A Parable from science

A N Whitehead: Lowell lectures 1925. “The new situation in the thought of today arises from the fact that scientific theory is outrunning common sense.”

This parable is set at the Berlin Wall in the late nineteen sixties. The Berlin Wall was a wall that was part of the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated the European Communists States from the non-communist European nations or states.

The wall wound its way through Berlin; it was about 8m high and 4 m wide. At one point a gate had been left under the wall but this had been sealed off. Either side of the wall was fenced off from the public to keep the wall from being attacked, vandalised or to prevent unauthorised communications and crossings between either side of the wall. On the Eastern side this 50 m ‘no-man zone’ between the fence and the wall was filled with barbed (razor) wire. This area was under constant surveillance by armed guards who were known to shoot and kill anyone foolish enough to try and reach, or cross the wall. Apart from a single wire netting fence, the security on the Western side was much less strict as no-one ever wanted to flee into East Germany.

During a temporary thaw in the frosty relations between the two states an agreement was made that: a limited number of refugees would be permitted to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin; never more than two thousand a year or roughly forty a week. This is how the transfers were organised. Heavily protected and roofed walkways were built either side of the wall so that authorised persons could walk across the no-man’s area from the fences to the gate and then on to West Germany. These walkways were zigzagged to prevent any direct communication through the wall; such as bullets, political slogans, religious preaching or other insults.

The nature of the passage was such that single people could only walk (or run) through the crossing. There was also an agreement that only one person at a time would ever make the crossing; hence a person would be sent every five minutes. If two people emerged together, it was agreed that they would both be sent back.

As the authorities on the West side decided to strip search refugees and offer them a shower and new clothes while they were processed and given documents on the spot, they built two forward posts on either side of the walkway in the Western zone. These rooms on each side of the tunnel had one-way observation windows to see who was coming and warn the reception. For some strange scientific reason one the windows was marked ‘F’ while the one on the other side was marked ‘M’.

By the time all these arrangements had been made diplomatic relations between the two nations had soured and absolutely no communication was available through, across or even around the wall. The East Germans delighted in sending the refugees at irregular and inconvenient periods. This caused a problem for the West German reception team as they never knew when to expect anyone coming through and they had to wait day and night, just in case. Under these circumstances they just kept a skeleton staff of guards with the other officials on call for whenever the flow of refugees began. Even when there was a steady flow of refugees it was obviously more economic to have a single person observing from either one of two observation posts.

Despite the limitations the system worked quite well with up to a hundred persons making the crossing at a given session. As would be expected, roughly equal numbers of males and females came through.

A strange effect was noticed over a number of months: if there was an observer at just the F window then only women or girls ever emerged, while if there was an observer at just the M window then only men or boys emerged. If there were no observers at the windows either sex would pass through. If there were observers at both windows a detailed study showed that the sex was determined by which ever window was first to see the person coming through.

Statisticians and scientists were called into to investigate this phenomenon and they confirmed the following rules:

While the experts could not explain how these rules were always obeyed; they were forced to confirm that these rules appeared to be in force.

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