April 18, 2011
Zombies seem to be only growing in popularity, and I’m not talking about the biological kind. They’ve got their own television show, plenty of films, and even a musical. They invaded the world of Jane Austen, and there are zombie crawls around the world, in which people dress up like the living dead and shuffle across some urban area.
And then there’s the growing field of zombie science.
In 2009, University of Ottawa mathematician Robert J. Smith? (and, yes, he really does include a question mark at the end of his name) published a paper in a book about infectious disease modeling titled “When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection” (pdf). It started as a class project, when some students suggested they model zombies in his disease modeling class. “I think they thought I’d shoot it down,” Smith told NPR, “but actually I said, go for it. That sounds really great. And it was just a fun way of really illustrating some of the process that you might have in modeling an infectious disease.” Using math, the group showed that only by quickly and aggressively attacking the zombie population could normal humans hope to prevent the complete collapse of society.
That paper sparked further research. The latest contribution, “Zombies in the City: a NetLogo Model” (pdf) will appear in the upcoming book Mathematical Modelling of Zombies. In this new study, an epidemiologist and a mathematician at Australian National University refine the initial model and incorporate the higher speed of humans and our capacity to increase our skills through experience. They conclude that only when human skill levels are very low do the zombies have a chance of winning, while only high human skill levels ensure a human victory. “For the in-between state of moderate skill a substantial proportion of humans tend to survive, albeit in packs that are being forever chased by zombies,” they write.
Then there’s the question of whether math is really the most important discipline for surviving a zombie attack.
But how might zombies come about? There are some interesting theories, such as one based on arsenic from Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science. Or these five scientific reasons a zombie apocalypse could happen, including brain parasites, neurotoxins and nanobots.
A Harvard psychiatrist, Steven Schlozman, broke into the field of zombie research and then wrote The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse, which blames an airborne contagion for the zombie phenomenon. The book delves into the (fictional) research of Stanley Blum, zombie expert, who searched for a cure to the zombie epidemic with a team of researchers on a remote island. (They were unsuccessful and succumbed to the plague, but nicely left their research notes behind, complete with drawings.) It’s more than just fun fiction to Schlozman, though, who uses zombies to teach neuroscience. “If it works right, it makes students less risk-adverse, more willing to raise their hands and shout out ideas, because they’re talking about fictional characters,” he told Medscape.
For those interested in getting an overview of the science, a (spoof) lecture on the subject, Zombie Science 1Z, can now be seen at several British science and fringe festivals. Zombiologist Doctor Austin, ZITS MSz BSz DPep, lectures in three modules: the zombieism condition, the cause of zombieism, and the prevention and curing of zombieism. And for those of us who can’t attend in person, there’s a textbook and online exam.
And the Zombie Research Society keeps track of all this and more, and also promotes zombie scholarship and zombie awareness month. Their slogan: “What you don’t know can eat you.”
April 4, 2011
In 1925, John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was put on trial in Tennessee for having the audacity to teach evolution to his students. In the 21st century, teachers don’t have to worry about being arrested for teaching this fundamental topic in science, and the Supreme Court declared teaching creationism unconstitutional in 1987, but that hasn’t stopped state legislators around the country from trying to enact laws that encourage the teaching of alternative theories or protect teachers who do so. The latest attempt, in Tennessee, looks like it might actually become law. But here are five reasons why it shouldn’t:
1 ) Evolution is the basis for all biology. Without it, much of biology and modern medicine just doesn’t make sense. There’s general agreement that good science education is needed to produce a populace capable of handling our increasingly technological future. Evolution has to be part of that, but sadly, it rarely is. A recent poll of high school biology teachers found that only 28 percent consistently teach evolution.
2 ) Teaching unscientific “alternatives” only confuses students. “There is virtually no scientific controversy among the overwhelming majority of researchers on the core facts of…evolution,” Alan Leshner, executive publisher of Science, wrote recently to two Tennessee legislators. “Asserting that there are significant scientific controversies about the overall nature of [this concept] when there are none will only confuse students, not enlighten them.”
3 ) Science-based industries might conclude the state is anti-science. Florida is considering its own law to require “critical analysis” of evolution, which could open the door to unscientific theories being presented in the classroom. In response to the measure, the Florida Academy of Sciences issued a statement noting that the measure would “undermine the reputation of our state and adversely affect our economic future as we try to attract new high tech and biomedical jobs to Florida.”
4 ) Anti-evolution theories aren’t science and don’t belong in a science classroom. Whether you call it creationism, creation science or intelligent design, it isn’t science and shouldn’t be taught alongside scientific theories. I could see the story of creation being taught in a history class, while studying the creation mythologies of various world cultures, but anything else is promoting religion and is unconstitutional in a public school.
5 ) If it goes to court, the anti-evolution side will lose, potentially costing a school district or state a lot of money. Case in point: Dover, Pennsylvania. The Dover Area School District was sued by parents after it mandated the teaching of intelligent design. The district lost, spectacularly (pdf), and paid more than $1 million in legal fees. Defending the teaching of anti-evolution theories now could potentially cost millions more.
March 2, 2011
I can see why some people might long for the good old days, when medical advice came from your doctor, news from your local paper or Edward R. Murrow, and science news from a specialty publication like Scientific American. Today, we’re overwhelmed with sources of information, with hundreds of television stations and millions of Web sites, and it can be hard to figure out what to trust. Google recently tweaked its search algorithm to bring higher quality sites to the top of its searches, but even then, how do you know what’s good? Here are some questions to ask when evaluating the trustworthiness of science and health information (though many apply to other areas of life):
How far away is the information from its original source? Remember the game Telephone from your childhood, where a message would pass from one kid to the next, only to come out all garbled at the end? The same thing is true with most bits of information. The further you get from the original source (like a medical study), the more likely it is that what you read or hear has been misinterpreted. And if you can’t determine what the original source was—as often happens when reading chain emails or random Web sites—it may be best to simply ignore it.
Who paid for the information? We should be skeptical about financial conflicts of interest when it comes to science and medicine. Several studies have found that funding from the pharmaceutical industry is associated with positive results, for example. But the funders of news and advice sites can also influence the information. The New York Times Magazine recently compared two sites with medical information—WebMD and MayoClinic.com—and concluded, “With the site’s (admitted) connections to pharmaceutical and other companies, WebMD has become permeated with pseudomedicine and subtle misinformation.”
Is there any hype? If someone is claiming that they’ve found, say, the cure for cancer or cloned a human being, be very, very skeptical. The word “breakthrough” is often a clue, as there are few true breakthroughs in science.
Does the source of information have an intentional bias? Conservapedia, for example, admits up front that they are written from a conservative viewpoint, and so it should be no surprise that they call climate change “mostly a natural phenomenon.”
Is it a minority point of view? I’m not saying that the majority is always right, but if someone makes a claim that goes against the majority of scientists or doctors, that claim deserves more skepticism and investigation.
Is the story almost too good to be true? Urban legends persist because they capture our imaginations and contain just enough (or possibly too many) details to sound true. And they often come to us directly from people we trust (who got them from people they trust, who got them from people they trust). Check out suspicious stories at Snopes.com or other sites that fact-check tales of alligators in the sewer system or chihuahuas that are really rats. Even if a story is true, remember that the plural of anecdote is not data. Some smokers live to be 100 years old, but it’s still the case that smoking kills.
Is the source of information a TV or movie star? For reasons I will never understand, some people take their medical advice from actors like Jenny McCarthy. Dateline even gave over an entire hour to the crazy cancer theories of Suzanne Somers. But a general rule should be that you shouldn’t trust information coming from someone who deals in fiction for their day job.
A note on Wikipedia: The problem with Wikipedia is that you can’t answer many of these questions when reading the crowd-sourced Web site. But while I would never take medical advice from here, I do often use it to find other trusted sources, thanks to the footnotes.
What sources do you trust most for your science and medical information?
February 14, 2011
Animal sex can get pretty weird. And we’re not comfortable with some of its variants. I’m sure I’m on someone’s watch list after researching this post; while searching for juicy examples, I kept coming across sites barred by the Smithsonian’s internet filter—such as the Wikipedia entry on “sexual cannibalism.” But scientists find it fascinating. A National Zoo great cats curator recently told my colleague Megan Gambino: “I think animal mating, while it’s very funny, is just a really interesting topic to talk about and one that people often shy away from because, oh, it’s taboo. But it’s pretty vital. It’s the very crux of existence.”
And so, in honor of today, here’s my top ten list of the worst—and weirdest—love stories from the world of biology:
10. Giant pandas: They are solitary creatures, and female pandas ovulate for only two or three days a year, so hooking up might be a bit of a problem in the wild. Even in captivity, panda mating isn’t always successful, leading zoo keepers to try everything from behavioral training to panda porn. The National Zoo’s current couple, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, were unsuccessful in their mating attempts yet again this year; zoo curators then artificially inseminated Mei Xiang—which is how we got Tai Shan in 2005.
9. Pseudobiceros hancockanus: These orange-and-purple marine flatworms are hermaphroditic, meaning they can act as either a female or a male. How do they sort it out? Through penis fencing (see here for video). They battle each other with their penises and the winner pierces the other to deliver its sperm. The loser has to spend a lot of its energy and resources caring for the developing eggs.
8. Short-beaked echidnas: These spiky Tasmanian animals hibernate in winter, but that doesn’t deter some males from sex. They’ll happily mate with hibernating females; sometimes the females wake up, only to go back into hibernation, while others just sleep right through it. Scientists think that by re-entering hibernation, which would delay the development of a fetus, the female gets a chance to mate with a better quality male and abandon her first pregnancy.
7. Porcupines: The weird thing about porcupine sex has nothing to do with the quills. Male North American porcupines that want to mate with a female will first perform an elaborate dance, and then if she’s receptive, the female will let him douse her with urine. Ew!
6. Muscovy ducks: Males have a ballistic, corkscrew-shaped penis that they can use to force themselves onto unwilling females. Females, though, can fight back, at least against unwanted pregnancy, by refusing to relax her corkscrew-shaped genital tract. As a result, although a third of matings are forced, only three percent of offspring are born from those matings.
5. Redback spiders: When mating, the male redback spider performs a somersault that places his abdomen right above the female’s mouth, thus setting himself up to be eaten when copulation is done. It’s a noble sacrifice in the name of his genes—cannibalized males copulate longer and fertilize more eggs than males that survive mating, and females are more likely to reject other males after they’ve eaten their first mate.
4. Praying mantises: Like the redback spider, the female praying mantis often eats her mate. But she doesn’t always wait until they’re finished to start her meal. Sometimes the female will bite off the male’s head while they are copulating.
3. Bean weevils: The male bean weevil’s penis is covered with long, sharp spikes that can inflict serious scarring on a female. To make matters worse (for the female, that is), the longer the spines, the more successful the male is at depositing his sperm and fathering her young.
2. Banana slugs: Like the marine flatworms, banana slugs are hermaphrodites. When they copulate, each slug inserts its penis into the other. When they’re done, though, one slug may chew the penis off the other, and sometimes you end up with two penis-less slugs. Scientists call it apophallation.
1. Harpactea sadistica: This spider from Israel performs something called “traumatic insemination,” which is also characteristic of several insect species. The male injects sperm into the female by piercing her abdomen with his penis. This can leave an open wound prone to infection. Bedbugs, which also practice this method of copulation, at least provide the female with a spermalege that helps to repair the damage.
December 16, 2010
No one knows when, or even if, we will discover alien life in the universe or what it might look like. But that hasn’t stopped those who are looking from planning on that eventuality, as I discovered when reporting “Ready for Contact,” one of the stories in Smithsonian‘s new special issue, Mysteries of the Universe. These scientists have a plan, and it involves telling everyone about their research and any discovery. “I think there’s a big misconception in the public that somehow this is all a cloak-and-dagger operation, and it’s not,” Arizona State University astrobiologist Paul Davies told me. “People are quite open about what they are doing.”
But what will happen after such an announcement is a true mystery. How will the media react, and the public? Will there be mayhem, or will we just yawn? The recent discovery of bacteria that can apparently use arsenic in place of phosphorus, however, has provided an interesting glimpse of what a discovery of alien life portends.
Our story starts on November 29, when NASA announced a December 2 press conference “to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Almost immediately rumors began to swirl that NASA might have discovered extraterrestrial life itself. The frenzy reached such a point that I even received a press release from a betting web site about the odds they were giving on just what NASA’s finding might be. (They placed a 33 percent chance on the discovery of a life form on Mars and a 16 percent chance that NASA would announce that Area 51 had been used for alien studies.) Meanwhile, those of us with embargoed access to the Science study NASA was referring to just groaned—we knew the rumors were all wrong but couldn’t say a thing.
After all that, the actual announcement, though interesting, seemed somewhat of a letdown.
But things heated up again shortly thereafter as scientists and bloggers began criticizing the research. One microbiologist summarized the paper as “lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information.” They questioned whether the paper was worthy of being published, especially in so prestigious a journal as Science, while others defended the peer review process. And the arguing continues.
If this had been a discovery of alien life, we could probably expect a similar progression of events, only everything would by hyped by a factor of a hundred, at least. Davies, who is associated with the SETI program, which searches for radio signals of alien life, told me, “if there’s a ghost of a chance that a particular radio source is going to turn out to be ET messaging us, the media will be all over it right away.” More rumors, more crazy press releases, maybe CNN reporters camped on the scientists’ doorsteps. Davies imagines there would be mayhem among the general public, too, with the observatory that made the discovery hounded by people, their computers besieged by hackers. “You could imagine police cordons and even riot police,” he said. Who knows how religious leaders would react? And the scientific community would pick apart any discovery, as they are now doing with the arsenic paper.
Scientists in a series of workshops in the early 1990s attempted to determine the social implications of a SETI discovery. “It depends” seems to be their ultimate answer. But people would likely fall into one of two camps, as they have done in the past and do now. The catastrophists predict that the discovery of alien life will result in the end of humanity as we know it, or at least the end of our current culture. But for the “millennial enthusiasts,” as the group named them, “the gloom of the doomsayers is more than offset by the rapture,” they wrote. They see revelations of how to cure cancer, solve the energy crisis or win world peace.
A lot of this would depend on the nature of any discovery, of course. Single-celled life on Mars certainly warrants a different reaction than a message from an intelligent extraterrestrial or a spaceship landing on the White House lawn. In any case, there would be some level of freaking out from the media and, possibly, the public, as the arsenic study has shown.
But for many of us, I think our response would be somewhere in the middle. The discovery of life outside of Earth, while interesting, would hardly negate the need to go to work and earn money, to visit with friends and family, to eat quality chocolate, to do all the things we do every day. That doesn’t mean that the search for extraterrestrial life isn’t important or won’t ever have some impact on the average person. But it won’t change us any more than we’re changing already.