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Biological Clocks in the Devil's Playground

Bill Meredith

"An idle brain is the Devil's playground."
…Meredith Willson, The Music Man.

Lately I have begun to suspect that if Harold Hill, the ersatz professor, part-time music teacher and full-time con-man, could look inside my head, he would cite it as evidence that an idle brain is the Devil's playground. My wife, I'm sure, would agree with him; more and more often these days, my absent-mindedness is the source of trouble here in River City. Being of scientific background, I have to be open to the possibility that they are right, although I still hold out the hope that my mental playground is inhabited by mildly distracted spirits rather than devils. But sometimes when I try to unravel where the thoughts in my head come from, I'm not sure.

Case in point: walking to the post office the other day with my mind idling in neutral, I was brought back to consciousness by the clock at the Provincial House chiming the quarter-hour. I haven't been outside much this summer, and I had missed hearing it; to me, it is a pleasant sound. But that day it also served as a reminder of change and passing; clocks, at least the ones that chime, have become an anachronism. There was a time when most people didn't have watches, and the striking of the village clock served a useful purpose in ordering the activities of their days. Longer periods of time were marked by church bells, which reminded us that it was Sunday and another week had passed; they also told us when holidays arrived, tolled to announce deaths in the community and rang alarms to warn of fires or other disasters. Those times have passed; nowadays, we have the discordant beeping of cell phones and that infernal loudspeaker from Emergency Management to regulate our activities… not a good trade-off, in my opinion.

So I reached the post office in a jaundiced mood, picked up the usual collection of bills, magazines and advertisements, and headed back toward home with the letter my wife had sent me to mail still in my shirt pocket. My mind was occupied by clocks. Taken by itself, "clock" is a funny-sounding word, so, after a mental detour to Walter Matthau's discourse in "The Sunshine Boys" on why words with the letter "k" in them are funny, I got out the dictionary. "Clock" turned out to come from a medieval French word, "cloche," which meant "bell." That made sense for a moment, but then I recalled reading somewhere that if there was a fire in a monastery in medieval France, everyone ran to the clock, because they used water clocks in those days. Apparently the word meaning "bell" was attached to clocks before mechanical movements and striking mechanisms were invented.

This was an interesting conundrum, and I tried to discuss it with my wife, but she seemed more interested in determining why her letter was still in my pocket. So the subject was dropped, and after supper I sat out on the porch and watched chimney swifts wheeling about the sky as dusk approached, having a last snack on mosquitoes before bedtime. About that time the first bats appeared, and for a few minutes both bats and birds were engaged in chasing the same food supply. Now, swifts and bats are a classic example of what ecologists call the Competitive Exclusion Principle, which states that two species cannot occupy exactly the same niche in an ecosystem. These two species prey on similar kinds of insects, but they avoid competing by being active at different times, one by day and one by night. Watching them reminded me that they do not need bells or alarm clocks to regulate their activities; they have their own mechanism, the biological clock, to tell them when it is time to do what needs to be done. This activated the brain's playground again, for I once did some research on biological clocks.

It had been known for centuries that plants and animals do certain activities at certain times of day, but it was not until the 1950s that biologists began seriously to believe that they could actually measure time. The term, "biological clock," had come into common use when I was in college, but was a controversial idea because it was very hard to prove that animals were really measuring time themselves rather than responding to some environmental signal that we humans could not detect. People with a vitalistic philosophy were writing books like The Secret Life of Plants, which claimed plants had auras and responded to pain if another plant was damaged nearby; on the other hand, engineering types with a mechanistic point of view thought they could solve biology's problems with electronic models like coupled-oscillator systems. It was all very confusing to a beginning graduate student, and it got worse when a famous ecologist, Lamont Cole, wrote an article called "The Biological Clock of the Unicorn," in which he criticized both sides of the argument. One of my professors assigned that article to be read, neglecting to tell us that it was meant to be satire; I spent several days trying to figure it out.

My thesis problem dealt with two species of crayfish which lived together in streams around Emmitsburg in apparent violation of the Competitive Exclusion Principle. I thought perhaps they were like chimney swifts and bats, one active by day and the other by night, so I spent one whole summer building motion detectors and trying to see if crayfish could tell time. In the end I found that they could, but it turned out that both species were active at the same times of day. All I had done was to eliminate biological clocks as an explanation of my problem; it took two more years before I finally found the answer. But that is how science works, and it was an important lesson for me.

The Weather Channel reminds me regularly that days are getting shorter and summer will end when the equinox arrives, and each evening when I go out to sit on the porch after the evening news, it is a little darker. While I daydream on the way to the post office or on the porch swing, I see the monarch butterflies drifting southward, geese flocking, and hummingbirds gorging themselves to make body fat. They do not need clock chimes or beepers or newscasts; they can tell time, and when the days reach the length that is critical for them, they will leave. They will migrate south without knowing why, or caring why, for that matter; for them, instinct is safer than logical thought as a means of survival. Meanwhile, I will have to spend the winter making excuses to my wife about the problems that arise as a result of an idle brain. I think I will suggest that, with all these thoughts running through it, my brain isn't really idle; but something tells me that is an argument I am destined to lose.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith