Meet the newest weird creatures

Thanks to the good people at Scientific American, one of my favorite news sources (as well as the oldest continuously operating magazine in the US), we’ve got some more strange Earth-based life forms to marvel over.

Last month, Scientific American released a slide show featuring ten newly-discovered creatures. These range from a frog that keeps its eggs inside the body instead of dropping them into a mucky pond, to a tiny jellyfish-like sea creature off the Australian coast that resembles a see-through mushroom. But these three oddballs below are my favorites of the bunch.

Anzu Wylei, aka the Chicken from Hell

chicken from hell

Unfortunately this one is NOT a living creature, but a newly discovered fossil. It took me a while to get past this disappointment, but I’m good now. Anyway, Anzu is a feathery birdlike dinosaur that roamed North America 66 million years ago. Why is it called the Chicken from Hell? Not for the obvious reasons — its fangs and claws and general viciousness. Nope. It’s because it was found near the Hell Creek fossil site in South Dakota. That part is a letdown. But on the brighter side, Anzu is derived from the name of a feathered demon in Babylonian mythology, so there’s a glimmer of dark hope for this crazy looking beast.

Phyganistria tamdaoensis, aka the Walking Stick

walking stick

I hate bugs. Even ladybugs — I pretend to like them but that’s a lie. Bugs are ugly and evil. Luckily they’re all really small. Or so I thought. Now comes the Walking Stick. As the image shows, this bug is as big as a human forearm. Can you imagine a dozen or so coming after you? I can. So how was this big-ass bug never discovered? Turns out it’s a master of disguise. Thank God this tree branch creature lives in Vietnam, and not in New Jersey.

Phyllodesmium acanthorhinum, aka the Photogenic Sea Slug

sea slug

I like this freaky looking thing for two reasons. 1) it lives in the ocean, and I love the ocean. 2) it looks cool. (Call me shallow, that’s okay.) Anyway, this pretty little gastropod sports brilliant shades of red, blue and gold. But it isn’t just a pretty face. This Photogenic Sea Slug gets along well with its neighbors. Algae that lives in its stomach helps it with photosynthesis, and in turn the slug cleans debris from nearby coral and feeds them to the algae. Win-win.

Tracking the zombie outbreak

Who doesn’t love a good zombie story? I know, not everyone does but I like to pretend they do. From George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to the AMC channel’s The Walking Dead, zombies have been a staple of the horror genre for half a century, with no sign of them being killed off anytime soon.

zombies

But who knew that zombies could be a topic worthy of honest-to-goodness scientific inquiry? I sure didn’t. I was wrong.

A team of researchers from Cornell University used a combination of US Census data and statistical probabilities regarding disease outbreaks, coupled that with some zombie lore, and created an interactive map that allows you and me to watch our own little zombie outbreak as it filters across the US.

zombie_horde

The map, which you can find here, lets us control a few of the parameters to make it interesting:

–how easy or hard it is to kill zombies

–how fast the zombies move

–where the outbreak originates

I tried a couple of simulations, and watched as a chilling red crept across the map. for both simulations, I had the outbreak start in Miami, because all the weird stuff happens in Florida.

In simulation 1, I had slow-moving zombies that were relatively easy to kill. While the zombies zipped up the east coast of Florida, it took them a full 16 days to conquer Florida, and after a month, they were still bogged down in the deep south. The zombies2takeaway? Under these conditions humans would have a good chance of surviving — the threat could conceivably be contained.

Then I tried a quicker, nastier simulation, with faster zombies that were harder to kill. Again, I started in Miami. And the results were scarier, at least for those of us on the East Coast. By the second day Florida was completely overrun. After 4 days the south was gone. On day 5, zombies were attacking New Orleans and the Midwest. Day 6: Washington DC, Baltimore were decimated, followed quickly by Philadelphia, and as the day ended, New York City fell victim, with Chicago, Houston and Detroit next to fall.

The good news? The outbreak had a hard time spreading through the rural areas of the Western United States. So if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, go west.

Designer humans: the future is almost here

Some sci-fi tropes seem too far-fetched for reality, until science catches up. Take the film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law, set in a world where genetically approved people were given a higher Gattaca Jude Lawstatus. When the movie came out, the idea of designer babies was bizarre. How could such a thing be done, technically?

But now we’re on the verge of designer babies becoming a reality, and not everyone is eager for this to happen.

What do I mean by designer babies? Manipulating DNA to either enhance favorable qualities, or delete some bad genes though a process called gene editing. This could be good. Think of all the heritable diseases we could get rid of. Once we snip them from the gene pool, they’d be gone from that genetic line forever. An embryo that had its genes for a deadly disease extracted would never pass those genes on to future generations.

But there’s the flip side. What could we do to enhance humans? Super strength? Super intelligence? Evolution works by filtering out the bad traits and promoting the good traits. With this gene editing technique, we could make humans a whole lot better. Evolution put in the hands of man. Think of Star Trek and the genetically enhanced supervillain Khan.

Benedict Cumberbatch

And that’s what scientists are afraid of, so much so that they’re calling for a moratorium on using these amazing techniques on humans. I suppose their thinking is that if we can manipulate genes, we can create supermen, or monsters.

Personally, I don’t see the problem. Not right now, anyway. The truth is there is a whole hell of a lot we don’t know about the human genome. Scientists have not found a gene (or set of genes) that correlate with intelligence. There’s also the problem of junk DNA — strands of genes whose function scientists don’t understand. And also epigenetics: the strange phenomenon where environmental factors can change your genetics, and pass down these changes to your children and grandchildren. Right now we wouldn’t be able to do much with this gene-editing technology.

I say let’s keep exploring. Welcome to the brave new world.

Eternal life, here on Earth

Those wacky scientists are at it again. And if they have their way, we’ll live a very, very long time.

The latest? Scientists have perfected a technique where they lengthen the telomeres of cells’ chromosomes. The length of telomeres, which protect cells from damage, corresponds with the health of cells. The longer the telomeres, the healthier the cell. By artificially lengthening the telomeres, they’ve turned back the clock on these cells. OR, to put it another way, they replenished the cells’ bank accounts.

Before anyone books that vacation a hundred years out, this has only been done in the lab, on cells. The scientists believe that this technique may someday help treat diseases of aging such as heart disease. So, it seems that everlasting life would be a piecemeal thing — treat each condition as it comes up.

But there’s always the dark side. If we lived forever, or close to it, where would we all fit? We’d definitely have to colonize Mars, and Venus too. And what if it goes wrong? What if the procedure turns us into a race of zombies, as in Resident Evil? Now that would make life interesting.

Rain_zombie2

Why not Venus?

It’s been described as Earth’s twin, our sister planet, roughly the same size and composition as the home world we all know and love.

Venus Earth
But it’s the hellish parts of Venus that make it our evil twin:

–Its atmospheric pressure is nearly 100 times greater than on Earth. If you set foot on Venus you would be crushed.

–It is damn hot: over up to 900 degrees. At best, you would bake.

–Its atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, with clouds that rain sulphuric acid. Not only would you be unable to breathe, but the acid would melt your body.

Venus
So what’s good about this hell planet? What possible use could we have for it?

It turns out that Venus is not as useless as it may seem, at least not according to NASA.

If we are ever to become serious about off-world colonies, Venus might be a good place to start. But how could we ever live on such an inhospitable world? We couldn’t. Instead, we could float just above its poisonous atmosphere.

This is what some NASA scientists are planning: floating cities. These giant blimp-like structures would be tethered about 30 miles above Venus’s surface. At this level, the atmospheric pressure is roughly similar to that of Earth, and the temperature, while still an inhumanly 160 degrees, would be suitable for these structures. The crafts would be solar powered as well.

Venus floating cities
But if Venus is so bad, what’s the benefit?

It allows us to get our feet wet in terms of establishing colonies in space, and we could avoid problems such as extreme temperatures or adverse gravitational conditions (too little gravity and our bodies would break down faster than we would like).

I have never considered Venus as a potential off-world site, and the more I think about it, the better it sounds. Of course it would not be easy. There are many logistical problems, not to mention the cost involved.

At the very least, these NASA dreams can provide another cool setting for sci-fi.

Time’s arrow and our weird universe

Our universe, and the nature of time, may be much stranger than we ever could have imagined.

Think about this. What is time? It is something that can be measured.Seconds, minutes, hours, years, millennia. But unlike other properties of our physical world, it only goes in one direction. You can’t add or subtract time, not literally. This has left scientists stumped.

Now, scientists have come up with one of the more bizarre theories of the universe and time that I’ve ever heard. To explain the back and forth movement of time, our universe might be just one side of another universe that was formed during the big bang. And since we exist on the opposite side of that universe, we are living in that mirror universe’s distant past.

This all comes courtesy of an article in Scientific American (by Lee Billings, who I work with there, btw). Much of it is over my head, to be honest, and I’m probably not summarizing it correctly. But what intrigues me most is the whole issue of time as a physical property. I always assumed that time flows, consistently, constantly, in one direction. But scientists can’t explain this. I never realized it was an issue.

After reading the article, I didn’t come away with the impression that we’re going to build some sort of time machine. or maybe visit this parallel universe (thought that would really be cool from a sci-fi perspective). What the article shows me is that there’s so much that we don’t know — about the universe, about life, about even ourselves.

Some might be scared by this lack of certainty. I think it’s exhilarating.

See this movie: Interstellar

Take a smart director and two of the best actors working today, and add a sweeping sci-fi plot, and you get Interstellar. While not a perfect film, it’s definitely worth the hype, and your time.

Interstellar

I’ve been a fan of writer/director Christopher Nolan since Memento, his time-twisting tale of an amnesiac. Since then, he’s gone on to mainstream success (to put it mildly). He reinvigorated the stale Batman franchise when he brought Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne, and the final movie in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, with its timely skewering of the over-the-top Occupy Wall Street movement, was phenomenal.  With Inception, he managed to make dreams thrilling. Inception was a riveting spectacle with an ending that’s still debated on the Internet.

With Interstellar, Nolan takes on a staple of Hollywood — space travel. Interstellar is a straight-up sci-fi flick. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer. Cooper lives in a near-future, dying Earth, somewhere in middle America with his 15-year-old son Tom and 10-year-old daughter Murph. Coop is led to a secret NASA site and soon leaves his family on a mission to save mankind by searching for inhabitable planets.

interstellar_poster_0

That’s the plot in a nutshell. And that’s basically all you need to know to get started. Of course there are twists and turns as the quartet of earthlings search for that elusive, habitable world. I won’t tell too much, because part of the fun is going along for the ride. Safe to say, it’s a bumpy ride.

So, now for the breakdown.

The good…

—Matthew McConaughey has never been better. He plays dashing action hero, committed scientist, and distraught father, all without missing a beat. He’s completely believable, and fully relatable, throughout. He’s just jumped high on my list of favorite actors.

McConaughey daughter

—Jessica Chastain plays an adult version of his daughter, Murphy. Both Chastain and the actress who plays her as a child are great. I’m a huge fan of Chastain, and she didn’t disappoint. Both McConaughey and Chastain bring a similar intensity to their roles, which is fitting, because it’s clear that the father/daughter bond they share is deep and intense.

Jessica Chastain

—The special effects are excellent. There are several tense scenes. Thanks to the solid effects, I often felt as if I was there.

—Nolan capably balances several contrasting themes. He brings high emotion with regard to the separated families. He adds humor with the robots (which I loved — you have to see Interstellar to understand), and he also paid homage to one of the greatest sci-fi classics, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey.

—While Interstellar was long — around 3 hours — there was enough movement and momentum to keep me interested the whole time. Not an easy thing.

—Nolan hired an honest-to-goodness scientist to advise him. It shows (as far as my non-physicist brain can tell).

And the not so good…

—Anne Hathaway’s character, Amelia Brand, was probably the biggest disappointment. A fellow scientist, Brand isn’t fleshed out as a three dimensional character. It was most noticeable in a pivotal scene where her emotions—and intentions—seemingly came from left field.

interstellar-matthew-mcconaughey-anne-hathaway-slice

—The first 30 minutes of Interstellar were confusing. They never explained what exactly was happening on Earth, why the planet was dying. Sometimes a little exposition was helpful. And there was an extended early scene of McConaughey chasing a drone through a cornfield. That scene was long and pointless.

—At a crucial point in Interstellar, Nolan cut back and forth between Cooper out in space and his grown-up daughter on Earth. It was choppy and distracting.

—Poor Tom, Coop’s oldest son. Murphy got all the attention, both from the writers and from Cooper himself. No one really seemed to care about Tom.

interstellar-movie-screenshot-tom

—There was a scene at the very end (I won’t reveal it), but it made no sense for me, considering the history of the two characters, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. All I’ll say is, he wouldn’t have left so quickly.

But these are minor flaws. All in all, Interstellar was a fun and intense sci-fi movie. It may not rise to classic status, but it’s definitely a great way to spend three glorious hours.

When scientists forget what it’s like to be human

I love science. I love the exploration of the natural world around us. I love the step-by-step discovery process. I love the details and wonder. I believe in the scientific method.

But sometimes I wonder if scientists know how to deal with fellow humans.

First let me explain. Humans are often irrational. We have drives and desires that are messy and complicated. Emotion gets the best of us at times. And we have amazing imaginations. I’m on board with all this messiness. I don’t do well in black and white. I thrive in the gray. I’m perfectly fine with ambiguity.

Scientists, I’m coming to learn, are not fine with any of this. Here’s a couple of recent examples.

Ebola was the biggest news story in the past few weeks. There’s a major outbreak raging in Africa, with death rates reported at about 50%. And then there were reports of cases in the US. What was the reaction of most Americans? Fear.

What was the reaction of scientists? To paraphrase: stop being afraid of a disease with a high death rate, you silly, fear-mongering dumb Americans.

Whether they were right or wrong about the threat of Ebola, the scientists’ reaction exposed a major flaw — very few scientists, it seems, know how to communicate with people. And it’s not just scientists, but science writers as well, as I saw from articles and tweets from some of my favorite science writers. Sure, they can write and explain scientific details, but they can’t engage that emotional side of people. And I would argue that it’s not irrational to be afraid of a disease with a high death rate that is also being spread to health care workers, who would know which precautions to take.

Hey scientists (and science journalists): come to grips with the fact that you’re dealing with fellow humans, not robots, if you want to educate and persuade.

The second area is Pope Francis’ recent comment on God and evolution.

For decades, there’s been a battle between religion and science when it comes to evolution. I never understood this battle. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I was taught evolution in Catholic school. I was also taught, in first grade by Sister Jeremiah, that the story of Adam and Eve was just a story.

I’ve always been a person of faith — to me, it’s obvious that creation comes from a higher power, one that we cannot fully understand. Science helps reveal this aspect of my faith.

But for too many, religion and science are opposite. Some religious people disdain science, and a high percentage of scientists reject any possibility of a higher power. I don’t relate to either side.

When Pope Francis reaffirmed commonly held Catholic doctrine, the reaction from the media was one of surprise. They couldn’t fathom how religion could support this. One article I read went further, blasting the Pope for not removing God entirely from the equation. Funny how the leader of one of the world’s major religions would talk of God.

When it comes to the creation of our universe, science is good at exploring the how of it, but they have no answer for why.

Sometimes I wish that scientists—and science writers—would use some of their reasoning powers, and learn to deal with humans as the complicated, contradictory creatures we (and they) are. Maybe they’re just not comfortable in dealing with ambiguity in any form. That’s too bad.