We stood around the body planning our autopsy strategy. A scalpel, we realized, was not going to be the appropriate implement for this corpse, so we made our decision. It took all three of us to muscle the slippery black bulk of the pilot whale into the screaming blur of the band-saw blade.
The whale had died of natural causes, after a distinguished military tenure conducting deep-sea operations for the U.S. Navy, which sends marine mammals to places where humans cannot safely go. In death, it was going to perform one more service--provide us with information about its magnificent brain. The navy had invited Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers to come to its base in San Diego in the mid-1980s, and I had joined them. Dressed like fishmongers in black rubber smocks and boots, anatomist Leo S. Demski, visiting from the University of Kentucky, veterinarian Sam H. Ridgway of the Naval Oceans Systems Center and I sought to unravel a scientific mystery. It was imperative that we learn whether the whale had a certain cranial nerve--for reasons that will soon become apparent.
This article was originally published with the title Sex and the Secret Nerve.