Looking ahead and looking back…

I spent part of my New Year’s Eve in a cemetery, and I’ll give you two reasons why that’s not creepy:  A) my next novel is a horror story, and I was looking for inspiration and B) symbolically speaking, there’s no better place to think about the passage of time.  Let me explain.  Each passing year is like the people buried underneath each tombstone; if we knew them, we could relive their memories again and again, but nevertheless, nothing we could ever do will bring them back.  We can never relive the years behind us.  Rest in Peace, 2015.

But today, January 1st, is a day of hope.  It’s a day of fresh starts and new beginnings for the calendar year as well as everyone who wishes to have a new look on life.  We can look at 2016 as a fresh set of open doors, and, no, I’m not pulling that analogy out of thin air.  I was specifically thinking of the Roman god, Janus.

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Both faces of Janus engraved, fittingly, over the arch of a doorway.

Janus might have been big stuff back in ancient Rome, but in modern times, he has three major claims to fame.  One:  if someone accuses you of betraying them, they might call you the old-timey expression “two-faced Janus,” the explanation for which should be evident from Janus’ picture above.  Two:  the month of January.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a Roman god influenced the name of something on our calendar, but the reason why is directly related to our third and final item:  janitors.

What?  Yes, as it turns out, the word “janitor” is derived from the name “Janus.”  Janus was the god of passages and doorways, and the people that we associate with overseeing the halls and doorways of our modern buildings now bear his name.  Furthermore, the reason why Janus was associated with January (and why I’m writing about him today) is because he was the god of transitions and beginnings and endings:  the doorways of life, so to speak.  This is why the Romans portrayed Janus with two faces:  one to look behind at the past and one to look forward at the new.

Now, let’s bring this conversation full circle.  Today, January 1st, is the one day each year when society has trained us not only to look ahead to the future, but also to reflect on what we’ve done in the past.  And both are equally important.  If you fixate on the past, you run the risk of wasting today’s time on something that no longer exists.  Yet, if you never reflect on your past, you run the risk of repeating your own mistakes.  Truly, only three days exist:  yesterday, today, and tomorrow; and we’re only able to live in one of them.  So, I recommend that we reflect upon our yesterdays so that we may change something today, creating a better tomorrow.  In other words, we should make some resolutions.

But, in my humble opinion, we should seek to live every day as a new beginning – as cliché as that sounds.  Every day is an opportunity for change, not just something we save for January 1st.  I opened this post with the cemetery analogy, stating that every year gone by has gone to its death, but, in truth, each day is like this as well.  We only have the ability to live in the present, and any attempts to relive the past just as we remember them will often end in the pain of disappointment.  But, with the death of each day comes the birth of a new one:  an opportunity to change, an opportunity to live.

So, today – and all other days – we should be like Janus, remembering the past and looking forward to the future.  We have names for doing too much of each of these things:  regret and worry.  In this new year, my resolution is to strike a balance, making an effort to convert my regret into reflection and my worry into foresight.  I resolve to live in today, and if I don’t like my life the way it is today, I’ll resolve to change it for the sake of a more pleasant tomorrow.  Life is too short to sacrifice on things you can’t change.  You can’t change yesterday, and the only way to change the future is by acting today… by making every moment of your life matter.

I’d like to finish this post by quoting the ever-poignant words of John Keating, portrayed by Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society:  “make your lives extraordinary… carpe diem… seize the day!”

Image credits:

Featured image – Image courtesy of McGee Monuments, http://nearsay.com/c/94635/67943/remember-your-loved-ones-over-the-holidays-with-these-headstone-decoration-ideas

Janus – Image courtesy of Groume, ©2011, http://www.flickr.com/photos/groume/5975429093
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Dead Poet’s Society video – courtesy of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9EjOCyyCWg

MacGregor’s Pen 2015

The year 2015 was an interesting year for many reasons, but I will remember it as the year that I started this blog.  For all of you reading this, I owe you my thanks and appreciation.  I will continue to bring you science and writing articles into 2016, starting with a new post (tentatively) on January 1st.  But until then, I wanted to give you an index of what I consider to be my favorite part of this year:  bringing you my Science Explains Fantasy posts.  I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time, and I’m glad that 2015 was the year in which I was able to realize this goal.  Thank you for being receptive to my work, and I wish you a healthy, happy new year.

Science Explains Fantasy: An Introduction

Science Explains Fantasy: Immortality

Science Explains Fantasy: Shapeshifting

Science Explains Fantasy: Superhumans

Science Explains Fantasy: Superhumans (Part 2)

Science Explains Fantasy: Monsters

Science Explains Fantasy: Weaknesses

Lastly, here was my favorite article of the year, even though it wasn’t an SEF post:

Weird Science: Echolocation Suit

The Hidden Dogma in Science

This post comes to you courtesy of my friend, Kerry, whom I write with occasionally. Her sentiments on the current state of science-based academics closely mirrors those of my own. I don’t usually post opinion pieces on my blog, but I feel that most people aren’t aware of the politics of academics in general, not to mention those in the field science.  If you like Kerry’s post, make sure to check out her other work on her blog, Metanoia.

Metanoia

   I was an extremely good student in high school. I did everything I was supposed to, taking on as many extracurriculars as I possibly could, while still getting good grades and taking charge of all my responsibilities. I played the flute and made it into our school’s wind ensemble. I was a girl scout and a member of the national honor society, as well as other honor societies. I took on literary clubs and was extremely involved with the community. I also took a great liking to science, particularly biology, and english (depending on my teacher, shout out to Ms. Stern). I like to forget that high school happened sometimes, but I was coerced into thinking about everything despite this when I ran into my 11th grade AP bio teacher as I was writing Metanoia in a nearby Starbucks.

   What can I say about the difference between then…

View original post 1,015 more words

Weird Science: Regrowing Teeth

Do you cringe when a character in a movie loses a tooth?  If you said yes, you’re not alone.  According to this source, having dreams about teeth and teeth-related problems is extremely common and remains one of the most common dream-related searches.  One reason why many of us may have “teeth anxiety” is because teeth are permanent and cannot be replaced.  After our baby teeth are lost, there is no second chance if something happens to our adult teeth. However, that may soon change.

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The Mooney laboratory at Harvard University has developed a potential method [1] of growing teeth after both “natural” sets have been damaged in some way. Their goal was to manipulate stem cells – cells that can develop into almost any other cell (nerve, muscle, etc.) – into growing into dentin, a type of tissue specific to teeth.

The scientists suspected that the stem cells could be “tricked” into producing dentin by activating something called LTGF-β1, which stands for latent transforming growth factor-β1.  Years, ago, this growth factor has been shown to activate stem cells [2], but most methods of activation required harsh conditions in order to accomplish.  The Mooney lab reports that previous conditions that have activated LTGF-β1 are extreme pH, heat, ultrasound, and a host of other measures; however, one of the more attractive options remained low-power light, or “LPL.”  Low-power light generates reactive oxygen species in the tissue. These species then activates LTGF-β1, which is thought to be the body’s command to tell a stem cell to become dentin.

Using a near-infrared laser as their source of low-power light, the scientists tested their hypothesis on live rats, and they were able to trigger dentin production after 12 weeks of LPL treatment. After their success with mice, they tested the treatment on a culture of human stem cells, and they received similar results, although their report did not include a timescale on which the dentin was produced, unlike the report for the mice.

However, this breakthrough does not only lend itself to potential revolutions in dental medicine. LTGF-β1 is capable of multiple functions from regulating immune response [3] to developing other types of cells, such as muscle [4]. The scientists in this study hope that their work will lead to “clinical translation of LPL treatments to modulate pain, inflammation, or immune responses, and promote tissues regeneration of bone, neural, vascular, and muscle tissues.”

So should we chow down on candy and cola with reckless abandon now that we our teeth are no longer as irreplaceable as we once thought? That probably would not be wise, considering that this technique is still in development. Additional modifications need to be made to their procedure, because although the experiment yielded the proper type of tissue, it did not grow it in the ideal shape for the formation of a new tooth. The scientists hypothesize that they can fix these issues with further testing and that these problems may not even manifest in larger subjects.

Regardless of the outcome, it’s important to remember to take care of the teeth you have, so that they don’t end up broken, rotten, or pulled out – as is common in many dreams. Because even if some weird science makes our teeth replaceable in the future, we’re currently stuck with the ones that we have.

 

Jonathan MacGregor is a an adjunct instructor of chemistry in the SUNY system as well as a writer, currently seeking representation for his urban fantasy thriller, Blood of the Innocents.  If you have any suggestions for future installments of Science Explains Fantasy, you may tweet to him (@JDMacGregor) using the hashtag #ScienceExplainsFantasy.  Excerpts from his novel are available at his 20lines account.

References:

[1]  Arany, P., et. al.  “Photoactivation of Endogenous Latent Transforming Growth Factor-β1 Directs Dental Stem Cell Differentiation for Regeneration.”  Science Translational Medicine.  2014. 6(238)  238-269.

[2]  Smith, A.  “Vitality of the dentin-pulp complex in health and disease:  growth factors as key mediators.”  Journal of Dental Education.  2003.   67(6).  678-689.

[3]  Li, M., et. al.  “Transforming growth factor-β regulation of immune responses.”  Annual Review of Immunology2006.  24:  99-146.

[4]  Sinha, S., et. al.  “Transforming growth factor-β1 signaling contributes to development of smooth muscle cells from embryonic stem cells.” 

 

Images:

Featured Image – Image courtesy of Jim Kravitz, ©2011, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimmypk/6093774539

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Science Explains Fantasy: Weaknesses

Even the mightiest of us have our weaknesses.  Superman, the embodiment of physical superiority, is reduced to a position of humility in the presence of kryptonite.

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Many characters in fiction have their own personal kryptonite:  werewolves and silver, vampires and sunlight… the list goes on.  Below is a picture from Serkworks that highlights the weaknesses of several famous movie monsters and villains.  Hoodies and t-shirts featuring this design are available here.

How to kill monsters

Kryptonite may not be real, but it has become synonymous with weakness.  But can we have our own personal kryptonite?  The concept of having a personal weakness is far more commonplace than you might think.

Allergies

Allergies are so common that this segment hardly needs any introduction.  It is estimated that 15 million Americans suffer from food-related allergies alone, which marks a 50% increase from those estimated in 1997.  Although it remains unclear why allergies are on the rise in general, it’s no mystery of how they develop in an individual.

Your body’s immune system is really great at fighting off invading germs. That’s because your body has trained itself to recognize the chemical signature of the germs and send out a squadron of antibodies custom-designed to attach to the surface of each different invader. Those chemical signatures on the germs that your body recognizes as harmful are called “antigens,” and when an antibody attaches to an antigen, the germ can be easily destroyed by the body.

However, sometimes your body can get a little overambitious.  There is a particular type of antibody that helps defend your body against parasites called Immunoglobulin E, or IgE for short.  In some individuals, for reasons which are currently not understood, the body misinterprets some ingested food (like milk or peanuts) as an invading antigen, and it sends out the IgE antibodies to attack (see picture below).

How Allergies Work

The unfortunate news is that IgE doesn’t float around freely in your body for long.  Eventually, it binds to mast cells in your bloodstream, and then things become a lot more uncomfortable for you.  You see the next time you eat that same food (milk, peanuts, etc.), the IgE will still be sitting on those same mast cells, and when they bind to the food “antigen,” they will instruct the mast cells to release histamine (the “powerful chemicals” in the diagram above) into your body, which causes itching, sneezing, or even inflammatory swelling, which could lead to death if it happens near the throat.  The reason for the itching and swelling is because IgE is mainly used to eliminate parasites from your body, and the human body’s method of choice for this process is inflammation.

So, what does any of this have to do with fantasy?  Well, allergies aren’t restricted to pollen and food.  You can also become allergic to a whole host of materials such as…

Silver Bullets

As the legend goes, a werewolf can only be killed with silver.  This piece of myth likely stems from the metal’s long association with good luck and the moon; however, you don’t need to be a werewolf to have a bad reaction to silver.

It’s not uncommon for people to experience allergic reactions to nickel in the form of skin rashes upon contact with metal jewelry.  Such reactions are called acute contact dermatitis, and an example is shown below.

The rash is in the shape of the pendant’s surface, which is the cause of the allergy.

What does this have to do with silver?  Most silver jewelry contains nickel, either in large quantities to cheapen the cost of silver jewelry, or as trace impurities left over from the silver purification process.  As a result, many people who believe that they are allergic to silver may, in fact, actually be allergic to nickel instead.

Researchers believe that dietary nickel [1] plays an important role in the development of this allergy, and nickel can be found in the most surprising places.  Although most people won’t die from exposure to silver or nickel like a werewolf might, some extreme cases of the condition do cause anaphylactic shock, which will lead to death if not treated immediately.

Garlic

In last week’s post, I talked about a medical condition known as porphyria, which causes skin lesions in individuals who are exposed to sunlight.  Vampires have an extensive list of weaknesses, but after sunlight, perhaps the most famous is garlic.

Garlic has been viewed as a medicinal plant in large areas of Eastern Europe, and as such, it has been rumored to be able to ward off evil spirits such as demons and vampires.  However, just like with other edible plants, people can develop food allergies to garlic as well.

Although allergies to garlic are not widespread, scientists have isolated antibodies associated with garlic [2].  Just like any other food allergies, allergies to garlic would cause itching, sneezing, and inflammation – possibly leading to death.  Perhaps what’s more interesting is that upon ingesting large quantities of garlic, no existing allergy is even required to experience these symptoms.  Exposure to large quantities of allicin, a principle component of garlic, will trigger a similar response even in individuals who are not sensitive to garlic.

Kryptonite

Remember earlier when I said that kryptonite wasn’t real?  Well, it’s only not real in the sense that there is no glowing green mineral with the same relative properties.  However, the Superman mythos has been around for 70+ years, and because it has become a cultural touchstone, many people have tried to justify the existence of kryptonite.

In 2003, the 70th anniversary of Superman comics, the Royal Society of Chemistry in Great Britain commissioned researchers at the University of Leicester to synthesize some ceremonial “kryptonite” in honor of the hero.  Considering that kryptonite is Superman’s greatest weakness, I’m not sure that they thought that idea through, but the researchers did in fact come up with a greenish, crystalline material called krypton difluoride.  This is quite an achievement, considering that real-life element krypton is largely unreactive, chemically speaking.

The chemists who synthesized the “kryptonite” suggested that perhaps the ill effects that Superman feels when in the presence of this compound are from radiation from a radioactive form of the element krypton, which may be plentiful on his home planet, but not ours.

And, of course, there was this terrific photo opportunity:

[Photo: superman with 'kryptonite']

But that’s not even the weirdest story about kryptonite that you’ll hear today.  In 2007, miners found actual kryptonite while mining in Serbia.  Here’s a picture:

The real kryptonite - Jadarite (NHM)
Huh?

You’ll note the lack of green crystalline material present in the picture above.  Also, the sample isn’t radioactive.  So why is it called kryptonite?

To answer that, you have to go all the way back to 2006 and remember a scene from Brian Singer’s Superman Returns.  In one blink-and-you-miss-it scene, Lex Luthor, Superman’s archenemy, is carrying a sample of kryptonite in a case labeled “sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide,” which just so happens to be the exact formula of the mineral unearthed in Serbia… one year after the movie hit theaters.

As of yet, the “kryptonite” – now named jadarite – does not have any commercial uses; however, scientists speculate that its lithium could be used in energy applications and its borosilicate nature may have applications in (ironically) processing radioactive waste.

The Wrap-Up

We’ve seen a review of how allergies work, in addition to silver, garlic, and kryptonite itself.  Having weaknesses is not only possible; it’s real.  Silver (okay, nickel) and garlic are only two of the many examples possible.  There are certain food and materials that could be our own personal kryptonite.  Heck, even “kryptonite” (or krypton difluoride… or jadarite…) could be our own personal kryptonite, depending on how much we’re exposed to it.  This is one of the few times where I get to say that this element of fantasy is not only plausible… it’s possible.  Thank you for reading my weekly words.

 

Jonathan MacGregor is a an adjunct instructor of chemistry in the SUNY system as well as a writer, currently seeking representation for his urban fantasy thriller, Blood of the Innocents.  If you have any suggestions for future installments of Science Explains Fantasy, you may tweet to him (@JDMacGregor) using the hashtag #ScienceExplainsFantasy.  Excerpts from his novel are available at his 20lines account.

References:

[1]  Zirwas, M. and Molenda, M.  “Dietary Nickel as a Cause of Systemic Contact Dermatitis.”  J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2009.  2(6):  39–43.

[2]  Kao, S., et. al.  “Identification and immunologic characterization of an allergen, alliin lyase, from garlic (Allium sativum).”  J Allergy Clin Immunol.  2004.  113(1):  161-8.

 

Images:

Featured Image – Image courtesy of Shmuel Roiz, ©2015, http://www.flickr.com/photos/127523566@N08/18468775731
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Serkworks – Image courtesy of serkworks at http://www.serkworks.com/how-to-kill-monsters-print/

Allergy Scheme – Image courtesy of NIAID at http://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/allergies/allergy-basics/allergy2.htm

Dermatitis – Image courtesy of Color Atlas of Pediatric Dermatology at http://www.medicinenet.com/image-collection/nickel_contact_dermatitis_from_necklace_picture/picture.htm

Superman with Kryptonite – Image courtesy of the University of Leicester at http://www.le.ac.uk/press/press/themanofsteel.html

Jadarite – Image courtesy of BBC News at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6584229.stm

Science Explains Fantasy: Monsters

As the air gets crisper and the leaves begin to change, the calendar marches steadily toward October 31st and the holiday synonymous with it:  Halloween.  It’s a time for celebrating horror and thrills and everything that goes bump in the night.  It’s a time for celebrating monsters.

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When most people consider the word “monster,” they undoubtedly picture something grotesque and hideous… something frightening from which they would like to flee.  However, for this post, I’d like you to consider a different definition of the word.  The first definition of “monster” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is “an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure.”  It’s important to understand that appearing abnormal does not necessarily make one hideous or grotesque.  And, looking ahead to Halloween, the celebration of all things unusual and wonderful, I’d like to take a closer look at some real-life medical conditions that give people some of the “abnormal forms or structures” of fictitious “monsters.”  Let’s start with one that we’ve already discussed.

Werewolves

In a recent article on shapeshifting, we looked at how one might go about making themselves look like the closest human equivalent of a werewolf.  That explanation involved a condition known as hypertrichosis, or excessive hair growth, which is nicknamed “Werewolf syndrome.”  Those affected by this condition are people who are no different than you or me except for a few lines of genetic code that makes them look a bit furrier.

hypertrichosis

Hypertrichosis is a rare genetic condition that affects 1 out of every billion people.  And, as we’ve previously discussed, thanks to those with this affliction, scientists have isolated the gene for this disorder with the hope of future applications in hair regrowth through gene therapy.

Another condition that makes people look closer to a Wolf Man is the vestigial tail.  Vestigial tails are an atavistic trait, which means that our DNA has the proper information to tell our body how to make it, but those set of instructions hardly ever gets used.  However, because of some genetic fluke, there are some rare instances [1] in which those instructions do get used, and human babies are born with tails.  These are called vestigial tails, and they can be removed by a simple surgery.

So, however unlikely it may be, if a person were born with both a vestigial tail and hypertrichosis, they would look as close as possible to a werewolf while still being 100% human.

Mama

Marfan syndrome is a medical condition affecting 1 of every 5,000 people, and in addition to various heart and vision problems, the condition makes individuals rather tall and slender.  People with this condition are not monsters… well, except for one.  No, really.  Javier Botet is a film actor who has been featured in multiple horror movies, playing the part of a monster in the film.  Botet also happens to suffer from Marfan syndrome.  His unique, slender physiology, combined with the proper lighting, make-up, and choreography make for a memorable and haunting performance.  Check out this test footage for his performance as the titular character in Andrés Muschietti’s Mama.

However, Botet has not relied on his biology as a crutch in the film industry.  He has been busy with an assortment of other projects as an actor, director, writer, and producer; and I encourage you to explore them on his IMDB page.

Vampires

So far, we’ve explored ways in which humans, through some genetic fluke, can wind up with some physical abnormality, which makes them resemble some creature of legend.  Now, let’s look at one that is psychological:  the craving to drink blood.

This publication from a psychology journal [2] has cited multiple sources on what the exact definition of “clinical vampirism” is. I’ll save you some reading and tell you it’s a rare psychological condition that involves the fascination of consuming or drawing someone’s blood, potentially combined with one or more of the following: sexual aggression, violence, cannibalism, and necrophilia. One particular example that the authors cited seemed like the plot of an actual horror story (WARNING: graphic content):

 

“In 1978, during a two-day rampage in the Mayenne region of France, a 39-year-old man attempted to rape a preadolescent girl, also biting her deeply in the neck, murdered an elderly man whose blood he drank and whose leg he partially devoured, killed a cow by bleeding it to death, murdered a married couple of farmers, and almost succeeded in doing the same with their farm hand. Arrested on the third day, he also admitted to strangling his wife almost a year before and disguising her death as a drowning.”

 

This story was one of the many – and frighteningly true – anecdotes in just that one paper.  The paper does mention that clinical vampirism (or behaving as if you were a vampire) is quite rare, but decidedly real.

I can imagine that some of you are unimpressed.  People can believe that they’re almost anything, right?  Well, let’s switch gears and focus on a physical malady that resembles the worst part of being a vampire:  being burned by the sunlight.

In this New York Times article, Dr. David Dolphin outlined a hypothesis of his to “explain” vampires using science, and his explanation was porphyria.  Porphyria is a disease that – long story short – makes its suffers’ skin quite sensitive to sunlight.  So sensitive, in fact, that porphyria victims can become disfigured by exposure to even mild, mid-morning daylight.  The cure for this disease?  Large injections of blood.

Some of Dolphins claims are a bit of a stretch; for instance, there is no evidence that drinking any quantity of blood will ever deliver blood to the skin, where it’s needed.  He also has received criticism from expert folklorists, who noted that the earliest vampire legends reported vampires sightings in the daylight.  It should be noted that even the titular character of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was only limited in power during the day, not killed.  Even still, critics must understand that any attempt for science to explain fantasy will be imperfect; although I suspect that most of the backlash against Dolphin came from him accusing early sufferers of porphyria of biting other humans:  something that A) is degrading to actual porphyria sufferers and B) is not supported by any historical claims during the time the vampire legends started.  Fun theories are fun until you accuse someone of being an actual vampire.

Mermaids

Because there is usually a negative stigma associated with the word “monster,” most usually don’t think of mermaids as such, because they are often considered alluring and beautiful.  Two things on that:  A) according to some pirate myths, a mermaid’s beauty was just a trap to lead sailors to their doom, and B) our definition of monsters merely identifies a “monster” as someone with an abnormal physiology, and a mermaid definitely fits the bill.

But, this is the part of the article where I admit that I’m cheating just a little.  I’ll explain why in a minute, but first take a look at this video featuring Hannah Fraser, the closest thing to a real-life mermaid.  And no, the video is not doctored.

If you’ve watched the video, then no doubt you’ve seen the breathtaking images of Hannah swimming fin-by-fin with whales and manta rays, moving with all the grace of Ariel herself.  The fact that she attempts these dives without scuba gear is a testament to her skill, but even so you’ve probably already figured out that the fin she was wearing was nothing more than a prosthetic.  But, in my opinion, that makes this case more interesting.

According to this interview with 20/20, Hannah wanted nothing more than to swim with the whales on their own terms.  She had been swimming since she was a small child, and when she grew up, she wanted to know what it felt like with fins.  So, she contracted a movie prop-designer to engineer her a working mermaid tail.  The results, as you can see above, are nothing less than spectacular.

Does this violate our rule of “monsters” having abnormal physiology?  Yes.  The tail doesn’t really belong to Hannah’s body.  But consider this:  Hannah is the closest thing to the Little Mermaid that you’ll ever see.  She swims with sea creatures at her leisure, and then she removes her tail to walk on dry land with two legs.  And if being the equivalent of a real-life fairy-tale isn’t enough to get a mention in an article called “Science Explains Fantasy,” I don’t know what is.

The Wrap-Up

So, we’ve seen Werewolf Syndrome, clinical vampirism, gigantism, dwarvism, one of Andrés Muschietti’s personal creations, and the closest thing to a real mermaid that you’ll ever see.  Are they the monsters of legend?  Of course not!  They’re people, like you and me, but they just look a little differently than the established norm.  But frankly, the established norm is boring; if we didn’t have differences, we wouldn’t have anything to celebrate.  So, as we look forward to Halloween, let’s enjoy the out-of-the-ordinary and the abnormal.  Because, even though it’s possible to share some physical characteristics as “monsters,” the only truly monstrous people are those who spread hate instead of embracing the differences in others.

So, can we have real-life werewolves, vampires, and mermaids?  Well, that’s still impossible, but I’ve shown you some ways that might make it slightly more plausible.  Thank you for reading my weekly words.

 

Jonathan MacGregor is a an adjunct instructor of chemistry in the SUNY system as well as a writer, currently seeking representation for his urban fantasy thriller, Blood of the Innocents.  If you have any suggestions for future installments of Science Explains Fantasy, you may tweet to him (@JDMacGregor) using the hashtag #ScienceExplainsFantasy.  Excerpts from his novel are available at his 20lines account.

References:

[1]  Mukhopadhyay, B., et. al.  “Spectrum of human tails:  A report of six cases.”  J Indian Assoc Pediatr Surg.  2012.  17(1):  23–25.

[2] Jaffe, P. and DiCatado, F.  “Clinical Vampirism:  Blending Myth and Reality.”  Bull. Am. Acad. Psychiatry Law1994.  22(4).  533-544.

Images:

Featured Image – Image courtesy of Jessica, ©2011, https://www.flickr.com/photos/goaliej54/6265100499

Hypertrichosis – Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/pin/453878468666366972/

Mama Test Footage – courtesy of http://io9.com/5979340/motion-test-for-mamas-ghostly-creature-is-freaky-all-by-itself

Mermaid Footage – courtesy of Hannah Fraser at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aa2LrAM5tek

Weird Science: Echolocation Suit

On Monday’s post of “Science Explains Fantasy,” I talked about human echolocation and how some blind individuals can navigate their environments by making a series of clicking noises and listening to the echoes of the sound to detect obstacles.  This method of navigation, also used by bats and dolphins, is an effective way for a visually-impaired person to explore his or her environment without sight.

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However, learning to navigate this way takes a lot of time… so much time in fact, that the brains of experts in this method of navigation have been shown to be “rewired” to help process the information.  Suffice it to say that it’s not an easy task to master.  But what if mastering echolocation was as easy as putting on a belt… or seven belts, maybe?  Well, it could be with the help of one friendly neighborhood…

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SpiderSense.  At least that’s what they’re calling the thing.  Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago have developed a device that allows anyone to be able to experience echolocation through their sense of touch.  Inspired by Spider-Man’s similarly-named sixth sense that alerts him of danger (for instance, if someone were sneaking up behind him), the research team created a device that could do something similar.  Take a look at the pictures below.

SpiderLibrary

The above picture gives you a rough idea of what the prototype looks like.  They’re a couple of bands with sensors on them (seven sensors in total), which are secured to the user’s body on the wrists, knees, head, back, chest, and shoulders.  These sensors contain speakers that emanate a high-pitched sound (much like a bat does when it echolocates).  The sound echoes off of nearby objects and back to the sensor, which processes the intensity of the sound.  Once the sensor does some fancy math, it’s able to approximate how much distance is between itself and the object that the echo bounced off of.

To signal its wearer of the magnitude of this distance, the sensor is able to control a ratchet arm (see above photo) that presses against the wearer.  If the wearer feels a small tap, this would mean that the sensor detects an object far away (a weak response from a weak signal).  However, a large tap would represent a close object (a strong response from a strong signal).  The video below shows it in action as one of its creators walks through a convention hall:

How good is this gadget at detecting fast-moving things in real time?  Well, since the inventors of the SpiderSense were comic book enthusiasts, they decided to test the gizmo’s response time in the only way that seemed fitting:  by having a blindfolded user try to hit moving people with foam ninja stars.  They also ran a few more mundane tests, such as having blindfolded users walk through hallways or library stacks (as pictured above) without running into anything.

The SpiderSense is still in prototype, but it shows much promise.  The concept of turning echolocation, an activity associated with hearing, into something that can be perceived through touch is quite clever.  It demonstrates that although we possess or five senses, the possibilities for what we do with them are endless.

Furthermore, as a fan of fictitious echolocation specialist, Daredevil, and comics in general, I’m reminded by another startling similarity between fact and fiction.  Here’s a panel of Daredevil (in red) explaining how his radar sense works:

RadarSense

A quick summary of his ability would be “echolocation with a tactile facet,” which is more or less what science has allowed us to develop.  Granted, I’m sure that Daredevil means something a little different when he says “tactile,” but the concept that he describes is eerily similar to what we have.

Unfortunately, SpiderSense won’t hit the shelves anytime soon, but if you would like to see one in action, this video can help you build your own:

I sincerely hope that no one reading this ever has to experience blindness, but if you do, in the near future science will be watching your back.  Literally.

 

Jonathan MacGregor is a an adjunct instructor of chemistry in the SUNY system as well as a writer, currently seeking representation for his urban fantasy thriller, Blood of the Innocents.  If you have any suggestions for future installments of Science Explains Fantasy, you may tweet to him (@JDMacGregor) using the hashtag #ScienceExplainsFantasy.  Excerpts from his novel are available at his 20lines account.

 

Images:

Featured Image – Image courtesy of Televisione Streaming, ©2015, http://www.flickr.com/photos/televisione/19311804189

Spider-Man – Image courtesy of Sarah Ackerman, ©2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/sackerman519/15387709933

SpiderSense Library – Image courtesy of Lance Long, ©2014, http://news.uic.edu/evls-spidersense-suit-grabs-national-geographics-attention

SpiderSense Closeup – Image courtesy of http://i.ytimg.com/vi/XmnM9XNglOk/maxresdefault.jpg

SpiderSense Ninja Star – Image courtesy of Lance Long, ©2014, http://chicagoinno.streetwise.co/2014/10/08/are-your-spidey-senses-tingling-this-wearable-tech-lets-you-sense-when-obstacles-are-near/

Daredevil Comic Strip – Image courtesy of Marvel Comics, http://www.theothermurdockpapers.com/2011/10/radar-sense-present-time/

Ultrasonic Spider Sense video – courtesy of Make:  at “https://www.youtube.com/embed/IJHEQuAYw6A”

Science Explains Fantasy: Superhumans (Part 2)

Superhumans.  They’ve saturated the media from the summer’s biggest blockbusters to television’s most successful programs.  Last week, we discussed physical abilities common to fiction:  enhanced strength and enhanced speed.  But sometimes, brawn doesn’t always solve the world’s problems.  And you don’t need to be physically superlative to be an Action Star.  Characters like Daredevil rely on their training and sharp senses to get the job done.

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“Action Star” by Jessica Lorraine

But are there limits to what our senses can perceive?  Or, like in the comics, can science help us unlock some untapped potential?  Well, first let’s see what we can see.

Ultraviolet Vision

Usually, when people get corrective eye surgery, they expect to see what a “normal” person sees afterward.  When Alek  Komar received his, he was able to see extra.  Alek gained the ability to see ultraviolet light, an ability we commonly witness in the animal kingdom in birds, honeybees, and other animals.  However, humans lack the ability to see into the UV spectrum, because the natural lenses of our eyes absorb UV radiation, preventing it from hitting our retinas.  And, if our retinas can’t detect it, we can’t see it.

However, Alek underwent surgery to replace his lens with a synthetic one that didn’t block the UV light, so, he accidentally gained the ability to see in the UV spectrum.  The picture below, taken from Alek’s website, gives a rough idea of the extra colors that he’s able to see.

cataract vision example color brightness

According to his website, where he chronicles his entire surgery experience, up to 3% of individuals who undergo this surgery can gain this ability, depending on eye sensitivity.

“But this ability doesn’t seem particularly useful,” you might say.  “Wouldn’t it be better if we could see infrared light, like some cameras do?”  Yes.  And some people have tried this already.

Infrared Vision

Within the past few years, there has been an increased interest in transhumanism, which is defined as using scientific and technological breakthroughs to enhance human physiology. On particular team of transhumanists has recently attempted to extend the range of their eyesight to see infrared light. Their website outlines their experiment fairly well, but the gist of it goes something like this.

Your eyes use a chemical called “retinal” in order to see. Retinal changes shape when it absorbs light, and proteins in your eyes called “opsins” – which hold onto these molecules of retinal – can tell when the retinal changes shape. These opsins, which are located in your retinas, send a signal to your brain, indicating what color you saw. There are different forms of these opsins that help you distinguish different colors and wavelengths of light. Alek Komar’s, from above, were able to pick up ultraviolet light, and some people argue that maybe retinas can pick up infrared light with a little help.

The “help” in question is called vitamin A2.  Your body gets its retinal – the chemical that helps you see – from vitamin A, which you get from your diet.  This is why we have a saying that carrots are good for your eyesight:  they’re a great source of vitamin A.  However, as our transhumanist friends have pointed out in their experiment, vitamin A2 can absorb infrared light better than regular vitamin A.  They suggest that if they were to change their diet, eating exclusively vitamin A2, the retinal in their eyes would slowly begin to see infrared light over time.

However, this experiment is somewhat dangerous in the sense that depriving our body of vitamin A could lead to a whole host of problems [1].  Besides that, the science has been notably called into question by a neuroscientist; you can read his criticism here.  The experimenters have defended their stance reasonably well, although it should be noted that after the project’s wrap a year ago, the project’s website has not been updated with details regarding their findings.

So can humans ever hope to see infrared light?  Well, we kind of already can.  In this study [2], multiple scientists researching infrared radiation noted seeing flashes of green light while working with an infrared laser.  After running a series of tests, they determined that under the proper conditions, the opsins of the eye can absorb infrared light as long as it was dosed in multiple, short pulses that could deliver as much energy as one pulse of visible light.  This may be the consolation prize in terms of human night-vision, but at least it’s something, right?

Echolocation

Okay, so you probably won’t be able to use infrared vision to navigate through the dark anytime soon.  But hey, that never stopped Daredevil, right?  Heck, he can’t even see at all!  What if science could somehow modify your biology so that you could navigate based on echolocation, sort of like he does?  Well, it can’t.  But that’s okay, because it doesn’t even have to…

For those of you who didn’t watch the above video, you just missed watching a blind man ride his bicycle through the street without any negative repercussion whatsoever.  The man’s name is Daniel Kish, and he can echolocate, meaning that he can navigate in a similar fashion to a bat or a dolphin:  by making a series of clicks and guessing where obstacles are based on the echoes of the sound.  And the best part is, he doesn’t need any fancy equipment, he can do this all as a result of years of practice.

While it’s true that anyone can develop this skill, Daniel has been blind since a very young age, so he’s had a lot of time to practice.  MRIs of echolocating individuals such as Daniel have revealed that the part of their brains that would’ve been dedicated to processing his vision have been “reassigned” [3] to helping them make sense of echoes.  So, while this is a skill that anyone can learn, the people who have the best chance of excelling at it are the ones who actually need it.

The Wrap-Up

We’ve looked at people who could see ultraviolet light, people who could see infrared light, and one person who could even “see” without using light at all.  The more that we explore science, the more ways we will find to surpass our limits and maybe become something more than human.  Some call these people transhuman, others call them superhuman; but, either way it’s no longer fiction.  Will we ever develop ultra-sharp senses just like Daredevil?  That’s probably not possible, but science is making that prospect look more and more plausible with each passing day.  Thank you for reading my weekly words.

Jonathan MacGregor is a an adjunct instructor of chemistry in the SUNY system as well as a writer, currently seeking representation for his urban fantasy thriller, Blood of the Innocents.  If you have any suggestions for future installments of Science Explains Fantasy, you may tweet to him (@JDMacGregor) using the hashtag #ScienceExplainsFantasy.  Excerpts from his novel are available at his 20lines account.

Jessica Lorraine is an Alaska-based photographer and model, and you can view more of her work on her DeviantArt page.

 

References:

[1]  Sommer, A.  “Vitamin A Deficiency and Clinical Disease: An Historical Overview.”  J. Nutr.  2008.
138(10).  1835-1839.

[2]  Palczewska, G., et. al.  “Human infrared vision is triggered by two-photon chromophore isomerization.”  PNAS2014.  111(50).  5445-5454.

[3]  Thaler, L., et al. (2011). “Neural Correlates of Natural Human Echolocation in Early and Late Blind Echolocation Experts.”  PLoS ONE 6 (5): e20162.

 

Images:

Featured Image courtesy of Jessica Lorraine, ©2012, http://reilune.deviantart.com/art/Action-Star-412307343

Ultraviolet – courtesy of Alek Komar, http://www.komar.org/faq/colorado-cataract-surgery-crystalens/ultra-violet-color-glow/

Echolocation video – courtesy of perceivingacting at “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8lztr1tu4o”

MBTI Blog Challenge: How To Write an INTP

I was recently challenged by Kerry Jane of Metanoia as part of a movement wherein writers explain their own Myers-Briggs Personality Type as a reference for other writers when developing characters.  None of this would have been particularly odd, except that both Kerry and I identified as INTJs, despite such personalities being relatively rare at 1-2% of the total population.  So, instead of writing a duplicate post, I decided to retake the Myers-Briggs to see if my personality has changed over the years.

What I remembered from the previous times in which I took test was that each of the traits are on a spectrum, meaning that even if you identify as, let’s say, introverted (I), there is a particular percentage correlated with that score indicating how introverted you are.  For me, the trait that’s routinely closest to flipping back and forth is judgment (J), whose counterpart is perceiving (P).  So, I decided to read up on the personality traits of the INTP, and I saw a lot of myself in the description.  Before you consider the rest of my article to be less than genuine, consider this:  just because one’s test results spits out a certain combination of letters, it doesn’t mean that the description is accurate.  The Myers-Briggs is only as reliable as the judgment of the person taking it.  That being said, let me introduce you the world from a (part-time) INTP.

“INTPs are perhaps the most intellectually profound of all the types.” – Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing

First, let me tell you what the alphabet soup means.  INTP translates to “Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving.”  But that’s not even half of it.  You see, each personality type has a list of cognitive functions through which they interpret the world around them.  Think of these functions as tools in a toolbox.  Some get used more often than others, depending on who’s holding the toolbox.  For instance, a plumber might prefer using a wrench than a carpenter may use sparingly.  Lets have a look at the INTP’s tools.

  • Introverted Thinking – The main tool in our toolbox is a desire to understand specific properties of a system.  We like to analyze all situations (not just problems) from a multitude of angles in an attempt to understand the entire system and how things interact with each other.  We also tend to do this with speech and writing.  If we correct you when you talk, it’s not to show off our skills (usually), it’s to have a better understanding of what you’re communicating.
  • Extraverted intuition – Our second best tool is coming up with crazy ideas.  We’re super open-minded when it comes to solving problems to the point where we’ll entertain ideas simply because no one has disproven that they’re ineffective.  Our love of ideas helps us to come up with plans, scenarios, and contingencies that no one else even bothers to think of.  However, our tendency to get lost in thought prevents us from applying a majority of our plans to action.
  • Introverted sensing – Our third best tool is reliving memories.  As thought-based people, we enjoy activities that help us relive fond memories.  Playing a favorite song.  Eating a favorite food.  Walking through a familiar place.  Sometimes even walking through a new place could even help us relive some fantasies that we’ve had.  Every once is a great while, one of our memories will carry relevant information with it about a problem we’re trying to solve.  A flash of brilliance.  Part of the benefit of living inside your mind a lot is the ability to call on information and experiences from your past.
  • Extraverted feeling – Our fatal flaw is that our social skills are the least-used tools in the toolbox.  INTPs are incredibly warm and friendly people who desire to be close to others… if you get to know us first.  If we’re out of our comfort zone (which is anywhere but our own head), we’ll go into “robot mode” and default entirely to processing the world around us logically to avoid offending anyone or embarrassing ourselves.  But, once we’ve found a like-minded person or group or persons to mingle with, we socialize just fine.  However, being naturally introverted, there are times when it’s simply best to withdraw from others for a little while and recharge on our own.
Now that we’ve seen what the mind of an INTP is like, let’s list a few famous individuals who are thought to be INTPs:
  • Albert Einstein
  • Charles Darwin
  • Marie Curie
  • Tina Fey
  • Ben Stein
  • Randall Munroe (of xkcd fame)
Fictional:
  • Sherlock Holmes (literary version)
  • Doctor Manhattan
  • Walter Bishop (of Fringe)
  • Sheldon Cooper (of The Big Bang Theory)
Interestingly enough, I found it difficult finding fictional INTP examples that didn’t fall into the “absent-minded professor” stereotype.  The truth here is that because we’re often swimming in a sea of thoughts, it’s easier to lose focus when you have to sift through so much information before you get to the memory that you need.  And because we don’t like to rule out information, we stop and evaluate all of the thoughts that we “dig” through when we’re trying to remember something.  Growing up, I wish I had a nickel for every time my Mom would say, “Answer the question,” after listening to me ramble about all of the interconnected thoughts I had concerning the particular questions she would ask me.  It’s a bit a blessing and a curse, but such is life.
The truth is, I have a greater admiration for the world around me than the average person.  Because I take the time to analyze the complexity of everything – even down to the molecular level (I’m a chemist, in case you didn’t know) – I am constantly in awe that our species is still thriving (but we still haven’t reached overpopulation yet), our earth is still spinning, and that the hemoglobin in my blood is still doing an excellent job at shuttling oxygen to and from my lungs and brain.  These thoughts may seem random, but a fellow INTP would recognize that all of these things require a carefully balanced system in order to operate, otherwise we face death.  The world is a truly beautiful place in the eyes of an INTP; just ask us… honestly, we’d probably forget to mention it otherwise.
 I would like to thank Kerry Jane at Metanoia for including me in this blog challenge.  You can read her article on INTJs here.  And I wish to extend this challenge to others.  I’d like to challenge my friends Michael Barron of Edge Country and Ronald Barak of www.ronaldsbarak.com to include posts on their blogs about their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  I also challenge any of my other readers should they want to participate, as well.
For anyone interested in learning more quirky facts about all the Myers-Briggs Types, I’ve included some fun and interesting links below for your reading pleasure.  Thanks for reading.
Awesome tumblr posts:  http://fun-mbti-analysis.tumblr.com/
Image Credits:
INTP Matrix Meme:  Image courtesy of:  http://memecrunch.com/meme/RH5T/intp-matrix/image.png
INTP Everything is Beautiful:  Image courtesy of:  http://i52.tinypic.com/kd1j78.jpg

Science Explains Fantasy: Monsters

Today’s post of “Science Explains Fantasy” will be hosted on sciencemeetsfantasy.clapway.com.  If you would like to receive email updates regarding future posts on that site, please subscribe here.

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Thanks for following my blog, and I’ll see you over at sciencemeetsfantasy.clapway.com!

 

Featured Image:  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode
-Image courtesy of Jessica, ©2011, http://www.flickr.com/photos/goaliej54/6265100499