Saturday, June 21, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: June 21 Edition

Here are the some of the biology in science fiction links for the past couple of weeks:


Dan Vergano at USA Today interviews M. Night Shyamalan about the science in The Happening.

Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex writes about M. Night Shyamalan's (not too educated) thoughts on the placebo effect.

At the SciAm Observations blog gmusser asks "Is M. Night Shyamalan anti-scientific?"

The Takeaway has caller reviews of The Incredible Hulk and The Happening (via Blog Around the Clock)

Cleolinda Jones has "The Happening in Fifteen Minutes" (via Evolving Thoughts)

The Economist has an article that discusses concerns about human overpopulation, Malthus, and The Population Bomb:
Paul Ehrlich's best-selling 1968 book “The Population Bomb” gloomily declared that “the battle to feed humanity is over”, predicted huge famines in the 1970s and 1980s and forecast an American population of just 22m by 1999. Others made better predictions but got the consequences wrong. Harry Harrison’s novel “Make Room! Make Room!”, was published in 1966 and inspired “Soylent Green”, a cult film. It forecast a global population of around seven billion by 1999 (the actual figure was six billion), but his dystopian predictions of rationed water and social breakdown did not materialise.
io9 has a clip of William Hurt "de-evolving" in the 1980 movie Altered States.

John Scalzi writes about nerdgassing - kvetching about science or continuity errors - for SciFi Scanner. (Regular readers here will be familiar with the concept). He nerdgasses about The Matrix:
For all that, there's one thing that always makes me yell at the screen -- when Morpheus is explaining to Neo that the machines use human body heat as a power source. What he actually says is that the machines use human body heat "combined with a form of fusion." Fusion, you know, being the form of nuclear energy released by the sun, and which both releases far more energy and is massively more energy efficient than sucking BTUs out of the human metabolism. Saying the Matrix runs on body heat and "a form of fusion" is like saying your car runs on a combination of body heat and "a form of internal combustion," since body heat is required to move your muscles to push down the accelerator pedal.
On BiotechNation Moira Gunn talks to Peter Lee, CEO of Aukland UniServices. He discusses the combination of biology, engineering and computer modeling that is used for digital simulation of biology, giving us Hollywood creatures like King Kong. Listen to the interview.


The DVD version of the brief Masters of Science Fiction series is about to be released in the US. Charlie Jane Anders at io9 says that "Jerry Was A Man" - about a "genetically engineered chain-smoking slave who seeks his freedom" - is a standout episode.

Cool Biology

The Wall Street Journal reviewed the new collection of futurist essays Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge.
Most of the authors agree, however, that if we survive we will become very, very smart. The IQ gap between our descendants and us, one essayist estimates, will be greater than the gap between us and tiny worms called nematodes, which can't even balance a checkbook. In the near term, perhaps beginning in this century, we will soup up our bodies and minds with genetic engineering, nanotechnology and bionic implants. Not only will our cyborg descendants be immortal; they will also enjoy telepathic broadband communication with one another via wi-fi-equipped brain chips, resulting in a global mind-meld that physician Steven Harris describes as "the Internet on crank."

Scientists from Brazil and the Netherlands recently discovered parasites can induce their caterpillar hosts to guard the parasites' offspring.
After parasitoid larvae exit from the host to pupate, the host stops feeding, remains close to the pupae, knocks off predators with violent head-swings, and dies before reaching adulthood. Unparasitized caterpillars do not show these behaviours. In the field, the presence of bodyguard hosts resulted in a two-fold reduction in mortality of parasitoid pupae.
Watch video of the behavior.

Carl Zimmer writes about the early years of genetic engineering, when the organism of choice was the bacterium E. coli and fears ran deep:
Engineering E. coli came to be known as the Frankenstein project. The protests sometimes took on almost religious tones. Tampering with DNA, the MIT biologist Jonathan King declared, was "sacrilegious." Two political activists, Ted Howard and Jeremy Rifkin, condemned genetic engineering in a book called Who Should Play God?
Mike Brotherton has an interesting post about what a planet orbiting a cool M star would look like. The obvious answer is "red", but it turns out it's a bit more complicated than that.

Neurotic Physiology writes about a Cameroonian frog that has claws that are only exposed when stressed:
Lemme repeat that last bit: the frog BREAKS ITS OWN BONES AND SHOVES THEM THROUGH THE SKIN AS CLAWS. Not only that, this particular frog is known as the “hairy frog”, due to the growth of hair-like skin strands that the males grow during breeding season. It has sideburns! This is the freakin’ Wolverine of the frog world! I hereby declare that this frog be renamed “The Wolverine Frog”, or perhaps “the wolver-frog” for short, in honor of our favorite hirsute self-multilating X-Man.
Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has a good post about the significance of the recent finding that meteorites contain purines and pyrimidines - organic molecules that help make up our DNA, RNA and nucleotides.

Wired Science asks what the ethical implications might be of finding microbial extraterrestrial life on Mars or an asteroid.
"Fundamentally, the question is what it means to be a space-traveling species, and what counts as being an ethical space traveler. What sort of obligations if any do we owe to any extraterrestrial life that we encounter, whether it's intelligent or not?" he asked.

Nina Munteanu looks at whether killer plagues will wipe us out and what the color of alien plant life might be.

Charlie Stross writes about the Singularity, transhumanism and religion.

There's a feature on about creating transgenic goats that secrete drugs in their milk. One of the scientists profiled respond to some people's fears about genetic engineering of animals:
He scoffs at the implication that GTC's operations are even in the Dr. Moreau ballpark. "People say, 'Are they breeding centaurs out there, some kind of man-goat beast?' No, of course not. We put a control sequence in the transgene to make sure it's only turned on during lactation. And there's a big difference between manipulating a single gene, like we're doing, and manipulating a whole chromosome. Treating them the same is like saying, 'I moved my brother-in-law into his new apartment with a pickup truck. Now I'm going to move all of New York City with that same truck.'"
Robert Full spoke at TED about how engineers learn from animals - think of robots inspired by geckos and ants. Watch the video.


1 comment:

  1. I think you should encourage everyone to incorporate a little economics into their biology and science fiction studies...Everyone who sees that unbelievably lame flick should write to Rupert Murdoch and ask for their Currency Fact money back:


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