For many years I have known that the world’s shortest poem was written by Ogden Nash. It was called Lines On the Antiquity of Microbes, and all it said was:
For many years I was wrong. Not about the poem. But about the author. Recently I discovered that there was some debate as to the true author, and that there was a strong body of evidence connecting the poem to Strickland Gillilan, rather than Nash; between them they had seen off the third challenger, Shel Silverstein (who gave us the wonderful Sylvia’s Mother).
This post is not about any of them, or even about the poem per se. Instead, it’s about the subject of the poem.
We’re still learning about microbes. We have reason to believe that we may have been just a teensy bit too eager to rid ourselves of microbes in the past; we used to think of them as bad guys, but more and more, we’re coming to recognise them as a bunch of good guys in the midst of a bunch of guys we don’t really know much about.
Through Marc Benioff I met David Agus, and since then I’ve heard him speak at a number of places, starting with a Salesforce.com conference. [If you haven’t been to one, you need to. They’re amazing. I went to them before I joined the company, I will go to them long after I’ve left the company (if I ever do). They’re that good.]
In the serendipity that punctuates our lives, I then met with Larry Smarr while speaking at a Deloittes customer conference some time soon after. And the more I learnt about his ‘computer-aided study” of his own body, the more I was driven to investigate what David had opened my eyes to.
We have only just begun to understand our microbiomes. We have only just begun to understand that we have many good microbes, and that the microbes we don’t know much about may also be good for us.
A few days ago, I came across an intriguing idea, one that delighted me. It’s a long long way from being proven. But it is outrageous enough to be worth thinking about.
The idea is this:
Perhaps the human appendix does have a function after all. It may just turn out to be a “boot disk”
A boot disk for the human microbiome, preserving a perfect copy of the collection of microbes we should have started life with. The proposal was put forward by students at Duke some five or six years ago, and continues to pop up every now and then.
Now that’s an idea worthy of Ogden Nash. If he was alive today, I’m sure he would have penned a quick poem about the appendix. And mangled some poor word or other to rhyme with it. Riotously.