Excerpt from: Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynmann “Adventures of a Curious Character”


One day I was watching a paramecium and I saw something that was not described in the books I got in school—in college, even. These books always simplify things so the world will be more like they want it to be: When they’re talking about the behavior of animals, they always start out with, “The paramecium is extremely simple; it has a simple behavior. It turns as its slipper shape moves through the water until it hits something, at which time it recoils, turns through an angle, and then starts out again.”

It isn’t really right. First of all, as everybody knows, the paramecia, from time to time, conjugate with each other—they meet and exchange nuclei. How do they decide when it’s time to do that? (Never mind; that’s not my observation.)

I watched these paramecia hit something, recoil, turn through an angle, and go again. The idea that it’s mechanical, like a computer program—it doesn’t look that way. They go different distances, they recoil different distances, they turn through angles that are different in various cases; they don’t always turn to the right; they’re very irregular. It looks random, because you don’t know what they’re hitting; you don’t know all the chemicals they’re smelling, or what.

One of the things I wanted to watch was what happens to the paramecium when the water that it’s in dries up. It was claimed that the paramecium can dry up into a sort of hardened seed. I had a drop of water on the slide under my microscope, and in the drop of water was a paramecium and some “grass”—at the scale of the paramecium, it looked like a network of jackstraws. As the drop of water evaporated, over a time of fifteen or twenty minutes, the paramecium got into a tighter and tighter situation: there was more and more of this back-and-forth until it could hardly move. It was stuck between these “sticks,” almost jammed.

Then I saw something I had never seen or heard of: the paramecium lost its shape. It could flex itself, like an amoeba. It began to push itself against one of the sticks, and began dividing into two prongs until the division was about halfway up the paramecium, at which time it decided that wasn’t a very good idea, and backed away.

So my impression of these animals is that their behavior is much too simplified in the books. It is not so utterly mechanical or one-dimensional as they say. They should describe the behavior of these simple animals correctly. Until we see how many dimensions of behavior even a one-celled animal has, we won’t be able to fully understand the behavior of more complicated animals.

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