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!
Yes, we’re all going to die.
But let’s make a guessing game out of it!
30 years ago this October, a handful of dedicated science enthusiasts got together and started a crazy little experiment called DISCOVER. Taking stock on the occasion of our three-decade anniversary, we’re happy to find that we’re still going strong–yet we’re also filled with existential dread.
The special 30th anniversary issue of DISCOVER includes a chilling piece from editor-in-chief Corey Powell, “30 Ways the World Could End.” His gloom-and-doom assessment of our future include such scenarios as superbombs, space colony uprisings, and genetically superior “transhumans” who out-compete us lame, pre-enhancement humans.
But we suspect we’ll get a richer response to this big question by crowd-sourcing responses from our favorite future predictors here at SNF. So tell us: Which of Corey’s suggested calamities is the most likely, and when will we be Armageddoned? Which obvious apocalypse did he miss?
One of the most energetic phenomena observed (to date anyway) are gamma ray bursts or GRBs. As the name implies, GRBs are brief, but super intense, pulses of gamma ray energy that have been observed in distant galaxies. Two types of gamma ray bursts have been observed (to date anyway): long-period gamma ray bursts last for seconds to minutes and seem to be associated with supernova events; short period bursts last for milliseconds and may represent a cataclysmic outpouring of energy from colliding neutron stars.
Similar to the polar emissions from a neutron star, seen as a pulsar if the observer is within the cone traced out by the polar streams, gamma ray emissions from a GRB are very directional as well as intense. If a GRB went off anywhere within our galaxy, yes the entire galaxy, and Earth was in line with one of the two polar beams, all life on Earth would be extinct within hours. In his book “Death from the Skies,” fellow Discover blogger Phil Plait has a great description of what life on Earth would be like in its last minutes, and my co-author Ges Seger and I examined this phenomena in this short story. Now before you lie awake at night worrying, here’s a podcast describing why we should be safe from GRBs.
In a recent article, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Seth Shostak makes an intriguing claim: SETI should start pointing its telescopes toward corners of the known universe that would be friendly not just to intelligent aliens but to artificial alien intelligence. The basis of his suggestion is that any form of life intelligent enough to generate the kinds of radio signals that SETI is looking for would be “quickly” superseded by an artificial intelligence of their creation. Here, going on our own rate of progress toward AI, Shostak suggests that this radio-to-AI delay is a small handful of centuries.
These artificial intelligences, not likely to have had the “nostalgia module” installed, may quickly flee the home planet like a teenager trying to pretend it isn’t related to its parents. If nothing else, they will likely need to do this to find further resources such as materials and energy. Where would they want to go? Shostak speculates they may go to places where large amounts of energy can be obtained, such as near large stars or black holes.
Stephen Hawking imagines aliens covering stars with mirrors
to generate enough power for worm holes
Stephen Hawking has suggested one reason to go to high-energy regions would be to make worm holes through space-time to travel vast distances quickly. These areas are not hospitable to life as we know it, and so are not currently the target of SETI’s telescopes searching for signals of such life.
Science fiction without science is merely fiction. There are gray levels in how well the science is portrayed in television and cinema, however. For the third straight year, Discover Magazine and the National Academy’s Science and Enterainment Exchange hosted a science-of-science-fiction panel at San Diego Comic-Con, and this year’s theme was “Abusing Science in Science Fiction.” Each panelist provided two video clips from sci-fi television or cinema: one of science done right, and one where the science, well, wasn’t done right.
I’ve always maintained that in science fiction TV and cinema good science should be jettisoned in deference to drama as a last resort only–and then when you have all your other ducks in a row. If the science is solid in the large bulk of your work, we’ll make the leap with you when you get a bit more… speculative. Some works stick to grounded science well, some do not.
Therefore, for my clips, I chose two instances of the same type of event–the impact of a comet/asteroid with Earth — one done well (Deep Impact), one that could have been done better (Armageddon).
The Eyjafjallajökull eruption as seen by NASA’s Terra satellite
In theory, geoengineering seems like the ideal remedy for our climate ills. Some white reflective roofs here, a little ocean fertilization there, a few simulated volcanic eruptions, and voilà! you have a potential fix for one of the world’s most intractable problems.
But there’s good reason to believe that many of these proposed schemes would prove much costlier to the planet over both the short- and long-term than more mainstream approaches to addressing climate change—and leave a number of critical problems, like ocean acidification, in the lurch.
Take the injection of sulfate aerosol particles into the stratosphere, which I alluded to earlier. The idea would be to recreate the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption by blanketing the sky with a thin layer of particles that would reflect a fraction of incoming sunlight back into space. For this method to put a crimp on greenhouse warming, studies estimate that it would have to cut solar radiation by roughly 1.8 percent—not an easy feat by any means, but not entirely out of the question either.
The one fact in Deep Impact that we can all agree on is that we should not allow the Earth to get hit by a large meteor. Depending on its size, it could potentially destroy anything from a city to the entire planet. And nations it doesn’t destroy outright would still have to deal with big atmospheric and weather problems caused by dust and debris. General badness all around.
Where common sense and the film divide is just how best to dodge an oncoming meteor. I wrote a while back on the idea of painting one side of the asteroid black while beaming heat onto it, causing the asteroid to shift course. It’s a neat idea, but not nearly as neat as the gravity tractor, not just because this approach is more elegant, but because there’s a British company called EADS Astrium that announced last week that they could actually build one if it were needed.
The idea for the tug first proposed by NASA scientists Edward Lu and Stanley Love in a paper in Nature in 2005. The pair realized that sure, we could change an asteroid’s course by docking a rocket onto the asteroid and pushing it, but landing on an asteroid is really hard: The asteroid is an extremely fast-moving target, and often it rotates asymmetrically around its axis, meaning that a lumpy part of the asteroid could smash a relatively teeny rocket in its rotational path. But, the scientists argued, the spaceship could hover 200 meters or more above the asteroid and use their mutual gravitational attraction to form a “towline” between the two. Then ship could use its own propulsion to slowly pull the asteroid to another course. It would have to push very gently to avoid breaking the bond and flying away, but over the course of 15 to 20 years, the asteroid could be persuaded to miss our planet.