Friday, June 27, 2008

Curious trail

This morning, while waiting for the Préfecture to welcome us for the naturalization ceremony, I took this photo of a wiggly red paint trail on the footpaths of the Place de Verdun. I saw this paint trail for the first time a few days ago, while visiting the Archives départementales to pursue my research about the origins of Gamone. I soon discovered that it leads, over a distance of a hundred meters or so, to the nearby Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation de l'Isère, which honors local heroes of the combat against the Nazis during World War II.

After finding this blood-red squiggle on the footpaths of Grenoble [which would be trivial, were it not for the Résistance exhibitions to which it leads you], I happened to be reading a brilliant anecdote penned by my favorite author. Richard Dawkins talks of a curious wet wiggly trail he once saw in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. [You can read the story on pages 73-74 of his Unweaving the Rainbow.] Apparently, it was a trail of urine from a randy male elephant. The Oxford zoologist imagined immediately two complementary hypotheses:

(1) There was no doubt some kind of regular swaying rhythm in the pachyderm's prick. Its excretions of urine were governed by physics. First, there was the global gait of the huge animal. Then, there was the pendulum-like movement of the elephant's lengthy penis, wobbling and exuding urine beneath its giant body. Insofar as the urine trail was a kind of wobbly wave, Dawkins imagined that its form might be analyzed by mathematics that were imagined by Joseph Fourier... who once became the prefect of Isère, as I said in my article entitled Becoming French [display].

(2) Dawkins imagined that the elephant's urine trail might become fossilized one of these days, and that future scientific historians, armed with the imagination of our Oxford professor and the mathematics of our French prefect, might be able to digitize the elephant's urine train and apply Fourier analysis in order to determine... the exact length and weight of the elephant's dangling organ! Isn't that nice thinking?

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