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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: We just don't know the why

Published: Monday, Nov. 25 2013 9:50 p.m. MST

Every parent has had to endure his child’s why phase. Why is every other word, or in some case it is every word. It is as though the child has some eternal neural loop that continuously circles back on itself.

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Every parent has had to endure his child’s why phase. Why is every other word, or in some case it is every word. It is as though the child has some eternal neural loop that continuously circles back on itself.

“Why is the sky blue?”

“It has to do with the light from the sun.”

“Why?”

“The sunlight has different colors and blue is the one that shines through.”

“Why?”

“Well, it is like a rainbow with all the various colors.”

“Why?”

“Light is both particles and waves with different wave lengths producing the different colors.”

“Why?”

“Because, I said so!”

“Why?”

“Go ask your father.”

Even as grown-ups, when there are unrelenting storms, devastating earthquakes or drowning tsunamis, we often revert to our younger, more innocent "why phase."

Science understands more and more how giant typhoons form or how earthquakes and tsunamis occur. Just like the duality of light, the seemingly impossibility of shared properties of both a particulate photon and an energy wave, we still don’t know why.

Forecasting hurricanes is improving due to satellites circling the globe. Airborne storm-chasers fly into the heart of the vortex and measure barometric pressures, wind speeds and the might of nature’s discontent. Meteorologists record what the forces are doing down to the millibar or hectopascal. However, no supercomputer in the world that maps the weather can tell us why.

Earthquakes are a product of the shift of ever-dynamic tectonic plates of the earth’s surface. While not quite as good as some farm animals, humans are closer to the answer of when. Seismologists talk about when a particular fault is due to have the big one. Likewise, volcanologists are better at predicting when a mountain will erupt.

Astronomers calculate the next lunar eclipse, the return of Halley’s comet or when the next solar sunspots shall appear. They are less adroit at the question why. Why there are planets, why there are stars and why there was a Big Bang is beyond the range of their math and intellect.

Neuroscientists with new technology of the fMRI are plotting in the brain where we think. They are mapping the terrain of the brain like the rover Curiosity is exploring the surface of Mars. Various areas of neurons light up or go dark as we sleep, plan or smile. Unfortunately, even the brightest of the bright are unable to explain completely why we dream or imagine the future or enjoy a good laugh.

Geneticists are seeing deeper and deeper into the mechanisms of life. They can snip or fish out defects of individual genes. They know in sickle cell disease, it is a substitute of one amino acid for another that causes the red cells of the patient to contort into numerous dysfunctional and deadly shapes, including the notorious sickle.

Genes are deleted. They are duplicated. Whole chromosomes are missing or added to our somatic 46.

We know what the defect is; we know how the error occurred; we have figured where the mistake is made; we even have an idea when there will be an accident of nature. We know that for every 691 children born in America, there will be one with the Trisomy 21 syndrome of Down. We know Trisomy 18 or Edward’s syndrome occurs in one of 6,000 to 8,000 births.

There is the what, the how, the where and even the when, but the why still eludes us. We can attribute genetic problems to age or other environmental factors, but why that child and why that mother and why that father and why that family?

“Go ask science” does not work. Knowing what or how does not satisfy. It is the why that needs an answer. Why does it happen and why does it happen to us?

In the end, perhaps we should go ask our Father.

Joseph Cramer, M.D, is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years, a hospitalist at Primary Children Hospital and the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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