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

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

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.

action_star_by_jessica_lorraine
“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”

I am now an official Clapway affiliate!

I recently became an affiliate of clapway.com, a website full of quirky science facts! They have chosen to syndicate my blog, which I’ve retitled “ScienceMeetsFantasy” under their banner.

ScienceMeetsFantasy

My featured articles are titled “Science Explains Fantasy,” where I explain fake fantasy using real science. I currently have posts on immortality, shapeshifting, and superhumans with more topics to come each week. I also do occasional posts on “Weird Science,” where I describe some unusual scientific achievement in a bit more detail than my other articles. Also, I’ve uploaded some photos of Sunday’s Super Blood Moon, as well as the other phases of the eclipse.

IMG_0225

Please visit it at http://sciencemeetsfantasy.clapway.com and subscribe if you enjoy the content. Also, please disable any ad-blockers you might be using, so that I can earn some money from your viewing pleasure. Thank you all, and I’ll see you at ScienceMeetsFantasy!

Image credits:

Featured Images:
Plasma:  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
-Image courtesy Chase Clark, ©2012, http://www.flickr.com/photos/chasblackman/7006530174

Dragon:  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode
-Image courtesy of Aggiorna, ©2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/98773380@N05/12253669714

Both of the above images were altered in size and condensed into one picture for this blog.

Read more at Clapway: http://sciencemeetsfantasy.clapway.com/2015/09/30/science-explains-fantasy-an-introduction/#ixzz3nKdnCYGQ
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Science Explains Fantasy: Superhumans

Super-powered individuals:  they’re everywhere.  From the latest Avengers movie, to Pixar’s The Incredibles, to DC’s wildly successful television programs, the latest fad seems to be superheroes.  The reason that last word is crossed out, is because DC and Marvel share a trademark on that word, believe it or not.  But, as far as I know, there’s no trademark on “superheroes.”

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But can we be superheroes or “supers,” as The Incredibles puts it?  Are there limits to our strength, speed, and human physiology?  Or, like in the comics, can science help us unlock some untapped potential?  For starters, let’s talk about something that we already know is within the realm of possibility.

Enhanced Strength

Last week, we talked about how certain conditions could lead to enhanced muscle growth.  One example of this was the Belgian Blue cow, which is bred to look like the livestock version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Told ya.

These cows are bred to have a defect in how they process myostatin, which is chemical that tells your body to maybe chill out a bit on the whole “growing a lot” business.  However, some humans can get the same defect.  It’s called myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy, and those with this condition gain up to twice the muscle-mass of a normal individual, and the increased strength to go with it, and in case you’re wondering, nope, no medical drawbacks.

And all of this is great if you’re born with that rare condition, but is there any way to artificially induce it, like in the comics?  Well, no one’s made any super-soldier serum yet (although maybe give DARPA a few years…), but some might be one the way soon.  This study [1] focused on the effects of the NCoR1 gene, which is responsible for regulating muscle growth much in the same way that myostatin is.  They’ve -bred- genetically modified mice such that their NCoR1 gene is deleted, and they’ve found that the muscles of these mice are about twice as large as normal mice.  After this study was released, there were even talks of developing a drug that can temporarily shut off this gene to help individuals suffering from age and genetically related forms of muscle degeneration.  So, maybe one day, you could inject yourself with something that makes your muscles grow.

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I guess some of us knew that already, though.

Enhanced Speed

Strength’s nice but what about speed?  Despite being a huge Marvel fan, my favorite superhero of all time is Barry Allen:  the Flash.  Mostly, it has to do with him being a chemist like me, but I also think that super speed is hands-down the best ability to have in a fight, as evidenced by Quicksilver in X-Men:  Days of Future Past.

But can humans move like that?  No.  Just no.  Moving as fast as Quicksilver does in that scene, which has been calculated to be around 9,151 miles per hour, would be devastating to the human body around such a tight turn.  Using this method for calculating g-forces, along with the speed above and an estimated turn radius of about 25 ft., I calculated the g-forces acting on Quicksilver to be over 200,000 g’s, which is not survivable by a normal human, like us.  Here’s the math, if you’re interested:

Obtain speed in units of ft./s:

9151 mi./h = 13,420 ft./s

Divide the square of the speed by the length of the turn radius to find acceleration around the turn:

 Eq1

Divide the acceleration around the turn by the acceleration due to gravity to find magnitude of g-force:

Eq2

So, we’ll never move like Barry Allen or Pietro Maximoff, but we might be able to move faster than we currently do.  The mice that I mentioned above, in addition to having enhanced strength, were also roughly twice as fast as normal mice.  Partly, this was because of the increased muscle, because running speed has largely to do with the force applied to the ground, not necessarily how fast your legs move.  But this point aside, the mice from the above study also were observed to have an increased metabolism, affording them a higher energy output.  Fellow Marvel fans may recognize that “an increased metabolism” is exactly how Quicksilver’s abilities were explained in Avengers:  Age of Ultron.  These mice may not be as fast as he is (thank goodness), but they’re fast for the same reason that he is, which I call a win for science.

The Wrap-Up

Could we one day have enhanced speed and strength like our favorite superhero characters?  Well, we may never be as strong as the Hulk or as fast as the Flash, but science is finding ways of making us potentially stronger and faster than we currently are.  Comic creators such as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko weren’t all that far off when they cited science as the means for making humans… well, superhuman.  The above information doesn’t mean that Superman and Quicksilver are possible, but maybe it opens up the idea that their reality is a bit 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]  Yamamoto, H., et. Al.  “NCoR1 Is a Conserved Physiological Modulator of Muscle Mass and Oxidative Function.”  Cell.  2011.  147(4), 827-839.

Image licenses:

Featured Image:  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode
-Image courtesy of greyloch, ©2013, http://www.flickr.com/photos/greyloch/9719428811/

Belgian Blue:  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
-Image courtesy of FaceMePLS, ©2009, http://www.flickr.com/photos/faceme/3507884418

“Juiced”:  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
-Image courtesy of Eric Molina, ©2007, http://www.flickr.com/photos/iamagenious/767836508

Science Explains Fantasy: Shapeshifting

Change:  we can be certain that it will happen.  Whether we’re talking about the seasons, the weather, or circumstances, nothing tends to remain constant for very long.  But can we change ourselves?  Physically, I mean.  Sure, personalities change, and fashions are here and gone, but how much can we change what we look like?  Popular fiction and myth are littered with examples of this concept:  Zeus taking the form of a swan in Greek myth, Tiana and Naveen turning into frogs in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, and half of paranormal romance characters turning into werewolves are but a drop in the bucket of instances wherein physical shape is shifting from one form to another.  If you decide to add comic book characters like Mystique, Chameleon, and Clayface into the mix, shapeshifters are everywhere in fiction.

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But what does science have to say?  Is it possible to change from one physical form to another, or is this just another one of those concepts in fantasy that has no real-world counterpart?  Well, shapeshifting – as it is described above – is completely possible right now… just not for humans.  If you don’t believe me, just watch this video.

Programmable Matter

For those of you who didn’t watch the video, it was a CNN news spot on programmable matter:  matter that can rearrange itself into any shape the programmer desires.  This video shows the matter taking on the form of a model car that users could interact with and make adjustments to.  And Michio Kaku, world-famous physicist, believes that this technology could become common within our lifetime.

“But wait a second,” you say.  “That shapeshifting could potentially explain the T-1000 from Terminator, but it won’t explain werewolves.  I’m reading this for the werewolves.”

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I guess I know what team you’re on.

Okay, we’ll get there eventually, but let’s think about what programmable matter means for a moment.  Imagine that this technology exists and you lose a limb.  You could get a prosthetic that could change shape on command.  You have the potential of becoming part T-1000!

So, shapeshifting as we know it may one day be possible, provided that we acquire some synthetic replacement parts, but what about shapeshifting with the body we have now?  Well, let’s start off with a type of shapeshifting that we know is possible.  Take a look at these photos of actor Christian Bale:

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There’s also this one from 2014.

Nature vs Nurture

Looking at these photos, you might say that Bale is really good at making changes to his shape.  Through diet and exercise (or the purposeful lack thereof for his role in American Hustle in 2014), Bale is able to alter the amounts of fat and muscle present in his body.  In other words, the way he nurtures his body results in the shape that it takes.

However, there are some examples where certain genetic conditions – natural conditions, if you will – are responsible for amounts of fat and muscle present in an individual.  A great deal of this can be attributed to hormones.  Hormones are simply chemical signals that your body sends throughout the bloodstream to alert the body of how to maintain itself, such as burning calories or building muscle.  For instance, a malfunctioning thyroid (one gland responsible for secreting hormones) can lead to weight gain.  And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, some individuals have defects with how their body processes a thing called myostatin, a growth factor (growth factors are very similar to hormones) that keeps muscles from growing constantly.  While this defect is rare in humans, there are certain species of cattle, called Belgian Blue, that have been bred to inherit this defect on purpose, resulting in some of the most muscle-bound livestock you have ever seen.

Told ya.

So, through a clever use of the centuries-old practice of breeding, we can trick livestock into giving birth to some really beefy bulls.  But what if there were no easy way to breed the trait that you wanted.  What then?  Well, we’d have to roll up our sleeves and make a few adjustments to the genes after the fact.

Genetic Modification… Editing Your DNA

DNA is the blueprint that your body uses to make more cells and proteins that make you… you.  But sometimes the genes that you have are not necessarily the ones that you want.  Take for example mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disease that can lead to both mental and physical disabilities that result from a dysfunctional copy of genetic material.  However, the faulty DNA in cases like this are stored in a cell’s mitochondrion (the part of the cell that produces energy) rather than the part of the cell that stores most of the genetic information.  Because the genes are in a different part of the cell, scientists have developed methods of transferring mitochondrial DNA [1] from the egg of a healthy woman and replacing the faulty DNA in the egg of the intended mother.  So, mother’s with this genetic trait (or any other kind of mitochondrial defect) can have their own children without passing along any genetic disorders.  You could argue that by changing the DNA template of the unfertilized egg, the overall physical condition of the future child will be changed as a result.  It’s not exactly shapeshifting like we’ve talked about above, but it’s definitely related.

“But you’re changing a kid’s DNA before they’re born!” you might say.  “That doesn’t describe how I can turn into a werewolf at all!”

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Pictured: You

Indeed, you are correct, my impatient hypothetical reader, but we’re getting to that in just a bit.  First, we need to talk about revolutionary new technology called “Crispr.”

Crispr

Long story short, Crispr is a technique that can be used to cut and paste genes inside a living cell.  Unlike the fertilization technique discussed above, Crispr can replace sections of DNA in a cell that’s already moving in full swing.  Recently, WIRED ran an excellent piece explaining Crispr’s background and its potential applications, which you can read here.  One particularly promising application is the introduction of future medicine.  Scientists have already used Crispr to alter human embryos.  The ethical ramification of these methods aside, Crispr is already becoming a powerful tool to help treat human disease.  In fact, there’s one disease that Crispr may eventually cure, and it relates directly to shapeshifting.  Take a look at this picture:

The one on the left is a normal red blood cell.  The one on the right is a blood cell from someone who suffers from sickle-cell anemia.  This change in physical structure arises from just one single error in a chain of DNA.  However, Crispr and other gene editing methods have been used to pursue a cure for sickle-cell anemia, and preliminary results have been shown to be successful [2] in mice.  This means, that after the mice receive the treatment, they stop producing cells like the one on the right, and they start producing ones like the cell on the left.  It doesn’t change the shape of the existing sickle-cells, but it changes the shape of all of the future ones.

“But you promised me werewolves!”

*sigh*

Werewolves… (sort of)

Hypertrichosis is a rare genetic disorder that has been nicknamed “Werewolf syndrome” (the picture on the other end of the link should give you an idea why), because individuals suffering from it grow thick hair all over their bodies… kind of like fur.  Interestingly enough, the gene that is responsible [3] for werewolf syndrome has been isolated, meaning that it is likely only a matter of time before science manipulates the gene as a means of treating hair loss.

If you combine the activation of this gene with the activation of regrowing lost teeth – maybe with a little additional tinkering to make the teeth sharper and more atavistic in nature – you’d have the closest possible human equivalent of a werewolf.

The Wrap-Up

So, we’ve seen shapeshifting matter, Christian Bale changing his “shape” on purpose, cows being bred into a particular shape, and ways that you can tinker with your DNA to result in all sorts of changes.  Shapeshifting – as we’ve seen it in fantasy – may never become a reality with regard to our biological bodies, but there are many ways in which we can edit our genes in ways that would’ve been thought to be impossible 15 or 20 years ago.  So, at the end of the day, the goal is not to demonstrate that shapeshifting as we know it is possible, but the goal is to show that with all that we’ve discovered, it’s just a bit 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. Amato, P., et. al.  “Three-parent in vitro fertilization:  gene replacement for the prevention of inherited mitochondrial diseases.”  Fertility and Sterility2014.  101, 31-35.
  2. Gammon, K.  “Gene therapy:  Editorial control.”  Nature2014.  515, S11-S13.
  3. Zhu, H., et. al.  “X-Linked Congenital Hypertrichosis Syndrome Is Associated with Interchomosomal Insertions Mediated by A Human-Specific Palindrome near SOX3.”  2011.  88(6):  819-826.

Science Explains Fantasy: Immortality

Who wants to live forever?  Well, everyone.  Ever since the dawn of time, humankind has told stories about such things as the Fountain of Youth, the Holy Grail, and the Tree of Life, which each may grant eternal life to (or at least extend the lifespan of) the lucky discoverer.

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But the interesting thing is that these stories haven’t stopped.  But instead of hearing stories about a mystical object granting eternal life, the focus has shifted to mystical beings who possess eternal life.  Popular culture is brimming with characters who refuse to yield to the ravages of time.  Whether you’re talking about Legolas and Elrond from Lord of the Rings, the extremely long-lived Thor and Loki, or a race of death-cheaters like the Time-Lords, functionally immortal characters like Davy Jones, Dorian Gray, and the Doctor pop up everywhere, seemingly defying natural laws.  And once you add vampires into the mix, there are WAY too many immortals running around to count.

But is immortality all that farfetched?  Can we in fact live forever – or maybe at least buy one or two more trips around on this spinning blue ball?  The bad news is that we probably won’t be able to find the secret to immortality anytime soon, but the good news is that there is a real-world creature alive today that may have the secret…

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Yes, this picture is here as a joke, but seriously, does John Stamos age?

Regeneration:

The creature I’m referring to, of course, is Turritopsis dohrnii, otherwise known as the immortal jellyfish.  And no, I’m not kidding you, that’s the actual name of the jellyfish.

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Finally, science gives something a name that makes sense.

The way that these critters cheat death is through an interesting biological feature that allows them to revert back to an immature, “child-like” state and start growing old again from there.  It’s kind of like the Doctor’s regenerations on Doctor Who… only real.  Seriously.

Okay, for those of you who aren’t fans of the show, like I am, the Doctor is an alien from a far-off planet who can avoid dying by transforming every cell in his body at once.  It’s called a “regeneration” in the show.  The immortal jellyfish can pull a death-cheating trick that bears an uncanny resemblance to our fictional hero.  Granted, the jellyfish doesn’t need to be pushed to the brink of death to dodge shuffling off its mortal coil, but the overall effect isn’t dissimilar.  This article by the New York Times describes the jellyfish’s rejuvenation as “an unusual process by which one type of cell is converted into another – a skin cell into a nerve cell, for instance.  (The same process occurs in human stem cells).”  The article’s source [1], which refers to the process as “regeneration” (I kid you not), offers the additional hypothesis that the jellyfish always has a reserve of these “stem cells” to serve as its “young” cells.  Scientists are uncertain of how the process occurs, but both articles state that the regeneration is caused by exposure to various stresses, such as starvation, an inhospitable living environment, or physical assault.

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Wow. Suddenly this show just got a lot more plausible.

You may argue that even though the immortal jellyfish is the closest thing the animal kingdom has to offer regarding immortality, it doesn’t explain how Legolas or Thor can live so long in their respective universes.  Unlike the Doctor, whose body is in a constant state of flux, they don’t ever change form or revert back to children and go through puberty once every hundred years or so in order to stay alive.  Can their “immortality” be explained by science?

As with everything in this series, the answer is both yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that scientists have an idea about what can be done to address this problem.  No, in the sense that the ideas are still mostly theoretical.  What are these theoretical ideas on immortality, you may ask?  Telomeres.

Telomeres:

It should be said that there are many factors that contribute to aging, such as oxidative stress and the simple passage of time.  However, one key player in the aging process is the shortening of genetic markers known as telomeres.  Telomeres are essentially blank information on the ends of DNA chains.  Among other things, they ensure that the information on DNA strands that needs to be copied stays toward the center of the strand.  If important information were coded on the ends of DNA, it would make the code hard to read, like reading a book where words are written near the crease in the center.  If you’re curious, there’s a helpful graphic at this website that gives a visual representation for how this works.

So essentially, these “blank” pieces of DNA save our lives by making sure that the important information gets copied, but because DNA copies from the end of the chain inward, these life-saving telomeres are always getting shorter.  If you didn’t click the link to see the last graphic, here’s a simpler visual aid for this process:

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Telomeres are kind of like the fuse on the dynamite:  every time DNA is copied, a bit of the telomere segment is removed, like a burning fuse.  And just like the dynamite, when the fuse runs out, something dies.  In our case, it’s the cell… at least metaphorically.  When a cell’s DNA has been depleted of its telomeres, the cell is unable to reproduce, meaning that when the cell dies there won’t be another one to take its place.  If enough of your cells do that at once… I think you get the idea.

But, the good news is that there are these handy things called telomerases that can make the telomeres longer, essentially adding more length to the “fuse” – if you will.  This study [2] has shown that when these handy little guys were added to a colony of cells whose “fuse was running out,” these cells showed increased telomere length (proving that the telomerase did what they thought it would do).  Also, the same set of cells were able to reproduce long after anyone would have guessed, meaning that these telomerases were able to keep the colony alive longer than anticipated.  And this publication from Science [3] theorizes (just guesses, not proves or concludes) that age-related conditions such as deteriorating skin, macular degeneration, and hardened arteries could be treated with a telomerase-based therapy if one becomes available in the future.  And, according to the estimates of one scientist, humans could add at least 10 years to their life expectancy, and maybe even 30.

But that still doesn’t sound like Thor, you may argue.  After all, some people naturally outlive others by 10 to 30 years.  What’s the big deal?  Well, for starters, telomere shortening is just one aspect of aging.  This reference mentions that a large portion of aging comes from what’s called “oxidative stress.”  This refers to the damage that things containing oxygen (like the air we breath) do to our genetic information and the molecular machinery that carries out its instructions.  A few damages here and there are no big deal, but after 80 or so years of damage, the effects will eventually catch up with us.

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Most of us…

But the good news is that some species are really good at clearing out all of the damaged bits.  For instance, naked mole-rats, the longest-living rodent (averaging ~28 years), have stringent biological mechanisms [4] in place to clean out all of their damaged molecular machinery.  One source [5] indicates that the longevity of the naked mole-rat is something of an anomaly in comparison to the way other animals age; however, it is in agreement with the fact that maintenance of damaged DNA and molecular machinery plays a huge role in extending the life span of mammals.

And this is where “immortals” like Thor come into play.  In the movies and comics, Thor isn’t really immortal; he just has a long lifespan compared to normal humans.  If you compare naked mole-rats to normal, run-of-the-mill mice, you observe the same sort of relationship:  one lives ~28 years, the other lives ~3 years.  Theoretically speaking, if humans were capable of removing the effects of oxidative stress from our bodies, we could expect to significantly increase our lifespan.

But even though the human race has not achieved immortality, one person has… technically.

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Okay, maybe two. The jury’s still out on Stamos.

HeLa Cells:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she died of cervical cancer in 1951… not the best start for a story on immortality, I’m aware, but follow me with this one.  Henrietta Lacks the person may have died, but her genetic information lives on:  specifically the cancer cells that lead to her death.  You see, malignant cancer is really good at dividing well past the point where most cells are supposed to quit, and unlike normal cells, the mechanism that tells the cells to stop dividing has been broken.  This out-of-control dividing is why cancer is so dangerous; it’s the bad kind of cell division.  Henrietta Lacks’ cancer was no exception; in fact, it was abnormally good at replicating, so much so that scientists decided to use it as a model for human cells in clinical studies because the cells’ ability to reproduce meant that it was always easy to make more.  Interestingly enough, according to the abstract of this article [6], part of the reason the cells reproduce continuously and so robustly is because the telomerases do a fantastic job of making sure that the telomeres do not shorten (sound familiar?).  The scientists who later marketed this line of cells named them HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) cells, and they have been in use – and constantly dividing – in laboratories all across the world since their introduction in the 1950s.  This means that as long as scientists need human cells for testing, it is entirely possible that Henrietta Lacks’ genetic material will likely never be erased from existence:  one definition of immortality.

So, we’ve seen age-old jellyfish, ways of extending the fuse on our genetic time bomb, and a woman whose cells will reproduce until the dawn of the apocalypse.  None of this means that human immortality is possible, but it makes the world of fantasy just a little more plausible.  Thank you for reading my weekly words.

 

Stay tuned for future posts of MacGregor’s Pen at their regularly scheduled time of Mondays at noon.

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.  Piraino, S., et. al.  “Reversing the Life Cycle:  Medusae Transforming into Polyps and Cell Transdifferentiation in Turritopsis nutricula (Cnideria, Hydrozoa).”  Biol. Bull.  1996.  190, 302-312.
  2. Ouelette, M., et. al.  “The establishment of telomerase-immortalized cell lines representing human chromosome instability syndromes.”  Human Molecular Genetics2000.  9, 403-411.
  3. Bodnar, A., et. al.  “Extension of Life-Span by Introduction of Telomerase into Normal Human Cells.”  Science.  1998.  279, 349-352.
  4. Perez, V., et. al.  “Protein stability and resistance to oxidative stress are determinants of longevity in the longest-living rodent, the naked mole-rat.”  PNAS.  2008.  106, 3059-3064.
  5. Kogan, V. et al. Stability analysis of a model gene network links aging, stress resistance, and negligible senescence. Sci. Rep. 5, 13589; doi: 10.1038/srep13589 (2015).
  6. Ivankovic, M., et. al.  “Telomerase activity in HeLa cervical carcinoma cell line proliferation.”  Biogerontology.  2007.  8, 163-172.

Science Explains Fantasy: An Introduction

Even when I was a kid, I always loved science.  TV shows that expanded the horizons of my knowledge were watched with almost the same fervor as when I watched cartoons.  People like Jeff Corwin, Steve Irwin, and – later on – the Mythbusters had so much to offer my mind, which was – and is – constantly seeking the boundaries of what is possible within this universe.

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It’s no wonder that I took up studying chemistry in college.  I remember being fascinated by it simply because I couldn’t understand how you could mix two things together and get something completely different as a result.  What physical laws governed that?  That curiosity has carried me through many years of studying chemistry and most of the way through earning a doctorate.  And this fall, I began teaching as an adjunct instructor in the SUNY system here in New York, because part of my excitement over science comes with sharing it with others.

Another thing that I carry with me from my childhood is my imagination.  As a kid, I was always running around somewhere, pretending to save the world – no doubt with the help of some kind of magic or superhuman ability that I dreamed up.

As I grew older, I channeled this imagination into writing, and just this past year, I completed my first novel, Blood of the Innocents, an action-packed urban fantasy thriller that is something of a cross between Mission:  Impossible and Fright Night.  You can even check out a sample chapter here if you’d like.

Although I’m currently seeking representation for my book, the process of writing the novel inspired to imagine ways in which elements of fantasy could be explained by science.  Concepts like immortality, magic, superhuman abilities… are they only the stuff of legends and fairy tales, or has modern science progressed to a place where it is somewhat indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur Clarke might have guessed?  Or maybe, science isn’t there yet, but in theory it could be there one day.  What might that look like?

We already have the answers to some of these questions in another inspiration for this piece:  Physics of the Impossible by world-famous physicist, Michio Kaku.  If you’re interested in this column, and you don’t own this book, I would suggest that you buy it.  In it, he tackles issues of how science may possibly develop technology akin to cloaking devices, force fields, and other staples of science fiction.  And, as a result, this article will barely touch upon topics of that nature, out of respect for the book.

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And the man.

There is one last thing that I need to address:  just because I have studied chemistry for many years does not make me qualified as an expert in all fields of science.  In fact, I’m hardly qualified to speak as an expert in all fields of chemistry.  However, like any good scientist, when writing my article I will cite my resources in the form of hyperlinks linking to articles that support my claim, much like a website you may or may not be familiar with.  (In case you’re wondering:  yes, that’s an example of how I cite my sources).

So, read on, lovers of science and fantasy alike.  I hope that you enjoy reading these articles as much as I enjoy writing them.  And I hope that through this series, the horizons of your knowledge may be expanded like mine were.  Maybe what you once considered impossible will become just a bit more plausible.

Thank you for reading my weekly words.

 

Stay tuned for my article on immortality, which will premiere here at the special time of Thursday, September 17th at noon.  Future posts of Science Explains Fantasy will be released at their regularly scheduled time of Mondays at noon.

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.  You can read excerpts from his novel at his 20lines account.