By Dr. Jim Ferguson

A simple definition of a paradox is a contradiction. I’ve been thinking about this during what is paradoxically called Spring Break. It may be a break for students and perhaps for teachers and parents, but it is not a break for these grandparents. The term is a contradiction for Becky and me as we chaperone the “cute ones,” our grandchildren.

Oakley will be four on May Day. He attends preschool, and we normally pick him up every day at three. But, during spring break we have him all day. His sister Josie has just turned one and we have her every day. She is a dynamo and this little one requires constant attention.

Long ago, when I worked in the ER, I sometimes encountered patients who were “full-moon” crazy. Though science has disproved the notion that a full moon precipitates lunacy, the word comes down to us from this paradoxical observation. To prevent “lunatics” from harming themselves or the medical staff, four-point restraints of flailing limbs were sometimes necessary. This involves “roping” each of the lunatic’s four extremities to the bedside. I doubt if my daughter and son-in-law would be sympathetic to this means of grandchild control.

It seems paradoxes abound, and I just learned of the “eponymous Peto paradox” in the November, 2015 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Forty years ago Peto and his colleagues observed that the risk of cancer does not correlate with size or longevity in the animal kingdom. The conventional wisdom was that the longer an animal lived or the greater the mass of dividing cells necessary to make and sustain, for instance an elephant, would increase the risk of cancer. In fact, calculating estimates of cancer risk based on body mass and longevity predict a billion-fold difference in cancer. The paradox is that cancer risk does not increase as supposed.

We don’t know why but, modern humans seem “exceptionally vulnerable to cancer…given the average size and life span” of our species. It is thought that smoking, lifestyle choices and sunbathing may contribute to cancer risk in humans which are not operative in animals. Furthermore, cancer risk increases in humans as we age, especially after our reproductive years. Understandably, this limits the opportunity to develop anti-cancer genetic defenses because our genetic heritage has already been sewn.

There’s a lot of arcane genetics in the JAMA review, but the take away point is that elephants appear to have extra copies of a gene called p53 which aides in recognizing cellular stress and resistance to cancer. The evolutionary explanation is that somewhere in the elephant’s ancestral past extra copies of the p53 mutation occurred. As a corollary, it is recognized that genetic deficiency of this same gene in humans causes the Li Fraumeni syndrome and increased cancer risk.

Factors other than genetics may be at work in cancer. Large animals like elephants are sluggish and their slow metabolic rate and lower cell turnover might partially explain the low cancer rate. However, elephants increase their mass thirty fold in the ten years reaching maturity without an increased cancer risk.

Other paradoxes are readily apparent to those who are paying attention. Donald Trump is not a smooth talking politician, yet he has challenged the establishment in Washington and world leaders like few others in modern times. His brash and bombastic statements are offensive to some, and fly in the face of political correctness. Yet, paradoxically the more he is vilified, the more he is supported. Americans are mad at the fawning media who brought us Obama, and at the Washington establishment who never opposed Obama’s destructive policies. Trump-ism is the result.

The internet is the wonder of our age. If you have a question you can quickly find explanations and answers. Yet paradoxically, the answers you find may not be right. Google and other search engines are designed with inherent bias and even fact checking websites yield prejudicial results.

Perhaps nothing is certain. I previously wrote how a friend challenged me with the notion that “facts are conditional,” and then logically proved it to me. Perhaps “facts” require an interpretive mind to make them valid. The ancients called this prudence and was considered a virtue. We now understand prudence as common sense. It seems this virtue has escaped many in our culture. In an episode of the sitcom The Office, leaders Michael and Dwight mindlessly follow their car’s GPS instructions and end up in the lake.

Becky and I recently watched the movie The Theory of Everything which is the life story of the Einstein of our age, Stephen Hawking. Twenty-five years ago I read Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time” which describes, among other things, black holes. These strange celestial objects occur when stars collapse and become so massive that even light cannot escape their gravity. Consequently they cease to “shine” and appear as “black holes” in space. Though the math and science are “beyond my pay grade,” cosmologists like Hawking have observed the “black hole information paradox.” Apparently, our very notions of reality, space and time break down next to these massive entities. Hence, “facts” about black holes and the universe are conditioned on where they’re measured and therefore not universally true.

You may find it a contradiction that a scientist like me also loves poetry (and rhyming). Perhaps artists and poets merely plumb the nature and meaning of reality in a different manner.

My favorite poet is Emily Dickinson whose observations I find sublime. I’ll share one of her poems with you.


As if the Sea should part

And show a further Sea

And that – a further – and the Three

But a presumption be –

Of Periods of Seas –

Unvisited of Shores –

Themselves the Verge of Seas to be –

Eternity – is [These] –


I find it paradoxical that this young women of the mid-nineteenth century, who never traveled far from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, imagined worlds within worlds which astounds me and maybe thee.