There are small mysteries in this life, like why no one can create a generic Ban-Aid that actually sticks to your skin. Then there are the larger mysteries.

Like this one: Did you know that for every kernel in an ear of corn, there’s a strand of silk that brings the pollen to that kernel? Each individual kernel is important enough to warrant its very own pollen delivery system.

corn plant showing silk
By Pollinator at en.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons

Those tufts of silk coming out the top of an ear of corn don’t appear all that well organized. It seems altogether possible that one if not many strands would be missed, yet in all the corn I’ve eaten in my life, I’ve seen very few unpollinated kernels. And it’s not as if corn sellers can pick out the cobs with a few unpollinated kernels here and there.

I don’t think understanding the corn fertilization mechanism down to the mitochondria or the molecular exchange across cell walls reduces the mystery of such an intricate system—for every ear in the history of corn!—one bit. If anything, the biological complexity provides more of a sense of wonder, one more opportunity to say how on Earth did it develop the ability to do that?

We sometimes think that if we know the how, we understand the whole, and if we understand it, there’s nothing to marvel at anymore. If we can explain it, we’ve mastered it, and it’s no longer worthy of the same level of respect. We can move on to figuring out the next thing.

But I think that the more we know, the more amazing and mysterious something can become. Corn silk can be transformed from those annoying strings that insist on clinging to your corn to a source of life. How cool is that?