To life

A famous actor died last month. He committed suicide after reportedly suffering from bipolar disorder. Like a lot of people, it hit me hard. Unlike a lot of other people, it was difficult not just because he was a much-loved actor, but also for more personal reasons.

First, there’s a myth that creative people are more prone to mental conditions such as depression. But research doesn’t support that. If anything, those who are creative (and productive) show higher levels than the general population of psychosis and hypomania. Keep in mind, everyone has these traits, it’s just a matter of the degree expressed.

But in our popular culture, depression, melancholy, etc, are more commonly associated with writers, artists, actors, and other creatives. As someone who’s gone through a deep depression, I can attest that it does NOT enhance creativity. When you’re going through it, the last thing you want to do (or can do) is use your imagination to create something positive. Depression is the enemy of creation. If there is an upside, I’d say that having gone through depression makes you more empathetic to the human experience. It’s a tough trade-off.

Now back to the famous actor. While none of us can know what was going on in his head, I have great sympathy for what he went through. It’s not a cliche to say his death was tragic.

What really offended me, though, was the reaction. Many commented that he was finally at peace. One tweet specifically used the words “you’re free.” And anyone who dared to question this line of thought or point out the negative repercussions of suicide was attacked as heartless until they retracted their position.

I am not here to attack the actor for his suicide. What I am here to do is attack the idea that suicide is a viable “freeing” option for those who are in deep depression. Depression and bipolar are not a choice as much as a brain chemistry problem, but the act of suicide is a choice. And a final one. My heart breaks when I hear of someone committing suicide because I know the pain that led them to that point, and I know that the finality of their decision cuts off any hope of recovery. I’ve had friends who committed suicide. The tragedy rested in their pain and in their choice.

And it was a choice.

Suicide is seductive. When I heard of the actor’s death it awakened long dormant feelings that I thought I’d left behind forever. I hadn’t. What counters that voice—then and now—is the realization that life is pretty damn unique. Whether you believe it’s God-given or whether you believe it’s a random act of the universe, the fact that we exist, the fact of our awareness, is nothing short of a miracle.

Suicide should not be romanticized or glorified as a freeing act. It should be portrayed for what it is: a choice, a final action that is a rebuke to existence.

 

Wanna live forever (well, at least 30% longer)?

Immortality beckons. It’s that one thing unattainable to all of us. No matter how lucky, rich, or good looking we are, the odds are 99.999999% that we will die (there’s always the slimmest of chances that someone, somewhere has outsmarted death).

immortality

But like modern day Ponce de Leons rambling through Florida searching for the fountain of youth (the irony of him searching in Florida of all places), scientists are diligently trying, if not to have us live forever, then at least a bit longer.

One idea that’s been tossed around has been to upload our consciousness onto the web, or some other computer. But that begs the question — even if it would be possible to map our gray and white matter into bits and bytes, would it really be us?

Forget that for now. We won’t be cylons any time soon.

cylons-bsg

Instead scientists are focused on taking what we have — our flesh and blood bodies — and making them better.

The latest: scientists at UCLA have targeted a gene that counterbalances the harmful but seemingly unavoidable aging process, and by manipulating it in fruit flies, they’ve been able to extend life spans (in the flies) by as much as 30%.

fruitflyFirst question: what good are fruit flies? We’re a lot more complex than them after all. Well, fruit flies are easy to study for one thing. Scientists know all the fruit fly genes, and can switch them on and off at will. Plus, their genetics correspond to 75% of our disease-causing genes. It’s not proof, but it’s a good first start.

Second question: what are they doing exactly? They identified a gene called AMPK that, when activated specifically in the nervous system and the gut, spread beneficial effects throughout the body. It is believed that this gene could help offset the damaging effects of a range of diseases.

If this hold true in humans, the average lifespan could be shifted to well over 100. And not only would we theoretically live longer, but our quality of life would be vastly improved. Yes, in a way it’s science meets sci-fi.

Don’t rush down to the nearest gene therapy clinic just yet. This work is all very preliminary. But it’s got to start somewhere.

 

Where is everyone? (by everyone, I mean aliens)

I’m not alone, not by a longshot, when I say I love the idea of space exploration and possible alien cultures.

Look at some of the staples of pop culture — Star Trek and Star Wars, for example. These classic sci-fi stories have given us thrilling images of new worlds and aliens of all sorts. We can add one of my favorites, SyFy’s brutally cancelled Farscape, and one of the newest movie franchises, Guardians of the Galaxy (highly recommended, btw).

Farscape

In all of these, the universe is thick with life. There are countless races of intelligent—and not-so-intelligent—life forms, numbering perhaps trillions of individuals.

But, as far as we know, we are utterly alone in the universe, and we don’t know why.

As scientists discover solar system after solar system, with planets in the habitable zone, it’s dawning on us that our planet is not unique. And the logical assumption would be, if Earth is not unique, then we are not either. Surely if life evolved on Earth, over millions of years, to produce a species that is capable of traveling into space, then at least one of these other countless planets would have evolved similar life as well.

But where are they? Set aside the assumptions we’re making, such as that we would even be able to recognize alien life at all. If other species developed interstellar travel, wouldn’t they have found us by now? Wouldn’t their presence have long been known?

Revelation SpaceOne of my favorite sci-fi books, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, tackled this question. Reynolds had an intriguing, though wholly fictional answer. (SPOILER WARNING) In Revelation Space, there were indeed alien races spread throughout the universe. But they went to war and ended up wiping each other out. To avoid any such catastrophe, a super-entity was established that would snuff out any civilization that got too big for its britches. How would it to that? Simply by waiting patiently for a curious species to contact it, and then exterminating it.

Another theory for the lack of alien life is more simple. Maybe complex and intelligent life is extremely rare — so rare that we’re it. It’s called the Great Filter theory. Several nearly impossible steps had to be overcome for us to be here.

–the creation of molecules that can reproduce

–the creation of simple single-celled life

–the creation of complex, multi-celled life

And that’s not even getting into such things as the rise of intelligent life capable of traveling into space, while also avoiding threats such as asteroid strikes, nuclear war, radiation bursts from space, and so on.

So, maybe we really are alone, and there is no Star Trek style federation waiting to greet us.

The good news? Maybe we’ve already overcome the biggest hurdles to interstellar life, and the universe is ours for the taking.

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.

book-scorpion

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.

mites

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)

 

 

 

 

Tale of the vampire (plant version)

File this under: Evil Nature.

The more I study science, the more I’m convinced that nature is home to some of our biggest nightmares.

More proof? There’s a vampire-like plant that not only feeds off its prey, but convinces it to let down its defenses.

Kind of like this guy (Nosferatu, the first film vampire, and the creepiest, in my book).

how-to-make-vampire-teeth-nosferatu

Scientists have long known that a plant called the dodder (deceptively cute name) wraps itself around a target plant, burrows into it, and then drains it of all its nutrients. Hence the vampire correlation.

But what they didn’t know were the details. How do dodders get away with it?

It turns out that once a dodder makes contact with the plants, it releases bits of its genetic material into the victim plant, and in turn receives bits of the plant’s genetic material, which prompts the victim plant to lower its defenses.

Or, as this article states, the dodder sweet-talks its victim into surrendering.

dodder

See-through science

Ever wanted to be invisible? Not in the metaphorical sense, but truly transparent?

Me either. But for those who do, scientists are a step closer to making see-through skin.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have advanced a process called tissue clearing that basically strips away all the color from the body. They did this in mice (not humans). What they got was a blurry, goopy messy looking thing. Ugly, but still intact.

see-through-mouse-1

How did they do this? By injecting a gel and detergents into the mouse’s bloodstream, which somehow stripped away most of the things that block our view.

Why would they do this? Having see-through organs would allow scientists to study body processes in real-time, as they happen. This would allow scientists to better understand conditions such as chronic pain.

I support most science, but for now, I’m adding this to the “not too sure this is a good idea” pile. I can imagine this getting into the hands of mad scientists who try this (illegally) on humans.

At the very least, it would make a really horrific story.

No word on how the mice fared, though. I can’t imagine it feels good to be injected with gel and detergents.

 

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.

bioluminescent

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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Fun with skulls

I’m not a macabre person by nature, but I like skulls. I’m not talking about actual human skulls, but representations: drawings, T-shirts, liquor bottles, candles, etc. Sure, it’s a cliche by now, but it’s still fun.

skull-art-prints-by-Gerrard-King

(Image courtesy of Gerrard King)

Where did my affinity for skulls start? Who knows? Maybe from the image of Hamlet holding up poor Yorick’s skull and talking to it. I always got a kick out of that when I was a kid. (Here’s a picture of Doctor Who‘s David Tennant as the moody Dane.)

Tennant Hamlet Yorick

Obviously I’m not alone. Skulls are everywhere in pop culture, and not just American culture. For instance, the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) holiday is a festival that recognizes the dead, and similar traditions can be found throughout the world. Though the Mexicans seem to have perfected the imagery.

400px-Catrinas_2

My own theory: these representations of skulls are a safe way for us to reference our own mortality. We can observe it at arms’ length, poke fun at it, while still acknowledging it. Sure, some people choose to avoid anything that will remind them of death, while others seem to revel in it. For most of us, we can acknowledge it, have a laugh, and then move on.

And now I’m happy to be adding a skull to the pop-culture pantheon. My soon-to-be-released novella, House of Flies, will feature a skull on the cover. House of Flies follows Alec as he battles a fly infestation that drives him to the brink of insanity. It’s a psychological horror story about suppressed grief and the avoidance of death, hence the skull. I can’t describe how cool I thought this imagery was when my designer first showed it to me.

House of Flies

It turns out that there have been more than a few skull-themed covers. The website Science Fiction Ruminations has compiled a collection of skull covers from the recent era. Here are a few funky examples — check out the site for more.

Philip K. dick

Robert Heinlein

Harlan Ellison