A sigh from Stephen Hawking
``What has been the most exciting development in physics during the course of your career?” Answer: ``COBE’s discovery of tiny variations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background and subsequent confirmation by WMAP…” ``What do you think most about during the day?” Answer: ``Women. They are a complete mystery.”
Those are Stephen Hawking’s answers to New Scientist magazine’s interview conducted on his 70th birthday in January. The COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite was launched to measure the diffuse infrared and microwave radiation from the early universe. WMAP (The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) is to measure the differences in the temperature of the Big Bang’s remnant radiant heat ― the study of the properties of our universe as a whole.
Hawking has married and divorced twice. And if what the most famous physicist/cosmologist on Earth thinks most about during the day is ``women” and finds them a complete mystery, the study of the mystery of women must be an unfathomable subject in biology.
No wonder even Charles Darwin couldn’t get a clear answer to the same question. We can, however, try a layman’s approach to the everyday anguish of Stephen Hawking as well as of the majority of adult males.
We the opposite sex should approach first with the origin of life, or sex, of the living things. The first question is why there are female and male divisions, in the name of God, making things complex, difficult and mysterious. A quick answer might be ``reproduction.”
But Darwin said there are organisms that reproduce asexually such as sea anemones. Just for the purpose of reproduction, they simply don’t need a male or female counterpart whichever is more troublesome. In this case it sounds like males. Nonsexual living things need only one parent as they produce offspring by their own division while sexual reproduction requires a male and female each contributing half of the genes.
Economically the latter would cost more than double of the reproduction efforts of the former. In addition to the added cost, sexual reproduction like humans and almost all other living species need to make a tremendous effort to find the opposite sex and it involves again complex mysteries of likes and dislikes. Then, there must be a good reason for this complication and that’s what Hawking is trying to figure out.
A fine yet contrasting example is bowerbirds, about the size of a Korean magpie, that inhabit the tropical regions of New Guinea. The birds have extraordinarily complex courtship and mating behaviors, where males build a bower in a clearing in the jungle.
He first builds a fence by stacking colorful stones, tree branches and leaves of different colors. He then decorates the interior with flower petals with a well-coordinated color scheme, and sea shells, snails, butterfly wings, and buttons, a toothbrush, or jewelry scavenged from villages. After finishing the ornamentation, the poor Romeo not only sings love songs using all of his lung power but also dances in this lovingly prepared bedroom while spreading his colorful wings. He puts pathetically sincere efforts to attract a female bird while he has no choice about her looks.
A female bowerbird, contrary to human females has rather dull external features as it’s economically unnecessary to wear a costly plumage, perches on a tree branch and scrutinize the males’ love calls. She won’t fall in love at first sight but flies over to other bowers and make comparisons, then finally lands on the most attractive bedroom. She innately knows, like humans, the male bird that had the ability to gather the most expensive jewelry has dominant genes and superior DNA.
The poor builders miss the chance to contribute, which genetically prevents their apparently flawed genes getting into the lineage. Evolution proceeds well in the jungle.
The writer is a retired architect-specifications writer, who shuttles back and forth between Seoul and New Jersey. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.