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Steve Hansen A dragonfly demonstrates the miracles involved in life

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Posted: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 1:16 am

It was another beautiful Saturday morning in Lodi. As I swept off my back deck, I looked down at a nearby steppingstone. On it was a three-inch dragonfly.

Tahe insect was frozen in place, so I assumed the obvious: It had died sometime during the past few hours. I picked it up by one of its four wings.

Its stunning beauty intrigued me. Its transparent wings were all cleverly laced together. They looked as if they were made of shattered safety glass, except that each "crack" was specifically placed with a purpose. Some appeared to be larger than others, undoubtedly to serve as wing supports.

The eyes on this Anax junius (formal names for living things were obviously created by those with too much time on their hands) are miracles within themselves. Together, they resembled a canopy on a futuristic jet fighter. Each contains about 3,000 individual facets, allowing the creature to see 360 degrees.

The body is a work of art. Its abdomen is a variety of greens. A bright blue section connects the tail, which is a little longer than four centimeters. It is wrapped in bands of dark colors with two tiny feather-like details protruding from the end.

A few minutes or hours before, this common green darner was buzzing and doing its thing. All of its millions of microscopic parts were working in harmony. It was intelligent enough to survive as a species for millions of years. It knew how to reproduce, feed itself, survive in different temperatures and cleverly avoid its enemies.

If one stops to think about it, the ability of the dragonfly to independently thrive may be much greater than most modern human beings, who are wholly dependent upon others to provide their basic necessities.

But now, perhaps for a variety of unknown reasons, this particular green darner ceases to exist. It is in a static state. Already, nature had begun its version of Waste Management activity, with two ants gnawing away at its protoplasmic remains.

As much as science can tell us about the nature of life, it still can't give us a reasonable explanation as to what makes the multitude of parts, on something as simple as a dragonfly, come together and function as one — if even for a few hours or weeks at a time. The odds of this happening by chance, even after billions of years, are probably about the same as a Lamborghini evolving out of an Alabama junkyard.

If we went to Reno and played the game of roulette, we'd all agree that the chances would be less than 50/50 of hitting red on each spin of the wheel. After 100 spins, if red came up 100 times, we'd conclude that the wheel was malfunctioning. After all, the odds of this happening are one in 1,267,650,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 — even if we eliminate "0" and "00."

Yet, according to statistical data presented by Dr. Stephen Meyer, Sir Fred Hoyle and some astute Cambridge University mathematicians, the random chance of a minimum of 250 proteins and at least 150 amino acids coming together to make just one simple living cell are so great, it makes the above calculation look like first grade math!

As I write this column, I look at my beautiful green darner with awe and wonder. I think about what my father told me shortly before his death. Dad was vice chairman of the Division of Forensic Pathology, School of Medicine, at the University of California, San Francisco. He said the following: "I've spent most of my life studying in the specialized field of oral pathology. I can only conclude one thing: The more I know, the more I realize what I don't know."

In my view, his words succinctly describe the paradox of human knowledge and discovery. I'm not a theologian, scientist or mathematician. The only thing I really know about bugs is what I scrape off of my windshield after a summer trip to L.A.

But from simple observation, I can only stare and express amazement at what this incredible miracle is that we call "life."

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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