Friday, September 29, 2006

B-Movie Monsters

A great way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon is watching science fiction B-movies. King Kong, Godzilla, people shrunk to the size of a cell, attacking squids, recreated dinosaurs and other beasts are typical B-movie fare. But are such creatures biologically possible or even plausible?

Michael LaBarbera, a Professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago takes a closer look in his analysis of the Biology of B-Movie Monsters. His presentation is fairly non-technical, and should be of interest to both science fiction writers and movie lovers.

Next time you watch a monster movie, whether produced by Hollywood in the 1950s or by the SciFi channel, the information in this essay should allow you to judge the monsters with a critical eye.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Science Fiction by Scientists: Joan Slonczewski

I would be remiss if I didn't devote a post to Kenyon College Professor Joan L. Slonczewski. Slonczewski and her students study how bacteria can live under extreme acidic or basic conditions. She also supervises the Microbe Wiki, where you can learn all about bacteria and viruses. Those achievements aren't why she is relevant to this blog, however.

Professor Slonczewski also writes science fiction novels (including Brain Plague and A Door Into Ocean) and essays on science, especially biology, and gender in science fiction. Best of all, she teaches BIOL 103: Biology in Science Fiction. Now this is a course I would have (figuratively) killed for as an undergraduate. It would have been awesome to read Dune and The Time Machine and watch Star Trek and X-Files for science class. This method of teaching works; the projects created by her students are often interesting and thought-provoking.

It's clear that science doesn't have to be exclusively taught from text books.

More about Slonczeski and the Biology in Science Fiction course:
Interview with Slonczewski in the journal Nature (pdf).
Article in the HHMI Bulletin (The course receives funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.) (pdf)

A sampling of Slonczewski's essays:
The Future Biology of Sex: Science Fiction Perspectives
Genomics and Humanity: Science Fiction Perspectives
Science in Science Fiction: Making it Work
• Read more essays by Slonczewski on Dave Switzer's fan site

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Monday, September 25, 2006

The Screwfly Solution

screwworm fly I thought I would kick off the blog with the Nebula award-winning novelette, "The Screwfly Solution", by "Racoona Sheldon"*. I don't want to spoil the plot, but I will talk a bit about the biology.

The screwworm fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax) is a pest that lives on live mammals and birds, causing severe losses in both livestock and wildlife. The eradication of the screwworm fly has been called "one of the greatest success stories in the history of agriculture in the Americas." Destroying the screwworm fly did not involve spraying with pesticides or other chemicals. Instead, the population was controlled by releasing large numbers of sterile male flies into the wild population. The females would still lay eggs, but they would not hatch, stopping the spread of the pest.

screwwormThis method required several biological advances:
• An understanding of the reproductive cycle and mating patterns of the screwworm fly
• A method for raising large numbers of flies in the lab
• The theory, put forth by Edward Knipling, that the fly population could be controlled by releasing sterile males
• A method for sterilizing male flies by irradiating them, developed during WWII

This "sterile insect technique" was very successful, and the USDA declared the United States free of indigenous screwworms in 1966. Eradication programs moved south, to Mexico in the 1970s, and continue in Central America through the present.

How did Sheldon weave this biology into her story? Read "The Screwfly Solution" for free at and find out!

For more information (and icky pictures and video of screwworm larvae-infested wounds), see the National Agricultural Library's Screwworm eradication collection .

* Racoona Sheldon is one of the pen names of Alice Sheldon, who usually published as James Tiptree, Jr. A recent biography (and accompanying website) describes her fascinating and somewhat tragic life.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Header: Real Science

The header is composed from public domain images of real biological science. Find out more from the original sources:
National Human Genome Research Institute
Human Chromosomes
Human Chromosomes
Mouse and DNA
Mouse and DNA

NIAID Biodefense Research

Anthrax Heptamer Structure
Anthrax Heptamer Structure
Salmonella Invading Human Cells

NIH Image Bank
Array slide
Array Slide
DNA purification
DNA Purification

USDA Image Gallery
Rose plant from tissue culture
Rose plant grown from tissue culture

Other Sources of Images
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory
National Cancer Institute Visuals Online
US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health
CDC Public Health Images Library
NOAA Photo Library
NOAA Photo Library

Welcome to the Biology in Science Fiction Blog

They* say that you should blog about things you are interested in. Well, for me, that includes science fiction, fantasy and the biological sciences. I am starting this blog as way for me to muse about what I read. I may stray a bit from the main topic, but hopefully not too far (biology in other genres of fiction, science in the news, and whatnot). I'll probably write more about books than movies, since I read more than I watch, but I consider everything fair game.

But what about the robots?
One thing that annoys me is the assumption that "science fiction" necessarily includes robots, spaceships, time machines, zap guns or other cool gadgets. What they are thinking of is what I like to call "technology fiction" or "engineering fiction". The trick is that there doesn't necessarily have to be any new scientific discoveries for new technologies to develop. I would argue that technological marvels such as the wheel and the steam engine didn't directly spring from new scientific knowledge. That doesn't mean that new technologies don't make for good fiction. Space operas like Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (and their print cousins) would be pretty dull if they didn't have some form of faster-than-light travel, and I enjoy watching "gadget of the week" show Eureka on SciFi.

In addition to the assumption that science fiction is based on engineering, rather than science, there is a common attitude that the biological sciences aren't really as "hard" as physics or astronomy or geology. Maybe it's because collecting specimens or working in a lab isn't as "macho" as sitting at a telescope, collecting rocks or blowing things up. Maybe it's because advanced calculus and differential equations aren't typically needed for biological breakthroughs. Perhaps it's because a biological discovery doesn't result in a time travel machine or a method of navigating hyperspace. For whatever reason, some hold biology to be just slightly above the "soft" social and behavior sciences**. Of course, that kind of attitude is just stupid.

Anyone really familiar with science fiction will realize that there are many classic and popular stories that are dependent on the biological sciences to drive the story. And that is what this blog is about.

I hope you find the blog interesting, and feel inspired to pick up a book or learn a bit more about biology.

* "They" being that mysterious cabal of wise persons who know everything about everything.

** For another view of the "soft" sciences, read this Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. editorial.

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Last update: April 2011