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Just how scientifically possible are Gremlins?: Part 2

And so we (finally) come to Part 2 of this series! If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you follow this link and get up to speed otherwise this might seem a tad strange! In this part, we’ll look into the second rule that the ‘Gremlins’ films set out for caring for a Mogwai (or Gremlin if you were unfortunate enough not to have read Rule 3 before giving your Mogwai a bath!). We’ll also be asking whether these creatures’ mischievous/dangerous behaviour is like anything seen in nature. We’ll start with a recap of the rule. Enjoy!

Rule 2. Never expose them to bright light.
Bright light scares Mogwai and Gremlins alike, whilst sunlight kills them.

The first question to ask is whether any species in nature is actually scared of light. The short answer is… sort of…but not really! We’ve all seen moths being drawn towards lights at night – this behaviour is called ‘positive phototaxis’. If there’s such a thing as ‘positive phototaxis’, then ‘negative phototaxis’ must exist too, I hear you cry! And indeed it does – many organisms can be seen to actively avoid exposure to light. Many species of cockroach, for example, will avoid lights and well-lit areas; and a tiny roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans (catchy, I know) can be made to change direction by shining light on its ‘head’.

Now, none of these species are scared of light as such – their behaviour is simply instinctive (or ‘innate’) and designed to help them survive. Cockroaches are far more visible to many predators when exposed to light, so they instinctively avoid it. The roundworm, meanwhile, lives in soil and uses the detection of sunlight to determine in which direction it should move in order to stay buried in the soil where it feeds on bacteria. So, these creatures aren’t scared of the light itself; but they know to avoid it in order to improve survival. This tends to be the case in all ‘negatively phototactic’ species.

It could, of course, be argued that Gremlins aren’t scared of light in the way we think and that they just instinctively know to avoid it because sunlight kills them. If they have evolved to avoid all sources of bright light then they would increase their chance of survival. On balance, I think I’m going to say that this part is quite realistic and scientifically possible!

The next question is whether anything in nature can be killed by sunlight. Whilst no animals are directly killed by light, they can be killed by the long-lasting effects it has upon their bodies. We are, of course, talking about skin cancer caused by the ultraviolet light emitted by the sun. This radiation is split into 3 categories – UV-A, UV-B and UV-C – depending on the wavelength of the light. UV-A has the closest wavelength to that of visible light and, since visible light does no damage to animals’ skins, UV-A does relatively little. Meanwhile, UV-C is usually absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, so its effects on animals are rarely seen.

The light spectrum, showing the wavelengths of the 3 different types of UV light (Photo Credit: Ken Costello at chemistryland.com)

The light spectrum, showing the wavelengths of the 3 different types of UV light (Photo Credit: Ken Costello at chemistryland.com)

UV-B is the most common cause of skin cancer. Due to its wavelength, UV-B is absorbed by DNA. In my first post I talked about how DNA is made up of combinations of molecules called A, T, G and C. Well, UV-B radiation causes Ts to bind to one another when they shouldn’t. Now, small amounts of this DNA damage occur frequently with sun exposure, but it is rarely a problem as healthy cells are capable of repairing damage to their DNA. It is when the level of damage is too great or DNA repair mechanisms break down that mutations build up, increasing the possibility of a mutation leading to the development of skin cancer. So, whilst not exactly a direct cause of pain and death, sunlight is involved in killing many animals. The effects are not quite as severe as those seen when Gremlins are exposed to sunlight though, so I must admit that skin melting under sunlight exposure is quite unrealistic!

I should say, as a caveat, that ultraviolet light is capable of killing bacteria and viruses pretty much instantly (even faster than it can kill a Gremlin). However, given how long this post is already going to be, and given that these microorganisms cannot really be compared to Gremlins, I’d best save that one for another time…

Ultraviolet (UV) photons harm the DNA molecule...

UV light breaks the bonds that hold together DNA double helices. Most commonly, it breaks bonds involving thymine molecules, which then bind to one another instead. In this malformed state, the DNA cannot function. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’d like to go over next is why Mogwai and Gremlins are so aggressive and mischievous. As with many of the characteristics displayed in the film, this can be seen in many species in nature, albeit in a muted, less entertaining way.

In the films, the Gremlins have essentially been dropped into an unknown environment. You could view their anarchic behaviour as attempts to adjust to, and assert their place as a dominant species in, a new food chain. If seen this way, Gremlins could be said to be an ‘invasive species’. There are many examples of such organisms in nature (although obviously none of them take over cinemas or attack New York hotdog stands!). Often they are artificially introduced into an environment by human activity, either intentionally or accidentally.

A high-profile example of an intentional introduction is the Cane Toad, which has been a blight upon Australia ever since being taken there, from its native Hawaii, in 1935. Originally envisaged as a way of killing off Cane Beetles, which were destroying sugar cane crops, the toads acclimatised far more successfully, and with more severe consequences, than anyone imagined.

The massive and destructive Cane Toad ranks as...

The oh-so-beautiful Cane Toad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since their introduction to their new environment, their numbers have swollen from a few thousand to over 200 million. They have spread diseases, outcompeted native species, poisoned almost anything that tried to eat them and generally disrupted the finely balanced ecosystem through their aggressive behaviour. And to add insult to injury, they’re not even effective at killing Cane Beetles!

So, clearly there can be serious consequences to mankind’s manipulation of nature. People are learning that we cannot predict every change that will be caused by introducing a foreign species into an ecosystem. Unfortunately, sometimes we cause ecological disasters without even intending to alter an ecosystem. Invasive species are often destructive and cause a great deal of harm to native species. In this respect, Gremlins very much fit the bill. As for the mischievousness… well, they aren’t the only naughty animals out there!


(Video credit: Hassanane’s YouTube channel)

That brings us to the end of Part 2 of this post. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, as Part 3’s coming whether you want it or not! Before that, though, I’ll be bringing you the first post from a couple of fellow bloggers, as promised earlier in the week. Keep an eye out for that one – these guys are good!

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Biology, Silly Science

 

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The Necessity of Breadth in a Modern University Education

Based on a presentation on 21/05/13 by:
Greg Petsko (Prof of Biochemistry and Chemistry, Brandeis University & Member of the US National Academy of Sciences)

Happy Wednesday, everyone! I went to an absolutely fantastic seminar yesterday – one that was funny, insightful, informative and quite moving at points. It concerned the current state of university education and how it influences wider society. I’ll attempt to convey some of the passion that Professor Petsko injected into his talk as I explain his views, as well as offering up some of my own. Enjoy!

English: EPA Assistant Administrator for Resea...

Teaching science is important, but is it all that scientists should consider? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday’s speaker, Prof. Greg Petsko, was in Oklahoma the day before (for those of you reading this sometime in the future, that was the day a significant part of Oklahoma was decimated by a Category 5 tornado). He was 3 miles away from the tornado and had to travel for 24 hours to get to us in time, but he gave one of the most engaging talks I’ve ever attended. I strongly recommend reading his monthly column on Science and Society in the journal Genome Biology. Most of these columns are free to read and you can find a list of them here.

Prof. Petsko started by making a very interesting point. These days, we consider the arts and sciences to be very different beasts. I regularly blame my logical and analytical way of thinking, borne of a scientific education, for making me consider most modern art to be complete twaddle! Yet, many years ago, the famous scientist Galileo took great interest in the arts, whilst renowned artist Michelangelo was a keen follower of the sciences. How have the cross-disciplinary ideals exercised by two of, arguably, the greatest minds ever known disappeared over time?

The professor told us of an event that he believes to have been key in establishing this divide. In 1959, the British politician and chemist Charles Percy Snow delivered a controversial lecture entitled ‘The Two Cultures’. He claimed that followers of the sciences and the humanities had split apart, forming two distinct cultures between which communication was failing. He also declared the British education system to be on the decline. Petsko believes that the way Snow reported his views made the general public, both in the UK and the US, accept that that was the way society now worked and that it took hold from that moment.

I have to say, I don’t fully agree with Petsko on this point. Whilst I don’t deny that there is a clear divide between the sciences and the arts, I’d argue that the divide must have already existed for Snow to have observed it. His reporting of the matter doubtless increased public awareness of the fact, but I’d hardly label him as the single cause of modern day problems in university-level education. The chances are that, if it was possible for one lecture to make people notice the divide and largely accept it en masse, it was already well-established and known by people other than Snow.

Moving past the contentious issue of how we got here though, I have to admit that Petsko coined an excellent phrase during his lecture. He said that the idea that art and science should be separate is a “zombie idea” – that is, “an idea that should have died a long time ago but keeps coming back to eat our brains”. Brilliant!

This fantastic term applies to many different ideas, including the ridiculous, yet worryingly widely believed, thought that “only subjects of practical value have value”. As Petsko pointed out, in the 1970s almost nobody in America was interesting in studying viruses – vaccines existed for all the major viral diseases so it was seen as a pointless occupation to continue studying them. This blinkered attitude meant that when HIV started spreading through the population few were prepared for it.

This is a compelling demonstration of the fact that we cannot know what will be important to us in the future. As such, it can be argued that universities should be offering students the broadest education possible, whilst still maintaining quality, of course. Cutting edge science will almost always become outdated and intimate knowledge of its workings will become obsolete. Yet languages and politics, for example, remain useful for far longer than any of us will be around and may enrich our later lives in ways we can’t possibly conceive of yet.

Prof. Petsko wrote a hilarious, yet persuasive, open letter to the President of the State University of New York at Albany, regarding this matter. The President had recently announced that several of his arts departments were to be closed, essentially for cost-cutting measures to allow the sciences to continue and flourish. I bet he wished he hadn’t.

As Petsko summarised for us, assuming that a piece of information is correct, it is worth something – it has a value – regardless of the subject into which it can be categorised. The value of information from one academic field can, in fact, impact upon another subject. For example, in 1865, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé reported the correct structure of the compound benzene for the first time. Chemists had known which atoms made

up a benzene molecule but couldn’t work out how they fitted together. Kekulé realised that the atoms must be arranged in a ring, rather than being linear as everyone had supposed. His understanding came as a result of a dream in which he saw the ancient Ouroboros symbol of a snake eating its own tail, but made up of carbon atoms. Without an appreciation of the arts, it is possible that Kekulé would never have discovered benzene’s structure.

English: east German stamp of Kekulé, discover...

Kekulé and the cyclic structure of Benzene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Religious symbolism

The religious symbol, Ouroboros (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

During the later stages in his talk, Prof. Petsko attempted to sum up his beliefs with two major reasons why breadth of education is important. I felt that this was the weakest part of the professor’s argument as it seemed odd to try and pick just two reasons for suggesting such an important shakeup in education; plus I didn’t necessarily agree with the reasons he chose.

His first reason was that, without studying the humanities and critical thinking, people would be more easily manipulated by others and taken in by those with authority. It was a fair point that science cannot teach us everything we need to know about the way the world works, though I didn’t feel it was his strongest argument.

Petsko’s second main reason for not separating the sciences from the arts was that, without an appreciation of both, one would risk becoming coldly scientific and the expense of one’s humanity. He illustrated this point by describing atrocities committed in the name of science such as the US Army spraying toxic chemicals over 6 US and Canadian cities to test dispersal patterns of chemical weapons during the Cold War.

I have to strongly disagree with the professor on this point. That suggests to me that he believes scientists lose all sense of morality and conscience by devoting themselves to science. I would argue that the examples he put forward dated no later than the Cold War and that they were merely products of their time and of desperate governments willing to exploit science’s darkest potentials for ‘the greater good’. I thought his was a rather odd statement to make, given the compelling arguments and undeniable benefits that he had previously put forward in an otherwise stellar presentation.

Whilst I may not have fully agreed with everything he said, I hope that, in this post, I’ve conveyed some of the enjoyment I gained from listening to Prof. Petsko talk. I am completely supportive of his overriding view that scope and breadth are essential in modern education and, for the most part, his points were made charismatically and eloquently. Despite my misgivings regarding some of his comments, I think you’d have to agree that he’s clearly struck a chord with me regarding this important modern debate. And I hope that I’ve passed some of that enthusiasm on to you. Whether you agree or disagree, this is a topic that needs to be discussed. For my part, I agree with Prof. Petsko that “the purpose of an education…is to make your life richer”.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

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News and excitement!

Happy Monday, everyone!

As promised, here is the link to the article I wrote for The Conversation news website.

In addition to this, I have some exciting news! First off, I’m planning 2 major posts this week (I know, I know – you wait 3 weeks for a post and then 2 turn up at once…). I’ll be bringing you Part 2 of the Gremlins article and an overview of a seminar entitled ‘The necessity of breadth in a modern university education’. Not strictly on-topic for this blog but it’s in the same ‘Science and Society’ seminar series as my first post, and it promises to raise some very interesting questions.

Secondly, after attended the Science Communication Conference last week, I’ve invited several fellow bloggers to post on this blog! That’ll mean more topics can be covered here and you’ll be introduced to some outstanding science communicators and their take on the world.

All in all, exciting times are ahead! I’ll see you soon for the next full entry.

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

Busy, busy, busy!

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

Just a quick apology for the lack of posts recently, particularly the follow-up to ‘Just How Scientifically Possible Are Gremlins?: Part 1’. Rest assured, Part 2 is on its way – I’ve just been pretty busy the past few weeks.

First off, I’ve written another feature for the University of Liverpool’s ‘Becoming an Expert’ series, which went live last week. Check it out here.

Secondly, I’ve written a news article for a brand new independent news website called The Conversation, which launches tomorrow (May 16th)! The website is written by academics and edited by journalists so will be well worth a look. Head to http://www.theconversation.com/uk to check it out tomorrow. I’ll egotistically include a link on here to my article over the weekend, once it exists.

I’d post the link tomorrow when it goes live but I’m off to London today for the Science Communication Conference 2013 (exciting!) and I’m not taking my laptop with me. Between you and me, I’m rather terrified as I’m presenting a 9 minute set tonight at The Star of Kings pub in King’s Cross as part of the Science Showoff night! I’ll be talking about some of the weird and wonderful creatures that Evolution has ‘given’ us and explaining why they’ve evolved to look the way they do. If you’re in the area and are free tonight, come down from 7.30 for a great night of science and alcohol – what could possibly go wrong!

Anyway, that’s all from me – I really should pack since I leave for London in just over an hour! Apologies again for the lack of updates – I aim to do better from next week!

TTFN, Ta Ta For Now!

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

Just how scientifically possible are Gremlins?: Part 1

Happy Tuesday, everyone!

English: "Stripe" Gremlin figure, le...

‘Stripe’ the Gremlin (well a model of…) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of you may remember that I was set a challenge by a friend of mine to write a scientific article about Gremlins; specifically, the mischievous critters from the 1984 film. Surprisingly, there aren’t all that many scientific papers written about Gremlins, so I had to find a different angle. I got to thinking, and wondered, just how realistic are these creatures? How many elements of their physiology and life cycle are similar to real animals? In a never-ending quest for knowledge (and payment of cupcakes for my troubles, Saz?) I’ve come up with some answers to these questions.

As this was turning into quite a long post, covering a fairly large number of animals and studies, I decided to go all Peter Jackson on it and turn it into a trilogy of posts. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted later this week. Enjoy!

We’ll start with a bit of background knowledge for those of you who have never seen the Gremlins movies. The titular monsters start off life as cute, furry little critters called Mogwai, which come with three rules for anyone looking to raise one as a pet (one of which will be covered in each part of this post):

1)   Never feed them after midnight:

If a Mogwai is fed after midnight, it will metamorphose inside a cocoon and emerge as a Gremlin – a mischievous and dangerous monster, larger than a Mogwai and reptilian in appearance.

2)   Never expose them to bright light:

Bright light scares Mogwai and Gremlins alike, whilst sunlight kills them.

3)   Never get them wet:

If a Mogwai or Gremlin gets wet then it will spontaneously spawn offspring, which pop out of its back.

Let’s take a look at Rule 1. Metamorphosis is a fairly common phenomenon in nature. It is essentially the rapid physical development of an organism after its birth, often to allow it to change to meet the requirements of the different lifestyle that it will lead as an adult. For example, the infants (or larvae) of most amphibians are adapted to survive in water, whereas they will need to be suited to land as adults to allow them to leave the water in which they were born. Members of several groups of organisms metamorphose as part of their life cycles – most notably amphibians (as mentioned) and the majority of insects, but also some fish.

The form of metamorphosis seen in amphibians and fish involves rapid changes whilst the animal remains active. The more obvious physical changes are accompanied by changes in biochemical and neural pathways, as pathways needed by the adult replace those that were necessary for the larval body. A good example of such a process is the change of a tadpole to a frog or toad. In just one day (in some species) a tadpole’s gills are replaced by lungs, a jaw replaces its tiny mouth and it develops legs. Interestingly, its eyes move from the sides of its head to the front, indicating a change from prey to predator – tadpoles need to see a wider angle to look out for prey, whereas frogs need good 3D vision to attack prey they see in front of them. However, whilst a Mogwai undergoes a drastic physical change, it does so inside a cocoon. This is the property of a different type of metamorphosis altogether, as we will now see.

Metamorphoses in insects can be divided into 2 categories: ‘complete’ and ‘partial’, or ‘holometabolous’ and ‘hemimetabolous’, respectively. Partial metamorphosis involves changes spread over multiple stages, generally allowing gradual growth of the insect and development of organs, whilst the creature is active. As the immature insect (at this point, known as a ‘nymph’) grows, it sheds its outer covering of cells, called the ‘cuticle’. Each of these ‘moults’ reveals increasingly mature structures required by the adult, including sexual organs, until the insect is fully-grown

Complete metamorphosis, on the other hand, involves a single, drastic change, much more akin to that of a Mogwai. The infants in this process are called ‘larvae’. Don’t ask why some insects have larvae and some have nymphs – I swear it’s primarily done to confuse people! Anyway, this process is very similar to partial metamorphosis up until the last moult. At this stage, the larva wraps itself in a protective cocoon, becoming a ‘pupa’. Whilst inactive inside this casing, many of the tissues that made up the larva are broken down and replaced by adult tissues. This allows the organism to undergo massive changes so that, when it emerges as an adult, it can look markedly different in appearance to the larvae. The most obvious example of this is the change a caterpillar undergoes to become a butterfly.

മലയാളം: Taken from my garden soon after the me...

A butterfly soon after emerging from its cocoon, which is still attached to the plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given this information, it is most likely that Mogwai are depicted as undergoing some kind of ‘complete’ metamorphosis. However, Mogwai appear to be mammalian – they are warm-blooded and hairy – and no mammals metamorphose. Instead, mammals develop and grow outside of the womb. So, whilst metamorphosis is a perfectly realistic notion for a creature’s development, it couldn’t really apply to a Mogwai. It certainly couldn’t explain how a mammalian Mogwai could transform into something, which is ostensibly reptilian. I suppose you could argue that Gremlins are mammals with alopecia and bad skin and that they really need to moisturise…but you probably shouldn’t.

Then we have the part about feeding them after midnight. As far as I can tell, there are no animals in Nature in which eating at a certain time of day can trigger metamorphosis! Metamorphosis is under hormonal control in all living creatures. Of course, not all organisms are controlled by the same hormones and certain changes within an animal may take longer or require higher or lower concentrations of hormones than others. For example, reduction of a tadpole’s tail takes several days longer than generation of the adult body parts. That said, ultimately, like humans, all animals are slaves to their hormones!

In conclusion, I’m afraid to say that Mogwai metamorphosing into Gremlins by eating after midnight is….not scientifically realistic. Sorry folks!

That’s all for Part 1. Remember, Part 2 will go up in a few days’ time. See you then!

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Biology, Silly Science

 

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Schoolchildren discover how bumble-bees see flowers

Happy Saturday, everyone!

I’ve got a lovely little story to share with you today of a research paper that was published on Wednesday in the journal Biological Letters. The article describes how bumble-bees are capable of differentiating between flower colours and arrangements when searching for, in this case, sugary water.

That doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking or cute does it? You may change your mind when you find out that the experiment was carried out by a group of 8 to 10 year old pupils from Blackawton Primary School, Devon. The children were encouraged by their very enthusiastic teacher to design and carry out the research project and their results are presented in “kids’ speak” in the journal. Not only does this make the article a delight to read, it also makes it accessible to everyone; an achievement that scientists can rarely achieve! I commend the kids’ teacher, Mr Strudwick, for engaging the children so effectively in science, and the pupils themselves for carrying out such a wonderfully simple, yet effective experiment. They have taken their first step into scientific research and, hopefully, will be enthused enough by this project to continue to take an interest in the world around them.

Below, I’ve included links to the Guardian article in which I first heard about the study, and the research article itself. I strongly recommend reading both!

Guardian article
Research article

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2013 in Biology

 

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Capuchin monkey demonstrates sense of morality

Well, the next main post is taking it’s time isn’t it? That’s because I’ve been set the challenge of writing a special feature on how possible it would be for a Gremlin to exist in Nature. I’ll hopefully have that up in the next few days but, in the meantime, I’m going to start making good on my word to share more scientific tidbits that I find during my (virtual) travels.

Today, we have an interesting (and pretty amusing) video of part of a presentation by a man called Frans de Waal. He works for a nonprofit organisation called TED, which is devoted to spreading ideas and information, as demonstrated by their slogan, ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’. Here, de Waal explains an equality study using Capuchin monkeys in which one monkey was treated more favourably than the other. The results, whilst humorous, demonstrate a sense of morality in monkeys that I, for one, hadn’t even contemplated.

Check the video out here

Naturally, all content contained within the video is property of TED, and you can see a longer, more indepth, section of the presentation on their website, here. I strongly suggest you take a look and I, for one, can’t wait to start exploring their back-catalogue now I know it exists!

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2013 in Biology, Silly Science

 

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