The ocean waves were distant, leaving behind slippery boulders and pools of water on the beach. My friend and I carefully hopped from boulder to boulder taking our time to peer into the temporary aquariums left behind by low tide. Spiny, purple sea urchins seemed to poke each other on the crowded rock walls. There were orange starfish too, never seeming to move.
So I yelled, “What is that?” when I saw a large black mass wiggling and gliding on the sea floor through one of the bigger pools of water. Nothing else was moving so swiftly. I hopped closer to see what it was.
The mystery creature was like the ocean’s version of a chihuahua. It had cute little antennae and a funny face with two feelers on the sea floor. I could imagine a mermaid carrying it around in her clam shell purse, running errands and hanging out with her friends.
I normally don’t touch creatures that I’m not familiar with. You never know what might have a hidden stinger or invisible toxin on its skin, but I took the risk. I let my pointer finger gently slide across its back. The creature wasn’t slimy or bumpy or anything weird. It was just smooth. My friend and I watched the creature for a while, took some pictures and then we went off to do more exploring.
A few years later, at home in the desert, I found the creature again. Not in a zoo or aquarium, but in my bedroom, sort of. I’m trying to read Eric Kandel’s book, In Search of Memory. One night, I turned a page, and I found the slug.
Turns out, the creature is a California Sea Slug, Aplysia. While in search of memory, Kandel was also in search of organisms to use for his research and lab experiments. He found Aplysia to be an ideal specimen to work with because of its simple structures, large cells and ability to learn. He was able to target simple behaviors and observe the connections with nerves, cells, ganglion, and synaptic changes.
It’s amazing how such a simple creature can be an integral part of scientific research that changes our understanding of how our own brains work.
To be honest, I am struggling with this book. There is a lot of science that is a bit out of my reach. I began reading this book a few years ago and gave up. I’m trying again and plugging along. What I love is that it’s not all about the hard core science. It’s a story of Kandel’s journey as a scientist. You get to travel with him to the different schools he attended. You get to meet his family as it grows. You even learn about his history as he explores his past, shaped by tragedies of WWII.
I find that I am often drawn to stories about people. How did they get to where they are at? What were they thinking? What choices did they have? In Search of Memory provides answers to these questions which keeps me motivated to do my best to understand the scientific discoveries explained as part of this story.
So it’s back to reading the book I go. I’m hoping to finish it during summer vacation. Until then, I will get to hang out with the slug for a little bit longer.