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More Than One Right Answer

On Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle examines the fascinating parallels between hummingbird and insect flight. He and/or she writes: “The researchers placed nontoxic paint on the wing of a ruby-throated hummingbird at 9 different spots then videotaped the animal flying at 1,000 frames per second with 4 cameras simultaneously.” Despite being far removed from insects on the phylogenetic tree, hummingbirds “stir up air around their wings in a way similar to insects like mosquitoes and dragonflies.” This is an example of convergent evolution, as natural selection engineers similar solutions for very distant cousins. On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel attests to another kind of convergence, one also based on re-arranging the letters of a code. In the 17th century, as Galileo made his stupendous observations about the solar system, he distributed his findings in cryptic anagrams to keep them on the down-low. Johannes Kepler, a psychic savant if there ever was one, untangled Galileo’s anagrams incorrectly— but still managed to elicit unknown truths from the jumble. He interpreted one of Galileo’s missives to confirm his idea that Mars had two moons—a fact that would not be known until 265 years later. (Galileo had intended to convey that Saturn had two “ears” of a sort, which turned out to be its rings.) In another message, Galileo conveyed his landmark observations about the movement of Venus, which Kepler unscrambled to say something about a rotating red spot on Jupiter. Little did he know it actually existed.