..... Stumper Index
Stumper #13.
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How Good Is Your Science KQ?

[i.e. your Knowledge Quotient]

- What's The Mystery? -

Mysteries being solved by modern science are increasingly esoteric and are distant from the general understandings most of us have of science. Therefore, we looked back a hundred years or so to find the mystery alluded to here. In this Stumper we'll describe how Ronald J. Ross went about solving a mystery and the challenge to you, the reader, is to identify the mystery.

Ross, born in India in 1857, studied in Britain to be a physician, and then joined the Indian Medical Service. He was not at first an ardent physician, preferring painting, or writing poetry, but gradually he became deeply interested in public health and in one medical mystery in particular.

The mystery that challenged Ross was an ancient one dating back to prehistoric times and presenting mainly in Africa, India and Southeast Asia. Scientists had already suggested answers to the mystery that he wanted to solve but none of the theories had been supported with substantiating data. The suggestion that he most wanted to disprove was an old but prevailing one that cited 'bad air' especially over swamps or marshes, or contaminated water as possible solutions.

In India in 1885 Ross set about trying to solve the mystery experimentally by collecting a particular type of insect, identifying its various species, raising and feeding them in his laboratory, and then dissecting specimens to examine their internal organs in microscopic detail. In the stomachs of some of the insects he observed 'motile filaments' but he did not know exactly what they were and for several years his investigations bore no useful fruit.

Then, in August 1887 while examining the organs of one of his insect specimens, he found embedded in its stomach wall a cyst containing what he recognized as spores of a particular parasitic protozoon. This was an exciting development because it provided a link with investigations carried out in 1880-83 by the French physician Charles Laveran.

Hoping to reveal more details of the answer to this mystery, Ross now turned his investigations to the organs of certain birds to study the presence there of a parasite related to the one he had found in his insect subjects. Then, putting together his work with the insects and the birds, Ross did indeed solve the mystery and was awarded a Nobel Prize.

What was the mystery? What did Ross actually discover?



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