Tiny monsters, continued

Real-life creepy bugs are one of my favorite science-related topics. Not sure why — maybe because it combines monsters and science.

Here’s the latest. First, we have book scorpions. I’ve only seen a scorpion in real life once. I was in El Paso and one of the suckers, pincers snapping away, was crawling up a bedroom wall. Totally freaked me out.


Well, it turns out not all scorpions are vicious. Not only are so-called book scorpions too tiny to harm us humans, they’re pretty helpful. These small creatures (there are over 3,000 different species) are only a couple of millimeters in length. What they love more than anything are booklice.

What are booklice? Bugs that eat the glue that binds books. And book scorpions devour these booklice. If it wasn’t for them, all our books would fall apart.

No word on whether book scorpions would help keep your Kindle clean.

The second of today’s tiny monsters is the Demodex mite.


This microscopic critter is a relative of spiders and ticks. And you are very familiar with it. How familiar? Right now there are scores crawling all over your body.

No worries, though. The mites that live among us are relatively harmless, though when their numbers get out of whack they can cause skin conditions such as rosacea.

It turns out that Demodex has been with us for a long, long time, perhaps as long as when humans first left Africa and spread out all over the world. Not only Demodex — there are several species of mites that scientists are just beginning to identify.

Read more about book scorpions here at Scientific American, and more about the hitchhiking mites at Discover Magazine.

(Book scorpion image courtesy of Protasov AN/Shutterstock; mite image courtesy of Alan R. Walker)





Bioluminescent creatures in the darkest realms

Life on earth is truly stranger than anything we’ve imagined. Science continually finds more evidence of this. Just one example? Fish in waters devoid of any natural light equipped with light-giving powers of their own.


How do these fish manage to produce light from their own bodies? Through a mix of two chemicals. One is called, ominously enough, luciferin. This chemical creates the light. The second chemical, luciferase, spurs the reaction that, along with oxygen, creates the light. Deep-sea creatures use this light to not only find their way, but also to communicate with other fish and trap their prey.

What I love about science and nature is that there are so many twists and turns in the evolution of life, ones we are still discovering, that rival the wildest creatures dreamed up in our imaginations.

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A world of bizarre creatures in a drop of seawater

Coming back to my love of science and belief in monsters…

Sometimes the monsters are tiny. Consider yourself lucky in those moments. So, next time you’re at the beach going for a swim and you get an extra big mouthful of seawater, don’t think about the fantastically alien looking creatures you’re swallowing. Remind yourself instead that you’re the monster this time.

Drink deep, people.

The monsters in our family tree

Scientists have discovered a startling fact — compared to our not-too-distant ancestors (5000 BC), we are weaklings. Or as one of the researchers said, “the people back then were monsters by comparison. what you see today is quite pathetic.”

skeletonBritish researchers examined human bones from time periods spanning 5300 BC through the present day. What they found was that the oldest of the bones were comparable to those of today’s elite athletes. The average guy of today wouldn’t stand a chance in one-on-one with the average prehistoric man. You can read the original scientific study here, or try these summary articles in Outside magazine or the Daily Mail.

Why were people so much stronger back then? Because their lifestyles demanded it. There was no agriculture. Food had to be foraged and hunted. The humans back then had to have the physical stamina to roam—and run—great distances, all the time.

With the invention of agriculture, obtaining food became much easier, so we didn’t have to work as hard as a result. And, some speculate that our diets became poorer as a result.

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So what’s the main takeaway? If you plan on travelling back in time several thousand years, you’d better be well armed.

But what about the future? As our world becomes more mechanized, as the physical demands on our bodies lessen, will we shrivel even further?

(Image source: Daily Mail)

Read this book: Cain’s Blood

Sympathy for a devil? Sci-fi meets serial killers in an intriguing and fast-paced thriller.

There’s nothing good to say about Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered, ate, and attempted to zombify 17 men from 1978-1991, except that he’s dead.

So imagine a novel where the reader identifies with the clone of this monster in the form of a “normal” 15-year-old boy. It’s here. It’s called Cain’s Blood, by Geoffrey Girard. And it works.


The plot: a secret government-related outfit has been cloning the nation’s most notorious serial killers in order to determine their genetic underpinnings, and then create a biopharma weapon. Some of the teenage closes escape, along with their creator, and former Army Captain Shawn Castillo is called in to track down the renegades. He stumbles upon Jeff Jacobson, a teenage clone of Dahmer, and together they travel the country searching for the clones.

First, what I didn’t like. Too much gore. I’m not a fan. But how can you escape gore in a book about serial killers?

Also, the protagonist, Castillo, is a stock thriller hero: nearly superhuman, endlessly brave, though haunted by a dark past. I tend to avoid books featuring a CIA/FBI agent, police detectives, forensics, etc. I like people who seem more relatable. Just my own preference.

The character who is relatable turns out to be the young Dahmer clone. And that’s what I liked most about this book. Jeff Jacobson thinks he’s a normal kid, and for the most part, he is. How does he react when he finds out the truth? Can he rise above his genetic heritage?

Girard hooks the reader in 3 ways:

–A great premise: while clones have been used in movies (The Boys from Brazil, The Island) and in fiction (JA Konrath’s The List, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go), Girard takes the concept in a dark and entertaining direction.

–Fast-paced storytelling skills. I burned through this book in a few days.

–Focusing on the plight of a normal kid in Jeff Jacobson, who must grapple with the whole nature/nurture issue.

About the science: this book takes on the nature/nurture debate. Is younger Jeff destined to become a serial killer, or would he be positively influenced by his upbringing? Girard hedges his bets here – some clones are murderous, others don’t seem to be.

But the reality is more complex. Technically, identical twins are clones of each other, yet they often do not turn out the same way. Some twins use different hands. Some twins are gay/gay, while others are gay/straight.

We know precious little about how genes work. For example, scientists are only beginning to learn about so-called junk DNA, the huge sections of our genetic code that seemingly have no function.

And then there’s epigenetics. Can life experiences actually affect the genetic code, not just for the self but for future offspring, several generations on? Scientists used to laugh this off. Now they’re not so sure.

Killer clones aside, truth is a lot more complex than fiction.

Read this book: The Man From Berlin

The scariest monsters, it turns out, are all too human.


My Friend Luke McCallin‘s great book The Man From Berlin is a historical thriller set in Nazi-occupied Sarajevo. It’s a page-turner, ideal for anyone who loves reading about other times and places. McCallin creates (or re-creates) a time period with mesmerizing detail.

But part of me was hesitant to read it. Why? The protagonist, Gregor Reinhardt, is an officer in the German army. When I read I like to try and identify with the main character. I didn’t want to identify with a Nazi. Luke reminded me that not everyone in the German army during World War II was a Nazi.


That distinction wasn’t fine enough for me (and I’m still borderline). Lucky for me I got past this hesitation, because McCallin very subtly walks Reinhardt through the Nazi house of horrors. In the beginning, Reinhardt compartmentalizes: he’s a German soldier, separate from the Nazis. By the end, Reinhardt’s eyes are opened and he sees, like it or not, that he is playing a part in the evil the Nazis are perpetrating, even if his own hands aren’t bloody.

What is common knowledge for all of us – the atrocities committed – is new learning for Reinhardt, and through his eyes we come face to face with the scariest monsters of all, and they aren’t the demonic type. They are not vampires or werewolves or aliens. They’re human.

Take the character of Marija. The novel opens with Reinhardt being assigned to investigate her murder. She’s Croatian, but she collaborates with the Nazis, cataloging, observing, maybe even participating, in their horrors with creepy glee. Now, I have some doubts about whether she was as evil as depicted – she’s only described by others; we never actually see her in action. There’s a chance she was a scapegoat for others with their own agendas. Maybe. But it’s hard to read her as anything but a gorgeous monster.

I love to write about ghosts and monsters. The Last Conquistador stars a demon wreaking havoc on the life of a young Army soldier. But what I write is pure escapism – it’s safe to live in an imaginary world of ghosts and demons and vampires. It’s much harder to look head-on at the evil and danger that exists in this world, which is probably why we love roller coasters and monster movies.