One of the things that supposedly sets humans, or at least primates, apart from the other animals is their hands, in particular their opposable thumbs. (Yes, Virginia, there was something the other day about a dinosaur, a raptor I believe, with opposable thumbs.) Of course there are a few other contributing factors such as full erectness of posture, sentience and intelligence combined, maybe consciousness, and a list that goes on for a while. Indeed, the list varies depending on author and pundit.
When I was in graduate shul on the plains of Illinois, it was the custom on Friday afternoons for faculty and graduate students to retire to a local bar where the faculty would purchase pitchers of beer, and pontificate to, in the name of mentoring and bonding with, the graduate students, the graduate students would nod in the best approximation of epiphany they could manage, and everyone would drink beer. Afterwards, the faculty would drive home for dinner or whatever and the graduate students would return to their offices or labs and try to recover the time spent on conviviality with the faculty. (Yes, Virginia, this is exactly parallel to the message of Jorge Cham.[Link])
Once winter set in, which seemed to occupy about six months of the year, it was not unknown for bad weather to have set in during our occupancy of the bar and for faculty and grads, more often grads because of the campus parking rules, to get lost. One chap managed to wander off lost and get a bit of overexposure but this was blamed, in the spirit of the era, on his inability to handle his beer.
Sometimes, when several of us were displaying this inability and wisely stayed away from laboratory machinery for fear of damaging it (primarily) or ourselves (secondary), we would convene around the coffee pot and discuss the nature of the universe on a more exalted plane than that of undergraduates but without the correct strictness of faculty. One of the topics I can recall we discussed was the relationship between the width of the thumb and stubbornness. The grad advancing this theory, which he attributed to his mother, was a red headed fellow from New Yawk of Jewish ancestry. My mother, a staunch Baptist, had advanced the theory to me in my youth, and this led us to not only discuss the relationship between thumb width and stubbornness, but the differences between Jewish and Southron mothers. The latter we concluded was only observable conclusively by the former’s penchant for chicken soup and the latter’s for vegetable soup.
Sadly, we have not maintained ties and I have even forgotten his family name, so we are unable to continue our investigation of the differences and similarities of Jewish and Southron mothers. I have been able to discern over the years, by direct observation, that as a statistical rule, those who have been conferred an earned doctorate of philosophy degree have wider thumbs than those who do not. On the basis of this I can hypothesize that an important factor in surviving graduate shul is stubbornness in large measure. Obviously the limited nature of the observations precludes any insight into its relative importance, since this is the only factor observed, but based on anecdotal non-data, the colleagues that I have discussed with and I are fairly strongly in agreement that it is a primary, if not the primary, factor involved.
In a blot earlier this week, I commented on some research that indicated that women who suffered from anxiety of maths inadequacy derivatively suffered from memory loss. My interest here was more with whether there was an actual gender based skill difference with regard to maths. Indeed, my personal observations have been that the difference exists but is more a matter of nurture than nature, possibly accentuated by what appears to be a stronger grounding of the female consciousness in reality and the male predilection to flights of fancy. Crucially, among those humans I have observed who have developed maths skills, there is little gender differentiation. Of course, I don’t associate much with pure mathematicians so my observations are likely skewed.
But I was thrilled this morning to note in an AAAS newsletter that researchers at U Bath in England have discovered that maths ability seems to be correlated with the relative lengths of the firstd and third fingers of the human hand. I should be specific here. The thumb is the zeroth finger in that many do not count the thumb as a finger although collectively one speaks of fingers and includes the thumb in that collective. The first finger is the one next to the thumb and the rest are numbered sequentially from there. hence, the little finger or pinky is the fourth finger. But just to confuse things, in some systems the thumb is the first finger and so forth. Caveat Phalange!
Anyway, these researchers have been able to amass observations that people for whom the next to last finger is longer than the next to thumb finger have greater maths abilities. They also observe that women tend to have the two fingers close to each other in length, at least more so than males. So perhaps the matter is solved?
When Europeans came to America, one of the things they noted was a practice among some of the Amerindian tribes to bind the heads of children to give them some flattened feature in adulthood. The rationale given for this is often enhanced appearance which in turn has social implication. In a similar manner, the Chinese once bound the feet of female children to assure dainty feet in adulthood. May we now expect girls to have to sleep with extensor traction on their next to last fingers in the interest of increasing their maths abilities and hence their social status as adults?
And yes, my next to last finger is about 0.05 longer than my next to thumb finger.