Life’s Little Mysteries matches up the miraculous deeds of Jesus, according to the Gospels, against scientists’ more labor-intensive efforts to achieve the same results.
Born of a virgin
According to the Bible, Christ was immaculately conceived, making him the Son of God and of the Virgin Mary. Today, being born of a virgin is nothing to write home about, thanks to the development of artificial insemination. In this procedure, a male’s sperm is either injected into a female’s uterus, or is used to fertilize her eggs in a petri dish (after which the fertilized egg is re-injected into the female). Either way, there’s no sex required.
The Italian scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani performed the first artificial insemination of a dog in 1786, and the Englishman John Hunter achieved the feat in a human just four years later. Today, it’s a popular form of conception for single women and both infertile and lesbian couples.
Turning water into wine
Unfortunately, until the Second Coming of the Lord, we’re stuck forking over $10 for a decent bottle of wine. As far as we can tell, no scientists are even working on the problem of how to instantaneously transform water into Cabernet Sauvignon. The closest they’ve come may be the invention of grape-flavored Alka-Seltzer. Cheers, Jesus.
According to the Book of Acts, Jesus cured a lame man, enabling him to walk. Can scientists do that?
They have recently taken the first steps. Several research groups are independently developing therapies to help paraplegics regain the ability to stand and walk, anchored in new knowledge of the plasticity of nerves in the spinal cord. An experimental therapy being developed by researchers at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center has, as of last week, enabled two paraplegics to stand and take steps with assistance. In this technique, an electric current is applied to a network of nerves in the spinal cord that are capable of initiating movement on their own, without the help of the brain. Stimulating these nerves gradually re-teaches them how to take steps.
Meanwhile, roboticists at the University of California at Berkeley have built a computer-controlled “exoskeleton,” essentially robotic leg braces, which a paralyzed Berkeley student used to walk across the stage at his graduation last May. He was able to stand and walk by inputting commands into a small computer that controls the movements of the braces.
Feeding the masses
No, scientists aren’t able to swell a few loaves of bread and two fish into an enormous feast capable of feeding thousands, as Jesus allegedly did at Bethsaida. However, major (though controversial) advances in agricultural and genetic engineering have enabled food production to increase dramatically since the 1960s, and the “Green Revolution,” as it is known, has been credited with saving billions of people from starvation. Genetic engineering of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, advances in irrigation infrastructure, and the distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers have all played a role.
A recent case of science’s ability to feed the multitudes is, in fact, known as the “Malawi maize miracle.” In 2005, the African country of Malawi, one of the poorest and most famine-prone places on Earth, adopted a program that provides heavily subsidized seeds and fertilizer to poor farmers. Greater use of fertilizer led to the biggest maize crop in the country’s history during the program’s first year — enough to feed the country with tons left over for exporting. The program has since grown each year in Malawi and has been adopted in other African countries as well.
Making blind people see
Jesus made a blind man see. Today, scientists do it routinely. Nearly half of all blindness results from cataracts, or degeneration of the eye lens with age that causes it to become opaque. In a 15-minute procedure, ophthalmologists can remove a person’s faulty eye lens and replace it with a synthetic lens, restoring their vision.
Thanks to recent advances in laser eye-surgery techniques, scientists have even managed to one-up Christ in the domain of vision improvement. In some circumstances, they are able to correct patients’ vision to 20/10, enabling them to see twice as far as most people. Research by David Williams, director of the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester, and his colleagues may soon enable laser eye surgeons to achieve 20/10-or-better vision for a large percentage of patients.
Williams and his colleagues use an instrument called a wave front sensor to detect distortions in human vision. They shoot light into the eye and observe how it bounces back through hundreds of tiny lenses in the sensor. The aberrations in patterns created by those lenses serve as a map of the eye’s mistakes. Customized surgical techniques are being developed to implement the results of patients’ wave front measurements, in order to correct their vision far beyond 20/20.