Tusks and Swords


Enthusiasts of marine biology — the most accessible branch of the Sciences, considering its general aesthetic — will probably have already pounced on this news item, which has been floating along the New York Times science section for a few days. For those who haven’t the time, however, to remain constantly updated on experimental developments in Narhwal Tusk Theory (an ancient discipline, practiced by the Phoenicians), here is the gist: a team of Scientists — always in teams!! — from Harvard and “The National Institute of Standards and Technology” has just turned an electron microscope on a narwhal tusk for the first time and discovered millions of nerve endings embedded in it. “New subtleties in dental anatomy,” they call it. Essentially, they’ve found that these completely absurd-looking tusks, which are, if you ever find yourself looking at a picture of one, always longer than you remember them to be, are actually complex sensory organisms capable of registering changes in light, temperature, and particle gradients.

The Romantic poet John Keats once made the claim that Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms had destroyed the mystery of rainbows. Of course, the Romantic disenchantment with the sciences, now referred to as their fear of “unweaving the rainbow,” is totally regressive and pompous. Sometimes scientific discoveries bring us new poetics: the nature of light and color in terms of physics is deeply more interesting and confusing than Keats gave Newton credit for.

Yet, this sentiment — this antipathy towards clarification — is sometimes unavoidable in the face of a development such as the Boring-ificiation of Narwhals, long considered (by myself) to be rare beasts capable of extraordinary violence, ice-piercing, and tusk-fights.

Oh, this is a great and interesting development, really, but there go centuries of exoticism and bafflement: gem-encrusted Narwhal tusks in museums, weird lore about “sea unicorns,” the very idea of Arctic tribesmen using tusks for jousting, the latter of which I might just have made up, but thus is the nature of mythology. The Inuit call Narwhals “those who are good at curving themselves to the sky.” Unfortunately, progress in marine dental biology — and other such fields which didn’t exist as recently as twenty years ago — will continue to shatter the dream, unwinding these corkscrew tusks as Newton unwove the rainbow.


  1. #1 evan
    December 15, 2005

    Narwhals are creatures made of nostalgia and deja vu. I don’t understand why it is specifically the narwhal that does this to me but every time I read a story about a narwhal all I can do is think of this other narwhal story that I heard a few months ago and cannot remember. What was it? I swear there is a poem about a narwhal, too. The word narwhal means “corpse whale.” Narwhals are also a kind of animal that is everywhere you aren’t looking. The entire ocean is full of narwhals, they are always just out of sight. They are part of the secret world that we don’t get to look at very often. I am OK with this.

  2. #2 Shoshanna
    December 16, 2005

    Well, we now know what chemicals cause love, but it is still something cool that lots of people like to do. We know what biological processes create drunkenness, but that doesn’t prevent “I love you, man!” moments. Actually, finding out that narwhals still actually exist (I thought they were mythical and/or extinct) fills me with more wonder, not less.

    By the way, I love your blog, man!

  3. #3 david
    December 18, 2005

    Wow! Amazing tusks… It’s interesting how Mythic narwhals seem, how people have all of these vague but pungent associations with them. I had always conceived of the narwhal as a peaceful creature, rather more the magical sea unicorn than the tusk-fighting ice-piercer. When I read the latter description, my impulse was to be like, “NO! That’s not what they’re like!” But what do I know? I’m no team of scientists, I’ll tell you that much.

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