Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why We Have Fingerprints

Of one thing only I am sure of:
Of dermal doctors none’s the greater,
Of skin none abler a repairer,
Than Nora Maya Kachaturoff!

Every visit to my dermatologist is fascinating enough so that it must be followed by another posting about skin. This morning I learned yet one more interesting fact. Science has discovered, and relatively recently, what function fingerprints perform in the great ecology of life. Our fingerprints have not been created (despite the claims of criminology) to help us apprehend the thief. No. Fingerprints serve a higher purpose: they help us feel the world with greater discrimination.

I was looking, again, at a wall chart quite similar to the one shown on the left. On the one that I was looking at, the odd little organelle near the center, colored green, did not have a label. Thus, after my consultation with Dr. Kachaturoff approached its end, I asked her what that formation might be all about. “Ah,” she said, “the Pacinian corpuscle.” It is a bulbous nerve ending but deep enough inside the skin so that I wondered: How could it be effective so deep down? The doctor explained. The corpuscle responds to vibrations. Then she explained, becoming quite lively (but she is always animated) at encountering a patient who took an interest in such matters arcane, that recent, modern research has uncovered a linkage between the Pacinian bulb and fingerprints. Evidently when something slides across those tiny ridges, vibrations are set up sufficient so that the deep-lying corpuscle can identify them and send a translation of this phenomenon on its way to Washington, as it were—the vastly distant brain.

Even a cursory examination of any aspect of the skin (and other ranges of the vast empire we call the body) reveals how many people labored for centuries to understand it. The discoverer of this tiny bulb was Filippo Pacini (1812-1883), an Italian anatomist, better known, perhaps, for isolating the cholera bacillus in 1854—well before Robert Koch, who came thirty years later and got all the credit. While we are entertained in the media by the antics of celebrities, other people, working in deep obscurity, keep discovering the secrets we think we already know. In the twenty-first century we are still completing insights that began in the nineteenth—or much earlier.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

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