Looking closely at diagrams of the human ear — an activity that going deaf tends to encourage — has given me a new understanding of God.  I think God is Rube Goldberg, or at least, as the casting agents out on the West Coast would say, a Rube Goldberg type.

For those possibly unfamiliar with his name and genius, Goldberg (1883-1970) was an author, an engineer, a sculptor, an inventor and, most notably, a cartoonist who envisioned and drew comically complex devices that perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways.

Keep Goldberg’s work in mind as I briefly refresh your memory as to the construction and mechanics of the intricate, delicate, sensitive, goofy apparatus we call the ear.

We gather and focus sound waves by way of the outer ear, outcroppings of cartilage and skin that grow on each side of our heads rather like mushrooms. I have the Portobellos myself, but the model varies from person to person.

The outer ear, scientifically known as the pinna, directs the sound waves down a short tunnel, or canal, to the tympanic membrane, better known as the eardrum, which begins to vibrate from the pressure.

The vibration causes a chain reaction among the ossicles, three very tiny, closely connected bones on the other side of the eardrum, in the middle ear.  The first bone, the malleus (hammer), moves from side to side like a lever, causing motion in the adjacent incus (anvil), which in turn jiggles the stapes (stirrup), which sends rippling waves through the fluid contained in the snail shell-shaped cochlea in the inner ear.

Tiny, hair-like cells inside the cochlea – about 20,000 of them – translate the wave motion into electrical impulses that travel along the auditory nerve to the brain. The brain decodes the impulses and makes it possible for us to discern whether what created the original vibration was a cat meowing or a politician barking or Duane Allman playing slide guitar.

Now, I ask you: Isn’t a contraption/process that involves a kitty kat, a drum, a hammer, an anvil, a stirrup and something that looks like it could house a garden slug every bit as Goldbergian as a soup-cooling system that entails a clock, a scythe and a toucan?

Isn’t it just as silly?

And isn’t it, if anything, more miraculous?

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Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.