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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Zombie Revolution

I always thought about zombies as being about revolution, one generation consuming the next.
~ George Romero

George Romero may have introduced the living dead to modern popular culture, but did you know that zombies have also been researched, scientifically?  In the early 1980's, Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis researched zombies in Haiti in search of a scientific explanation for the undead. He studied natural neurotoxins found in Haitian zombie powder, including puffer fish venom, tetrodotoxin. He claimed that a combination of zombie powder and Voodoo sorcery rituals were used to enslave , or zombify, people as a form of punishment. Wade wrote two books about his research, Serpent and the Rainbow,  and Passage of Darkness, which is generally considered to be the more scientific of the two books. You can read a review and synopsis of Passage of Darkness here:

One of my favorite zombie movies (other than Romero's films) is I Walked with a Zombie. (1943)
It is beautiful, spooky and the actor Darby Jones, who plays the zombie Carrefour, is as scary a zombie as you could conjure. 

25 years later George Romero set the undead loose to roam and lurch menacingly, en masse, into our collective consciousness, at a time when our country was exploding with political and social unrest. Night of the Living Dead channels the anxieties and fears of 1968 in a classically themed horror movie. The movie takes place in Pittsburgh and features real Pittsburghers including Chilly Billy Cardille, the popular host of Chiller theater, a beloved cult local tv show that did a truly great job presenting and popularizing sci-fi and horror movies. The movie also features one of my best friends from high school, Kyra Schon, our favorite little trowel wielding zombie girl . It is something of an odd testament to both Pittsburgh, and to those times, that most everyone took Kyra's zombie fame in stride. I mean, of course Kyra played a flesh eating zombie when she was 11 years old, what of it? Today you can keep up with Kyra through her blog.
Kyra, about 5 years after playing Karen Cooper, flesh eating zombie child.
Which brings us to 2013 and  The Zombie Autopsies, a zombie science phenomenon by Harvard professor Steve Schlozman, MD, who is also an advisor for our  Kavli Science in Fiction video contest.
Steve Schlozman's book The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Zombie Apocalypse has been film optioned by none other than George Romero, and his zombie science curriculum has been creatively adapted by Texas Instruments, as part of innovative STEM program, The Stem Behind Hollywood.

Steve answers the simple question, Why Zombies? with considerable eloquence and wit, in an interview we just did.  You can check out his musings here.

Oh sure, there are dozens of zombie movies and tv series out there. Some of them are quite good and feature compelling dystopian scenarios, beyond the blood, gore, and mayhem. But personally, I like the old classics. You know, the movies where messed up people walk slowly towards you, dead, but not dead.

And just in case any of you need to be reminded just what a great flick "Night of the Living Dead" is, or you just need a good dose of zombie terror before you drift off to sleep on this cold winter night.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween and The Science of Monsters

There are no vampires, werewolves, zombies.  No Frankenstein monster, no bigfoot ape man, no outer space aliens in assorted shapes and sizes. Sorry, they don't exist because science has not found them. And as science is based on empirical evidence, science says... no way.

And yet.... we have been drawn to monsters probably since the dawn of mankind.
 Greek and Roman mythology was heavily based on divine, and not so divine, fantastic creatures.
Many early scientists, in the 16th-17th century, seemed positively obsessed with documenting ancient monsters.

The word monster comes from Latin, monstrum, an aberrant occurrence. It seems logical that out of fear, we might naturally then apply an aura of evil, as both an explanation for the natural aberrance as well as it's innate characteristic.

Halloween comes upon us right at the end of the harvest season, when in the northern hemisphere we are hit with colder and longer nights. Though  theories abound regarding its historical origins, I think it may be safe to say that Halloween grew out of a ritualized celebration. It combines a fear of the night, of spirits, and death
( witching hour, ghosts, fairy and goblins, skeletons, presided over by the jack'o lantern which is a sort of guardian against roaming spirits) with a unique "safe scary" celebration for children.

So back to monsters, what is it about the human brain that seems to enjoy seeing monsters, especially on the big screen from the safety of a movie theater seat? Or enjoy battling them in the dark, with a video game controller? I am sure neuroscience has an explanation, and not everyone enjoys thrills or frights the same way as everyone is different, neurobiologically speaking. It may simply be that monsters tap directly into some of our most primal fears and reactions, so they are activating the brain's amygdala in ways that are elemental and fundamental. In other words, in a very basic way, they make us feel "alive"!!!

It is interesting to note the massive growth of monster movies and science fiction in popular culture, post WW2, when mankind was threatened not only by the historic, systemic destruction by Nazi Germany but also by the new threat of unimaginable worldwide nuclear destruction.

Which brings us to zombies, "the walking dead", and today's pop phenomenon of zombies and the zombie apocalypse. Why have zombies become so popular lately? Possibly because they serve as a sort of fictional narrative for where we are, emotionally, in the 21st century, zombies might reflect our larger fears of civilization and environmental collapse. And the charge we get, battling zombies in a threatening zombie apocalyptic world, functions as an outlet by feeding a basic desire to physically battle demons and survive, which today may be thwarted in real life as our demons have become so abstract and harder to define.

We hosted a Science of Monsters Google Hangout earlier today where we delved deeper into these subjects and more. ( see video of the discussion, below ) Our featured monster expert guests were:
  • Sebastian Alvarado,  a postdoctoral fellow in the Dept. of Biology at Stanford, with a research focus on epigenetics, as well as co-founder of the video game science consultancy group, Thwacke! Consulting. Thwacke offers scientific insight from a diversity of disciplines to aid in narrative design, world building, and ultimately creating believable content for the video game industry. Thwacke has consulted on video games including Wasteland 2  and Outlast.
  • Dan Loxton, a Canadian Writer, Illustrator, and Editor of Junior Skeptic magazine.  Author of  children’s books Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came To BeAnkylosaur Attack (Tales of Prehistoric Life) and Co-writer of Abominable Science, Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids.
  • Steven Schlozman, M.D. is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child and adult psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. He is also the co-director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School. His first novel, The Zombie Autopsies has been optioned by George Romero for adaptation to film. Dr. Schlozman’s zombie curriculum has been adapted by Texas Instruments as part of an innovative STEM educational program STEM Behind Hollywood.

                                              Many thanks to our Monster Experts!!!


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rewinding the Dodo Bird???

When Lewis Carroll published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, Darwin's first edition On the Origin of Species had been in print for a mere six years. The dodo bird, a native to the island Mauritius, had been extinct for possibly two hundred years before that, as the last recorded sighting was made in 1662. The poor dodo, which had previously enjoyed a life of peace and plenty on the island, was unable to defend its genetic lineage against the Dutch colonists of the 17th century, and vanished from the earth for ever. Or so we believe...
Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!!!

Fast forward to 2007, cavers on an expedition to the island discover a fully intact Dodo skeleton. And thanks to DNA analysis learn that its closest genetic relative is a pigeon....

And this year a far more ancient extinct animal specimen, the woolly mammoth, was found frozen, intact, and in excellent condition.... including its fur, flesh, and blood. Can science soon de-extinct animals?  Which advances in genome sequencing and cloning have brought us, at full speed, to this new realm of possibilities, and should we forge a path into the unknown? Do we dare?

                                             More about mammoth de-extinction

What do you think? Should extinct animals just go the way of the Dodo, to be lost in time? Or should we rewind time and bring them back to life? Might there be good reasons for mankind to advance this technology, so we have the means to resurrect and clone vanished species, or what about present species? For example, what if there were a biological or other deadly threat to life on earth? Should we have a  de-extinction "genetic preservation plan",  in case of disaster ?
 USA Science & Engineering Festival NiftyFifty Speaker Dr. Beth Shapiro is an evolutionary biologist :

Thursday, September 5, 2013

get smart ...with your watch?

I'm on it, Chief!

This fall's smart watch race is officially on, with the new Samsung product that came out today. Not sure why the user in the demo video is not WEARING the wearable device but that is another issue,
(one which I do touch upon at the end of this post.)

From Dick Tracy to James Bond, wrist devices that offer more functionality than mere "wearable time keeping" have been on our sci-tech radar for a while. So it was only a short matter of time that we are now promised to be inundated with smart watches in every shape and style.

 But how smart are they? Right now the device needs a constant connection to something "smarter" , i.e., your smart phone, in order to work. What do they come loaded with, and what do you have to download and install? Do you really want to have your wrist buzz and shake with every new text or tweet? And looking down this road a bit further, what if this seemingly innocent "social media" wrist candy ushers in a new era of mandatory wearable accessories ( think: military, factory, corporation), bringing human/digital connectivity to more inevitable dystopia? After all, wasn't Chief Brandon barking orders through Dick Tracy's watch?

 Just saying...

An Ad for a wearable watch radio in a 1963 magazine. Note that it needs an earphone jack so that the iconic cool Dick Tracy moment of "listening to your watch" might have been just a bit more awkward with this model.

Anyway, I think that neither the current standard, which is the awkward, rectangular shaped, rigid smart phone , nor it's geeky new cousin, the over sized smart watch, represent much more than primitive prototypes for future personal, mobile computing and communication devices.  It's easy to predict big and inevitable advances in ergonomic designs, thanks to better flexible display screen technologies coupled with ever shrinking nano microprocessors.

What do you think?  What would Al think, I wonder?

Al Gross, pioneering inventor of mobile wireless technology
Cartoonist Chester Gould once visited Gross and saw his wristwatch-radio prototype. After the visit, Gould called up Gross and asked if he could use this concept for his Dick Tracy comic strip. Gross said yes, and in January 1946 the Dick Tracy cartoon was changed forever with the introduction of the iconic two-way wrist radio.
( photo : Digital Library and Archives, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I'm a rocket man... burning out his fuse up here alone ....

Sorry but I really must be on my way
The Bell Rocket belt that James  Bond used in the movie Thunderball was actually a fully functional rocket pack device, which had been developed for the army. Unfortunately, its flying time was too brief to be of practical use, relying on an almost pure hydrogen peroxide propellant that burned too quickly. The catalyst in this old rocket pack was silver, which decomposed the hydrogen peroxide  into a mixture of super heated steam and oxygen in less than 1/10 millisecond. Designing a jetpack device that would be light enough, safe enough, high flying enough, long flying enough, not to mention maneuverable,  would prove to challenge the smarts of even the most determined engineers. Yes, rocket science can be that way!

Enter Swiss Flying Man, Rocket Man on Steroids, AKA JETMAN Yves Rossy, sky racer against fighter jets, and all-round solo high flyer extrordinaire.

How does he do it? Aside from being Swiss, fearless, and super smart? I will give you a hint. He's got some killer jet turbine engines strapped on his back. Not one, not two, but four (!) jet engines are strapped to his back!!!!

Learn more about the amazing "Jet Man" Yves Rossy and follow his journey as he zooms through the sky :

My mind to your mind... my thoughts to your thoughts

Why pay a penny when I can get your thoughts for free?

Mr. Spock was my favorite Star Trek character, for many reasons. Superior intelligence, physical strength, and not the least were his abilities to nerve pinch and mind meld. The recent movie Pacific Rim features mind melding, called "drifting", a required element so that two pilots could sync and control their giant robot Jaeger, because according to the movie, one human mind did not have the neural power to be able to do it alone.  The concept of linking two ( or more ) brains to amplify brain power and cancel out each other's errors is, as Spock might say, fascinating.

Researchers at the University of Washington made news today with their brain-to-brain experiment.
By using EEG and TMS technologies, brain signals from one person ( the sender) were recorded, interpreted via software and then transmitted to a different location (via internet) where a second person (the receiver), was wired to a TMS machine. The sender had visualized his hand pressing a key as part of a video game play, and his brain signal was transmitted and decoded as a magnetic pulse to the proper brain region of the receiver, who then responded by pressing the key.

Gives a whole new meaning to the term "mind manipulation", doesn't it?

Read about the experiment here, and at the bottom of the page there are also some good background references for brain-computer interfaces: