The Fiddler: A strange endingA strange ending

There could be as many as 300 000 jellyfish, only the Turritopsis dohrnii is believed to be able to cheat death and attain immortality. One Earth explains that “… this species can undergo cellular transdifferentiation. When threatened, sick, or old, it begins a process that reverts its cells to a polyp or adolescent stage and then forms a new polyp colony. Basically, creating younger versions of itself that will become identical to its mature adult form when grown.”

The Fiddler

Does everything have to have a start and an end? How long is the time between the beginning and the end? What happens when you get suspended between what has happened and what will happen next? Does everything have a purpose? Does any of this matter? Of course it matters, especially if the “thing” referred to is you or a particular brand of coffee.

Compare the life cycle of one species of jellyfish with that of the mayfly.

There could be as many as 300 000 jellyfish, only the Turritopsis dohrnii is believed to be able to cheat death and attain immortality. One Earth explains that “… this species can undergo cellular transdifferentiation. When threatened, sick, or old, it begins a process that reverts its cells to a polyp or adolescent stage and then forms a new polyp colony. Basically, creating younger versions of itself that will become identical to its mature adult form when grown.”

Most jellyfish only live about a year, with some only living for a couple of days.” One Earth says the key to the survival of jellyfish generally is that they blend in with the ocean “because their bodies are made up of 98% water. Not only that, but they also have no brain, blood, lungs, or heart.” Jellyfish play an important role in the marine ecosystem. They are a key sources of food for some fish and sea turtles. They even can provide a protective habitat for smaller fish and oysters.

At the other extreme, are mayflies. These insects start out as aquatic larvae that help to keep the water clean by feeding on algae and plant material. When the time is ripe, they emerge from the water as adults in swarms.  “They shed their aquatic skins and take to the air. Many are picked off by birds and other predators. The survivors have only about a day in which to perform their sole purpose in life – to breed. They cannot feed as they do not have proper mouths and must rely on stored energy, which energy is quickly consumed as they engage in courtship. They propel themselves up into the air and parachute back down eager to impress a mate. By swarming together in their thousands the mayflies increase their chances of breeding successfully. Males grab the females and the pairs mate in mid-air. The females flutter back to the water where they must lay their eggs if they are to reproduce but fish frantically feed upon them as they reach the water. The survivors deposit their eggs and the whole cycle starts again. Mayflies are a vital link in the food chain of freshwater ecosystems. They make energy stored in algae and other aquatic plants available to higher consumers, birds etc.”

This description of the life cycle of mayflies is taken from a BBC short film “Mayflies incredibly short and action-packed lifestyle” available on YouTube.

Humans live far longer than mayflies – some for more than a hundred years. As yet, fortunately we have not found a way to make us immortal like the Turritopsis dohrnii. Why fortunately? Well, because humans are a most destructive species. An article the Guardian newspaper points out that humans are just 0.1% of all life, yet they have destroyed 83% of wild mammals. They have directly altered at least 70% of earth’s land, mainly for growing plants and keeping animals. These activities necessitated deforestation, the degradation of land, loss of biodiversity and pollution of rivers and the oceans. Humans have burnt fossil fuels and triggered climate change that now threatens their continued existence. They have waged wars and developed weapons that could destroy our planet.

What our already overpopulated planet certainly does not need is an ever-increasing population of humans who never die.

It is thus fortunate that we are not given the choice to become immortal. There is no fountain from which we can drink to keep us forever youthful. Hence Groucho Marx’s quip “I intend to live forever or die trying.”

Instead some humans actually believe that they have a right to choose when they die and those who do not die by choice often contrive to die in a peculiar fashion.

Take this situation. Ronald had become very depressed because his mother had cut off his financial support and had decided to kill himself by jumping off a ten-storey building. What he did not know was that a safety net had been put up outside the building’s eighth floor for window washers and that this net would have caught Ronald and he would not have died. But as Ronald’s body was falling past the window of the ninth floor Ronald was hit in the head by a shotgun blast emanating from the room. Ronald’s parents lived in the room from which the shotgun was fired. Ronald had wanted to harm his mother after she cut off his allowance.  Ronald knew that his parents had frequently argued and during these arguments, his father would use the empty shotgun to threaten his wife. Six weeks prior to Ronald’s death, he loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot his mother not knowing the weapon was loaded. A witness had seen Ronald loading the shotgun. It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son’s financial support.

This story was told by a pathologist at a conference and some people believed it was true. It wasn’t but that does not prevent you from deciding who was criminally responsible for Ronald’s death. I’m afraid the stingy editor is unwilling to offer a prize for a correct answer – if there is one. The Fiddler has decided to buy the Editor a copy of Dickens A Christmas Carol in the hope that this might make him less parsimonious. informs us:

“Before the 13th century, medieval artists in Europe depicted death as something peaceful, having complete confidence in Christian precepts and the guarantee of eternal life. The serene faces of recumbent effigies resting in cathedrals attest to the faith people had in the Resurrection and the afterlife. Death has always been a part of life.

However, the troubled times of the Late Middle Ages led to a new attitude towards death. People had mixed feelings of fear and fascination for macabre subjects. In this context, artists depicted the most dreadful and morbid images of skeletons and people dancing with decaying corpses, sometimes eaten by worms. They developed a new way of representing the allegory of death: the Danse Macabre.

In 1518 the French city of Strasbourg was afflicted by a ‘dance plague’. It was reported that a woman called Frau Troffea stepped into a square in Strasbourg and began to dance. At first those around her only watched, curiosity piqued by this unusual public display. They watched a woman who would not and could not stop. She danced for nearly a week, felled occasionally by exhaustion but largely undaunted by the body’s other warning signs: pain, hunger, shame. There was no music. She died and so did many more all over Europe. Those inflicted could not explain themselves. They frantically danced for days without stopping as if compelled, feet bloodied and limbs twitching.” them frantically dance in groups for several days without stopping. They often went to churches or cemeteries, as they were believed to be cursed. They offered a truly diabolical scene to viewers. Was this due to an epileptic fit or epidemic of hallucinations? The origin of the plague is still unclear.

Some allegedly true stories of strange deathes are these:

Clement Vallandigham, an American politician and lawyer was defending a man accused of murder. He accidentally shot himself while demonstrating how the victim might have done so by mistake. His client was acquitted.

A Canadian lawyer died while trying to prove that the glass in the windows of a 24th floor office was unbreakable, by throwing himself into it. He was right, it didn’t break, but it did suddenly pop out of its frame and he plunged to his death.

British actor Gareth Jones died of a heart attack while performing in a live televised play in which his character was scripted to have a heart attack. The cast just thought he was doing a stand-out performance and continued performing around his death.

A man was brought into hospital with a compressed spine. He had tried to hang himself from a tree with a belt. It snapped. They think this was the point at which he compressed his spine while falling to the ground. He still managed to climb back up the tree. He tried again with the same belt. It snapped again. Some time afterward, he was found and transported to hospital. He survived but he is now a few inches shorter than he was before the incident.”

Isadora Duncan for example, the ‘Mother of Modern Dance’ died in a freak accident in Nice, France, in 1926. She was known to wear long, flowing scarves that would often be seen fluttering behind her in the wind, but this time, the fluttering became fatal. That day, her friend picked her up in his open-roofed car, and as they sped off, her scarf became lodged in the open spoke wheel of the vehicle, and wrapped itself around the axle. Isadora was yanked from her seat, and dragged for several metres behind the car before the driver realised what had happened. She died instantly from a broken neck.

In the light of malicious rumours circulating about the of the quietus of the Fiddler, I am obliged to borrow from Mark Twain the lines: “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. But then again … Also pertinent is Patrick Moore’s observation “At my age, I do what Mark Twain did. I get my daily paper, look at the obituaries page and if I’m not there, I carry on as usual.” —Patrick Moore (astronomer)

Related Topics