Some patterns easier 
to discern than others

If I must have male-pattern baldness, I would like it to be in zig-zags. Then I would at least look dangerous. I thought about wearing camouflage to look dangerous, but I couldn’t find any. One of the disheartening things about men growing old is that, at some point, no one sees you as much of a danger anymore. I don’t think women are ever perceived as less dangerous. 

Identifying patterns is what scientists do. If we can identify the pattern of events in time or space, we can then predict the event. If we can discern what causes the pattern, we can work to control it. Identifying patterns can be more difficult than you might think because patterns can occur over time, or across space, and sometimes both simultaneously.

In addition, patterns can occur over extremely small, invisible-to-the-naked-eye scales like atoms and cells, or large, difficult-to-comprehend scales such as geologic time or endless space. 

Patterns can sometimes be so complex that we can’t even see them. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a pattern, only that we haven’t found it yet. That raises the question as to whether there is such a thing as randomness. Maybe there are only patterns on a scale we can’t discern or explain. Even when we see a pattern, we may not know its cause.

For example, male-pattern baldness is the loss of hair in men as they age, usually evidenced in receding hairlines and loss of hair on the crown. But the loss of hair isn’t due to loss of hair follicles, or even hair. It’s that the hairs themselves are so thin as to be invisible and are easily broken off.  Scientists have discovered that a protein present in the scalps of some men, derived from genetic factors, binds to the hair follicle and inhibits proper hair formation. 

It can be curiously difficult to tell biological patterns from simple physical patterns. I think most people associate some pattern with living things, although that pattern can be a little difficult to put into words. We assume some kind of regularity, like bilateral symmetry or tree branching, but not a geometric regularity like a crystal.

ALH84001 is a meteorite discovered in Allan Hills, Antarctica in 1984. It is thought to have originated from Mars 4 billion years ago when a meteor blasted it loose. It apparently arrived on earth about 13,000 years ago. I don’t know where it was in the interim — sort of like teenagers between the time they leave home and the time they arrive home several hours’ past curfew. 

The meteorite became famous when some scientists claimed to have found evidence for microscopic fossils of Martian bacteria in it. Eventually, the observations were explained using purely physical explanations. However, the imminent scientist, President Bill Clinton, gave a speech about the discovery, though he knew nothing about science. This caused much attention, so the discovery of this meteorite is considered the historical birth of the field of astrobiology. 

Of course, since 1984, no one has found any evidence of astrobiology. But there is a pattern of government spending money on the project, so scientists oblige. All this has culminated in the recent announcement of seven, earth-size planets around some ultracool star that could harbor water and hence life as we know it. 

Some scientists see a pattern between planet size, distance from a sun, the possibility of water and life. Of course, they assume that carbon-based life, like us, is what all living things in the universe would look like. Would humans even recognize a form of life that is not carbon-based if we saw it? What about computer viruses? They reproduce and move about from place to place. Are they alive?

Personally, I have plenty to do trying to live life as presently constituted. As William Shakespeare said, “No, I will be the pattern of all patience; I will say nothing.” I think I am rather good at saying nothing. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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