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Science File | MIND OVER MATTER

Security Sometimes Means Crawling Out of the Shell

November 26, 2001|K.C. Cole

Physics is full of terms we assume we understand until we really stop to think about them: space and time, for example, or forces and particles.

So are the social and biological worlds.

Consider the word "security"--one we're hearing a lot lately.

We think we know what it means.

In Los Angeles, we like to feel secure against what some people call our four regular seasons: fire, flood, earthquake and riot. Thus, we have fire extinguishers, sandbags, bottled water; some people have guns.

What makes you feel secure depends on who you are. It could be a good luck charm or a bad attitude, air bags or pepper spray, a big salary or a flu shot. For a government, it might mean putting a lid on dissent.

Most of the time, we think of a security blanket as a tangible object: a missile shield, an engagement ring, a lock on the door.

But it could just as easily be a talent--say, for running fast, or purring, or barking fiercely even though you're very small.

The variety of security systems that evolution has invented for personal defense is simply staggering. Porcupines are prickly, like cactus. Skunks stink. Bees sting. Snakes bite. Camels spit. Birds fly. Dogs run in packs. Chameleons use camouflage.

On the species level, some solve the problem by proliferating wildly; they are everywhere at once, a vast network of individuals (like ants), so that if a million or so get done in, it really doesn't matter.

There are always a million more.

Evolution was certainly nudged along by this need for a clever array of defenses. To reproduce on dry land, amphibious creatures had to figure out a way to take a protected bit of watery environment with them. Presto, the eggshell. To get around and find food (or run away), they have to propel themselves on land. And so they got legs.

In fact, the evolution of life couldn't have happened if Earth hadn't produced its own protective magnetic shield to fend off electrically charged particles pelting it from the sun and an ozone blanket to shade life from DNA-damaging ultraviolet radiation.

Needless to say, every security system has some holes in its armor (even Achilles had his heel). Surprisingly often, these weak spots are unintended consequences of other seemingly successful strategies.

For example, long, sharp, teeth are fierce, but they break more easily than shorter, duller ones (ask a saber-toothed cat). The aerosols we used to protect coiffeurs poked a hole in the ozone layer. Large-scale use of antibiotics is just the thing to spur the evolution of microbes resistant to antibiotics, just as tough skin leads to predators with stronger jaws.

You have to choose your poison. Running in a pack won't work if you're too prickly or you stink. It helps to be nimble and quick, but then you can't carry around a hard, heavy shell. Then again, a heavy shell can be trouble if you roll over. Think turtles or SUVs.

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Some of the recently proffered airport security systems are ironic in this respect. Take the idea of using sophisticated X-ray technologies that can strip-search people without taking off their clothes. To make ourselves secure, we strip ourselves naked.

Of course, sometimes the best security is just such transparency. Science, for example, relies on transparency to ensure that people don't cheat. Everyone has to be able to repeat an experiment. A free economy works best when there are no secret deals, nothing under the table. People feel secure when they think they know what's up, or at least what's going down.

This means they have to talk to each other honestly and freely. Monkeys and marmots and birds figured this out long before people came along. They're happy to squeal away, revealing their own position in order to warn others of imminent danger. But, like all mass communication, it only works if everyone is playing by the same rules.

Science works the same way. In fact, in times of crisis, it is striking how scientists of different nationalities keep right on talking even when their governments are at war. The transparent umbrella of science helps to make sure we don't overestimate--or underestimate--the enemy.

Scientific knowledge also leads to inventions that make us more secure: bulletproof vests, fireproof buildings, childproof containers. Not to mention weather satellites and Global Positioning Systems that give us due warning of severe weather or help us keep from getting lost.

But most important, science reminds us that real security comes mainly from good ideas, and the most successful defense mechanism that evolution ever invented is the brain.

And that, in turn, is what doesn't make sense about asking the public to clam up in the name of national security. As the naked emperor found out much too late, there's a lot to be said for an informed citizenry that squawks.

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K.C. Cole can be reached at http://kc.cole@latimes.com

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