Under the Sun
The unknown unknowns are what will get you
"Inhaling Pig Brains May Be Cause of New Illness," the headline declared.
"What's that about?" I said, clicking the link on the Washington Post Web site.
Reading the story, I learned that Inhaling Pig Brains isn't the name of a punk rock group, nor a subculture expression for a drug or alcohol abuse.
It seems that slaughterhouse workers, specifically people assigned to removing a pig's brain from its skull with a device that compresses air -- the procedure is aptly called "blowing brains" -- suffered weakness and numbness in their arms and legs.
Initial investigations indicate that the illness could be caused when the workers inhale microscopic bits of pig brain. Detecting the foreign substance, the workers' immune systems sent antibodies to attack the bits, but because pig brains are so similar to human nerve tissues, the antibodies hit them, too.
It was an "aha" moment for medical experts puzzled by the illness. The elements for the possible diagnosis were there, but it wasn't until an interpreter for the workers, most Spanish speakers, told doctors what she knew they had in common that the link between blowing brains and the sickness was made.
Doctors probably would have discovered the connection. Still, there are situations where even the smartest people in the room can't conceive of the consequences of so many of the things we do.
For example, drinking diet soda was thought to be more healthful than slurping the sugar-laden pop. Now researchers are finding that diet-soda drinkers have a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a condition connected to heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The jury's still out on cause and effect, and as with most such studies, researchers say they don't know if there really is a relationship.
There could be a million little things involved. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are knowns, unknowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns as we bend, fold, spindle and modify our way through the world.
Coal, the foundation for 19th-century industrialization, was thought to be all good. Who knew that burning it would eventually spoil the atmosphere, that in combination with exploiting its fossil fuel cousins, the global climate would change?
Yet we continue to mess around, cloning cows, sheep and other animals, altering genes of plants, fish and chickens. Most of this is done for profit and though there have been great beneficial side effects in experimenting with nature, it is dangerous to act as if we are masters of the universe. Recrafting plants and animals, selecting the most productive or those in current demand while letting the organic ones die away also narrows the diversity of nature.
Science and knowledge should be constantly pursued, but the unknown unknowns should give pause. I'm betting that the inventors of the brain-blowing process never imagined that the efficient remedy for a meat production problem would end up causing human suffering.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org