Category Archives: The Legitimacy of Science on the Screen

Star Wars: Science Fiction meets Science Fact

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Image Credit: Stefan, Flickr

In celebration of the recently minted Star Wars holiday, May the 4th (be with you), the blogging team at the Scizzle Blog put together some themed science lessons. Being part of that team, I have penned two posts that will surely catapult your brain into space. The first, co-written with Chris Spencer, looks at possible evolutionary histories for some of the most notable characters of the franchise. Entitled The Evolution of the Cutest Creatures in Star Wars, you can check that out here.

My second postClones in Space, I Have Placed (can’t you just hear Yoda saying that?), features my debut infographic effort. Displaying the history of cloning technology using Star Wars characters, ships and worlds as a backdrop, it is the perfect visual springboard for titillating conversation on your next date. I’ve even included cloning basics 101 and given you a peak into the future when scientists plan to resurrect extinct species.

Click on through already – I’ve made science fun…

Carnosaur: Does it sound like it’s based in scientific fact? Find out for sure.

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Left: Those are words and that is a schematic. Their relationship? That’s called homework. Right: T-T-Tyrannosaurus Max Headroom – Driven to extinction. Back for revenge. (Carnosaur-New Horizons)

When I’m feeling under the weather, I like to peruse Netflix for the most ridiculous synopsis I can find and subject myself, sometimes painfully, to what is often worse than described. Yesterday was one of those days. Thankfully, I had watched Mimic a few nights earlier while researching common fauna of NYC sewers, and my Netflix account was bursting at the crotch with creature feature suggestions.

Number one suggestion? Carnosaur. Produced by Roger Corman, the man who brought us Piranhaconda and Sharktopus (holy smokes!), the synopsis reads as follows:

A geneticist plans to unleash a deadly virus on the world’s population in order to rid Earth of humans and repopulate the planet with a new strain of dinosaurs. A security guard and an environmentalist are the only ones who stand in her way.

More specifically (and I could be wrong on account of the fact that science is sometimes hard to follow when lay writers throw jargon into a hat and build sentences as they pull it out randomly), the movie follows a corporation that has hired an extremely intelligent woman to preform privatized research. Counter to how I imagine most corporations do business, this one doesn’t seem to know or care about exactly what she’s doing with their money and resources. In fact, what she is doing is spreading a contagion through pesticides, which when ingested by women, causes them to become pregnant with a dinosaur egg. To repeat. She is spreading a contagion through pesticides, which when ingested by women, causes them to become pregnant with a dinosaur egg. Astounding. Her ultimate diabolical plan is to destroy all women, since birthing an egg apparently results in death, while repopulating the earth with carnosaurs(?), thereby eliminating the human race and returning the planet to prehistoric greatness. Hmmmm.

Continue for my final thoughts on scientific legitimacy

Why is Disease Evolving Faster than Humans?

diseaseThere’s a recent letter to the journal Nature, which explores the age of single point mutations in the human genome. This data comes as part of a large DNA sequencing project, funded by the National Institutes of Health Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which focuses on exons within the human genome.

Exons are kind of like the business end of the genome, meaning they make up the genetic code for proteins that play a major role in the development and everyday control of your body. That is not to say, however, that these are the only necessary or even the most important parts of the genome. As research progresses, biologists are learning that more and more of the DNA between these exons dictate where, when and how much of a protein will be made – regulation critical to life. But I digress.

The study, headed by the Akey group at the University of Washington, Seattle, examined the exomes (the part of the genome formed by exons) of 6,515 individuals from European and African decent. What’s the reason for looking at all of these exons? To compare the occurrence and position of small mutations across the genome. In doing so, the researchers were able to build a tree for the age, and therefore evolution, of mutations in our genome – specifically deleterious ones. And since deleterious mutations are sometimes correlated with disease, they were able to track, in a sense, the evolution of certain diseases.

In a nutshell, the study finds that most deleterious mutations are younger than 5,000 years old and that this can most likely be attributed to an explosion in the human population around that time. After all, the more genomes you make, the more you increase the chances for new mutations. The study also found that the surge of new mutations included among others, those responsible for premature ovarian failure, Alzheimer’s disease, coronary artery atherosclerosis and hereditary spastic paraplegia.

Read On to Find Out What This Means

Zombie outbreak at CERN. Undead complain, ‘brains almost too big to finish’.

Ph.D. students at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) recently released a full length tale of friendship, love, loss and zombie outbreak. Decay fits your typical recipe for the end of humanity, but if you have the same feelings about zombies as me, we can agree that it never gets old. In retrospect, the walking undead are actually a welcomed outcome of activating the collider; at least when you consider the initial concerns of firing it up. That concern?

…opponents fear the machine, which will smash pieces of atoms together at high speed and generate temperatures of more than a trillion degrees centigrade, may create a mini-black hole that could tear the earth apart.

Fair enough. But if I want to impress anything upon my readers, it’s that we should trust science and scientists. Their response:

Scientists involved in the project have dismissed the fears as “absurd” and insist that extensive safety assessments on the 17 mile long particle accelerator have demonstrated that it is safe. — Full article from The Telegraph here.

Um…sure. But I was hoping for some incomprehensible math to comfort me, not one last sweep by Jerry for loose hoses. “Tighten that bolt a bit. Now that black hole won’t be going anywhere. Let’s get a beer.”

Anyway. It took the students a couple of years to complete the film and it should be noted that the entire thing is shot on campus with the majority of it occurring inside the LHC facilities. It’s certainly worth a watch if you want a little behind the scenes at the world’s largest super collider. While it’s obvious the cast and crew aren’t pros, I’d say it’s a pretty good freshman effort considering that World War Z is coming up on the same production timeframe and I’m pretty sure Brad Pitt didn’t contribute to proving the existence of the Higgs Boson in his spare time. Check out the full movie here, completely free.

NASA at Odds with the International Space Station, needs you to Even things out

ISSApparently NASA found some extra coins laying around their sock drawer during some early season spring cleaning.  The good news is, they’re willing to pass those coins on to you if you can solve a small problem for them.  It turns out the arms supporting the solar panels aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are a bit finicky.  Each arm is composed of a number of support rods and these rods can only be exposed to the heat of the sun (or conversely be shadowed from it) in even numbers.  In a way, it’s kind of like a summer tan; an even tan is something of beauty but an uneven tan — the one you get when your “friend” applies the SPF — can lead to shame and a broken psyche.  And that’s what happens on the ISS, the support rods break.  Your job is simple.  Just write an algorithm that will keep the support rods evenly shaded or tanned while optimizing solar panel exposure to the sun.  Safely heating up the power grid for the ISS could land you a cool 30K.

It may just be me, but I thought Delroy Lindo solved all of these problems when he developed Unobtainium for the movie, The Core. As a scientist, he described it as an alloy that actually strengthens under extreme heat and pressure.  If you’re reading this NASA, I’ll be satisfied with a nominal ‘reminder’s fee’.   Explore the Challenge Here