If I Could Talk With The Animals...
Most animals on Earth engage in some form of communication. Baboons rub feet in each other’s faces to signify “I am in the mood for sex,” herring gulls tap their beaks on the ground to let the young know “I have food,” and cats sharpen their claws on your ankles to make sure you know “you ain’t all that.”
My favourite mode of animal communication however is easily that employed by honey bees. When scouts want to describe their nectar finds to the rest of the hive, they perform what are genuinely called in the literature a “waggle-dance”. They shake their rears around in a figure eight with the length of dance indicating distance from the hive, and the angle they make to the vertical axis of the hive translating to the angle between the sun’s position in the sky and the food source. They also secrete pheromones to indicate how good the source is, meaning rival bees have to argue for whose find is superior. That's right. Bees communicate using bum-dance trigonometry battles.
Sadly, humans have not mastered this subtle art, but we have invented something truly remarkable for sharing ideas and information: languages. Six thousand five hundred of them are known to our species alone, so is it possible that other species could develop something similar?
First off, I think we can argue that many other species have “words” – unique noises which convey a meaning. Chickens for instance have distinct clucking sounds for “predator approaching from above” and “predator approaching on the ground”, indicating that the noise is not just a panic - it is telling other chickens vital information.
Squirrels take this even further with their barks; they are more likely to make a warning call if members of their family are close and less likely to do so if there is a rival squirrel in the area i.e. some animals can not only use sound to convey information, they can change their noises depending on who is listening. There is even a fascinating project being carried out at the University of Washington called Deep-Squeak which aims to build a computer capable of translating mouse-squeaks into English.
You might consider these noises to be nothing like words because they are just simple sounds, but I would immediately dispute that. Consider Silbo, a language which is entirely whistled, allowing shepherds to communicate across the valleys of La Gomera island. Or take the Taa language of West Africa which contains 164 letters, 111 of which are clicking sounds. Or how about the Wakashan language of British Columbia which features throat-grunts as well as vowels. If we consider clicks, whistles and grunts to be legitimate word sounds, why not the noises animals make too?
But Is It Language?
This all sounds pretty optimistic but there is something really important we need to consider. As the linguistic philosopher Noam Chomsky pointed out when addressing this issue, language is more than just a collection of words – it is also the rules for how those words can be combined.
A vocabulary is not the same as a language, in the same way a dictionary is not the same as a play by Shakespeare. In fact, the English language contains over 171,000 words and the average English-speaking adult speaks 60,000 of them, meaning the average English-speaking adult only knows 35% of their own language. Clearly there is more to a language than just "knowing the words".
For example, here is a sentence I doubt anyone has ever written: In Antarctica there are a species of pink pandas who eat wood shavings. That sentence is not one you have seen before, so you cannot simply be recognising the combination. Yet you still know exactly what the sentence means. Language is not just memorising and regurgitating words. It allows us to generate new combinations that are still meaningful.
Another key feature of language is that as we increase the length of word combinations (the sentence) we increase the information contained within them. For instance:
1) I like hats.
2) Janet said “I like hats”.
3) According to Frank the fishmonger, Janet said “I like hats.”
4) According to Frank the fishmonger, who really should not be trusted given the fact he is a Twilight fan, Janet said “I like hats”.
The more words we put in, the more information we convey and we can do this infinitely. Then of course we have to consider the order the words come in. The sentence “Margaret likes Jeff and hates Richard,” means something different to “Margaret hates Richard and likes Jeff”.
These are the kinds of features we do not find comparisons for in other species. Animal noises are mostly isolated and combinations of them contain no new information. A chicken can utter the squawk “predator approaching” over and over, but this longer sentence does not increase the meaning, it is just repetition. Animals also do not seem to invent new sentences or have a grammar to their limited sounds, but this makes sense from a neurological perspective because, as it turns out, human brains are genuinely different to those of most animals.
Dawn of the Language of the Apes
I’m about to horrendously simplify half a century’s careful study into the field of linguistic neurology, but hopefully you should pick up the gist even if my words are not precise. There’s another feature of human languages - a distinction between literal and implied meaning.
The human brain has two main centres for processing language (found on the left side of the brain for 90% of the population) called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Put crudely, Wernicke’s area is the part which deals with comprehension while Broca’s area deals with remembering words and generating combinations.
People who suffer damage to Broca’s area are still able to follow complex instructions and listen attentively to what people are saying, but speak in a halting, staggered fashion. “Me…want…food” etc.
By contrast, people who suffer damage to Wernicke’s area are able to speak fluently and elaborately, but their sentences are meaningless word-salads: “There wasn’t four parsons undulating to birefringent celery opacity for plums with your mesmerisation.”
Most other animals do not even have a Broca's and Wernicke's area, so language is physically beyond their capability, with the exception of the ape species of course. Chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos have very small Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Nowhere near as develeoped as ours, but these emerging structures might imply that apes can learn something akin to language.
The first attempt to teach an ape to speak was made by Catherine and Keith Hayes in 1951 with their chimpanzee Viki. By rewarding the chimpanzee and moving its mouth to encourage certain sounds, the Hayes were able to get Viki to “say” four words: mama, papa, up and cup. And yes, listening to recordings of Viki is every bit as disturbing as you might imagine.
A lot of debate raged over why Viki could only master those four words for several years, until someone pointed out the freaking obvious: chimpanzees don’t have the vocal chords needed. In fact, no other animals do.
While many animals have a larynx and tongue, the arrangement of them inside the human throat allows us to make a wider variety of sounds than any other creature. There are obviously animals which can make noises we can’t - pistol shrimps produce screaming sounds which reach 200 dB - but those are the only sounds these animals can make. It isn’t just our brains which are unique, but also our mouths and throats.
However, just because apes cannot make sophisticated vocalisations does not mean they cannot learn language. After all, there is a whole category of human languages that involve no sound whatsoever: sign languages.
Sign of The Times
Sign languages have all the same features that “verbal” languages have. American Sign Language for instance has over 50,000 words as well as grammatical rules and syntax. Word-order matters in ASL, longer sentences contain more information, new sentences can be invented, different people sign with different "hand-accents" and they can be used to express metaphor, write poetry and tell jokes.
In fact, deaf and mute babies start “babbling” with their hands at the same age hearing and speaking children start babbling with their mouths. They begin to wave their hands in an incoherent fashion as they grasp the language they are exposed to…which means language is not really about moving your throat and engaging your ears, it is about understanding the meaning behind the signifiers.
And, perhaps most importantly, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas light up in brain-scans just as much for deaf and mute people as for speaking and hearing people. These brain regions are not really about the ears or the throat, they are about the far more abstract notion of processing and creating meaning for symbols. So whichever muscles your language uses are irrelevant. Your brain still allows you to speak. So obviously we tried it with apes.
The first chimpanzee to learn sign language was named Washoe. In 1967 she was adopted by Beatrix and Allen Gardner who taught her 350 words in American Sign Language, and there were many remarkable findings. Washoe could hold basic conversations with the Gardners and was observed “talking to herself” i.e. signing when nobody else was around.
More remarkable was that Washoe, on a few occasions, was apparently able to join words together to form new combinations. When presented with a picture of a duck for instance, Washoe signed “water-bird” which at the time seemed astonishing.
However, the primatologist Herb Terrace was skeptical of these claims and by studying both Washoe and his own chimp fluent in ASL (which he named Nim Chimpsky), he discovered that what the chimps were doing was not really language.
Apes can only make two-three word combinations at most and are unable to increase the amount of information by extending a sentence. For instance, one of Washoe’s favourite phrases was “tickle me” (Chimpanzees love to be tickled) but if the Gardners refused to tickle her she would simply repeat the phrase over and over: “tickle me, tickle me, tickle me, tickle me”. She could not handle a longer sentence like “tickle me now” or “tickle me or I will be sad.”
Washoe was also not able to get word-order correct. Just as often as “tickle me” she was liable to sign “me tickle”. So her signing ability had no syntax and no extension of meaning. In fact, as Terrace pointed out, even the water-bird phenomenon was nothing special. Washoe could just as easily have been signing “water” because there was water in the picture and then “bird” because there was a bird. The sign combination “water-bird” did not mean “bird that floats on water” but simply “there is some water…there is a bird.”
Whereas children start inventing new sentences (and sometimes words) around 15 months old, the chimps never did. They were just repeating the physical signs they had been taught and were not understanding them the same way we do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still impressive that a chimpanzee was able to look at a picture of a bird on water, process the information and sign the correct symbols…but it’s not what we would call a language. Sign language does not allow apes to speak, unless we somehow strap them into some kind of robotic talking device...
The Koko Kontroversy
Perhaps even more famous than the Washoe experiments was the work of Penny Patterson, a former Stanford psychology doctoral student who, in 1979, decided to recreate the Washoe trials with a female gorilla called Koko, borrowed from San Francisco Zoo (“borrowed” is a generous term because Patterson actually refused to return Koko after the agreed lease was over, claiming Koko did not want to live among gorillas anymore and had fully acclimated to humans…which many people considered a form of animal cruelty, isolating Koko from her kin).
Patterson taught Koko a lot of signs (she claims over 1000) and it appeared for a long time that Koko’s verbal skills were even greater than Washoe’s. Koko could identify colours, answer simple questions and even expressed sadness at the death of Robin Williams (a celebrity she had met many years prior). Koko would also issue Christmas cards online through Patterson’s website, wishing the world peace and love. This is a gorilla supposedly making abstract comments about an entire species. It seemed too good to be true. And of course, as Herb Terrace began to demonstrate, it was.
The first suspicious thing was that studies published by Patterson were non-existent. She did not publish data or describe any controlled experiments, preferring to communicate everything through press conferences and edited online appearances. It’s easy to get “oohs” and “aahs” from an audience, but this does not prove Koko was doing the things Patterson claimed. In fact, when Terrace got hold of the original videos of Patterson communicating with Koko, the story which emerged was quite absurd and a little worrying. Here’s the kind of thing that would happen:
Patterson might hold up an object like a banana and ask Koko to sign it. Koko would then sign something like the word for “building,” to which Patterson might respond “come on Koko, stop being silly, what is it?” Koko would then make the sign for “trousers” and Patterson would laugh and say “she’s being funny, come on Koko what is it?” And then, after a bit of cue-ing from Patterson herself, Koko would finally symbol something like plant and Patterson would go “well done Koko it is a plant! What kind of plant?” Koko would then symbol “pain” and Patterson would respond with “yes that’s right, if you eat too many plants your stomach can be in pain! Well done!”
Patterson would sometimes claim Koko was being ironic when signalling the wrong words (I’m not kidding) or that the end of October was tough on her because it was the anniversary of another gorilla’s death. I don’t think anyone would dispute that Koko could be sad when remembering the death of another animal, but Patterson was claiming Koko knew how to use the Gregorian calendar and acknowledged anniversaries the same way humans do. Gradually the scientific community began to distance themselves from Patterson and she was accused of delusion, misrepresenting data and, by her harshest critics, mistreating Koko as some sort of party-trick animal.
Also, bizarre true story: Patterson claimed Koko had an obsession with nipples and there were several charges of sexual harassment against her, claiming she would instruct her students to expose their nipples to Koko (as she would regularly do herself).
From a scientific point of view the Washoe and Koko experiments are super-cool but they don’t prove apes have the capacity for language. In fact they seem to prove the opposite. We could maybe go so far as to say apes have proto-language ability and there is one bonobo currently being studied (Kanzi) who seems to show word-combination skill. But, I’m afraid if we are honest, we cannot justify saying that apes have language. However there is one other place we should consider looking.
Under The Sea
Humans do not have the biggest brains in the animal kingdom by a long shot, but this is not necessarily the most important thing to look at. Elephants have huge brains, but considering the size of their bodies they need them just to move around. Instead, it makes more sense to consider what is called the encephalisation quotient, which measures how big the animal is in relation to its body volume. On this scale humans have the highest score with apes coming in third place and then, sitting in between them, are the cetaceans: whales, dolphins and porpoises. This is where the research gets really interesting.
In 2018, Stephanie King working in Shark Bay, made the discovery that dolphins appear to have what we might consider “names”. A specific sound can be uttered by a member of the pod and only one dolphin repeats it back. When King recorded the same sounds and played them herself, the same individual dolphin echoed it and none of the others paid attention. It’s almost like the Dolphins are shouting “You there Harry?” and the other one shouts back “This is Harry.”
Then there was an intriguing study carried out in 2016 by Vyacheslav Ryabov who analysed the clicks and whistles exchanged between two Black Sea bottle nosed dolphins named Yasha and Yana. What he found is that the noises were broken down into as many as five distinct sound-chunks which he likens to five-word sentences. Even more crucially, he discovered that dolphins do not interrupt each other when doing this.
If you bring two chimpanzees together who have both been taught sign language (as has happened) they do not exchange information. They “talk” over each other constantly, and repeat the same symbols back and forth. Dolphins however, pause when the other dolphin is making their noises and they do not repeat the same sounds. This could genuinely be a form of language.
Then there is whale song which is a total mystery. A pod of whales will sing patterns of notes which can carry several kilometers across the water to a different group who can modify and send it back, or pass it on to another pod. Some researchers have suggested that whale songs are transferred across great distances like a whale internet and everything from mating calls to story telling has been touted as a possible explanation. Although obviously I’ve seen Star Trek IV, so I know exactly what's going on.
Why Cetaceans Are Tricky
Unfortunately we know hardly anything about cetacean neurology because of the obvious problem…all the methods we use to analyse the brain cannot be used under water. We tend to figure out how brains work by performing brain scans on live animals, observing the behaviour of brain-damaged individuals, observing the effects of medication, or by carrying out various tests in a controlled environment.
Brain-scanners are out of the question because (funnily enough) sensitive electrical equipment doesn’t work under water. We also cannot tell if a whale has been brain-damaged or suffered a stroke because all we can observe is how they swim about. We cannot ethically give them psychiatric medication either and because they move in vast arenas (it’s the sea) it is not easy to perform any kind of controlled experiment.
The only things we can sensibly do are make deductions about their behaviour in captivity or analyse the brain once the animal has died. But even that is difficult because you either have to wait for a carcass to wash up on shore and hope the brain is in tact by the time you extract it (a rare occurence) or you hunt and kill a whale yourself. Curiously, people who feel passionate about cetaceans and want to study them are not the same people who want to hunt them.
On the rare instances we do get hold of a cetacean brain in good condition, there is still a limit to what we can find out about it. We cannot watch it in action, so we can only make statements about things like size, mass and chemical composition, which is like trying to figure out what software a computer was running by looking at the hard drive after it has broken down. And even when we do this we run into a huge problem: cetacean brains are not put together the same way ours are. It isn’t known if they even have Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Their brains look different so, simply put, nobody has a clue what’s going on inside them.
Personally, I feel there is just enough evidence to answer the overall question of animal language with a hard "maybe". Whales and dolphins are our best bet and, given that the field of cetacean linguistics is new, we could be in for some exciting surprises over the next few years.
Maybe if we can learn to speak dolphin we will get an insight into how another intelligent creature views reality. Maybe we can learn how our own minds work from studying those which are drastically different. And maybe, just maybe, if we can prove these wonderful creatures are capable of language it will persuade those who hunt them to reconsider what they are doing. Maybe Science won't just save our species, but others too!
Unicorn Hunters of Ye Olden Days
The King James Bible has unicorns in it. There are nine separate references in the Old Testament to these magical beasts (Num 23:22 & 24:8, Deut 33:17, Job 39:9-10, Psalm 22:21, 29:6 & 92:10, Is 34:7) and baring in mind the Old Testament gives historical records of ancient culture, are we to conclude there were genuine unicorns roaming the Earth at this time?
Well, probably not. The King James Bible is a 1611 translation of the Biblical books, derived in part from a 4th Century Latin translation called The Vulgate, based on a 3rd Century BC Greek translation called The Septuagint, based on earlier texts written in Hebrew, Persian and a few other languages.
In the original Hebrew, the animal being referred to is called a re’em and unfortunately we have lost the identity of whatever this animal was. All we know for definite is that it was a strong creature with...ironically...more than one horn. Which is kinda weird. In Deuteronomy 33:17 the writer talks about the horns (plural) of a single re’em so it was obviously not believed to be a unicorn and nobody knows how the term 'unicorn' entered the language.
The hypothesis I find most reasonable is that re’em is close to the older Assyrian word rimu, which referred to a species of now-extinct ox called, in English, an auroch. In Assyrian art, aurochs were depicted in side profile (see below) giving them the appearance of a one-horned animal and thus early writers may have mistook auroch paintings for one-horned animals.
It could also be that "one-horn" was a nickname for an actually two-horned beast. Like the species Bradypus Variegatus which is nicknamed "three-toed sloth" despite obviously having twelve toes. The name is not meant to be taken literally, but understood in a certain context. Just like the equally disappointing Vampyroteuthis infernalis, more commonly known as a "vampire squid" despite being neither a vampire nor a squid. Sometimes we just give animals dumb names.
Either way, rimu in Assyrian seems to have become re’em in Hebrew, which became ‘monokeros’ in Greek (which means one-horn) and then finally 'unicorn' in Latin and thus English. It is tempting to ridicule the early translators for being careless, but we shouldn't judge them too harshly. Unicorns were once beleived to be genuine creatures. Even the Greek scholar Ctesias described a one-horned beast native to India which he called a rhinokeros (nose-horn). That animal was almost certainly a rhinoceros, but once again a series of mistranslations and misunderstandings led many to believe Ctesias had discovered unicorns in the Asiain subcontinent.
The idea of unicorns being horses with spiralled horns seems to have begun during the middle ages, probably due to sailors bringing home narwhal tusks (which are spiraled) and selling them to buyers as "unicorn horns". Even the throne of Denmark is constructed from narwhal tusk but was originally claimed to be bona fide unicorn.
For obvious reasons, unicorns were perceived as creatures who refused to be captured and many houses of Scotland during the 1400s displayed unicorns on their banner-crests to represent a refusal to submit to English rule. Even today, the Unicorn is the official emblematic animal of Scotland (the Welsh flag features a dragon for similar reasons).
It is only in the last couple of centuries that people have finally accepted unicorns are probably not real. However, I am pleased to inform you that there is nothing about them which is biologically far-fetched. After all, many different species have evolved horns. There are breeds of lizard, mammal, fish and even one species of bird (the cassowary) which have horny structures on their heads, so it's obviously something evolution is fine with.
The primary function of horns is for fighting rivals or predators but they also serve for the purpose of attracting a mate. Because living things use most of their energy on movement, brain-activity and maintaining a healthy immune system, if your immune system is in perfect order you have energy to spare. What better way to advertise that than adorning yourelf with unnecessary decorations which would hinder a lesser creature?
It’s called the Zahavi Handicap Principle and is often used to explain why certain animal species evolve completely unnecessary features; even features which serve as a handicap. Peacocks grow spectacular tails, giraffes grow inconvenient necks and we may even see evidence of it in humans (the only species whose female members have engorged breasts all year round rather than exclusively at the time of ovulation). So why not horses too?
Unicorns of the Sea
Horses do not have horns of course, and usually attract their mates via a combination of elaborate tail flicks and enticing urination (yeah, I know) but there is no reason they could not have evolved down the route of growing horns. In fact, some of them sort of did.
It’s widely accepted that life began in the oceans and eventually made its way to land, but it can happen in reverse sometimes. That’s what whales are. Whales were originally land-dwelling creatures, similar to hippos, but gradually moved into the ocean as a permanent residence, losing their legs over time. That’s why whales have useless hip-bones under their blubber. Sometimes they use these hips as slightly ineffecient sex-anchors to attach themselves to prospective mates, but the shape and design is clear. Whales used to be hippies.
That is also why whales and dolphins move their spines vertically as they swim, reminiscent of horses galloping, while fish (who have always been aquatic) move their spines horizontally. Whales and dolphins are effectively trotting and cantering through the ocean. Now, since narwhals are a species of whale and whales are descendants of horsey creatures, evolution can, in a certain sense, if you are very patient, give horns to horses.
But I don't want to wait millions of years, tim!
Of course you don't. You want a live unicorn without having to rely on the chance-nature of Darwinism and hippos who like to swim. Is there a scientific way of justifying the existence of real equine unicorns? The answer (magically) is maybe. Provided we invoke the right kind of tumor!! And I know what you're thinking at this point. This is a family-friendly blog and I’ve just given unicorns cancer. But fear not, the kind of tumors we are talking about will be totally safe. Twilight Sparkle will go unharmed if you bear with me...
A tumor is not an infectious disease caused by a bacteria, virus or parasite, it’s certain cells of the body growing too much, too fast. If cells in one area start growing at an accelerated rate they begin absorbing nutrients away from other cells or squashing everything in their vicinity to one side, damaging the organs and preventing them from doing their job. That’s when a tumor becomes a cancer. But tumors can be harmles. In fact, to avoid the negative association, let's call them "neoplasms" which is a friendlier-sounding word for the same thing.
Since neoplasms are cells growing out of control, what can sometimes happen is that the cells get so excited they mistakenly believe they are a different part of the body and turn into that instead of what they’re supposed to. This is possible because every cell’s nucleus contains a full DNA strand, with the genetic information necessary to become any part of the body. A cell in your kidney contains the information required to build a heart or a lung and if the cell is activated incorrectly (which can happen if it’s growing too fast) you can grow body parts in the wrong place.
It’s called a teratoma and although it sounds like something from a David Cronenberg movie, it’s absolutely real. It is rare to develop whole organs though (the creepiest example is an instance reported in 1999 by doctor Otto Herwart who discovered a fully grown eye inside a neoplasm) but keratin, which horns are made from, is straightforward for your body to produce so teratomas can easily manufacture horns.
It’s a rare condition called cornu cutaneum and in all honesty nobody knows what causes it. The skin spontaneously begins growing a neoplasm on its surface which overproduces keratin and thus ends up forming a horn. They are completely harmless and easily removed since they have no bones or nerve endings, but my advice would be not to Google image-search them right before a meal.
The most astonishing instance of this condition in humans is that of Zhang Ruifang, a 101-year old woman from China who grew a pair of horns on either side of her forehead in 2009 which she refused to have removed, despite them earning her the obvious nickname in her neighborhood of ‘devil-woman’.
And it’s not just humans who can get horns. There are reports of dogs, cats, cows and, fortunately, even horses, developing horn-bumps as a result of a neoplasm. In fact, Unicorns are not only within the realm of possibility, one or two may have existed by accident.
Yes, you read that right. I, a public school teacher with a responsibility to educate future generations, am throwing my lot in and saying “sure, there has probably been at least one unicorn”. Horses have been around for over 50 million years and today there are an estimated 60 million roaming the Earth, mostly in the wild. Chances are that at least once, somewhere, purely by chance, one of those horses developed a teratoma neoplasm which gave it a horn between the eyes.
Resurrecting A Dead Idea
As a Science educator, I get asked a bunch of interesting questions by students. Many of them are about standard topics like explosions, space or quantum zeno effects during antimatter hadron collisions. The usual. But by far the most common things I get quizzed about are dreams and death.
Dreams are a tricky one to answer because nobody has a clue what's going on there, so most of the time I have to answer such questions with a shrug. Death, on the other hand, is a really interesting topic and well worth exploring because we actually do have some good knowledge about what happens. Especially the issue kids always want to know about: "could a zombie apocalypse really happen?" It's a question we've all asked ourselves at some point, often while watching the shopping channel, and I addressed it briefly in an article I wrote a while back (here ya go kids).
In that article I focused on what would happen to our infrastructre during such a crisis and how we would survive. Short answer: move to Scandanavia (actually that solves a lot of problems). But at the end of the article I dismissed the whole thing as fanciful because it was basically impossible for zombies to exist. Once you're dead, you're dead.
However, part of being a Scientist is changing your mind when the evidence requires it, and I am happy to say that on the issue of zombification I may need to do just that. Research I've slowly become aware of has made me re-evaluate the whole question and I have come to the conclusion that if you are prepared to be a little generous in your definition of "zombie" then they aren't totally ridiculous.
Which is just as well. The US Department of Health commissioned a report in 2011 on how the CDC might prevent a zombie apocalypse in a paper called ‘The CDC Zombie Initiative’. Originally published as a tongue-in-cheek way of exploring the idea of mass panic, they quickly had to issue a public retraction and apology when people assumed they were proposing a real zombie-outbreak was imminent...ironically causing a mass panic. Now, thanks to this blog, a zombie apocalypse might really be on the cards after all. Hurrah for Science!
The Biology of Death
At a cellular level, death is a simple process. A cell is a bag of chemical reactions so it’s easy to pinpoint when it has died because the reactions change irreversibly, usually accompanied by the outer membrane dissolving and everything leaking out. Once a cell has expired there is no going back, but at the scale of a whole organism it’s harder to define when death occurs because everything shuts down at different rates.
We’ve all heard stories of people who were apparently declared dead by a doctor, only to return to life after a brief intermission. They sound like urban legends but it’s actually a recognised medical phenomenon called Lazarus syndrome. Since 1982, when it was first defined, nearly 40 people have been declared dead by a qualified physician but then decided to make a comeback. The most extreme case being that of 78-year-old Walter Williams from Mississipi, who was registered dead in February of 2014...only to be discovered a few days later by coroners trying to kick his way out of a body bag. Alive and kicking indeed.
Because different organ systems shut-down at different times it can occasionally happen that the main systems go offline, giving the appearance of death, but there can be plenty of chemistry still going on and if the right reactions occur, the whole system can reboot. There are several animals which do precisely that during hibernation after all, including extreme examples like the Alaskan wood fog, Rana Sylvatica, which can survive with two-thirds of its blood frozen solid during winter, before thawing itself back out.
Cells which have truly died can’t be brought back, but new cells can always be regrown (you do it every time you recover from a cold) so it’s possible for parts of an organism to shut down but then rebuild. In fact, according to one research paper published in 2017 by Peter Noble, some cells actually increase their productivity after the body is dead, so even a corpse is still alive in many ways. Death is not clear-cut and can, in some rare cases, be reversed.
We can definitely agree however, that a body eventually reaches a point of no return, even if we can’t say precisely when this point occurs. People have returned from year-long comas but nobody has returned from something like rigor mortis (when the body stiffens up because you are no longer making ATP, the chemical required to break down bridges between muscle fibres). If something fully dies, it’s not possible to bring it back because the cells have burst, but we might be able to justify a zombie apocalypse by picking the right biochemistry to make a person appear to die.
Horrors in the Night
Most people have a fear of death so it’s no surprise that zombies are a common staple of horror stories. Zombies represent the inevitability of death slowly creeping toward us without pause, breaking through our barricades to consume us no matter what we do.
The modern depiction of zombies as shambling corpses seeking the living to eat them alive comes almost entirely from the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead by George Romero, in which a group of middle-class Pennsylvanians get trapped in a country house under siege by re-animated corpses, originally referred to in the script as "ghouls".
Over the course of six films, Romero invented most of the familiar rules we know today for zombie stories e.g. being bitten will turn you into one, zombies can’t be stopped unless you destroy their brain and they gradually get more rotten as their flesh decays.
Prior to Romero’s hexology of films, zombies were already a well-known monster in folklore but they were just corpses who came back to life, often with their brains in tact. Some of them even ran for government. The Bible itself refers to mass outbreaks of zombies stumbling from their graves and tormenting the living (Zechariah 14:12, Matthew 27:52) as shown in the Fresco below from Notre Dame de Bayeuax Cathedral.
In Romero’s series, it is hinted that the outbreak is caused by a space probe detonating in the atmosphere and showering the ground with radioactive debris. Radioactive material can certainly do icky things to you like make your skin fall off, but it can’t make you impervious to pain and turn you into a cannibal. If we want to legitamise the zombie outbreak we'll have to look somewhere other than 1960s cold war paranoia-infused science fiction...which is always a disappointing sentence.
Taste the Rainbow
The word ‘zombie’ comes from the Haitan word zombi (originally Central-West African) and the folkore of Haiti features tales of people brought back from the dead in a trance to do the bidding of the witch who summoned them.
In 1985 the ethno-botanist Wade Davis even wrote a book about the science of Haitan zombification called The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was adapted into a semi-decent horror movie directed by Wes Craven and starring, of all people, Bill Pullman...whose only other horror credit is freaking Casper.
In The Serpent and the Rainbow, Davis analysed the powder being used by Haitan witches to zombify people and found it to contain a chemical called tetrodotoxin - the active ingredient in puffer-fish poison. Davis claimed this dust would send a victim into a comatose state for a few hours, giving the appearance of death, before they would rise in a hypnotic trance, ready to do the bidding of the witch master.
His results were resoundingly panned by other scientists who tried to repeat the findings but couldn’t because his methodology was so poor. Furthermore, when the powder was analysed by other teams they found it didn’t contain enough tetrodotoxin to even make someone sick, let alone knock them into a coma or put them in a trance (which is not a known tetrodotoxin side-effect anyway).
To give you some idea of how lousy the science in the book is, Davis claims that a witch only had to sprinkle zombi-dust on the road in front of their intended victim to achieve the effect. It sounds like the whole thing had more to do with the power of belief than the power of witches.
If you are raised in a culture that believes ardently in zombification at the hands of a witches, it’s conceivable you might go along with it because of something called ‘the nocebo effect’ - a reverse placebo where you can be convinced you have an illness you don’t really have.
Stranger things have happened. Take the case of Sam Shoeman who was diagnosed with cancer in 1973 and died on schedule according to doctor predictions. It was only at his autopsy that it was discovered his doctors had made a mistake and the tumour was benign. He showed all the appropriate symptoms of slowly dying of cancer, despite not actually having it! Apparently, you can literally talk someone to death. Something I will have to remember for my classes.
Nobody knows how placebos or nocebos work, but our minds are evidently capable of doing things to our bodies through willpower alone. It seems likely to me that so called "witches" are simply telling people they have to act like zombis and the victims just go along with the ritual because they believe they have no choice. So I don’t think we can trigger a genuine zombie apocalypse using puffer-fish. Sorry. Puffer-fish are useless.
What about that guy on the news..
So you may have heard about 'bath salts’ (if you haven't, your kids will have), it's the street drug which hit headlines in 2012 because it reportedly turned people into violent flesh-eaters. Just to make sure we're handling rumour control here, there's no such thing. It's a twisted account of a real event which happened once and once only. This gets a little weird though.
On May 26th 2012, in Miami, a man named Rudy Eugene decided for some reason to attack a homeless man named Ronald Poppo and...eat his face. While holding a Bible. Naked. For eighteen minutes.
Eugene only stopped after being shot five times by a police officer and when he turned out to be a proud Haitan, it was no surprise the press jumped on the story and dubbed him The Miami Zombie.
Police at the time described his relentless and delusional behaviour as consistent with someone taking ‘bath salts’ (a mixture of mephodrone and dimethocaine) and hence bath salts became unofficially known as the ‘zombie drug’ because it made you impervious to pain and susceptible to cannibalism.
However, the toxicology screening of Eugene’s corpse didn’t find any trace of bath salts, only large amounts of cannabis (and large amounts of Ronald Poppo I guess). So I don’t think street drugs are going to give us the zombie apocalypse we’re looking for. I think if we want to come up with a plausible zombie pandemic, it’s going to have to come from the world of infectious diseases.
In the Danny Boyle movie 28 Days Later, the outbreak is started by an engineered super-virus which amplifies the aggression centre of the amygdalae and turns the host into a maniac. Although technically the monsters in 28 Days Later aren’t true zombies because they don’t die and come back, they just go nuts. They also run and zombies are supposed to represent the inevitable onslaught of creeping mortality...we can’t have them being zoom-bies.
I'm going to totally steal their idea however, because it seems to me that it would be the best way of doing it. What we're looking for is some sort of infection which can cause a person to apparently die, before coming back to life as an indestructable flesh-eater on a shulking, rotting rampage.
To start with, there are plenty of diseases which can affect a creature's brain, sometimes in very surprising ways. Consider ophiocordyceps, a breed of fungus which has a disturbing effect on carpenter ants. Once the ants breathe in the spores, it somehow alters their neural chemistry and forces them to abandon whatever they are doing and climb the nearest plant, after which the fungus blasts through their skull, releasing more spores to rain down on the ants below.
This is a parasite which makes its host no longer care about their own safety or other members of their species. It just makes them climb no matter what, forcing them to their own head-exploding doom. If we could propose a comparable fungus for humans that would give us a start. Some sort of fungus which infects the brain and makes the host not care about pain or the well-being of other people. There is no known fungus at present which does this (probably a good thing) but baring in mind we haven't explored something like 90% of our own rainforests, fingers crossed such a human-brain fungus could be out there.
The next thing to study I reckon is lyssavirus, the viral infection which causes rabies. Rabies can be transferred through the bite of an infected host and has an eerily familiar effect on its victims. The symptoms present slightly differently depending on the person, but it usually causes paralysis and apparent death-like symptoms in the early stages, before heightened aggression and violence a few days later.
Thinking about it, perhaps that’s where the original zombie myth came from? The word zombi does originate in Central-West Africa where rabies is common, so maybe that’s where we got the first stories of people who apparently die, then come back and attack us? Zombie myths could be the result of rabies. Rabies doesn’t easily transfer from human to human though, so we’d be talking about an unknown strain which can transfer rapidly, moving to anyone who gets bitten.
If we combine this hypothetical rabies virus with our hypothetical brain-controlling fungus then we might be onto something at last. Contracting a fungal and viral infection simultaneously is pretty rare, although there is one known species of mycovirus (a virus which infects a fungus) which can be transferred to humans called AfuTmV-1. Clearly it’s possible for a fungal infection to hitch a ride with a virus molecule, so let’s say that’s what our zombie pathogen consists of.
Now all we need to do is throw in an aggressive bacteria which can cause necrotising fasciitis - a disease in which the soft tissue of your skin starts rotting while you’re alive, making the infected parts of your body look corpse-like, the so called "flesh eating bacteria" (do NOT google that before a meal). There are quite a few bacteria which do this so let’s propose a variety which spreads in the saliva.
Why I went into Science
So, let’s say that by sheer bad-luck, there is a double epidemic unleashed on the Earth by the powers of fate. A rabies/fungal infection hits first, making all the victims appear dead for a few days before they rise to perpetrate attacks on the living (caused by the rabies). The fungus simultaneously switches off their sense of self-preservation (as it does in ants), meaning infected people will stop at nothing to get food, ignoring all injuries...unless we deactivate their ability to move by destroying the brain.
Then, gosh-darn it, an outbreak of flesh-eating bacteria just happens to hit us as well. All the infected people whose immune systems have been weakened by the rabies-fungus cocktail now end up catching this bacterial inconvenience, making their skin decay as they go after the living. Voila. Zombie-apocalypse achieved. Also, probably the only blog on the internet to feature Disney and Bible references alongisde Motorhead and cannibalism!
I'll be right back, there's some guy in a CDC jacket at my door...
This has been one of the trickiest blogs I have ever written. Race is a delicate issue and I'm writing as a white, English-speaking male. In other words, I'm writing from a position of privilege without having been on the receiving end of racial abuse. I have not suffered the oppression and discrimination people of colour regularly endure and I would not pretend otherwise. I am also not an expert on Biology, so to write an article on the Biology of race has been a huge challenge.
I would like to start by expressing enormous gratitude to my friend Lee Agostini, a genetic researcher at Thomas Jefferson University who consulted on the Biology, and also offered insights into the experience of being a black man in modern America. You should absolutely follow him on instagram: @lee_the_scientist and check out his awesome Science-themed website: BioIsLifeMedia.
The important thing to say up front is that we all agree racism is bad (unless you're a racist I guess?) but when issues of race get discussed there are misconceptions and cultural confusions which make the debate appear not so black and white, if you'll excuse the pun. My aim in this article is to highlight the hyporcisy of racism from a scientific point of view because as far as Science is concerned racism makes no...freaking...sense!
However I'm fully aware that as a white non-Biologist I may have missed crucial nuances of the discussion. Please contact me if I'm getting stuff wrong (I want to learn) but also please appreciate that if I say something you find offensive it's coming from a place of accidental ignorance, not wilfull malice. If I upset you, I pre-emptively cry your pardon and ask you to help me do better!
The Strange Case of the Black Woman Who Wasn't
I want to kick things off by reviewing one of the most bizarre media firestorms I have ever seen. You may recall hearing about Rachel Dolezal on the news but if not, here’s a quick summary: Rachel Dolezal was elected the Spokane chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 2014. She taught classes on African-American culture at Eastern Washington University and served on the Police Ombudsman Commission for Spokane, representing the black community. Dolezal was a well-respected public figure who spoke out on black issues...until a year after her election when a member of the press exposed something remarkable. Dolezal was not really black. She was white.
To be clear, there’s no reason a white person shouldn’t be working for the NAACP - that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that she had been claiming to be something she wasn’t. She was committing fraud.
She doesn’t exactly deny these allegations either. In one interview with NBC, a reporter asked her “Do you feel you’ve been deceptive at all?” to which Dolezal responded: “There have been some moments with a level of creative non-fiction,” which I think is a fancy way of saying “yes, I was lying,” although she insists she never intended to deceive anyone. Her skin is kinda dark for a white person (see below) but when she claimed her parents were black, that was flat-out creative non-fiction.
When Dolezal’s story was inevitably brought into the media glare it sparked an international debate about her mindset. To some, she was highlighting issues of race and identity, to some she was a con-artist wanting attention and to others she was a mentally-troubled woman desperately seeking identity.
Dolezal has written a book about her experiences - In Full Colour - and there is a documentary about her on Netflix called The Rachel Divide charting her life after the chaos. What fascinates me most as a scientist however, isn’t her motivation, it's her terminology. Dolezal has described herself as transracial, transblack and even explained that she “identifies as black”. What exactly is she talking about?
Using the phrase “I identify as black” has obvious parallels with the vernacular of the transgender community. I’ve written in great detail (here) about the biological difference between male and female brains and how transgender people are not ”making it up” or “wanting to be something they’re not” (quite the opposite…they’re wanting to be something they are). I won’t rehash that whole essay, I'll just say that the biological evidence comes down firmly in support of transgender people. But the language we use is very important.
If a transgender woman says “I am a woman,” then critics could fire back by saying “No you’re not. You don’t have a uterus or XX chromosomes,” which would technically be correct. But if a transgender woman said “I want to be a woman,” that wouldn’t be accurate either. A transgender woman doesn’t simply like the idea of being female, her neural architecture means she is female.
That’s why the phrase “I identify as a woman” is so useful. It is stronger than saying “I want to be female,” but doesn’t make a false claim about biological anatomy which gives ammunition to critics. So when Dolezal “identifies as black” we have to question what she means. She seems to be saying that being black is an inherent thing and that she is (to put it crudely) a black woman in a white woman's body. So, fully aware of the potential minefield involved, I’m going to do my best to explore what Biology says about "race".
It’s In Your Genes
Every nucleus in your body contains a set of DNA strands collectively called your genome. It’s split into chunks called genes which are bits of biological information telling your body what to be. Genes code for things like eye colour, tongue length, heritable diseases etc. and although it’s not as simple as "one gene = one feature", the basic principle is more or less that.
The percentage of genes which actually makes us different to each other is very small (we're more alike than we are different) but within that small percentage, there's a huge amount of diversity accounting for variety among the human population.
Different versions of a gene are called alleles and because our species has been spreading across the planet for a very long time, adapting to different environments, this has led to certain alleles cropping up in some regions more than others.
We can measure the probability of a particular allele occurring with what’s called the allele frequency - how often an allele appears within a group of people. For instance, 25% of people in Central Asia have B-type blood whereas in Northern America it’s closer to 5%. That means if you test the DNA of an unknown individual and find it contains genes for B-type blood, it’s more likely they are from Central Asia, but you can't say for certain. B-type blood appears all over the world and obviously 75% of Central Asian people do not have it, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say Central Asian people have B-type blood. Just slightly more likely.
The same is true with diseases. Sickle-cell anemia is more common in Afro-Carribean people and cystic fibrosis is more common among Europeans, but white people still get sickle-cell anemia and black people still get cystic fibrosis. Certain groups may have a higher allele frequency overall, but on an individual basis you can’t tell anything about a person’s geographical region from their genome.
So when a person says they are something like “50% Irish” this is biologically meaningless. There is no such thing as an Irish gene, just allele frequencies which may be higher on average in the Irish population as a whole. You can't be half of one race and half of another. Unless you exist in the Star Trek episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (TOS Season 3 Episode 15)...
Obviously there isn't one country where black people come from, but there is an obvious biological difference between people of different skin colour...they look different! Black and white people's genes are obviously causing differences in appearance, so doesn't that mean there is a genetic difference between black and white people after all?
Well, technically yes. There are several genes which work together to define skin colour but the primary one is called MC1R and I'm going to use that as a shorthand for the whole collection. MC1R alleles tell your skin what colour to be, so yes black and white people do have different versions of one particular gene. But that is the only difference. MC1R doesn't code for anything else about the person, not even hair or eye colour.
The colour of your skin is unrelated to the rest of your genome and that’s crucially important. You can genetically determine (with reasonable accuracy) if a person is black or white by looking at their MC1R, but that’s all the gene tells you. There is no other physiological or neurological feature black people have that white people don’t or vice versa. Two black people (people with the same MC1R allele) can otherwise have totally different genomes while a white and black person (people with different MC1R alleles) can otherwise be genetically identical.
You can’t be white on the surface but internally black because “internally black” doesn’t mean anything. Your black or white characteristic is exclusively external and unrelated to everything else about your body. Black people's brains are no different to white people's brains so I'm afraid the word "trans-racial" is not an actual thing as far as Biology is concerned.
Besides, skin colour is a spectrum. Everyone has melanin in their skin (including white people) and there is no cutoff between someone being black and someone being white. It would be like defining a mountain as being split into the summit and base, or defining a rainbow’s colours as either red or violet. There's a lot of stuff in between the extremes.
Our brains work by putting things in categories because it’s easier to store information. But “ease of classification” probably shouldn’t be our priority when we’re dealing with actual human beings.
I mean, if we absolutely have to split people into categories then why stop at skin-colour? Shouldn't we start seeing redheads as a different “race” to blondes and brunettes? Or blue-eyed people as a different race to brown-eyed people? There's the same amount of genetic difference between them as between black and white.
So as far as Biology goes, there really is no such thing as race. People have different colours on their surface but that is as far as the difference goes. It’s almost like people of different colour…are all equal????? How about that.
What about DNA testing?
You’ve probably seen adverts for DNA-testing kits. These are products which take a sample of your DNA (usually from a cheek swab) which you send off for analysis and get a profile back. They can tell you things like eye colour, shape of your ear-lobes or even ear-wax consistency.
The problem comes when people claim they can determine your ancestry from your DNA i.e. saying things like: you are 20% European, 50% scandanavian, 6% hispanic etc. I’m not going to outright say these companies are misleading anyone (I don't want to get sued) but they don’t seem to be going out of their way to correct certain misconceptions about genetics.
The first problem is that genome analysis is looking at allele frequency so everything is based on probability not certainty. The second flaw is that the precision of DNA testing is not as good as CSI might have you believe. Not even close.
In one disturbing 2010 study conducted by Itiel Dror, 17 DNA specialists were given a sample of DNA used in a criminal trial and asked to compare it to the defendant. One specialist concluded the defendant was guilty, four said it was inconclusive and twelve said the defendant was innocent. Depending on which laboratory the court hired to consult with, the trial could have gone in very different directions…and these are specialists hired by our legal system.
One DNA-testing company I looked at claimed an ancestral gene precision of +/- 30%. That means any percentage they give you is falling within a range 60 percentage-points wide! Suppose you get your results and it says you're 40% South American. The precision is 30% either way which means you could actually be anywhere from 10% to 70%. Really it’s not much better than guessing.
The third big flaw with ancestral DNA testing is that their allele databases are drawn from modern populations. Nobody has an allele library for cavemen because not many cavemen were voluntarily giving blood. So if your profile says you're 70% Indian, that doesn't mean 70% of your ancestors come from India. It means your genome is similar to 70% of the modern Indian populace. So unless they were going back in time and becoming your ancestors, it's very misleading to say your genetic commonality with modern people can be "traced back" to ancestors.
It's also important to remember that genetics doesn't work like blending paints together. It's not as if you are a 50% hybrid of mom and dad. DNA sequences get mixed up in chunks so although you have genes from both your parents they can be rearranged in a novel way which neither of them has.
There’s also the pretty important point that you are a mutant. The average human genome contains over 400 mutations; features not found in either of your parents or any of your ancestors. The further back you go, the more mutations you have to factor in and eventually you get to a point where a lot of your ancestors become undetectable!
So even if there were racial genes they would fade from the genome after a few rounds of breeding. And besides, we couldn't trace your nationality back more than about 18-19 generations because prior to that, countries didn't exist.
Nationality Is New
It might seem like the idea of countries has been around forever but they’re a pretty recent invention. Monarchs have always fought over territories but the concept of national borders wasn’t formalised until 1648 at the Westphalia peace treaties. Prior to that, kings and queens were interested in cities, farms, mines etc. but the land in between was irrelevant. There were no officially recognised borders because nobody cared.
This made sense because society used to work in a “vertical” way. A person would know who the count of their land was, the name of the lord who reigned over them and then the king or queen in charge, but they had no interest in which other lords, lands or towns were governed by the same monarch.
The problem with a vertical system of course is that disputes started happening when leaders wanted more power. As their empires expanded, people started to disagree about who owned what and decided it was necessary to draw boundaries to prevent endless wars. So the monarchs of various regions agreed to draw lines on their maps which would correspond to invisible and made-up "borders." Thus people started defining themselves “horizontally” by who else lived within the imaginary lines.
When Italy was established in 1861 for instance (making it less than 160 years old) the statesman Massimo d’Azeglio remarked in his personal diary: “we have invented Italy, now we must invent Italians,” because there was no sense of national identity and less than 3% of people within the established border even spoke the Italian language. The idea of a nationality is something politicians had to introduce but humans have existed for 200,000 years without it.
In fact, the human brain might only be equipped to handle meaningful relationships with about 150 people (it's called the Dunbar number) so belonging to a country with a population of millions, which most of us do, is actually something we can't really grasp. I'm not saying the idea of nationality is a bad thing of course, I'm just wondering if we might do away with it once it has served its purpose...whatever that might be.
Black Is A State of Mind?
It’s possible that when Rachel Dolezal says she identifies as black she means culturally. It would make more sense (not hard to do, since Biologically it makes no sense) although it’s still a pretty nebulous thing to say since there are numerous cultures of people around the world whose members have black skin and saying they are all the same is a bit…well…kinda racist.
There’s a vast difference between the culture of the Masaai tribes of Kenya and the aboriginal people of Australia. There’s an even bigger difference between the cultures of Detroit Michigan (80% black) and people living in the Republic of Congo. In Nigeria, where I grew up, there are intense tribal rivalries and members of such tribes would be sickened at the suggestion they share a culture with their rivals just because they have the same colour skin.
There is no such thing as one "black culture," because there's huge cultural diversity among the billions of black people on Earth, just as there is between all the white people. Saying you identify with black culture is like saying you identify as "religious”…it’s a sweeping statement with little specificity. Which one do you mean?
Besides, if you appreciate certain cultural ideologies which are more common among black populations, you can still appreciate them as a white person. If race is a social construct (as Dolezal has claimed often enough) surely identifying as black is buying into that same social construct? Why not just be a white person who admires the culture of a particular group of black people?
A lot of members of the NAACP were understandably outraged by Rachel Dolezal's actions because the discussion suddenly shifted away from how black people are treated in society to…what is going on with this woman? It made everything a media circus and nobody was listening to what really mattered anymore.
I suppose the only thing you could argue all black people have in common is the centuries of suffering they and their families have endured at the hands of white people. Countless black people experience racism (both overt or passive). Some would even say that experiencing racism is a critical aspect of the African American experience, and this is not something Dolezal has lived through. Her great-great grandparents were not slaves. She did not go to school with children who called her the N-word at recess. She has not had to put up with constant harmful stereotypes since birth and she does not fear for her life when she gets pulled over.
If Dolezal wants to admire and champion a particular community then good for her. But when she claims to be black it doesn't mean anything biologically and its only cultural meaning involves things she has not experienced.
Ultimately, people have different coloured skin and that’s all there is to say. You country of birth doesn’t affect your genetics and you can’t learn a person’s racial origin based on DNA. Skin colour has no more to do with a person's brain than does their eye colour. Race does not exist, but sadly racism does. And it's not just ethically awful, it's sloppy Science.
Take A Ride on (Falcon) Heavy Metal...
On February 6th of this year, Elon Musk’s private space organisation SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster into space, which is going to end up locked into stable orbit between Mars and Jupiter. While I desperately want humans to survive as a species, there’s a tiny part of me which thinks it would be hilarious if civilization collapsed and in a few thousand years whatever species replaces us discovers Musk’s car floating out there with no idea of how the hell it happened.
When images of the astronaut mannequin began cropping up on social media, I cracked a few jokes about the opening scene of Heavy Metal which features a red mustang crashing into a planet from space, but nobody got it. I was showing my age (or my nerdiness) but fortunately it wasn't just space-cars which made headlines this year; a whole ton of awesome Science has been taking place - as per usual - so as we approach the end of Gregorian year 2018, let's reflect on the groundbreaking inventions and discoveries we have made since January last.
Obviously the biggest scientific event of the year was the release of my debut book Elemental on July 5th, but even if we discard that clear high-point, 2018 has still been pretty cool. Here are my picks for the top ten most inspirational and exciting scientific moments we've enjoyed.
February - Women Are Officially Good At Science
It’s no secret we have a gender divide in the STEM fields, with far more boys studying the subjects than girls. The debate has always been whether this was down to boys being more interested or because boys were just better at it. I've always felt that the former explanation makes more sense; women and men are just as good at Science but the reason women don’t pick it as a subject is more down to societal expectation or preference rather than a lack of skill. This view is not shared by everyone of course. In fact, I once had a female student tell me an engineer tried to persuade her away from studying engineering because, in his words, "girls can't do it". I’m therefore delighted to say that my hypothesis has finally been validated with hard data.
In a vast study of 475,000 adolescents spanning 67 nations, researchers Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary published a report in Psychological Science concluding that women are just as good at scientific and mathematical subjects as boys, performing just as well (occasionally better) in all controlled tests.
There’s a lot more to unpick in the Stoet-Geary paper of course, and some of their findings are really fascinating e.g. in countries where women are given less freedom, a higher number of women go into STEM subjects as a way of becoming financially secure, meaning that paradoxically countries with poor gender equality have more women in STEM rather than less (not the result anyone was expecting). The takeaway for me is pretty simple however: girls can do Science just as well as boys. If a woman chooses to go down the humanities route then fine, that’s her preference. But if she wants to go down the STEM route (whoop!) the results are conclusive: she’s going to be fine, thank you very much.
April - Mars and Back!
Right now, there are three ways we can gather information about the planet Mars. One is by looking at it through a telescope. The second is by sending robots there who radio back data about their findings. The third is to wait patiently for meteorites to strike the surface of Mars and hope it scatters dust into space which occasionally lands on Earth (like the Alan Hills meteorite). Those methods have sufficed, but what we’ve never done is sent anything to Mars to actually grab a chunk of rock and bring it back for analysis.
Which is why it’s good news NASA and the ESA finally announced this to be their next big target. They both signed an agreement to work together to achieve the goal of sending a reconissance probe to complete the very first Martian round-trip. No longer will we have to rely on Curiosity shouting back at us through space, we’re gonna bring a piece of the action to Earth! Hopefully on the return trip we can change the tires on Musk's car.
June - The Ebola Vaccine
We found out about the Ebola virus in 1976 and since then we haven’t done a lot about it. But in June of this year, the Democratic Republic of Congo began administering a vaccine called rVSV-ZEBOV and according to early reports it’s having an extremely high success rate combating an outbreak, thus far preventing 680 cases of the disease. An additionally heart-warming facet of the story is that the company who sent the vaccine did so free of charge. The pharmaceutical giants Merck donated 7,500 vaccine units to the DRC which is enough to stymie the outbreak and hopefully prevent it happening again.
You might cynically argue that Merck were only doing this for publicity. Or maybe you want to complain that we only started looking into Ebola vaccines once it started affecting European and American countries i.e. we’ve been ignoring it for decades because it was only affecting people in far-away Africa, but once it became a threat to us we decided to intervene.
Those might be fair points, but my response is: who cares? Saying big companies like making money or that people are sometimes selfish is hardly an insightful observation, or even worth pointing out. On the other hand, the fact that hundreds of people are being spared from a life-threatening disease down to sheer generosity is worth celebrating. Whatever cynical spin people might try to put on this story, I think it's worth pointing out that any way you slice it, where there was once disease, now there is health. You can't be cynical about that.
July - Icy Neutrinos
Near the South Pole, there’s a huge research apparatus called IceCube located at the Amundsen-Scott Station. It consists of a kilometer-cubed block of ice festooned with 60 particle detectors at various depths, all primed to detect cosmic rays - beams of particles streaming toward Earth from outer space. One of the big puzzles we’ve always had is where these cosmic rays are coming from and how the particles hitting Earth have so much energy. In July we finally got a pretty good answer. By observing a single neutrino (a weakly interacting, neutrally charged particle moving near the speed of light) which slammed into the ice at the end of 2017, researchers at IceCube spent six months back-tracking its trajectory and finally identified its source. It came from a blazar 3.7 billion light-years away in the middle of the Orion constellation. A blazar is a galaxy whose center is moving so fast it starts spitting out high-energy particles in a sort of vortex (shown in the diagram above), like an epic version of a black hole...and we apparently have one pointed directly at our planet.
July - Underground Lake on Mars
In the world of extremely easy newspaper headlines, there’s this one. The ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft was beaming radar signals off Mars to see what was lurking beneath the surface. The beams strike the different chemicals and densities of material beneath the ground and bounce them back at varying speeds, kind of like giving the whole planet a giant ultrasound scan. And as we did this scan we discovered a 12 km squared lake of liquid water beneath the surface of the planet’s South pole.
There could be dozens of these subsurface lakes all over the planet for all we know, but it’s the first evidence that Mars not only has liquid water - it has a lot. This news story on its own may not sound that thrilling but remember the rule for our own planet: wherever there is water, there is life. If we have any hope of discovering life on Mars, these underground lakes are likely to be our best bet.
August - Schrodinger's Drum
In quantum mechanics, particles have the ability to exist in more than one energy state at the same time (sort of). This means they should be capable of exhibiting two distinct behaviours simultaneously and even occupy two locations at once (sort of). We had always assumed this phenomenon was unique to tiny particles but a team lead by Michael Vanner proved otherwise.
Vanner was able to create a tiny membrane only a few millimeters across which he bombarded with particles of light, a bit like chucking pebbles at a drum-skin. Because the particles of light were in two states at once, that means the drum skin could be as well, simultaneously vibrating and staying still. Vanner managed to thus persuade a large-ish object to do two contradictory things at once (sort of). You know, someone really ought to write a book about all this quantum stuff. Hmmmmm.
September - Meet Your Great Great Great (x 100000) Grandma
Nobody knows what the earliest form of life on Earth was, but the debate over the earliest animal got really interesting this year. The earliest known animals had previously been dated to around 610 million years ago, but a new discovery seems to have pushed it back by as much as 20 million years! It’s called a Dickinsonia unfortunately (named after the scientist Ben Dickinson) and although we’ve known about its existence for a long time due to fossil remains, we’ve always assumed it to have been some sort of fungus.
Until, that is, researchers led by Ilya Bobrovskiy discovered a sub-structure to the fossils indicating the presence of the biochemical cholesterol - something only produced by animals. Dickinsonia, it turns out, is the oldest known animal on Earth. Well, the second oldest technically. The most archaic fossil was obviously that engineer who spoke to my student.
September - The Paralysed Walk…Seriously
As if Scientific achievement couldn't get any more awesome we have this remarkable story from September where we cured paralysing spinal injuries for five separate patients. Susan Harkema (above left), head of the Kentucky Spinal Chord Injury Reserch Center, has been pioneering a technique whereby motor neurons in a damaged spinal column are stimulated with electricity and taught to reactivate, independent of the brain.
Rather than waiting for signals from the brain-stem to tell muscles what to do, Harkema's device requires that the patient re-train their muscles to respond to electric signals coming from the reactivated neurons, so it does take a lot of work and practice on the part of the patient but that's a small price to pay for literally "making the lame to walk."
The word miraculous might be tempting to use, but in truth it is nothing of the sort. A miracle implies temporary suspension of the laws of nature...Harkema didn't have to break any laws of nature to achieve the seemingly impossible, she just re-arranged them in an inventive way nobody else thought of doing. This is no miracle. This is pure Science.
October - New Dwarf Planet…And Maybe Planet??
Pluto is not a planet, and never was (check out my blog on the subject) but if you’re yearning for a ninth planet then we may have some good news on the horizon. In October, we discovered a new dwarf-planet orbiting beyond Neptune which has genuinely been named “The Goblin”.
What makes the Goblin so exciting is that as it orbits the sun, the trajectory of its path seems to be warped slightly, as if something big and heavy out in the darkness is tugging on it gravitationally. That's how we discovered Neptune in fact - we saw Uranus getting bent slightly (hurr hurr hurr), so presumably something must be doing the same thing to The Goblin.
The estimate is that this object, whatever it is, may be as much as seven times the mass of the Earth and if so, we're potentially gonna have a ninth planet after all. And this time, a proper planet, not just a fatsteroid, which is really all Pluto ever was.
December - Where Once There Was Death, We Created Life
This story was perhaps the most touching of the year for me. Perhaps not the most headline grabbing or the most influential, but it's still amazing. In 2013 we carried out the first successful uterus transplant, allowing infertile women to receive a working set of reproductive organs and thus have children. The only problem with the procedure is that for it to be an effective treatment for infertility, you need a woman willing to part with her own functional uterus which, understandably, is a pretty big ask. What we achieved in February this year however, was something remarkable...a transplant of a uterus from a recently deceased donor to a live recipient.
At the University of Sao Paulo, a team of medical researchers led by Dani Ejzenberg, were able to help a woman born without a uterus in February when an organ-donor died from a stroke and left a working uterus to be re-used. For nine months the team waited anxiously, watching as the baby steadily grew and finally, on December 22nd, the baby was born healthy.
To me this is beautiful. We were able to take a death and literally use it to spawn life. It's hard to think of a more hopeful image than a healthy baby successfully born from a death. 2018 is about to die, but a new year is born from it, one which will yield ever more thrilling and wonderful things form our species and its desire to make the world better.
Mars Ticket: Futurist
Ebola Vaccine: Inhabitat
Blazar: Boston University
Underground Mars Lake: Resonance Science Foundation
Schrodinger's Drum: Physics APS
Susan Harkema: MadisonCourier
Not a great plan?
The Avengers movie franchise began in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and has since taken in $17.5 billion for Marvel Studios. You might be caught up with every installment, but if not (there are 20 of them) I’ll give a brief overview of the story-arc without getting too spoilerish.
Far away, on the planet Titan, the supervillain Thanos figures out a solution to the Universe’s biggest problem. With dwindling resources across every galaxy and species proliferating, we are in a state of chaos as every being on every planet fights for survival. He decides the answer is simple: kill half of everything. Less living things = less mouths to feed = less need to fight.
It’s a bold and utilitarian approach to the problem of overpopulation, but on sheer logic it would technically work. I feel there’s probably a simpler solution (sharing stuff???) but you’ve got to hand it to him; galactic murder would do the trick. Many philosophers throughout history have proposed answers to the overpopulation problem, with the most widely-debated being Thomas Maltus’ 1798 suggestion of limiting the number of children permitted per family. Thanos isn’t interested in something like that however. He’s a man of extremes who doesn’t do anything by half. Except for genocide I suppose.
As supervillain schemes go it’s not the stupidest I’ve ever come across. That title goes to the time Wonder Woman uncovered a plot by Nazis to buy global milk supplies and sell it to America at an inflated price in order to make it unaffordable for poor children, leading to widespread osteoporosis, allowing Nazis to invade twenty years in the future. I did not make that up by the way, they really ran that story (Sensation Comics, Issue 7, May 1st 1942).
Killing half the population of a planet could be achieved with a fat load of bombs, but Thanos wants to wipe out half of all life in the Universe. Given the sheer size of space (it's pretty big), this is no minor feat. Visiting every planet and blowing up half of every city would take considerable time, so he opts for a much simpler idea - obtain the six infinity stones.
In the Marvel Universe these are six mystical gemstones which control six facets of the Universe: time, space, power, reality, mind and soul. Any being who possesses just one of these items becomes immeasurably powerful, but if Thanos can get his hand on all six he will wield absolute power over the cosmos with a snap of his fingers. It's a cool idea, so I decided to take a look at the scientific plausibility of Thanos' plan.
Space and Time Stones
Every event in the Universe takes place in three-dimensional space (potentially higher dimensions if you’re into string theory) but defining everything spatially is not enough to describe the laws of physics. You need time as well.
The simplest way of demonstrating this is to try imagining an object which occupies space but not time i.e. it has size but doesn’t occupy any seconds. To say an object doesn’t exist for any measure of time is to say the object doesn’t really exist, ergo time has to be thought of as a fourth dimension. If you leave it out and just have a Universe made of space, you essentially have no Universe.
It’s a slightly unusual dimension compared to length, breadth and height, because we can only move through it in one direction, but it is part of our Universe’s backdrop. If you want to control or influence anything you need to talk about things happening in space and time simultaneously.
The physicist Hermann Minkowski therefore proposed we stop thinking of the Universe as objects in space moving through time, but rather as objects moving through a unified material he called ‘spacetime’. Einstein figured out the basic rules for how spacetime should behave in his general theory of relativity and it turns out everything checks with experiment.
If you want to control an event across the entire Universe, you would need some way of controlling space and time simultaneously. Therefore, Thanos’ need to have the space and time stones makes sense. So far, so good.
It’s never explicitly stated what the reality stone does in the movies, but you can infer it from seeing how people use it. There’s a scene in Avengers: Infinity War where Thanos uses it to turn pulses of laser-bullets into bubbles and generates cities out of thin air. I propose that while the space and time stones control the background of the Universe, the reality stone is manipulating the particles within it, telling them how to arrange.
There are something like 200 types of particles known in physics (I’ve written a post about them here) and the key message is that every object you come across is made from these particles in one way or another. If you control every type of particle, you control literally every object. While there are undoubtedly some types of particle we have not yet discovered, we can assume the reality stone influences them too, even if we don't know about them.
So, given the first three infinity stones, Thanos can control every particle in spacetime. But since he’s wanting to create an event (lots of death) he also needs to control how objects interact with each other.
Every law of Science involves three principles: particles, the spacetime they inhabit, and the energy involved in the interaction. Power is the word we use to describe how quickly energy is transferred, so I propose the fourth stone is the one which controls energy and thus interactions.
Energy is sometimes described as a substance a particle can possess, but this is a tad misleading. Energy is not really a thing, it’s a way of expressing the concept of cause and effect mathematically. When you eat food, chemical reactions take place between the food molecules and those in your body, which allow you to move and live. The food was the cause and your movement was the effect, so we can measure precisely how much ability the food had to cause an effect on your body. This is what we mean when we describe something "having energy".
The food you eat doesn’t contain a glowing fluid-substance called energy; it contains particles. But those particles have ability to exert an effect on other particles. The power stone is perhaps the most philosophical therefore, because it allows Thanos to make sure cause and effect are working when he snaps his fingers and kills everyone. And this might be all he needs.
Every law of physics we know, and by extension all of chemistry and biology, rests on these three ideas: particles, their interactions and the background in which they live. Given control over these things, Thanos would have the bare minimum required to bend things to his will. But there are some scientists who would argue for another stone, since it’s possible something else exists in the Universe. Something not made of particles at all...
It’s clear that your brain is made of particles, meaning the reality and power stones should be more than capable of manipulating it. It’s also undeniable that we can influence and change the mind’s inner working with the right particles e.g. psychiatric medications, narcotic substances, anesthetics and electromagnetic fields. But is that all there is to consciousness? Might there be something more than biochemistry going on?
The answer is not settled and indeed some hard-nosed and brilliant scientists (including Nobel prize winners like Niels Bohr and Eugene Wigner) have argued that the mind may in fact have an entirely non-particle component to it...maybe.
I’ve written about it in more detail (here) but it comes down to a phenomenon in quantum mechanics called the measurement problem. When quantum particles are left to their own devices they behave a certain way. But when we take measurements in the lab, they behave in a totally different way. The puzzle comes from the fact that the lab equipment we’re using to take our measurements are made from the same quantum particles, so they shouldn’t have any sort of spooky effect. Quantum particles interacting with more quantum particles shouldn’t change their behaviour. And yet they do.
There are many answers given and one of them is that consciousness itself exerts influence on particles, that our very act of observing the experiment changes it somehow. I have to be clear that this is a minority view and only one of the many possible solutions to the measurement problem, but we cannot discard it. There is just enough to the theory to make it worth considering, so let’s go along with it for the sake of the movie. If the mind genuinely is a separate substance to particles, Thanos would need a fifth stone to be omnipotent. So what of the sixth?
OK, this is a little more controversial and I’m going to have to tread cautiously so as not to upset anyone on either side of the fence. Physics definitely agrees the Universe is made of particles exchanging energy in spacetime and there is a small group of quantum physicists who suspect the mind may be involved in some way. The soul is a less well-defined concept however, because it has different meanings to different people.
A good way to demonstrate this difficulty is to ask: what, specifically, is the difference between the soul and the mind? The mind is a collection of a person’s memories, beliefs, ideas, hopes, fears, perceptions of the world and self-awareness. A person’s identity can be neatly summed up as their mind, so what is missing from the list which requires a soul? What additional ingredient is needed in defining a person which the mind doesn’t already cover?
Some religions teach that while all animals have a mind of some sort (even jellyfish have a central nervous system), when the animal dies their mind perishes as well, but humans continue to exist once their body is done. The soul is therefore, under some definitions ‘that which keeps the mind preserved once the brain has died’. In other words, the notion of souls takes us into the realm of an afterlife.
Science has a lot to say on the topic of the mind and the debate is very exciting, but there is no scientific debate on the soul because there is no clear information one way or the other. There are all sorts of claims of course, but someone claiming something is not enough to warrant a scientific perspective. This doesn’t mean the afterlife is not real mind you, absolutely not. It’s just that the scientific answer to such a question is “hmmm, we have no idea, could go either way.”
Because we can’t prove or disprove the existence of souls we therefore can’t say much about what the soul stone does. But, let’s say that the theology of the Marvel Universe is correct and souls are genuine things. Thanos obviously doesn’t want to destroy half the planets and stars in the Universe…that would defeat his whole plan. He wants to leave all the planets and resources in their current state but cut the number of living things by 50%. Therefore he’ll need a way to exert his power on only living organisms and not inanimate objects too. If we propose that all living things have a 'soul' distinguishing them from non-living objects, then he would logically need a stone for that.
What Are Infinity Stones?
The answer, I think, can be found nestled in both the theories of quantum cosmology and in a scene from Guardians of the Galaxy…both of which are pretty awesome. Here’s the scene in question (movie is rated PG-13 in America and 12A in the UK):
In this scene, during which the power stone is revealed, The Collector explains “before creation itself there were six singularities, then the Universe exploded into existence and the remnants of these systems were forged into concentrated ingots - infinity stones.”
A singularity is an object whose properties are so extreme we can’t describe them with our current knowledge of physics. The center of a black hole is considered a singularity for instance, since according to the laws we know, a black-hole’s center has an infinite amount of density and gravitational pull. Anything which predicts an infinite property cannot possibly be the right answer since the Universe is a finite system, therefore singularities are really a physicist’s word for “objects we can’t figure out yet” and any theory which predicts a singularity is not complete.
The origin of the Universe is just such a singularity. All we know is that 13.8 billion years ago, the entire Universe was condensed into a tiny speck which started expanding. We have no idea where this speck came from, what it was like, what made it start expanding or if anything came before it (assuming there was a ‘before’ since time may have ‘started’ with the Universe). We can explain the evolution of the Universe pretty well after a certain point, about a quadrillion quadrillion quadrillionth of a second, but anything before that is a total mystery.
According to The Collector, there were actually six singularity objects alongside ours 13.8 billion years ago and when our Universe began expanding, for whatever reason, these six singularity objects got absorbed into ours, rather than expanding themselves. These objects would therefore be like miniature Universes which somehow avoided the expansion. They stayed as ‘concentrated ingots’ and contain, it would appear, properties we would normally attribute to an entire universe.
Since we currently have no idea how the Universe began or how many singularities there were, or how they interacted, or why our Universe’s singularity expanded we can sort of shrug a little bit and say “yeah, OK, why not”. There was at least one singularity at the beginning which started expanding so why not six others which didn’t? There are stranger things in nature, like the Lophorina bird (see below). If that is real, I can swallow infinity stones. Not literally of course, did you see the video???
With a Snap of his Fingers
The really scary idea of infinity stones is that once Thanos has all six of them, he can exert his will over everything instantly from one place. But how could such a thing be possible? Surely you couldn’t immediately effect every point of the Universe at once? Well, fortunately for the Marvel universe, there is one possible mechanism by which this could potentially be achieved.
It’s a phenomenon called quantum entanglement and it’s really strange. I don’t want to get hung up on technicalities but if you’re curious, the book I’m currently writing (a sequel to Elemental) which will be released in the Summer goes into all the gory details, so look out for that. The gist is that two particles which interact can become linked together in such a way that doing something to one will instantly affect the other no matter what distance there is between them.
The mechanism of how entanglement works is one of the biggest mysteries facing physicists today but it’s an undeniable effect. It genuinely is possible to impact a particle on the other side of the galaxy, or even the Universe, if you entangle it with a particle here on Earth. There’s all sorts of limitations and caveats on entanglement and there is no obvious way of sending a self-destruct order to half the particles in the Universe, but this is a sci-fi film so let’s just say there’s a way of doing it.
In order for two particles to entangle, they have to meet each other at an earlier point, so in order to affect the whole Universe simultaneously, you’d need to somehow wind back to a time when all the particles were close together - say when the Universe was small and everything was concentrated - 13.8 billion years should do the trick.
If you had an object or a bunch of objects hanging around when the Universe was still a singularity, they could entangle themselves with each other and with the Universe as a whole, so once the Universe expanded, they would stay in direct quantum-contact (quantact anyone?) with everything inside it. Every particle would be linked together by their entanglements to the six infinity stones and thus, if you manipulated them in the right way, you could genuinely snap your fingers and affect everything everywhere.
So if you had a way to control all matter (reality) across spacetime (space and time) assuming quantum consciousness is required (mind) then you can control everything in the Universe. If you send a pulse out to every particle via the entanglement links established at the beginning of the Universe, you could target all the particles incorporated into living things (soul) and tell them to dissociate from each other (power), dissolving half of all living things. Hooray??#
Being a Grown-Up
Last week I read about the death of legendary comic-book writer Stan Lee and, like millions of people across the world, felt we’d lost a great writer. Stan Lee was the creator of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Fantastic Four, Black Panther and many other comic book characters including his most iconic creations: The X-Men and Spider-Man. Lee was a talented and inventive storyteller but also a really witty and cheerful guy who everyone seemed to love. Who doesn't cheer at a Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel movie??
I was therefore puzzled earlier this morning to read the satirist and political commentator Bill Maher’s take on Lee's death. You can read his brief blog in full here but the gist is that Bill Maher doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. He doesn’t see why people are mourning the death of Stan Lee because, as he sees it, comic books aren’t important.
Some choice quotes include "America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess," "comics are for kids, and when you grow up you move on to big-boy books without the pictures," and perhaps the most dramatic: "I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important."
He seems really quite angry about people reading comic books and uses Lee’s death to attack the whole of America because he thinks adults reading comic books is a form of arrested development. His belief that growing up means reading books without pictures seems a little odd to me, however. What’s wrong with looking at pictures? Novels are a legitimate art form...pictures are a legitimate art form. Why does combining words with images suddenly make the story-telling childish? I personally define being an adult as more to do with recognising other people's right to form their own opinions and tastes while taking responsibility for your own actions...not just "reading books without pictures".
I mean, just to point out the obvious here: Bill Maher stars in a TV show. He knows that’s made from lots of pictures played fast, right? I mean, he knows his very own medium of communication involves little-to-no reading?
Maher is correct that at one point comic books were aimed at children, but there was also a time when television was assumed to be for illiterate commoners and no dignified person would own a television set, but art forms are allowed to change with time. Comic books started out for kids but they aren’t so exclusive anymore. The same way some books are written for grown-ups, some comic books are too. I think Maher just isn’t very widely read.
Although if it’s the subject matter he objects to e.g. science fiction and superheroes, then that seems a little curmudgeonly. Does he know people like to have fun at the cinema or that sometimes adults like to read books for fun? Actually, I think he must know that, since he filmed a scene for Iron Man 3…a comic book movie based on Stan Lee’s characters.
Books For Smart People
I’m an adult and I’ve read plenty of great literature. I’ve read the works of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dickens, Austen, Twain, Melville, Eliot, Hemingway, Orwell, Ishiguro etc. but I’m also a fan of comic book writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, John Wagner and Stan Lee. I distinctly remember having a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy sitting next to Judge Dredd: Total War on my bedside table at one point. Just because I read comic books doesn't mean I can't also appreciate "classics".
In fact, every Christmas I tend to read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the comic book Batman Noel one after the other in the same day. I enjoy the escapist entertainment and haunting artwork of one and the linguistic brilliance and sentimental wit of the other. I'm also in the process of writing a book on quantum mechanics due for publication this Summer...I would like to think reading comic books clearly hasn't dulled my critical faculties or stunted my intellectual growth.
I mean, I agree that you should grow out of childish stories as you get older, but these days there are lots of sophisticated comic books written for adults. Take Maus by Art Spiegleman, a comic book about the Holocaust which won a Pulitzer prize. That book made my skin crawl with horror and made me tear up with emotion. I have also read Schindler’s Ark (the book on which Schindler’s List was based) and found it equally moving. Is one of them a more adult form of art because it doesn’t contain pictures? Can't they both be powerful and thought provoking pieces of literature?
Comic books today have evolved beyond Dennis the Menace and Stan Lee was central to that deveopment because he was one of the first writers to introduce adult issues to his stories. Before him, every comic book character was a 2D square-jawed hero who saved some damsel in distress from a moustache-twiddling "foreigner". Lee began creating characters with emotional complexity.
His comic books dealt with issues like racism, sexism, drug abuse and political corruption. He wrote comic books in which women were central characters with complicated emotional lives rather than foils for male heroes to save, and Lee fought hard to include black characters in his works without stereotyping them. Yes, Stan Lee’s early comic books were written for children, but as the children grew up, so did his writing.
But, let’s say Maher was right for a moment and that comic books are for children. In what way does this make them unimportant? Stan Lee was, according to Maher, an author of children’s literature. Do we no longer celebrate children's literature in the Maher-niverse?
I’m wondering if Bill Maher will be as equally disparaging when JK Rowling dies? Or if he thought it was ridiculous when people got sad over the death of Dr Seuss or Beatrix Potter? I think Stan Lee was plenty important to our society, unless Maher is going to claim children reading isn't important?
Stan Lee made a lot of kids happy and millions of people have fond memories of reading his stories. By contrast, Maher's job is making caustic remarks about politicians behind a desk. That's his role in society. It's an important one of course, satire is crucial to an informed democracy, but is it more noble a profession than getting young people reading? I don't think so.
Besides, Stan Lee did something even more important for pop culture, which I am going to elucidate on now (because you might be wondering why I’m writing about comic books on a Science blog)…he made scientists the good guys.
The Evil Genius
Typically in movies, comic books and pulp-fiction novels of the day, scientists were depicted as the villains, without fail. We were always the maniacs who reached too far and accidentally unleashed a deadly plague on the Earth or brought space-vampires from Mars down to eat our livers. Stan Lee made scientists heroes of his stories instead, and showed how they used their intelligence to outwit common criminals. He made scientists look awesome!
Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four, got his powers on a scientific expedition. T’Challa, The Black Panther was a diplomat and scientist. Charles Xavier from X-men was a biologist and anthropologist who lectured at Oxford. Bruce Banner was a nuclear physicist. Tony Stark was an engineer. Peter Parker was a high school physics student. Hank Pym was a particle physicist...I could go on.
Stan Lee respected the importance of getting kids interested in Science and I would argue that along with Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) he did more to raise the profile of fictional scientists than anyone else in popular culture.
Stan Lee also used scientifically legitimate devices to get stories going and showed his heroes using science to defeat bad guys. Sometimes Lee’s physics wasn’t quite right (he wasn't a scientist after all) but oftentimes it was gosh-darned impressive. There’s a Spider-Man story where Electro uses his electrical powers to generate induced magnetic fields inside an iron beam and scale a building to escape via Lenz's law. Lee is teaching children about electromagnetic fields here. Rather than having mega-ray death-lasers controlled by evil gnomes, Lee would often ground his fanciful stories with real scientific terminology and make geeks look like heroes for a change.
How I Use Comic Books
As a physics teacher, what you’re usually doing is teaching kids a quick equation or law, which can sometimes be quite dry, especially for an hour. The best thing to do (the really important thing to do) therefore is show how physics relates to the real world. But most text-books do this in a very plain fashion.
Physics textbooks are a world of perfectly spherical balls rolling down frictionless surfaces and John and Jane calculating the mass of a pulley given the acceleration of a cube as it is pulled upwards etc. etc. How many young people do you think are going to get fired up about physics because of that? Not many. But if you can push physical laws to their extremes by relating them to sci-fi stories, you can get debates going. You can get people to use the equations in a novel way and see how they really work in outrageous scenarios. Here are some examples of how I have used comic books and comic book movies in my lessons:
There’s an iconic Spider-Man story where Peter Parker tries to save Gwen Stacy falling off the golden gate bridge, but his webbing catches her and brings her to a halt too fast, potentially snapping her neck. Peter Parker then has to live with the guilt of maybe killing his girlfriend because he didn’t take into account changes in momentum (yeah, a kid’s story…sure). I use this comic book scene with my A-level students to calculate the forces involved and answer the question of whether Parker really kills Gwen or not. It’s a great way of teaching concepts like forces, elasticity and gravitational energy.
There’s a scene in The Avengers where Hulk stops a crashing alien spacecraft with his fist. I show this clip and contrast it with the scene in Superman Returns where Kal-El catches an airplane and we use Newtonian mechanics to determine which one of these characters is more powerful.
In my lesson on velocity, we use panels from comic books to see who would win in a race between The Flash, Superman and Quicksilver. I’ve used scenes from Ant-Man to talk about quantum mechanics and how object sizes are determined by inter-particle forces. I use clips from X-Men 2 to illustrate how electromagnetism works and a scene from Spider-Man 2 to teach nuclear physics.
I’ve used clips from The Dark Knight Rises to calculate the radius of an explosion outside Gotham city. I’ve used panels from Aquaman to teach the behaviour of waves. I’ve taught lessons on radioactivity using Spider-Man, The Hulk, Daredevil, Reed Richards and The Phoenix (who all got their powers from radioactivity).
Even if the kids don’t really care about comic books, they can at least tell I’m trying to have a bit of fun with the topic and show how physics can be applied to novel situations. So I say thank you to Stan Lee and all the other comic book writers and comic-book movie makers who give me so many cool and over the top moments to showcase to my students and get them thinking.
I’m not saying a person’s literary diet should consist solely of comic books. But let me put it this way: if you want to teach a 12 year old about Newton’s second law, which do you think is going to get them more engaged - making them read an excerpt from Principia Mathematica or showing them the scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker flips an articulated lorry in mid-air using helicopter cables?
Comic books tell stories. They do it with words and pictures. Some are written for children, some are written for adults. The artwork is often remarkably detailed and the dialogue often snappy. Stan Lee was a key figure in developing an art form and getting real science into his stories, as well as depicting scientists as good guys. I think that’s pretty important Mr Maher and frankly I think Stan Lee rocked.
Ask someone to name a bunch of famous Scientists. Assuming they don't opt for TV-figures like Brian Cox or Bill Nye, they'll probably pick Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking or (if they're a maverick) Nikola Tesla. There's nothing wrong with those titans of course, but it's interesting that they're all physicists.
If you ask someone to narrow their list to famous biologists, they'll probably go with Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming or potentially Watson & Crick. Once again, nothing wrong with these luminaries (apart from Watson who's a total jerk) and it's great we can name biologists who shaped our understanding of the world. But what happens if you ask someone to name a famous chemist? There's a few obvious fictional ones like Henry Jekyll or Beaker from the muppets, but how many real-life chemists can we actually name? Unfortunately, this is where the gears of memory jam and it's something I want to change.
Of the three main Scientific disciplines, chemistry is the one we can actually do stuff with. You can't tell a quark how to oscillate or a strain of bacteria how to evolve, but chemicals are things we can influence. We can use chemistry to build the world we want to live in, and I think we need to bump and brag the chemists who put us on the right path.
I got all my sisters and me
The three Science textbooks we use at my school have pictures of great Scientists on their covers. Darwin for biology, Hawking for physics and, for some bizarre reason, Marie Curie for chemistry. Curie was the only person to win Nobel prizes in both chemistry and physics so she is definitely someone to champion...but especially for chemistry? Her Nobel prize was for discovering the elements radium and polonium; obviously impressive, but no more so than the other 116 on the table. If we hail Curie as one of the most important chemists of all time we'd have to justify why radium and polonium are more important discoveries than the other 116. Truthfully they are not.
Really, it's her work in physics which revolutionised Science and while her chemistry was outstanding (far better than mine) it wasn't a game-changer for chemistry theory. Marie Curie was one of the world's greatest physicists...even her chemistry Nobel was awarded largely because of physics experiments she did...and she would absolutely belong on that list. But there are much bigger and grander chemical discoveries made than discovering two elements which aren't used for much.
I sometimes worry people include Marie Curie because they feel obligated to include a woman in the chemical pantheon, but that's insulting to her legacy and reducing her to "token female Science person". Her achievements in physics are some of the most important in history and she needs to be remembered for that, not as a half-hearted nod to feminism.
The problem unfortunately is that without Curie, my list of great chemists becomes ten male names and that's a problem. It has overtones of the physicist Alessandro Strumia who recently said in a conference that physics was a subject "built by men". Yikes.
It is true most of the names in early Science history are male, but that's because women were not allowed to do Science!!! Most Universities in Europe refused women admission and even when they were permitted, they were often bullied out of them. Curie herself had to study in secret as a member of "The Floating University" (not as exciting as it sounds) because patriarchal attitudes were so engrained, the very notion of a woman being good at physics was abhorrent to University administrators. That's the reason the names are male...it's because men were being total jackasses to the women. So please remember, the names on my list are all dudes because of historical sexism and not a lack of female talent.
The trend is gradually starting to change I'm happy to say, and a list of great chemists fifty years from now will hopefully be more balanced. But I can't fudge historical facts and I'm not going to include less-impactful female people on my list because that would be patronising to them, not to mention insulting to the male Scientists I'd be overlooking. I'm hoping we can still appreciate the brilliance of these ten great chemists of history and not hold their testicles against them.
On that note, here's the video I did about why we need to be able to name more female Scientists: Great female scientists
Oh and here's the blog I wrote on why a lack of female representation in Science needs to change: Feminism in Science
1. Hennig Brandt
Chemistry began in Germany during the 1670s when the alchemist Hennig Brandt decided to boil his own urine to see if he could extract any gold. He couldn't. What he did discover was a waxy white powder which glows in the dark, stinks of garlic and bursts into flame with no provocation. He had discovered phosphorus, the first element isolated in recorded history. While some elements had been known since ancient times (e.g. gold and iron) Brandt's discovery showed that the substances around us aren't pure - they are made up of other stuff mixed together somehow.
Brandt began ordering barrels of excess urine from the German army (spending his wife's money) to extract their phosphorus and carried out numerous experiments to see what it could do. Although a complete fluke, Brandt's discovery marked a turning point for laboratory practice. Rather than chucking a bunch of stuff together in a pot and hoping for the best, Brandt stumbled across a whole layer of chemical reality hidden below the surface. Alchemy became chemistry and four hundred years later we have 118 known elemental substances with which the Universe does her cooking.
2. Antoine Lavoisier
About a hundred years after Brandt was boiling his own pee, Chemistry began to explode in Europe, both figuratively and literally. Antoine Lavoisier was the guy who began collecting the information, verifying it in his lab (with the help of his wife Marie-Anne) and categorising the growing list of elements. He started grouping chemicals together by property and thus gave us our first periodic table - the Chemist's infographic.
Lavoisier's table wasn't complete of course and he considered things like heat and light to be pure substances, but he gave us the notion that chemical reactions obeyed predictable laws. In the same way physics had strict principles governing the whole show (discovered by Newton), Lavoisier probed chemistry for its own patterns and showed that reactions didn't happen at random. Although later Scientists like Dobereiner, Newlands, Mendeleev and Seaborg crafted the periodic table into its current shape, Lavoisier was the one who suggested the idea in the first place.
3. Jons Berzelius
Berzelius is the reason a lot of people hated chemistry in school. Originally a physician in the late 1700s, Berzelius decided that since physics and mathematics had terminology and notation, chemistry ought to have them too, so he set about formalising the language of this burgeoning field. He's the one who came up with chemical equations and the symbol system we use today with all those little numbers and arrows. What an absolute legend.
Berzelius also discovered silicon, thorium, cerium and selenium and was the first person to start weighing masses of molecules to figure out how many atoms they contained. That's pretty good going seeing as the existence of atoms wasn't proven until 150 years later. Berzelius discovered that when a chemical reaction occurs, all the atoms still exist at the end, even if they've escaped as something like a gas. This had confused previous chemists because it looked as though stuff could pop into and out of existence at will, but Berzelius showed that matter was a conserved quantity; a principle I take great pleasure in tormenting my students with today.
4. Humphry Davy
Humphry Davy began his life as a poet, but when he turned to Science he became the most accomplished chemist in Britain, sometimes referred to as the British Berzelius. He holds the record for the most naturally-occuring element discoveries (six) did a lot of work on acid-base properties, invented the first anaesthetic and came up with the electroplating method we still use to protect ships. However, Davy's biggest contribution to chemistry was cataloguing reactivity itself.
Because most elements are bonded to others and don't occur in their native state, a lot of chemistry involves mixing the right chemicals together and causing atoms to shift partner. Chemical reactions are all about breaking one set of particles and rearranging them to a new one. Davy essentially figured out which chemical combinations would react and which did nothing. His studying of reactivity cost him his eyesight when a plate of nitrogen trichloride exploded in his face, but studying unreactivity led him to observe the properties of glowing metal in inert gases and thus Davy invented the very first light bulb...in your face Edison.
5. Svante Aarhenius
Arrhenius was the founder of the Nobel prize committe (he won it in 1903 of course) and invented what we now call 'physical chemistry'. It's the result of physics and chemistry getting amorous and concerns itself with things like rate of reaction (the equation for which is his), electrochemistry (for which he won the Nobel prize) equilibrium (a concept he largely invented) acid-base reactions (he was the first person to figure out what they were) and forgetting to wear your lab specs (as shown in the above photograph). His greatest contribution to Science, and the world however, was establishing the link between chemistry and the environment.
In the 1890s everyone assumed the natural world was simply too big for humans to have any effect on. Darwin had shown us to be a tiny a twig on the tree of life, but Arrhenius put us right back in the centre of things when he began taking measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and comparing it to historic levels from ice cores. Arrhenius learned that chemical reactions humans were carrying out affected chemical reactions in the air around us and was the first person to ring an alarm bell on the most pressing and crucial chemistry challenge we face today: climate change. The entire ecosystem of the Earth is a giant chemical system and we play a significant role. How we choose to wield that power is up to us, and Arrhenius showed us we have that power in the first place.
6. Fritz Haber
I don't really like the term "evil scientist" because a person's moral code is often a product of their environment. Fritz Haber essentially invented chemical-weaponry for Germany during WWI by using chlorine gas to suffocate and acidify British troops in trenches. But from Haber's perspective he was being a patriot, helping his government defeat the invading British who were getting involved in a conflict they had no stake in. Haber's desire to help his country's war-effort doesn't necessarily make him evil. However, going on holiday to watch the massacre itself from a protected balcony probably does.
The greatest thing Haber did for chemistry was industrialise it. Prior to him, reactions were carried out in clunky batch processes by small teams prpducing tiny amounts. Haber figured out a way to manufacture ammonia (a key ingredient in fertilisers and therefore essential to food production) on a factory scale at a permanent output. The Haber process allows us to set our starting materials and keep them in constant reaction for as long as we need, rather than relying on a dozen lab-coat wearing glassware experts measuring out precise doses. Prior to his input, the main way to get fertiliser was from bat excrement and I think the Haber process is a better way of maintaining our food-economy than constantly feeding bats laxatives.
7. Gilbert Lewis
Everyone knew by the mid-twentieth century that atoms were made of protons and neutrons in their nucleus with electrons orbiting in shells. But nobody could figure out how they stuck together. Berzelius had been banging on about atoms combining for centuries, but how exactly did they do it? Lewis was the man who proposed "the chemical bond".
A chemical bond is a link between atoms where electrons are shared in a combined region of space, equally attracted halfway between both nuclei. Originally Lewis began drawing his atoms as cube-shapes with electrons on corners, but a lot of people misunderstood and thought he was claiming atoms were square. He wasn't, he was just coming up with a way to keep track of electrons and their shells. We still use his "dot" method today, except we draw everything in circles fortunately. Lewis was sadly overlooked for the Nobel prize 40 times, which seems ridiculous to me because chemistry theory without the idea of bonding would be like mathematics without the equals sign.
8. Linus Pauling
One afternoon, while suffering from a cold and reading sci-fi novels in bed, Linus Pauling decided to start cutting strips of paper out of his newspaper and began drawing atoms on them before folding them at what he calculated to be their correct bond angles. By doing so, he solved an important protein structure that had been baffling biologists for decades. This sounds like a kooky way to do chemistry but he wasn't practising origami. Pauling was basing his paper-angles and shapes on quantum theory, the new branch of physics taking the science world by storm. By applying quantum mechanics to chemical bonding and chemical bonding to proetin shape, Pauling created a bridge between physics, chemistry and biology, showing all three Sciences were part of the same dance. He won the Nobel for chemistry, although it just as easily could have been awarded for the other two.
He was arguably the greatest multi-disciplinary scientist of the twentieth century, writing books and papers in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry and also did a lot of work persuading governments to de-escalate their nuclear armament programs (for which he won his second Nobel prize). Toward the end of his life, he went a bit off the deep end and claimed you could cure cancer by taking "mega-doses" of orange juice, but in his prime he was the chemist's Einstein. Oh, and he came up with the helix structure for DNA before Watson and Crick. So there.
9. Robert Burns Woodward
Chemistry is split into four main disciplines. Physical chemistry is about the mathematics of how chemicals move, flow and react (Arrhenius). Quantum chemistry is getting down to the nitty gritty of how electrons behave within a molecule (Pauling) and then the study of elements and compounds is split into two branches: organic which is the study of carbon-based molecules, and inorgnaic...the study of everything else. Inorganic chemistry was arguably invented by Davy and Berzelius, but the indisputed king of carbon was R.B. Woodward.
Because most of the important molecules in the world are carbon-based, organic chemistry is mostly about analysing their structure - a process called spectroscopy - and then creating them ourselves - a process called synthesis. Woodward invented both techniques. Woodward was an architect of molecular dimensions, building such complex structures as quinine, cholesterol, chlorophyll and vitamin B12 from scratch. Most of the medicines in your bathroom cabinet are only possible thanks to Woodward and his synthetic techniques. A-level chemists in the UK are required to learn a huge number of synthetic maps charting how we turn one carbon molecule into another. Woodward is the man who drew the map.
10. Leo Baekeland
If Baekeland's life were to have a title it would be How to get rich by doing simple organic chemistry. Woodward was the master of complicated molecules, but Baekeland was the man who invented the most ubiquitous carbon-based substance in modern civilization. Historically we classify human eras as the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, but the present day will almost certainly be known as the Plastic Age.
Although a few chemists had accidentally discovered the process of sticking simple carbon-molecules together in chains and tangling them up - notably Eduard Simon and Alexander Parkes - Baekeland was the person who mastered it and gave the world its plastic. Prior to him, most hard substances were either metal, rock, wood or shellac (a substance made from sticky beetle-egg-glue - ewwwww). Baekeland envisioned a material we could make on demand, customise to fit a purpose, alter to be hard, soft, flexible, brittle or tough, and would not corrode over time. The plastics industry, which gives us everything from stationary to furniture to breast implants made him an untold fortune. Bravo Leo. And thanks for all the ocean-garbage!
If you're curious about the story of chemistry and how we developed the whole thing check out my book: Elemental - How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything
Stanley Testube (not real name): bbc
Susan Frontczak (real name): businessinsider
Pleased to Eat You
Yesterday I went to see the new Jason Statham movie The Meg directed by John Turtletaub. Firstly, I can't say no to a Jason Statham movie and secondly, it's a movie about a giant prehistoric shark terrorising an oceanography lab. If you don't want to see it, I question your moral values.
I'll just get it out of the way, so we're clear form the beginning: I thoroughly enjoyed myself from start to finish. It's not a film which takes itself seriously - the theme song is a Thai version of Oh Mickey You're So Fine - and if you shut your brain off for a couple of hours, you'll have a whale of a time. Pun absolutely intended. It's an over-the-top schlockbuster, full of jump scares and cool Statham one-liners so provided you can deactivate your snob-button, you'll find The Meg is dumb, fun and laced with chum.
The plot is as follows. A group of researchers are investigating the bottom of the Marianas trench when they discover the ocean floor isn't rock at all but a layer of liquid hydrogen-sulfide, concealing a second ocean beneath it! While down there they accidentally provoke a megalodon, a thought-to-be-extinct giant shark which makes Jaws look like Nemo. This is obviously a megaloproblem, so Jason Statham, the world's most skilled deep-sea-rescue-man (that's a job), is brought in to save the day. Chaos ensues of course when the meg escapes its underwater prison and is released into the Pacific ocean, irritable and hungry. Water nightmare!
As I was outlining this premise to a friend, she complained that sharks get demonised too much in movies. She pointed out that more people die from killer-bee stings than shark attacks and the view of sharks as rampant sea-murderers is a load of nonsense. I pointed out in return that this is a film where Jason Statham roundhouse kicks a 75-foot dino-shark in the eyeball, so they're obviously not going for accuracy. Nevertheless it got me thinking...how scientifically accurate is The Meg and can we justify its jawesome premise? Let's take a look. Oh, and fun fact: I did once teach a girl who studied oceanography and her name really was Meg. Coincidence? I think not.
Did Megalodons Really Exist?
Absolutely. The species Otodus Megalodon was the apex predator of Earth's oceans for at least 17 million years and the largest shark to ever swim the deep. The surviving fossils largely consist of teeth and jawbones (the word megalodon literally means 'huge tooth') because shark skeletons are not hardened the way ours are, they're more like the cartilage in your ears, so we have to do most of our detective work from teeth and there's a fair amount we can say.
Radiometric dating puts the earliest known megalodon at about 20 million years old and the most recent at 2.6 million. It's hard to say how big they were for definite due to the lack of full skeleton, but if we use the teeth as a guideline it probably grew to about 18 meters in length (60 feet), with 276 teeth in its bite, the longest of which were 18 centimeters long (8 inches). That's bigger than a T-rex or a Mosasaurus.
As for their appearance, we used to picture them as larger Great Whites, but we've recently discovered their evolutionary lineage makes them closer related to modern day Blue Sharks (pictured below). For a split second this might make them seem less scary, but please remember this was a shark the size of a double-decker bus. It's maw was bigger than two humans side to side and it could have swallowed you without chewing. We've found megalodon tooth marks and fragments in the bones of whale fossils from the same era so we know it was a carnivore, feeding on whales and probably smaller sharks. We've also estimated its bite force to be roughly 180,000 Newtons. For comparison, a human bite is 1,300 Newtons, so Megalodon was undoubtedly the biggest, baddest thing in the ocean.
And it seems to have roamed far and wide from what we can tell, with tooth fossils found off the coast of every continent apart from Antarctica. This tells us megalodons probably preferred warmer temperatures and likely stayed near the surface, moving from one basin to the next, feeding on anything unlucky enough to get in its path.
Where Did They Go?
Honestly we don't know what happened. Around 2.6 million years ago something occured which caused widespread extinction for a lot of Earth's ocean life, an event called the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary. We have to remember that by "event" we're talking about something which took place over hundreds of thousands of years, so it wasn't quick and simple. Nevertheless, during this period a third of the ocean's large animals started dying for some reason.
All sorts of ideas have been put forward to account for the mass extinction, some pedestrian and some exotic. For instance, the asteroid Eltanin hit us at this time somewhere off the coast of South America which would have put a lot of water into the atmosphere, potentially disrupting the climate. The Earth was also entering a natural cooling-phase (one of the many ice ages) which would have chilled the oceans and reduced the territory for larger animals, as well as shrinking their food supply. Even a supernova in the region of Scorpius-Centaurus has been put forward as a possible cause, releasing a bunch of neutrinos which could have shredded our ozone layer, leading to lots of nasty cancer for animals in the surface ocean.
Nobody really knows what happened, but something during this period killed off the megalodons. Hmmmm...how old is Jason Statham, really?
Could They Still Be Lurking Down There?
After seeing the movie, I read an interview with a scientist who said the chances of finding a live megalodon today would be like finding a dinosaur. I dispute that. Dinosaurs died off 65 million years ago but megalodons were still around 2.6 million! Also, dinosaurs roamed the land and sooner or later the google-street-view camera would catch one.
The ocean is big, dark and largely unmapped. We don't know a lot about what's going on down there, so if you wanted to hide a giant shark, the ocean's the best place to do so. Well...obviously it would have to be the ocean. It's a shark, tim.
Would it be possible for megalodons to still exist without us knowing about it. If we're absolutely honest with ourselves (damn you scientific integrity!) the answer is pretty much no. The temperatures megalodons enjoyed were warm which means it would have to live near the surface and we'd see them regularly. I mean...how could you miss one? If a megalodon wanted to go unnoticed, it would need to live in the extreme deep but there isn't much food down there and a shark, especially an epic one, needs to eat a lot. Most sea creatures live in the top few hundred meters of the water and anything lower down is stuff like tubeworms and blobfishes, not sharks.
Also, if I've not stressed this enough already, megalodons were really big. Big creatures leave traces and we'd be finding whale remains with big bite-marks, not to mention megalodon corpses themselves. Giant Squid had never been photographed until 2002, but their remains washed up regularly so we knew they existed.
I mean we're talking about something which was the apex predator for millions of years. If it was roaming the waters today it would still be the apex predator and we'd know about it, mostly because the smaller apex predators like Great Whites would go down in number.
The best reason to believe they're extinct though is the lack of modern teeth. Sharks lose and re-grow their whole set of gnashers every two weeks and the average shark sheds 40,000 teeth during its lifetime. If you stand at the bottom of the ocean with an umbrella, it's basically raining shark-teeth down there, so if megalodons were still around, we'd be gathering their teeth with all the other ones, and we don't.
But wait, I hear you exclaim, a few years ago The Discovery Channel ran a series of documentaries with scientists presenting evidence for megalodons still being alive! Shows entitled Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives (2013), Megalodon: The New Evidence (2014) and, my personal favourite title Shark of Darkness (2014) all claimed there are recent fossils, or footage and photographs of these sharks still around today. Unfortunately, we have to remember that The Discovery Channel also aired shows called Voodoo Shark and Mermaids: The Body Found.
Sadly, these "documentaries" were faked. The scientists and eyewitnesses were actors, the fossil evidence was discredited decades ago and the footage was doctored and photoshopped. It's a bit of a shame that Discovery would do something like that, but they did run a disclaimer in small writing at the start of the show explaining it was not a real documentary and the evidence for these giant sharks existing is "controversial" aka "not real."
Could We Somehow Justify Them Being Alive Though?
Alright, screw it. Megalodons are awesome, so let's see if we can fudge a way to keep them alive. I did it with dragons, I can do it with giant sharks too! Evolution permits creatures to change habitat over time so maybe megalodons got used to cooling waters at a rapid rate (it's a push for natural selection to work this quick, but not completely outside the realm of plausibility). Perhaps they could have acclimated to cold water and are living down in the dark depths of the abyss.
After all, the megamouth shark which grows up to 4 meters (15 feet) wasn't discovered until 1976 and the coelacanth fish which can grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) were thought to have been wiped out with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, until we caught one in 1938. Both species live in deep water and spend time in caves so it's clearly possible for large aquatic fauna to go unnoticed for years. And missing a 15 foot thing is basically the same as missing a 75 foot thing, right???
Besides, weird stuff goes on in the ocean all the time. My favourite spook-story is the mystery of the 2003 Riggs shark tag. Dave Riggs put a tag onto the fin of a 3 meter (10 foot) female Great White off the coast of Australia. Four months later the tag showed up a long way from where he'd tagged it, without the shark. By looking at the data, Riggs was able to figure out that something strange had happened. At about 600 meters below the surface, the tag recorded a sudden increase in temperature within a few seconds. It stayed at that temperature for 8 days, moving between the surface and lower depths, before suddenly going back to normal. Something swallowed Riggs' shark and digested the tag for a week.
The obvious conclusion is that the Great White was eaten by a slightly bigger Great White, or at least had a chunk bitten out of it. Qualified oceanographers have said it was most likely a territorial dispute with another shark. But I (not a qualified oceanographer) reckon it was either a megalodon or Jason Statham out for a swim and feeling peckish.
Thing is, it's hard to prove the non-existence of something. The only way to conclusively prove beyond doubt that megalodons are extinct would be to simultaneously scan every cubic inch of the ocean and see if it was there. Since we've not done that and probably never will, we can't say for definite what isn't in the ocean. But by the same logic, I could argue Hogwarts School for Fish-Wizards is down there with its own submerged trainline and you can't prove it's not. I'm afraid arguing the case for megalodon is pushing biological knowledge a bit. There's no evidence for them still being alive and a fair amount against. But what's really cool is that The Meg acknowledges this and comes up with a fanciful way around the problem.
Pushing The Boundary
In The Meg the explanation given for why we aren't seeing megalodons is that they're living below a thick layer of hydrogen sulfide we've previously mistaken for the bottom of the Marianas trench. To date only three people have been down to the bottom of Marianas and the sonar surveys we've done disagree on exactly how deep it is or what the shape of the bottom really looks like.
We also keep discovering new species of snailfish down there (sequel anyone??!?!?!?) so the film suggests there could be an ecosystem hidden below a boundary and that's where megalodon has been hiding all these years...until we came along and ruffled its gills.
The thing is, such boundaries really do exist! Most bodies of water are stratified into layers based on heat and density. The warmth from sunlight and wave-churning tends to be absorbed in the first few centimeters, and below that a colder layer sits in separation. Below that, another layer continues several hundred meters down where the thickness and turbulence of water change phase. It's not a sharp boundary like the one between oil and water, but the sea does have layers. Different creatures inhabit these layers and animals we find in the lowest water-strata are often isolated from those in the upper ones.
What's more, in the movie, the boundary between the ocean and "sub-ocean" is made from a layer of hydrogen sulfide and guess what...that's real too! It's called a chemocline layer (in the film they refer to it as a thermocline for some reason) and it's a real phenomenon. The Black Sea for example has a chemocline of hydrogen sulfide at certain times of year produced by bacteria on the seabed. The density of hydrogen sulfide in liquid form is just thick/thin enough to separate an upper and lower layer of water, so it's not out of the question that some parts of the ocean floor are actually hydrogen sulfide clouds hiding tiny pockets of life below.
I'm actually really impressed the film went to all this trouble of researching how such a boundary could arise...and got it mostly right! The only problem is that the water below the chemocline would be significantly oxygen-depleted, so a creature living there wouldn't survive above. If the megalodon truly was hiding under the hydrogen sulfide blanket it would never be able to surface because it would have adapted to an oxygen-starved environment and regular seawater would poison it. However, it's more accurate Science than I was expecting to find, so bravo The Meg! Jason Statham's Science ain't too shabby.
Based on the novel???
The biggest shock to me while watching the credits for The Meg was seeing the words "based on the novel by Steve Alten" follow the screenwriting credits. This movie was based on a book? Apparently so. Not only that, the book has seven sequels, one of which is titled Hell's Aquarium. Apparently Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror was originally published in 1997 and optioned for movie rights but took twenty years to develop, presumably because they wanted to get their ocean chemistry right. Hats off to them. I'd like to imagine that given twenty years, my own recently published book about Chemistry will get a similar adaptation with Jason Statham playing the periodic table. We've all got dreams.
The Regularisation Headline
A few days ago, CBS announced they are finally going to retire their flagship sitcom The Big Bang Theory after 12 seasons. I was shocked at this news. I couldn’t believe it’s been going for so long. It turns out that TBBT is actually the longest running multi-camera sitcom in history and is only approaching an end because Jim Parsons, who plays the show’s golden goose Sheldon Cooper, has finally tired of the role.
People tend to assume I’m a fan of The Big Bang Theory and are mildly surprised that my feelings toward it are lukewarm at best. “But you’re a Science a nerd!” they say, to which I reply yes I am, and proud of it. But TBBT is not really a show for Science nerds, it’s a show about science nerds written by people who clearly aren’t.
Full disclosure though, I did quite like the first few seasons. It was refreshing to see nerds as main characters rather than sidekicks to a hero. Nerds are usually comic relief characters, so making a show about them as the stars felt different and worth paying attention to.
As a Science teacher I was also grateful to the show because it managed to introduce a lot of terms into the general vocabulary which students then asked me about. It was one of the most watched shows on TV, pulling 15 million viewers per episode, and got people googling things like string theory and quantum mechanics, which is fantastic. It also made an effort (sometimes at least) to portray Scientists as real people with personalities, and I always like seeing that.
It was a well-written show too, with snappy dialogue and I'm sure if I ever wrote a sitcom it wouldn't be half as good, so this is not a stab at the show's writers, its cast or the production team. I just want to express why my personal sensibilities didn't gel with it. This is - shock and horror - an opinion piece, so take it all with a pinch of bias folks.
And no, this has nothing to do with the fact that people keep saying I remind them of "someone off Big Bang Theory". I think they mean it as a compliment anyway??? Although that's probably a good place to start.
The Characterisation Expansion
Howard was the creepy sleaze-bag of the group. The joke was that he objectified and leered after women, using ever-more elaborate ploys to trick them into dating him. His schemes would always fall through by the end of the episode however and, after licking his wounds, he'd try again next time with a cunning new tactic. Kind of like if Wile E Coyote was a sex-offender.
Howard reminded me of a live-action Glenn Quagmire from Family Guy. In both cases the humour comes from off-colour shock jokes, which I'm fine with, but Family Guy kept Quagmire as a ludicrous side-character whereas TBBT made this thoroughly unlikable toad one of the heroes. Personally I found it hard to cheer for someone whose motivations were so sinister.
He’s played extremely well by Simon Helberg but he wasn’t really someone you could admire. He epitomsed a certain type of nerd who saw women as characters in video-games to seduce by hitting the right combination of buttons and you could easily imagine him slipping something into someone’s drink and posting about it later on 4chan. In fact, there were even stories which involved him videotaping women without their consent which, having lived with a guy who actually did that once, I just didn't get it. Oh and he had an overbearing Jewish mother which I guess you have to be American or Jewish to get the humour in?
Raj was a more interesting character and they managed to mostly bypass the stereotype of him being Indian. Occasionally they made reference to his heritage and demanding parents, but when you consider how far The Simpsons push racial stereotyping with Apu, Raj seems kind of mild.
Played superbly by Kunal Nayyar, the character himself wasn’t a problem for me. He’s generally the most suave, meterosexual and thoughtful of the four guys and the one with the least hangups. With one notable exception. Raj’s main joke is…drumroll…he can’t talk to women unless drunk.
Something about that gag just seemed iffy for a prime time sitcom. For one thing, it’s one of the oldest cliches in the book - nerdy guys can’t talk to women, fused with another cliche - being drunk gives you courage. Neither of those things are true by the way - I’m a nerdy guy and I can talk to women fine, and the dutch-courage effect of alcohol is a placebo. Sorry to bust ya bubble there.
My issue is that this running gag simply made me uncomfortable. Imagine if the situation were reversed and it was about a woman who could only go on dates with guys when she was inebriated. We’d question the guys' ethics and consider them predatory. Likewise, when Raj is taking his drugs and flirting with women, is this an OK joke for a show children watch? He’s putting on a drug-induced persona and women are potentially taking advantage of that. I’m not saying it was wrong to joke about it, it just left a bad taste in my mouth is all.
Leonard was the most likeable of the four to me. Certainly the most believable and relatable. He was highly intelligent but that came at the price of being neurotic. Smart enough to recognise social situations, just quick to forget them because he had other things on his mind. A lot of nerds feel like this. We know exactly what the expected behaviour is, we’ve just got other stuff to think about.
Leonard was really easy to root for too. He was a geek but wanted to be normal and settle into a quiet life with a nice girlfriend. He wanted to be a muggle while holding onto his magical abilities, and that’s something a lot of nerds relate to. He’s also fairly modest about his intellect, despite being a skilled quantum field theorist. He wasn’t defined by his IQ or his profession, he just liked Science and sci-fi. Who doesn’t?
Leonard should have been the main character in my eyes. His constant internal conflict between adolescent obsession and living in the adult world were endearing, relatable and hilarious traits. But he wasn’t quite the main character. Sheldon was.
In his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, Jim Parsons channels undiagnosed high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder - what used to be called Asberger’s syndrome. This is typified by being intellectually remarkable often in one specific area, but socially uninterested and happily autonomous, often obsessed with ritual, detail and personal tastes which go beyond hobbies.
The show never explicitly states Sheldon is autistic in fairness, but it’s assumed by everyone, including Parsons himself. People on the autistic spectrum often come across a little weird or eccentric, so there's definitely potential for humourous situations there. But the show makes out that Sheldon's autism is funny to the point of him not quite being human.
The joke usually came in two forms. Either 1) he’s socially inept or 2) he’s intelligent which makes him overconfident. He’s kind of like an anti-Homer Simpson, the key difference being that Homer’s overconfidence came from rank stupidity. What also made Homer different to Sheldon, is that Homer is a sweet guy who cares about his wife and kids. Sheldon is just a jerk.
To be 100% clear on this, being on the autistic spectrum does not make you act like a callous ass but the implication with Sheldon seems to be that he is so uninterested in people’s social rules he has stopped caring about their feelings as well. He dislikes anyone who doesn’t do things his way and is unprepared to compromise to the point of conflict. He looks down on women and considers anybody intellectually inferior as worthy of contempt.
There are plenty of TV shows which center around an anti-hero clashing with normal people of course, but it’s hard to empathise with someone who is mean to everyone. If you compare Sheldon with, say, Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty or Gregory House from House MD, we again have antisocial geniuses who despise everyone else, but Rick and Morty/House's nihilistic tone made no secret of this. Rick and House were written to be thoroughly unpleasant, and as we learn more about them, we realise how tortured and alone they are. These were very dark themes for very dark shows.
In TBBT they play the outcast-genius thing for laughs and I never found it funny. I guess the reason is that a lot of Science nerds really are lonely and withdrawn. A lot of them become bitter and sharp-tongued to keep people at bay, so while everyone was giggling at Sheldon as a pariah, I found myself wondering if he was alright.
I’m not saying the show shouldn’t have made fun of him - humour is all about taste and never right nor wrong, but I just didn’t find the joke particularly amusing. For me, lonely, antisocial characters work fine in dramas or twisted sitcoms but it was always jarring seeing it played for hoots in TBBT. Also, Sheldon’s favourite Star Trek character was Wesley Crusher. Nobody likes Wesley.
Rachel from Friends but blonde.
The Feminine Assimilation Hypothesis
After about four seasons the writers began to realise, I think, that they’d taken the characters as far as they could and the show was at risk of becoming stale. Character humour is short-lived and after four years, it was probably time to stop. But rather than doing that, they made the slightly unusual choice for a sitcom of introducing two new protagonists - girlfriends for Howard and Sheldon in the form of Bernadette and Amy.
The show’s dynamic shifted significantly to watching the frustration of Penny, Bernadette and Amy deal with their nerdy boyfriends, with Raj as a neutral party. I really respected the writer’s self-awareness in recognising the show could become old, but the execution began to bug me.
My main problem was that the women were kind of normal. Amy, played by Mayim Bialik (who actually has a PhD in neuroscience) had her moments of dry awkwardness but she was still written as an emotionally reasonable woman who didn’t “get” the nerd culture of the four men. Her role was to soften Sheldon around the edges and extract his human side. She was a nerd but wanted to be normal, so it was as if Sheldon was dating Leonard. Perhaps they should have gone with that?
Bernadette was likewise, written as a calming, taming influence on Howard who brought him around to being a sort-of gentleman. And so the show’s two most exagerrated characters were made to mellow. Which takes away their purpose.
It seems like I’m complaining about it both ways with Howard though. I didn’t like him when he was an obnoxious sleaze and I found him boring when he became a “nice guy”. But I think they shot themselves in the foot from day one. Introducing a shock-character gives you two options over time. Either keep him as he is (in which case he becomes tiresome) or rewrite him as an ordinary person (in which case he loses comedy value).
And as for Sheldon, he just treated Amy badly. Apparently in later seasons he begins to treat her with kindness, and I’m vaguely aware that they settle and get married? That’s sweet, but I never made it that far because Sheldon was just horrible to this good-hearted woman and I couldn't watch. I was annoyed that the women were written as foils for the men. Why couldn’t they be eccentric nerds too? Why did the show’s dynamic have to be about women being human and nerds being nerds?
Gradually, the show started to lose the one thing which made it different for me. It stopped being a show about nerd culture and became a show about relationships…like every other sitcom on the air. The number of science-related subplots died down and it was suddenly all about dating and sex. Basically it turned into Friends if all the male characters were Ross. Ewwwww.
What originally made the show unique got phased out and it became a kind of box-ticking exercise. “Have we referenced a superhero movie yet this episode?” Great. Let’s get back to jokes about how men leave the toilet seat up and women love eating chocolate on their period. It became indistinguishable from other sitcoms and that’s when I started to get bored.
The Demographic Algorithm
The very opening scene of episode one of TBBT features Leonard and Sheldon discussing the infamous double-slit experiment with an analysis of the quantum measurement problem. And it’s accurate. I remember watching this and getting a warm glow of “hey that’s cool, they actually got it right!” something you don’t normally get watching fiction.
Moments later, they managed to spin this dialogue into a neat joke about how bizarre scientists can be and it made me feel hopeful for the series. A sitcom in which the main characters talk accurately about Science sounded great. This could be funny, educational and good for scientific exposure and depiction.
It was still poking fun at nerds a little of course, but I’ve got a sense of humour about myself - we often are obsessive about sci-fi shows, comic books and get a bit socially awkward sometimes. That’s fair game. By all means take your shots. At least you’re getting the science right for once!
Over the first few seasons, they managed to keep to this theme of poking fun at nerds while getting the facts right. The characters would make reference to genuine discoveries, the equations on whiteboards in the background were authentic (I paused often enough to check) and they had debates about Star Trek I remember having myself. There’s even one episode where a character makes a discovery which, in the real world, is coincidentally named after him. The writers had clearly done their homework.
A lot of people claimed this was therefore a show making fun of nerds but also being respectful; laughing at them and with them simultaneously. And it did feel like that for a while. Until it began to dawn on me that this wasn’t the spirit of things at all. The jokes were still at the expense of how nerdy these guys were and how socially poor their behaviour was.
At no point does the show mock non-nerds for their scientifically empty lives. The show doesn’t champion skepticism or reasoned discourse either, nor does it celebrate intellectual achievement and hard work in school. It was just the same old “haha nerds are weird and don't get invited to the party!” joke most of us had to put up with through our teenage years. Nerds were the main characters of the show yes, but they were still figures of ridicule.
I began to suspect the way the show was written was that they wrote a sitcom, then got Science experts to add references and make it sound authentic. I could imagine scripts looking something like “Sheldon describes a room being as messy as - INSERT SCIENTIFICALLY MESSY THING”. Which I later found out is pretty much exactly what happens.
There are Science consultants on the show who make sure the vocabulary is legitimate, but they are brought in long after the jokes are written. To me this is the writers paying lip-service to nerds to stop them feeling teased…while simultaneously teasing them. Watching TBBT for more than four seasons felt like unmasking the Scooby-Doo villain and discovering there was nothing magical going on at all. Just someone trying to squeeze money out you.
The Mixed State Postulation
The Big Bang Theory was a jumbled bag for me overall. I like that there was a show about nerds on TV and I like that they did their research. There were also nice Easter Eggs for sci-fi fans and a lot of witty exchanges in the dialogue. But they still went for the easy target of nerds being weird and portrayed us in a less than favourable light sometimes. It also reinforced the stereotype of the dumb blonde waitress being sexually promiscuous and seemed fine with men talking down to their girlfriends, as long as the women "got the last laugh" in the final moments of the show.
Overall, I thought of TBBT as a kind of humane Victorian freak-show. The freaks are treated well and there’s great information to be learned. The keepers obviously care deeply about their pet freaks and members of the public are encouraged to get to know them as people. But it is still, ultimately, a place where people pay to come and gawk at abnormality.
If you want a show which really is made for nerds, you want Star Trek itself. That was a show which included accurate Science, mixed with philosophy of Science, as part of the storylines and everyone in the show was a nerd of some sort. Plus it had robots and space battles.
In Star Trek there were also two Sheldon-esque characters: Spock in the original series and Data in Next Gen. But what set these shows apart is that while both characters were socially clueless, they weren’t jerks and they were always respected. There were misunderstandings and frustrations at times, which was played for both dramatic emphasis and for humour, but Star Trek had a deep respect for scientific curiosity and knowledge. The nerds were championed and usually vindicated.
Sheldon says something super-smart on TBBT and Penny raises an eyebrow at his nerdiness, cue peals of laughter. Spock says something super-smart on Star Trek and everyone listens to see if they can follow his logic. That’s the difference between a show about nerds and a show for nerds. In The Big Bang Theory nerds get pitiful charity-laughs for liking Science. In Star Trek nerds get to live long and prosper.
I love science, let me tell you why.