This might explain why Phoning For Fish works so well on catfish. (Mud dwellers, thus likely radio operators.) When you crank those old farm phone magnetos, you’re not sending a DC charge into the water. You’re sending a pulsed wave in the same frequency range that fish use for their own QSOs. The poor catfish imagines a HUGE enemy invading his territory, and gets the fuck outta there.

= = = = = END REPRINT.

Moral of the story, option 1: Doc thought he was defrauding Nature, but Nature defrauded him by making his medicine real.

Moral of the story, option 2: Doc had been a pharmacist before he switched to quackery for more fun and profit. He had long experience with selling various chemicals and learning the results. His cerebellum predicted what would help, while his cortex thought he was just picking a cheap and common oil.

Meta-moral: This is the kind of natural-justice story that Edwards loved to tell. Edwards didn’t realize this was his kind of story because the correlation of vitamin E and hearing wasn’t known yet… but Nature knew better. He was telling his kind of story without knowing it.

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