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Oct
28

Paul the Chancer ?

PaulAs an Englishman, perhaps the only entertainment to come out of the World Cup in South Africa last summer surrounded the activity of Paul the Octopus. We could claim some fervent nationalism here – born at a Sea Life centre in Weymouth sometime in January 2008 he emigrated, no doubt to a much cleaner and efficient tank, in Oberhausen, Germany where he found fame as the ultimate football pundit, successfully predicting the results of all Germany’s World Cup qualifiers as well as their performance in the tournament itself. Eat your heart out Mark Lawrenson! (http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/football_focus/9111907.stm)

Sadly Paul passed away on the 26th October at the ripe old age of 2.5 years (usual life expectancy 2 years). So was this cephalopod a genius or a chancer? In a process analogous to medical decision making, the activities of Paul were carefully analyzed. True to form, the statisticians were quick to pour more water on a romantic interlude! It was simply a matter of chance they argued – the odds of predicting 8 straight correct results are 256:1, considerably lower than those of you or I winning the National lottery at 11 million:1. To baffle the average footie fan still further they suggested additional experiments – systematic testing, repeated on many occasions, with numerous controls to reduce sources of bias (sound familiar?). Oversight by Clinical Trials Units were proposed, but were hampered by European Union concerns over ethical approval and consent. Then the sceptics – the Physicians – moved in, arguing that the size and smell of the food source – the mussels in the boxes labelled with the National football flags – were different. The Surgeons, without independent thought process, jumped on the band wagon and bemoaned about different size holes in the boxes. The Psychiatrists were concerned about mood and behaviour and noticed that the “successful” box was always directed towards a light source; the Rheumatologists wondered about locomotion and morning stiffness and the Public Health docs queried nanoparticles in the water. The cardiologists were too busy to see Paul but thought catheter studies would help and the Renal team queried magnesium balance. The General Practitioners were unable to comment without prior job planning and remuneration discussions, and so it was left to the clever Neurologists to answer the conundrum. Octopuses (rather than Octopusi) are “excellent comparative models for human learning and memory”, they argued. “Although colour blind, research indicates their ability to recognise and recall shapes and patterns that may include stripped flags and humans” [1]. Indeed vision is so key to the poor Octopus that it drives sexual behaviour with secretion of gonadotropins from the optic rather than pituitary gland (note you can’t keep an Endocrinologist from giving an opinion!) [2]. So it was simple – Paul merely remembered the stripes on the German flag, no doubt primed by a juicy mussel early on in his formative cognitive development. “Not so”, retorted the Statisticians recalling that Paul’s last World Cup action was to correctly predict the downfall of Germany against the Spaniards. After this it took a great deal of care from the Social services to prevent Paul from being braised in paprika; fortunately a sedate retirement beckoned in the hands of Elderly Care physicians.

In Medicine things also happen by chance especially around disease diagnosis and drug discovery, but you do need to be a genius to realise this (Alexander Fleming and Penicillin and the accidental discovery of Viagra being excellent examples). We will never know whether Paul was a genius or a chancer, but his life did bring joy to many!! R.I.P.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16801504
[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19210294

1 comment

  1. T Hossain says:

    Thank you- an entertaining read providing a few cheery minutes during the gloomy hours of revision. :)

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