Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part IV of IV. (Check out parts I, II, & III)
Before I get onto the other exciting questions, a quick recap: a zombie pathogen could not be a “live infection” (i.e. rabies/Rage), but would be a re-animation virus: infection-death-reanimation. Bodily fluid transmission, non-regeneration/growth, and slowed decay were also key features of my hypothetical zombie pathogen. A zombie is a corpse with the appearance of life. The distinction is between brain-death and brain destruction. A zombie is brain-dead. In reality, it is the pathogen which is alive, hijacking the corpse. When one damages the corpse sufficiently, the pathogen has nothing left to “hijack” and therefore the zombie is de-animated.
With these key points answered, we can answer a whooooole bunch of other questions about what a zombie is and isn’t. Answers after the jump! Read More
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part III of IV. (Check out parts I, & II)
Are zombies really dead? How do we know? People are often reported “clinically dead” only to be revived later. If it is moving, if it reacts to stimuli like a food source or sounds, and if metabolic processes are in play, how can we call a zombie dead?
The most basic definition of life is the ability to have “signaling and self-sustaining processes” as the all-knowing Wikipedia tells us:
Living organisms undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce and, through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations.
Zombies do indeed undergo a qualified form of metabolism, sort of maintain homeostasis, and definitely respond to stimuli. Alternately, zombies do not grow, reproduce, or go through natural selection. So much for a clear answer there.
Consider the following: When we “kill” something, we are implying that our action has made an “alive” thing “dead.” We commonly refer to “killing” zombies. Therefore, a zombie is alive until it is killed. Not quite, some might argue, a zombie is undead. Undead is a special word that describes an entity which was once alive in the full meaning of that word, then died, and was then re-animated (e.g. a zombie). The zombie was not re-vivified, that is, brought back to life, but its bare biological systems were re-started. Read More
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part II of IV. (Check out parts I, & III)
Before we can start investigating whether or not something that craves brains has a mind or should be pitied, we need to define just what, exactly, we’re talking about when we talk about zombies.
I’m going to start by ruling out the 28 Days Later zombies and the voodoo/demonic zombies of Evil Dead. First, the name of this blog is Science, not Fiction, which means any religious hokum is right out the door. Demon possession, souls back from Hell, and voodoo are not going to be considered in this investigation. On the other end of the spectrum, in 28 Days Later anything infected with “Rage” becomes a “fast” zombie. In essence, Rage is rabies only way, way scarier. Thus we aren’t dealing with the “undead” so much as the violently insane. So non-fatal pathogens don’t count either. If the pathogen doesn’t first kill you, then re-animate you, then you aren’t a zombie.
Which leads us to the next question: how does the pathogen work? I am not denying here the multitude of variations and nuances among zombie plague viruses, so we have to come up with a generic, realistic version to have our discussion. Zombies generally meet three important criteria. They are 1) stimulus-response creatures that seek flesh 2) continually decomposing and 3) contagious via bodily fluids. If we can explain, reasonably, how and for what reason a pathogen might cause/allow these conditions, we can describe a realistic zombie pathogen.
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part I of IV. (Check out parts II, & III)
Zombies are everywhere! Zombieland, Shawn of the Dead, and 28 Days Later in the movies; World War Z and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the bookshelf; Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising and Resident Evil in your video games – not to mention the George A. Romero and Sam Rami classics in your DVD collection. And this Sunday Robert Kirkman’s epic The Walking Dead lurches from the pages of comic books onto your television thanks to AMC.
Where ever you turn, zombies are there. We can’t seem to get enough of the re-animated recently departed. But why do we love these ambling carnivorous cadavers so?
Zombies are horrifying. An outbreak would almost certainly lead to global apocalypse. Unrelenting, unthinking, uncaring, undead, they are a nightmare incarnate. They remind us of mortality, of decay, of our own fragility. Perhaps worst, they remind us of how inhuman a human being can become.
Zombies are familiar. Refrains of “Brains!”, guttural groans, and mindless shambling instantly trigger the idea of a zombie in our mind. We all know, somehow, that decapitation – that is, destruction of the zombie brain – is our only salvation. I bet you’ve dressed as one for Halloween. Every time “Thriller” comes on you probably dance like a zombie. Some mornings I feel like a zombie. Even philosophers talk about zombies. We know zombies. They are hilarious, they are frightening, they are part of us. And that is why we love them.
But have you ever asked yourself: is a zombie still a human? is a zombie dead, really? can it feel pain? does a zombie have dignity? Has the question ever popped up in your quite-live brain: is it ok to kill a zombie? Could a zombie be cured? If you could cure it, would you still want to? In honor of Halloween and our culture’s current love affair with brain-eating corpses, I present The Ethics of the Undead, your universal guide for answering all of your most pressing zombie questions. Stay tuned for posts throughout Halloween weekend!
It’s understatement to say that Nikola Tesla was one of America’s greatest inveltors. The man had a gift for creativity, physical intuition, and inventiveness that was truly otherworldly. Among other things, Tesla is responsible for the AC power we currently enjoy; his contemporary Thomas Edison was a stauch proponent of DC.
In the early 1930’s, Tesla claimed that he had invented a death ray that would benefit the military in battle—one capable of destroying up to 10,000 enemy aircraft at distances of up to 250 miles. It was so lethal that it would end the spectacle of war.
Tesla died before he could build this death ray, and he had no documentation hinting at its design in his personal effects. Nobody (not even the FBI) knows what happens to the death ray plans, if any existed.
Elmer Fudd might have been the only one not surprised that scientists can make mice smell a nice sharp cheddar by shining light into their noses. Actually, he might be disappointed after having to wait an extra 10 years: In “The Old Grey Hare”, Fudd learned of “smellevision” from a newspaper in the year 2000.
But here in 2010, Venkatesh Murthy at Harvard led a team that replaced some of the chemical smell sensors in transgenic mouses noses with light receptors. So when a beam of light hits the mouse’s nose, the mouse will “smell” the light.
Why go to all the trouble? Light creates simplicity. Murthy wants to better understand how brains react to smell, and he wants to see precisely which parts of the brain “light up”, or become active, when the mouse smells something. But the actual smells are too diffuse, and too complex, to be administered efficiently in a controlled setting.
Light can be controlled with much more precision. Murthy can fire a pulsing beam right up the mousey nose, stimulating the receptors so that mouse’s brain responds to the “smell” (hopefully light smells like cheese. Or peanut butter).
Creating mice with light-stimulated neurons is part of a burgeoning field called optogenetics (PDF): The study of animals modified so that specific groups of neurons will respond to light. Optogenetics first broke into the news when Yale researcher Gero Miesenböck used it in 2005 to make fruit flies that flapped their wings when a UV light shone on them. Jay Leno even did a sketch on it (Though I couldn’t find it on YouTube).
For Murthy, the key innovation came a year later, when Karl Diesseroth at Stanford discovered he could adapt a protein called channelrhodopsin-2 from an alga (rhodopsins are also the first response to light in our own iris), could be bred into rats and mice. The rhodopsins responded to the signal faster, allowing the scientists to mimic brain functions when they stimulated the neurons.
No doubt scientists will continue improving optogenetics to refine how they can be used to study the brain —- they hope to run fiber optics deep into the mouse brain and watch some of the more hidden functions —- but probably they won’t be adapting the technology for smellevision any time soon. Which is probably for the best. McDonald’s would almost certainly be the first to try it during the Super Bowl, and I’m not sure I could handle that.
I’ve been on a short hiatus from blogging as my laboratory gets set to go to Eindhoven, Holland, for the STRP Festival, one of the largest art and technology fairs in Europe. We are putting the finishing touches on scale, an interactive bio-art collaboration between myself, visual/conceptual artist Marlena Novak, and composer/sound designer Jay Alan Yim, who together form localStyle.
As is often done in biological work, my research at Northwestern University focuses on one specific type of animal—an electric fish from the Amazon jungle—which is ideally suited to uncover the answers to our research questions. These questions are chiefly in the area of how we take in information through our various sensory systems and control movement. We build biologically inspired robots based on what we find. These robots feature novel ways to sense and move that could be very useful for new highly agile underwater robots to help with things like monitoring the health of coral reefs or fixing an underwater oil spill.
Our Amazon jungle fish are called “weakly electric fish.” These fish have evolved the remarkable ability to sense the objects around their body through a self-generated weak electric field (about a thousandth of a flashlight battery near the body). Think of them as underwater bats—like bats, they hunt at night, but instead of using sonar, they use electric fields.
A surprising demonstration of this ability is very easy to get with nothing more than a cheap powered speaker, like the type you would connect to your computer. By just dangling the input lead into a tank with one of these fish, you’ll hear a nearly pure tone (something like a tuning fork). The pitch of the tone that you hear depends on the species. Across the 180 or so species that exist, the tone frequency varies from about 30-1200 Hz, approximating the lowest B-natural on a piano to the D- sharp six octaves higher.
Remember in E.T. where the government finds E.T. and decides they should do all sorts of crazy awful experiments on him? Or how about in District 9 where an entire alien race is subjected to squalor, neglect, and vivisection? Or maybe in The Day the Earth Stood Still when Klaatu takes a round in the shoulder from some nervous infantrymen? What all of these movies have in common is that on present-day Earth, aliens have no rights. Despite a demonstration of equal or superior intelligence, a capacity for moral reasoning, complex culture, and peaceful intentions, aliens are regularly mistreated.
“Why should I care?” you might ask, gesturing with your cigarette holder and adjusting your pashmina scarf. You should care because either we are going to find aliens on an earth-like planet, like Gliese 581g, or they’ll find us first—and soon. We’ve got time, but not much, before we’ll be looking at some living something from another world.
Well why should aliens have rights? Because, as I’ve argued before, they have personhood. (Quick refresher: personhood is the idea that rights stem from aspects of an entity’s mind. For example, a sentient creature has the right not to suffer, and a self-aware creature has the right to self-determine. It doesn’t matter if the mind is in a robo-power suit, an ethereal protoplasm, distributed among a living swarm, or at the center of a writhing mass of tentacles. If a sentient, rational, and moral mind is present, it has personhood.)
If an alien can suffer, can reason, and can tell right from wrong, then it has rights and responsibilities. But what are they?
By bringing the field of photovoltaics into medicine, researchers hope to create a far more precise method of drug delivery for fighting cancer. That’s right: this cancer cure involves tiny photovoltaic particles like the kind used in solar cells.
One of the major drawbacks of chemotherapy is that it damages far more of the body than just the malignant tumors it’s used to fight. In order to target just the cancerous areas, and not hit everything on the way there, researchers from the University of Texas in El Paso created a tiny solar cell. They attached model drugs to each side of the cell, one of which was positively charged, the other negatively. Once the tiny solar devices are in the body, doctors would blast the tumor with an infrared laser, causing the pholtovoltaic particles to release the drugs.
In Spider-Man 2—which I know isn’t canon, but work with me here—Dr. Octopus can only do his research thanks to some spectacular artificial arms: Each of his four bonus arms is heat resistant, incredibly precise, and has a brain of its own, so they can work independently. The arms join in a knapsack-sized device that connects directly to his spinal cord, so Dr. Octopus can send signals to the arms with his thoughts. He can think sends orders to the arms through a direct link into his spine. Now here in the real world, we have trouble linking robotic limbs directly to nerves because our bodies reject metal attachments to our nerves. So Doc Ock really achieved something there, setting aside the later problems with the arms’ AI (surely an easily fixed bug).
Now a crew of scientists at Southern Methodist University is working on their own technique for creating two-way communications between an artificial limb and a user’s brain. It uses non-metallic polymers, and at its core, it uses the same principal as whispering galleries of the sort that can be found in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, or at certain parts of Grand Central Station in New York. Indeed, they call it a “whispering gallery mode.”