Jeanne Villepreux-Energy (September 24, 1794–January 25, 1871) was eleven when her mom died. Simply earlier than her eighteenth birthday, she set out for Paris from her dwelling in rural France, on foot — a stroll of greater than 300 kilometers alongside the vector of her dream to turn out to be a dressmaker. On the best way, the cousin assigned as her journey guardian assaulted her and fled along with her id papers. Jeanne made her solution to a convent and, as quickly as she managed to have new journey paperwork made by native police, saved going. However by the point she made it to Paris, the place she had been promised was already taken. The one job she might safe was as a seamstress’s assistant.
4 years and hundreds of clothes later, Jeanne was tasked with outfitting a duchess for a royal marriage ceremony. On the ceremony, she met and fell in love with an English service provider, married him, and moved with him to the harbor metropolis of Messina on the island of Sicily. There, she immersed herself in passionate studying about geology, archeology, and pure historical past — the closest a lady might get to a scientific schooling on the time — and got down to examine the island’s ecosystem.
Strolling the shoreline and wading into the ocean in her lengthy skirts, she fell in love with one among Earth’s most alien life-forms: the small sepia-like octopus Argonauta argo, often called paper nautilus for the skinny, intricately corrugated shell of its females and the sail-like membranes protruding from it like a pair of bunny ears.
The argonaut had fascinated naturalists since Aristotle with the thriller of its spiral shell.
They questioned whether or not the animal made it, or, just like the hermit crab, inherited as a hand-me-down.
They questioned why solely the females had a shell, why its form was so in contrast to that of the animal physique it housed, and why the dweller might utterly detach from the shell like no different mollusk did, but by no means deserted it.
They questioned how the shell managed to quadruple in dimension in the course of the five-month reproductive interval — an astonishing feat of on-demand engineering seen nowhere else within the animal kingdom.
Within the memoir of her researches, Jeanne Villepreux-Energy wrote:
Having for a number of years dedicated to the pure sciences the hours that remained to me free from my home affairs, whereas I used to be classifying some marine objects for my examine, the octopus of the Argonauta transfixed my consideration above the remainder, as a result of naturalists have been of such varied opinions about this mollusk.
Observing argonauts within the wild is extremely tough — the shy, skittish creatures flee the floor and plunge into the depths as quickly as they really feel they’re being approached, puffing a cloud of ink between themselves and their perceived predator, even when she is barely a scientist:
When the air is serene, the ocean calm, and he or she believes herself unobserved, the Argonauta adorns herself along with her beauties; however I needed to be prudent sufficient to get pleasure from her wealthy colours and swish pose, for this animal could be very suspicious, and as quickly because it perceives that it’s being noticed, it withdraws its membranes into its shell within the blink of a watch and flees to the underside of the cage or the ocean, reemerging to the floor solely when it thinks it’s protected from all hazard. It’s right now that we are able to observe its actions and its habits.
And so, for ten years, Jeanne Villepreux-Energy made it her “responsibility” to do “critical analysis” on probably the most contested points of the physiology, morphology, replica, and habits of those tender cephalopods. A talented self-taught artist, she made her personal drawing of what she noticed.
In contrast to different naturalists, who had studied preserved specimens, Jeanne realized that she might solely uncover the true origin of the shell if she noticed dwelling creatures. To bypass the evolution-mounted impediment of their excessive shyness, she designed and constructed one of many world’s first offshore analysis stations — a system of immense cages she anchored off the coast of Sicily, full with statement home windows by which she might examine the argonauts undisturbed. Each day, she ready meals for them, rowed her boat to the cages in her lengthy skirts, and knelt on the platform, observing for hours on finish.
However lengthy skirts and lengthy hours in chilly water make not for a felicitous scientist. And so, with a purpose to switch her observations and experiments ashore, Jeanne Villepreux-Energy pioneered the aquarium.
Her dwelling turned a marine biology lab, stacked with huge tanks, which she populated with dwelling argonauts. Conducting experiment after experiment and statement after statement, magnifying eggs and shell fragments 7,000 occasions underneath her microscope, she set about illuminating the mysterious dwelling realities of those otherworldly earthlings, following her instinct that — opposite to what her male friends believed — the females did make their very own shells. She wrote:
I armed myself with endurance and braveness, and solely after a number of months managed to dissolve my doubts and see my analysis topped with pleased affirmation.
In a sequence of groundbreaking experiments she started in 1833 — the ultimate yr of her thirties — the seamstress-turned-scientist solved the traditional nested mysteries of whether or not (sure), how (by a marvel of biochemistry), and when (inside days of hatching) the argonaut makes its spiral dwelling: Along with her elegant empiricism, Jeanne Villepreux-Energy managed to “display, by unequivocal proofs, that the Argonauta octopus is the builder of its shell.”
She began with the plain but radical perception that you just can’t perceive the dwelling morphology of a creature by finding out lifeless specimens — to search out out when and the way the argonaut will get to have a shell, you need to observe it from start. And so she acquired three pregnant females, every housing hundreds of eggs in its enlarged shell, and watched them hatch — tiny child octopuses, bare of their gelatinous sacs. Each six hours, she visited the infants to watch them intently for 3 steady hours.
Someday, she fastidiously eliminated a nine-millimeter child octopus from the mom and, upon analyzing it, seen that it was able of self-embrace, its membranous arms enfolded round its sac, the top of which the newborn had begun to fold into the form of a spire. Not wishing to disturb the hatchling, she put it again underneath the mom and returned six hours later to look at it once more. To her astonishment, the tiny octopus had already begun constructing its shell out of a skinny movie, following the geometry of the mom’s. Inside hours, the skinny movie had begun to thicken into the signature furrows of the argonaut shell — right here was dwelling proof that the argonaut was the maker of its personal shell, starting nearly at start.
However her most revolutionary experiment demonstrated one thing nobody else had even thought to marvel about — a dwelling incarnation of Schopenhauer’s beautiful perception that “expertise is just like the marksman who hits a goal which others can’t attain [whereas] genius is just like the marksman who hits a goal which others can’t even see.”
Jeanne made a small puncture within the shell of an grownup feminine to see whether or not and the way the animal would restore itself, and what that may reveal about its intelligence, in an period when science was but to acknowledge the consciousness of non-human animals. She watched in marvel because the octopus protruded its entrance arms and, sweeping the silvery membranes beforehand thought to perform as sails over the puncture like a windshield wiper, seal it again into cohesion with a glutenous substance, the chemical composition of which she analyzed and decided to be similar to the calcium carbonate of the unique shell. The restored half, she noticed, was extra strong than the shell itself, “considerably bumpy, puffy,” not following the common furrows of the shell however corrugating sideways, nearly perpendicularly to them — a type of scar, the mollusk equal of what’s often called “proud flesh” in horses.
In a wildly imaginative twist of the experiment, she determined to see whether or not the argonaut might restore its shell utilizing not its personal substance however spare components, so to talk. She broke off a small piece of an grownup’s shell, however this time she positioned within the tank subsequent to it fragments from different shells. To her astonishment, the argonaut rushed to the items and started feeling them out with its arms, trying to find the acceptable puzzle form, then utilized it to its personal shell and, as soon as once more waving the membranes over it, started the work of welding, struggling to orient the furrows of the borrowed piece parallel to these of its present shell.
She spent hours bent over the cage, watching this staggering feat of a number of intelligences. Naturalists earlier than her, working solely with lifeless specimens and theoretical conjecture, had declared this unimaginable. However after repeating her experiment for 5 years and acquiring the identical outcome again and again, Jeanne Villepreux-Energy demonstrated that the octopus is certainly this planet’s patron saint of the attainable.
Since ladies had been excluded from the scientific institution, unable to attend universities or current at realized societies, her analysis traveled into the world by proxy. The week images was born in 1839, Sir Richard Owen — England’s preeminent scientists within the period earlier than Charles Darwin, with whom she had been in common correspondence all through her experiments — learn one among her letters and introduced her findings earlier than the London Zoological Society. Her analysis was a revelation. Quickly, it was being revealed in English, French, and German, and circulated extensively throughout Europe. By the top of her lengthy life, Jeanne Villepreux-Energy belonged to greater than a dozen scientific societies. Her analysis not solely illuminated a permanent thriller concerning the physiology and biology of a specific species of octopus, however, by her experiments on shell restore, laid the groundwork for the examine of octopus intelligence, which has endlessly modified our understanding of consciousness itself.
Complement with some beautiful drawings of octopuses from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, created 1 / 4 century after Jeanne Villepreux-Energy’s loss of life, then savor Marilyn Nelson’s magnificent poem “Octopus Empire.”