Being alone not that easy to do

To be properly alone, you may need to travel far, far away, to remote, deep places, so far and so low as the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is in a desert, it is the lowest place on earth, and it is called the Dead Sea for a reason: Sea for it is a body of salty water surrounded by land, and dead for the salinity of its water which is believed to be too high for any living organism to withstand.

The water of the Dead Sea was dark-blue, warm and thick as oil. I walked into the water slowly and carefully, trying not to cause any unnecessary turbulence, reminding myself that even a single drop of this sea water can burn my eyes for hours. And as I reached a point where my body was immersed in the water up to my chest, I leaned backwards and let myself float on the water which is very simple since the water is so dense a person can easily float on top. It was quiet. Completely quiet. There were no birds in the sky, no sound in the air, no life (except mine) in the water. I closed my eyes and rested. And so, for the first time, I did not choose to be alone, I was not left alone, I was not lonely, I was just alone.

For unicellular organisms (living creatures consisting of a single cell), being alone is not a momentary experience but rather a life-long ordeal. And yet, even for them, being alone does not necessarily mean being left alone, for a cell may find itself the subject of unrestrained curiosity and unparalleled determination. John Murray of Scotland was a man of such curiosity and such determination.

And so, in 1882, he sailed aboard the Challenger expedition, dredging the bottom of the oceans in search of new species. Near the coast of Scotland, he found the largest known single-cell organism. It had a peculiar look, a round mass with small, syringe-like tubes radiating from its common center. Its walls, composed of fine sand, were fragile and broke into pieces. It was later called Syringammina fragilissima. It is a giant cell which spans up to 8 inches in diameter.

Alone in the universe, single-cell organisms seem, at first, to be in an enviable position. They are diverse, a whole zoo of bacteria, protozoa, algae, and fungi. They come in different shapes and forms, and in different sizes too: from tiny creatures that can barely be seen under the microscope to cells as big as syringammina fragilissima.

They are resilient, having survived for billions of years (3.8 billion, according to one estimate, but who’s counting?) And they are free, never having the need to peer into the lives of others in order to reflect on their own, or obey the rules of society, not even pretend to share solitude with others.

To top it off, single-cell organisms live everywhere, in the most extreme environments and under the most extreme conditions: According to the New York Times, in January 2013, bacteria were found “living in the cold and dark (half-a-mile) deep under the Antarctic ice.”

And as a blow to my “being properly alone” experience, a group of scientists reported in 2012 on the existence of microbial life in the fresh water springs at the bottom of the Dead Sea. It turns out that after all, I was not completely alone. Perhaps it is for the best, for being alone is not just about a sense of freedom and independence, more so, if you consist of a single cell. Unlike syringammina fragilissima, most unicellular organisms are tiny, microscopic creatures. Their size is limited because as a cell grows the ratio between the cell membrane on its surface and its volume decreases and hence its ability to uptake enough nutrients from the environment diminishes.

A larger cell may find it difficult to feed its center. And in nature, being small is dangerous. Exposed to the forces of nature, a single cell cannot see or hear, cannot sense impending danger, cannot run or hide. It just floats there, exposed, fragile, and vulnerable.

So cells cling to each other as living organisms cling to life. At first they form pairs, then a short chain of cells, a sphere, then a complex multicellular organism with billions of highly specialized groups of cells within one body. A body, like the human body of mine and yours, that can move around, see and hear, process information, think and feel, a body of cells that can be made aware of the aloneness of a single cell.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming. Read and comment on prior columns by Dr. Madjar at DrMadjar.com.