Quiz Show

By Jeffrey Kluger|Sunday, September 01, 1996
If anyone has talked to Charlie the Tuna lately, would you do me a favor and let me know? It’s been a while since I’ve seen him and I’m starting to worry.

Charlie the Tuna, you may remember, was an animated spokesfish for StarKist tuna who enjoyed a wildly popular run on network television from the 1960s through the 1970s. While most tunas tend to swim in the other direction when they catch a glimpse of so much as a spoonful of mayonnaise, Charlie always seemed to have a clear idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up, and what he wanted to be was lunch. For the better part of 20 years, Charlie

I regularly took to the airwaves baiting and begging the StarKist fishermen to haul him out of the sea so that he could have the honor of ending his life not just as any tuna but as a StarKist tuna. While the campaign may have boosted tuna sales, to me it seemed a little unsettling. More and more, Charlie’s star turn for StarKist began to look less like a career move than an unmistakable cry for help (I knew he’d been despondent lately, said a distraught Mrs. Tuna, but I had no idea he planned to go . . . topside).

It’s unlikely, of course, that there would have been any way to help a fish like Charlie--it’s tough to join a 12-step program when you can’t, strictly speaking, step. So I was left to imagine the worst, contemplating just what grisly fate awaited Charlie if StarKist ever took him up on his offer. It’s a question, actually, that’s plagued me ever since. What does go on behind the scenes at a tuna company between that last dramatic moment a tuna spends as a free-swimming fish, and the first moment it makes its appearance as the hockey puck of chunk light so familiar to consumers? And how a tuna gets from the Atlantic shelf to the grocer’s shelf is not the only secret of the commercial or physical world that’s long left me mystified. How do canned foods in general achieve their years-long shelf life? How does multicolored toothpaste get its signature stripes? And what about things you’d never dream of putting in your mouth? Pigeons, for instance? How come you never see any baby ones?

For most of my life, I’ve been nettled by questions like these, and though I’ve never taken a poll on the matter, I suspect I’m not alone. Whether you’re a postgrad or an undergrad, an average Joe or above-average Jo, there are some puzzles of everyday science that forever seem to elude solutions. But suppose you’re above above-average. Suppose you’re, say, a genius. Would a cosmologist able to crack the codes of time and space be better able to fathom tuna technology than you or I? Would a conductor able to move an orchestra to greatness be stopped in his tracks by the mystery of pigeons? To find out, I decided to track down some of America’s most widely admired minds and administer a little pop science pop quiz. The superbrains I chose were recent recipients of MacArthur Foundation fellowships, the questions I asked them were straightforwardly simple, and the answers, I found, were often wonderfully muddled.

The MacArthur Foundation was established in 1978 by billionaire John D. MacArthur, a real estate developer who, on his death, bequeathed his entire estate to a charitable foundation with the instruction that his money be spent on whatever civic-minded projects the board members thought best. To even the most ethical executor, this kind of testamentary carte blanche must have been something of a temptation, and in the years following MacArthur’s death, the discussions around the foundation conference tables no doubt grew heated (Honest, guys, John would have wanted us to buy 8 million Slinkies). Ultimately, however, selflessness prevailed, and in 1981 the foundation announced the creation of the MacArthur prizes, annual endowments of five, six, or even seven figures that would be given to unrecognized achievers in the arts, sciences, education, economics, politics, and other fields in order to free them from the need to earn a living so that they could concentrate exclusively on achieving greatness in their work.

Being told that someone is going to give you hundreds of thousands of dollars to use any way you see fit--and that you don’t have to meet Ed McMahon or Dick Clark to cash the check--is heady stuff, and over the last 15 years, 479 people have been so honored. For my purposes, however, just three or so would do, and it was with more than a little pleasure that I looked forward to contacting these extraordinary minds and seeing whether a few ordinary questions would leave them stumped.

The first mystery I wanted solved did not involve anything nearly as dynamic as tuna or pigeons, but rather plants. Why, I’ve often wondered, did the world’s flora, unlike its fauna, never develop consciousness? Compared with even the most sophisticated plant, even the most rudimentary flatworm is a magna cum laude, but why should this be? Plants were here before us, they often live longer than we do, and yet in the great classroom of life there isn’t a plant I’ve met that hasn’t been--how shall I put this delicately?--on full athletic scholarship. Would a few million more years of evolution help? Perhaps a good magnet school program? When I posed this puzzle to my first MacArthur winner, however, he questioned whether there was a puzzle at all.

When you ask why plants never developed consciousness, you may be relying on a flawed premise, said Ralph Shapey, a composer and professor emeritus of music at the University of Chicago who received his MacArthur prize in 1982. There are people who believe plants are conscious--that they sense they’re being talked to and respond to that stimulus. I know I’ve talked to animals and they perceive it. If other people have that experience with plants, who are we to say it’s not true?

Robert Axelrod, a University of Michigan political scientist and 1987 MacArthur winner, took a less lyrical view. Animals, unlike plants, are able to move from place to place and manipulate their environments, he said. Only if you have the physical ability to move at all would the intelligence to move purposefully be really helpful.

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist and 1987 MacArthur recipient as well as a frequent contributor to this magazine, had a far simpler solution than either Axelrod’s or Shapey’s. Why did plants never learn to think? he asked. Sun-drenched lethargy.

To find the real answer, I turned to a non-MacArthur-winning, garden-variety smart guy, Leo Hickey, a paleobotanist at Yale. According to Hickey, it was Axelrod who came closest to finishing at the head of the MacArthur class. Plants are organized much less energetically than animals are, he said, and the main reason is that they are stationary. Only if you have a way to get from place to place do you have to think about what you’re going to do when you get there--secure food, for instance. And only if you’re capable of even that low-level cognitive activity do you need to begin piling up the neurons that turn into brain tissue.

Just as mystifying to me as plants is the problem posed by pigeons. If plants are the biological world’s scholastic underachievers, pigeons are hardly its intelligentsia. And yet what the average pigeon lacks in iq octane, it appears to make up in reproductive prowess. New York pigeons in particular have become so numerous--and, as a result, so brazen- - that many of them in my part of town have begun patronizing neighborhood boutiques, reserving prime parking spaces, and putting their names on waiting lists in case choice apartments become available. Yet despite their exploding population, it seems that I see pigeons at only one stage of their lives--the healthy adult stage. Why do I never see baby pigeons? Why do I never see dead pigeons? Even a simple birth announcement or death notice would be something, but when it comes to pigeons--nothing. Could the MacArthur winners shed any light on this?

Nope, said Shapey, because again I don’t accept the premise. I suppose I don’t see too many baby pigeons, but dead ones I see all the time. Squirrels too. Just look on any city street and you’ll see more flattened pigeons than you can count.

Axelrod was equally dismissive. I have no idea why people say they don’t see dead pigeons; I always do. As for baby ones? Maybe their nests are simply too high.

Sapolsky took an entirely different approach. Actually, the supposedly full-grown pigeons we see every day are babies, he said. The real adults disguise themselves as the gargoyles on the Chrysler Building and swoop down at night to eat the livers of unsuspecting pedestrians. There is proof of this, but the government is suppressing it.

Not surprisingly, all these answers struck me as wide of the scientific mark, but as I discovered, both Axelrod’s and--remarkably-- Sapolsky’s are at least partially correct. It’s true that we almost never see baby pigeons, said Martha Fisher, the coordinator of Project Pigeon Watch at Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology. The parent birds nest high on ledges, and the youngsters stay up there until they fledge, a stage in life when they look almost identical to adults. When they do descend to the ground, the only thing that distinguishes them from their elders is the cere--the small clump of tissue at the base of the bill--which changes from grayish to white as the fledgling ages. As for dead pigeons, it’s once again true that despite what you may think, you rarely see them. When a pigeon is elderly or sick, it will retreat to a secluded place to die--if predators don’t dispose of it before that. When it does retreat, nature prevents a pileup of bodies by providing insects, crows, and other animals to consume the remains.

From dead pigeons, I moved on to the puzzle of toothpaste-- specifically the puzzle of striped toothpaste. For as long as I can remember, the tooth-care industry has made a point of offering at least one brand of paste that is not a sensible white, blue, or red but rather a striped combination of all three. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Frankly, I have enough trouble choosing from among the dozens of brands of toothpaste commercially available without worrying that the one I buy will clash with a plaid shirt. But if the reason striped toothpaste is manufactured is a mystery to me, the way it’s manufactured is even more so- -and evidently to the MacArthur geniuses too.

I assume they use some kind of mixing machinery that stripes it in some way, Shapey said.

There’s a coloring agent around the edge of the nozzle so that the toothpaste picks up the stripes as it comes out, Axelrod said.

How does toothpaste get its stripes? Sapolsky asked. Selective breeding.

Once again, all three MacArthurs fell a bit short. This time the real answer was provided by Linda Murray, spokeswoman for the SmithKline Beecham company, manufacturer of one of the industry’s leading striped toothpastes, Aquafresh.

Aquafresh is made of three components, Murray said, an aqua gel, a red gel, and a white paste. During manufacturing, filling equipment injects all three materials into the back end of the tube simultaneously and then seals the tube up. Since each material is of a different consistency, they remain separate, so that if you cut the tube open, you would see three bands of color running from the back end to the nozzle. When you squeeze a little toothpaste onto your brush, each band contributes a bit to what’s extruded, so that you get the same red, white, and aqua stripes on your bristles that you do in the tube.

Toothpaste led me deeper into the consumable world, where I took on the problem of canned foods. Here, I knew, things could get sticky. While foods sold in cans have not always been known for their astounding flavor, one thing they have been known for is their astounding shelf life. Canned-goods makers don’t like to discuss this fact too frequently, evidently concluding that consumers who have been educated to choose fresh foods over preserved ones and organic foods over processed ones would be uneasy to learn that their Niblets had a better actuarial outlook than they did. Nevertheless, there’s no getting around the fact that during the cold war, it was largely canned goods that people confronted with a nuclear attack were told to take into fallout shelters with them until the radioactive all clear sounded. Given that the half-life of plutonium 239 is approximately 24,000 years, even the least skeptical consumers had to suspect something. Why is it that wax beans have greater longevity than warheads, asparagus tips a longer life span than nuclear tips? Shapey, for one, doubts they do.

Is it really a given that these foods have such a long shelf life? he asked. Don’t some of the cans burst over time? I think we take these things for granted.

Maybe when they’re sealing the cans, they avoid any air pockets that could harbor bacteria; also, the cans are nonporous--they don’t let liquids in or out, Axelrod offered.

It’s possible there’s nothing actually in the cans, Sapolsky said, but since no one eats canned vegetables anymore, no one finds out.

Not quite.

What gives canned foods their long shelf life is a process we call commercial sterilization, said Jeffrey Barach of the National Food Processors’ Association. First the food is packed into a can and mixed with a so-called carrier fluid--brine, syrup, gravy, whatever. Then the can is sealed and placed in an industrial oven called a retort, a sort of giant pressure cooker that raises the temperature both outside and inside the cans to about 250 degrees. Depending on the size of the cans, these conditions will be maintained for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour. At the end of this time, all bacteria that could lead to spoilage should have been killed, and the food inside will be good for at least two years. Even then, any change in the food that might occur should be due not to microorganisms but merely to a natural breakdown of salts, fats, and proteins.

Of course, the question of canned foods in general raised the narrower question of canned tuna in particular. While I might now know what happens to a helping of tuna once it’s ready to be canned, I still had no idea how the average Charlie is filleted, flattened, stamped, canceled, and precisely fit into its new home. Neither, as it turned out, did the MacArthur fellows.

I don’t have a clue, Shapey said.

I assume it’s cooked first, Axelrod said. Beyond that, I don’t know.

I think a lot of it is due to good old-fashioned training, Sapolsky said. The same way you teach camels to pass through the eye of a needle, you simply teach tuna to swim through these long aluminized things that you then turn into cans.

Close, but no salade niçoise. For the straight dope, I went to the folks at StarKist, who were willing to walk me through the tuna- processing procedure from the moment a fish is, uh, conscripted to the moment it’s shipped to supermarkets. In general, StarKist explained, the tuna caught for human consumption range from 5 to 100 pounds and are brought on board ship in one of two ways: by nets or by lines. In the past, tuna companies were known for being just a bit indiscriminate about what species of animal they caught in their nets, regularly nabbing not only tuna but dolphins, barracuda, and the occasional Club Med snorkler. New netting techniques have reduced these collateral catches, meaning that tuna hauls come closer to consisting of just tuna. When a catch is brought on board, it’s immediately frozen and then taken ashore to processing plants. There, it’s thawed and then filleted and gutted. For non-meat eaters, of course, it is this first messy step that causes the most squeamishness--and with good reason. Given a choice of entrées that I would have to husk, peel, shuck, or biopsy, I know which one I’d leave out. After the fish are cleaned, however, things get a good deal easier.

The first stop for newly pristine tuna meat is a steamer, where it is cooked to a sort of medium rare. It is then transferred to an assembly line, where it is either chopped if it is going to be marketed as chunk style (what all the most fashionable chunks will be wearing next year), or simply cut into fillets if it is going to be sold as solid white. Both types of tuna then reconverge at filling machines, where patty-size portions are stamped out and loaded into cans with vegetable oil or water. When the cans are sealed, they then move on to their own retort, where they are heated to between 120 and 165 degrees, which kills any stowaway bacteria and cooks the meat the rest of the way through. Finally the cans are labeled and shipped, destined for sandwiches, hoagies, and delis around the world.

With the mystery of tuna--as well as toothpaste, pigeons, plants, and cans--solved, I could at last leave the MacArthur fellows alone. But just because these stubborn questions were answered didn’t mean others wouldn’t present themselves soon. Indeed, no sooner had I hung up with my last endowed genius than several did. Why, for example, does it seem that tornadoes touch down only in states with trailer parks? Why do you always glimpse at least three available taxis when you’re too far from the corner to do anything about them, and none for the better part of the next millennium when you finally get there? Will the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, or Chicago Cubs win another World Series before the breakup of the North American continent? Does anyone know what Jack Kemp’s hair is made of? Alas, while these questions are tantalizing, and while almost anybody can ask them, it seems that sometimes not even a true genius has the wherewithal to answer them. (And where is withal, anyway?)
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