News:

NOTICE: Posting schedule will be irregular throughout the summer. Tentative schedule: irregular:

Monday FUNNY - The GUIDE Wednesdays - SCIENCE Fridays (News & Comment).

Headings:
The GUIDE: Posts from "The Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain"
FUNNY: Science and Lab Humor, etc.
NEWS: Neat stories about Science in the News
COMMENT: Opinion and Science in the News
NEAT STUFF: Interesting science pages and neat links
REVIEWS: Book reviews of fiction and nonfiction
FICTION: Original short and serialized stories

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

NEAT STUFF: Understanding the Sun

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I have long been fascinated with the Northern Lights - aka, the Aurora Borealis.  As we approach the maximum activity levels of the current solar cycle, there is hardly a week goes by that there is not some solar event that contributes to some spectacular views in the skies of the very northernmost latitudes.  Unfortunately, despite many trips up north, I have typically traveled (a) during the summer, when long days and short nights interfere with viewing, (b) during cloudy, rainy weather, and (c) during solar minima when the sun does not generate the proper conditions for aurorae.

And yet, this winter produced some absolutely fantastic views, and I'll provide a link below that can lead you to some of those pictures.  On at least one occasions, a red or green aurora glow could be seen as far south in the U.S. as Huntsville, Alabama.  If you know anything about the conditions that produce aurorae, you'll understand that seeing effects that far south is pretty unusual.

Sunspot AR1476 over Paris, 5/10/12, photo by "VegaStar-Carpentier"

It's the knowing about solar weather and phenomena that is the subject of today's NEAT STUFF blog. The very first book that I can recall that I was able to read for myself was titled "Our Sun", and it described light, sunspots, eclipses, solar wind and the relationship of planets to our Sun.  I guess that's one reason why I am still so interested in the sun.  Today that interest with the selection of websites that I list below:

Spaceweather.com is the site I visit first to learn what sunspots are active, whether there are going to be optimum conditions for aurorae, whether the solar wind is likely to generate geomagnetic storms which interfere with electromagnetic broadcasts and power.  It's also an excellent site to find pictures of Aurora Borealis, sunspots (like the one above, showing the "Hawaii"-shaped sunspot AR1476 which was large enough to be seen by naked eye at sunset, photo from Spaceweather.com Realtime Image Gallery #65105), the recent annular solar eclipse, International Space Station sightings, and learn of meteor showers and near-Earth asteroids.  It is through the Spaceweather site that I learned of this incredible photo montage of this past winter's Northern Lights


Two other sites that I visit for additional information are Solarham.net and NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. Solarham provides a lot of detailed technical information, since solar activity has profound effects on amateur ("Ham") radio function.  The "Satellite Displays" function on the NOAA site provides some interesting pictures, including the POES Auroral Maps which show intensity of aurora activity over both the north and south hemispheres. 

If you're looking at these sites and trying to figure out what "K-Index" means, or why a "North" Bz means no aurora, I suggest you head on over to Stephanie Osborn's Comet Tales blog to learn more about it.  With more than 20 years in the military and civilian space program, Stephanie has a way of explaining solar and astronomical phenomena that is as easy to read as her novels.  Don't be like COL Jack O'Neill of Stargate SG-1 and shout "Coronas1", learn about Corona Mass Ejections (CMEs) and the major consequences that they can produce here on Earth. Stephanie is the one who introduced me to the sites I have mentioned here, and I just can't thank her enough.  In fact, I'm going to plug her upcoming book: "The Case of the Displaced Detective: The Rendlesham Incident" due out later this year.  I have reviewed Steph's first two novels which find Sherlock Holmes displaced to the 21st century here, and I can't wait for the next. Visit her website for more information.

So, until next time - look up! (but not directly into the sun) and fill your brain with the greatest wonder in our sky. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day: Things we learned from Audie Murphy

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Early Monday post for the holiday.

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
In the US, Monday is Memorial Day, a day to remember veterans who fought for our freedom not only for Americans but for people all across the world.  Originally, the holiday was "Decoration Day," established as a day of remembrance for decorating the graves of Union soldiers who fought and perished in the Civil War.  In the 20th century, the holiday was expanded to honor all U.S. soldiers fighting in all wars, and in 1967, was named "Memorial Day."  I have many friends currently serving in Afghanistan, and around the world, as well as many who have recently returned to their homes after having fulfilled a duty to protect our freedoms.  I and my family salute you, remember you, and thank you for your service.

One of the features of American patriotic holidays is that the television stations tend to show a number of movies based on patriotic and/or military themes.  Today I watched To Hell And Back, a movie based on the autobiography of Audie L Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II.  As I watch the progression of Murphy from underage enlistee, to Sergeant and eventually Lieutenant, I noted the prevalence of many tropes that are common these days in science fiction, space opera, and military fiction.   If you're not familiar with it, the website TV Tropes lists a number of common themes that are used and even overused in fiction, TV and movies.  When I looked at the TV tropes entry for Audie Murphy, I noted that they list quite a few common tropes that apply to his autobiography, and the movie by the same name .

However, it is the intent of this blog to demonstrate TV Tropes actually has it wrong.  To Hell And Back did not use these tropes, it originated them.

To start with, let's take a look at a brief biography of Audie Murphy: He was born to a poor sharecropping family in Texas, his father abandoned the family, when he was 10, and he dropped out of school in fifth grade to help support his mother and siblings.  He falsified his birth certificate and enlisted in the Army at age 17.  Prior to enlistment.  He had been turned down by the Marines, Navy, and Army paratroopers. Even after a successful enlistment and training, he still had to fight to be posted overseas in a combat position.  He joined the third infantry division in North Africa as a private, and saw action primarily in Sicily and Italy.  Murphy distinguished himself in combat, and was promoted to Corporal then Sergeant, and decorated for valor at Anzio.  After landing in France, Murphy's best friend was killed by German soldier and machine-gun nest, in his anger, Murphy single-handedly wiped out that nest, then use grenades and the captured machine-gun to destroy several other German positions nearby.  For these actions, and others, Murphy received the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and the battlefield commission to Second Lieutenant. One of the comments in his autobiography states that Murphy's commanding officers had wanted him to accept a battlefield commission earlier, but that he had refused on the basis that he didn't think he was responsible enough for the position.  The officers comment in passing that "taking responsibility" is what Murphy did naturally.  Murphy was promoted one more time to First Lieutenant, and again distinguished himself in battle, after his unit lost 9 out of 10 soldiers into battle at Holtzwihr, France. Murphy sent his remaining men to safety, shot at Germans with his M1 carbine until he ran out of ammunition, then climbed onto a burning tank to use the 50 caliber machine gun.  Murphy continued the battle single-handedly for more than an hour, calling in artillery even though he'd already been wounded.  For these actions, Murphy received the Medal of Honor. 

Murphy's honors: Medal of Honor; Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star (with oak leaf cluster indicating a award a second time), Legion of Merit, Bronze Star (with oak leaf cluster and Valor device), Purple Heart (with two oak leaf clusters - i.e. awarded 3 x), Dept. of Army Outstanding Civilian Service Award, U.S. Army Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation (with oak leaf cluster), American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal (with one silver service star * four bronze stars - i.e. 9 total campaigns - plus bronze arrowhead for assault landings in Sicily and Southern France), WWII Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal (with Germany Clasp), Armed Forces Reserve Medal, French Legion of Honor (Grade of Chevalier), French Croix de guerre (with Silver Star - i.e. mentioned in dispatches at the division level), French Croix de guerre (with Palm - i.e. mentioned in dispatches at the army level), Medal of Liberated France. Belgian Croix de guerre (with 1940 Palm - i.e. awarded at the army level). 

So here we have several tropes, in fact we have many of the tropes which are a standard feature of space opera and military science fiction:
  • the under age enlistee.
  • The hero who comes from humble origins.
  • The soldier who just won't quit.
  • The soldier who fights primarily for his brothers-in-arms.
  • The soldier who goes into a berserker-like rage after the death of a friend
  • Battlefield promotion.
  • Battlefield commission.
  • Rapid promotion.
  • "Mustang" officers.
  • Natural leader who doesn't think he has the ability needed to be a leader.
  • The soldier who holds a defensive point so that his fellow soldiers can escape ("Horatius at the bridge").
  • A single soldier awarded multiple decorations and awards of valor including some from countries other than his own
What makes this so poignant is the prevalence of these tropes in current military-themed fiction. Some notable examples are: (1) David Weber's Honor Harrington shows the characteristics of humble origins, rapid promotion, and the dedication and persistence in battle to win at all costs; (2) John Ringo's "Iron Mike" O'Neill, who is a "natural leader" mustang officer who receives rapid battlefield promotion; (3) Jack Campbell's Black Jack Geary, a reluctant leader out of the past who fights to bring his people home; (4) and even Tom Kratman's Guanamarioch, the despised enemy who becomes a hero in his own right, simply because he will not (can not) quit.  While several of the tropes (such as Horatius) are indeed historical, Audie Murphy represents the whole package, a young hero who becomes so in spite of his own doubts, who rises to the challenge, and will not stop until the battle is won.

In many ways, the presence of an Audie Murphy-like character, makes a story space opera rather than military fiction.  It is important to note that military adventure fiction told from a military unit's point of view downplays the role of larger-than-life heroes.  In military fiction, it is a military unit as a whole, whether squad, platoon, company, or whole army, which wins the day.  Space opera on the other hand, relies on a hero.

For modern space opera, there can be no better role model than Audie L. Murphy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The (Zombie) GUIDE: Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse

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Zombie Squad, the nation's premiere non-stationary  cadaver suppression task force
Growing up as a Boy Scout, I learned all about disaster preparedness. I learned how to camp,to cook on an open fire or can't stove, color to identify plants and animal tracks and how to deal with basic necessities such as hygiene and where to place a tent or latrine. As an Eagle Scout I further learned how to provide service to my community. So, it is only natural that some of the skills carried through to adulthood, and that is why I have joined the Zombie Squad, the leading experts in "ambulatory cadaver removal." While some of the discussions are quite fun, and cover the high points of effective zombie suppression, as covered in our last blog, there's a more serious side to the Zombie Squad.

Disaster preparedness.

After all, if you're prepared for zombies, then you're prepared for just about anything.

So let's look at the principal behind preparedness for a Zombie Apocalypse: in the event of a zombie Apocalypse, you may find it necessary to barricade yourself in your home, cabin, or even a hole in the ground. If that happens, you'd better have enough supplies laid in so that you do not need to go out and expose yourself. What kind of supplies? Water and food are the most common necessities. We really don't know how long the Zombie apocalypse is going to last so it's a good idea to stock up with enough food to last several weeks, or better yet several months, for each person that you expect to support in your little hideaway. A minimum diet should consist of around 1200 calories per person, but if you are (A) male, (B) greater than average body size, and/or (C) very active, you'll need 2 to 3 times that amount per day. On average you should be drinking 3 to 4 L of water per day, up to 8 L in hot or very humid conditions. You either need to store clean water, or have a way to pump and purify water that you collect from other sources. These are the bare essentials, but they don't take into account other factors-such as the potential for power failure, the need to get messages and information from the outside world, or how to deal with injury and illness. Your zombie redoubt needs to have candles for lighting, a stove and fuel for cooking, blankets for warmth, a battery operated radio, flashlights, a chemical toilet with lots of toilet paper, and a first aid kit.

All of this should look very familiar, since it is the basic recommendation for home disaster preparedness. Keeping the supply stocked in your house, means that you will be able to hole up and wait for the zombie apocalypse to pass, just as easily as you can manage through hurricane, tornado, earthquake, winter storm, or civil unrest. Thus, the principle behind preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse, is one of preparing for just about any disaster. Oh, certainly there is the issue of preparing a means of self-defense and the weapons to defeat zombies. A good machete, several knives (make sure their sharp!) and firearms our recommended defensive items both for zombies and just in case you face the sort of breakdown in civil services that have been noted after large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Of course there are very practical uses for these items as well, in the event of a prolonged breakdown and services, tools will be needed to plant grow and harvest crops, to hunt for food, and for self-defense from feral creatures, whether they walk on four legs or two.

A word or two about firearms: as I stated above, I'm an Eagle Scout, and I received my first exposure to shooting sports at a young age. Even today I look upon it as a sport, and enjoy the competitiveness of accurately hitting paper or wooden targets, or flying clays. I have shot rifle, pistol, shotgun, and bow, and I highly recommend trying each of them out even if just once for practice. There are very few ulterior motives in the concept of "shooting zombies," except in regards to self-defense. It is not intended as a racial slur, nor as "embracing violence." It is, however, our second amendment right, which embodied the concept of the citizens militia prepared to defend their home, their state, and their country.

At the risk of being labeled "survivalist nut job," I heartily endorse the idea of emergency and disaster preparedness. In the past 30 years, as an adult living on my own way from home, I have experienced ice storms that have left us without power for more than three days, and winter storms which left some roads impassable for nearly a week. I've my own community we've experienced tornadoes and hurricanes which have left some houses without power, water, ability to cook, or refrigerate - with repairs to whole communities taking more than a week and up to 2 months.  I have seen what happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina and in Joplin, Missouri with the tornado. I have been fortunate not to experience earthquakes, or any sort of prolonged break down of civil services, but I have seen it happen and know that it can happen, and therefore I should be prepared.

It has been great fun this past two weeks discussing the humor in the science of zombies, but I wanted to end this on a serious note that we can take the fun and put it to very practical use. After all, if you protect your brain from ravenous zombies, one would hope that you also protected it from injury and disease!

So, until next time, take care of your brain, and watch out for the zombies!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The (Zombie) GUIDE: "Why can't we all just get along?"

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Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness (1992)
I always find it ironic that zombies in  media are depicted as brainless, but that same book, TV show, movie, etc. insists that the only way to kill a zombie is to either shoot it in the head, or cut off the head.  SF author Michael Z. Williamson has been known to ask the question: How do we kill zombie chickens?

The problem is that same, and frankly folks, you can't have it both ways - an animated corpse with no brain is not going to be killed simply by destroying the (useless) brain, just like a misplaced chop which spares the brainstem allows a chicken to hop up off of the chopping block and run around the barnyard. If we want to use logic (dangerous, I know) then we might presume that the "T-virus" or whatever has created the zombies is somehow tapping into and/or replacing the existing neural connections from motor cortex to muscles.  Removal of the head, or scrambling of the brains disrupts the connections, and once disrupted, postmortem decay prevents restoration. 

Like Mike the Headless Chicken, perhaps all of that movement really is residual impulses from the hindbrain and brainstem.  In  that case, a thorough scrambling of the remaining contents of the skull really should finish off the creature.  In that case, I would much prefer Bruce Campbell's "boomstick" to the .22 caliber rifles in Max Brooks' World War Z.  While a .22 long rifle bullet will enter the skull at close enough range, that's a pretty weak powder charge for longer range work.  In fact, while buckshot or shotgun slugs are more of a close-in weapon, anyone who has shot skeet or trap can tell you that the sight of clays disintegrating in flight gives one much more confidence in being able to stop ambulatory corpses.  However, for what it's worth, I prefer the classic approach from Jason and the Argonauts when dealing with the animated skeletons - just keep chopping until the pieces are too small to hurt you. 

That brings us back to serious and humorous (and messy) ways to kill zombies.  If a mere removal of head or appendages is sufficient, then blast and/or dismemberment should suffice, and the best weapons are essentially shotguns and sharp blades.  On the other hand, if the zombie was created with a virus, it is important to maintain universal precautions to prevent contact with blood and bodily fluids.  In addition, mere decapitation will not stop a virus-animated corpse, so more complete destruction of the zombie is warranted.  The best approach may be to take a cue from the Centers for Disease Control and approach the problem as one of creating a sterile field.  Antivirals, chlorinating agents, ultraviolet light, microwaves and intense heat are all typical CDC-approved means of destroying infected tissues.  Of course fire and harsh chemicals will do a pretty good number on zombies as well.  Again, it is essential to avoid contamination of one's self during the procedure; hence the future of anti-zombie squads is likely to entail MOPP gear and suicide squads of those already infected (but not yet turned).  [Then again, it may ultimately be necessary to take off and nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure!]

For our late addendum to the list of zombie types - the hag-ridden zombie -  destroying the brain might very well be an appropriate means of defeating the creatures.  In order to control it's host, the parasite would likely need contact with the brain and upper spinal cord.  Decapitation, shotgun blast or even .22 should do the job quite well, but it might also be advisable to destroy the chest cavity as well, just in case any baby Aliens are incubating there. 

Which brings us to the poll which ran this past week regarding messy ways to kill zombies.  Howitzer won the vote, and I'd have to say that the combination of total body dismemberment coupled with a weapon that allows a stand-off distance measured in miles is rather appealing.  I know that Mike Williamson favors industrial snowblowers - the ones used to clear airport runways - which adds one uncounted vote for spinning blades of death, as does the write-in entry of "Vitamix of Doom," bringing the slice and dice option into second place.  The second write-in was for a variation on chlorine trifluoride, resulting in a third place tie with liquid nitrogen.  The actual write-in was for pressurized darts filled with chlorine trifluoride, which if you don't know about ClF3, it's an oxidizing chemical that burns with just about everything - spontaneously combusting with living (or unliving) flesh.  I enthusiastically endorse this notion, as it combines maximum explosive dismemberment potential with sterilizing flame.  Truly the best of both worlds! 

For those of you interested, Mike Williamson and I will be hosting a panel on "Messiest Ways to Kill a Zombie" at LibertyCon in Chattanooga, TN this July.  We tested the concept earlier this year, and it should prove to be very entertaining.  I promise to record it and notify blog readers when it is posted to YouTube.

So, that's the serious and humorous side of zombies in science and popular culture.  Friday's blog will take a look at the popular meme of "Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse" and show how such activites can also help you prepare for storms, natural disasters and civil emergencies.

Until next time, don't try singing "Kum-Ba-Ya" with the Zombies, unless you want to join them!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Addendum: Zombies in popular culture (Encounters of the Fourth Kind)

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[Well, once again, Blogger's scheduling function reset itself to ignore the schedule I set... but that's okay, the new website design is complete, and I'll be moving the blog over there as soon as I can figure out how to transfer the archive of posts and duplicate the Subscription, Networked Blogs and email feeds functions.] 

Today's blog is brief, and intended to help keep the blog on the regular posting schedule and to rectify an omission in the "Popular Culture" blog.  My son, the gamer, mentioned "Flood Zombies" from the Halo video game series which reminded me that there is a fourth category of zombie in literature and media:
4: The "hag-ridden" zombie:

Zombies in this fourth category need not start out as corpses, the may be perfectly healthy humans prior to infestation, but the infesting agent - e.g. The Flood in Halo - takes over the bodily functions and effectively kills the body and/or human consciousness. 
So, where do we see (or read) type 4 Zombies?  In many ways, they are a variation of the type 3 infection zombie, except for the implication that rather than a "simple" virus, the infection is by a parasite that may have its own consciousness.  Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters is an excellent example, as is the amoeba-like parasite in Star Trek's Operation - Annihilate! More recently, the robotic "Replicators" of Stargate SG1 killed, then manipulated the corpse of already-a-bad-guy Mr. Marrick in The Ark of Truth.

So that gives us four types of zombie in pop culture - animated corpse, infected corpse, infected human (who turns into ravening corpse/animal), and the hag-ridden corpse/human.  Strangely, there seems to be much less treatment of the original voodoo zombie in current media (with the possible exception of the James Bond thriller Live and Let Die). These categories and characteristics will figure prominently in the next installment in which we discuss the means of defeating zombies.

In the meantime, if you have an example or category I've missed, feel free to enter it in the comments below!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The (Zombie) GUIDE: Zombies in popular culture

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Zombie week continues here at Teddy's zombie lab!  Today we'll look at zombies in fiction and media.  Wednesday we'll talk about the fictional and practical ways of defeating zombies, and finish up the week with what's behind the notion of "Preparing for the Zombie Apocalype."

Austin, TX roadsign, January 2009, Photo by Eddie C
The idea of a zombie apocalypse is one that has taken on a life of its own in popular culture. Granted, post apocalyptic fiction is always popular: many action movies essentially specialize in the apocalypse-in-progress, as well as classic examples of post-apocalyptic in which the story concentrates on life after disaster. However, in recent years it has become common to see references to "preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse" as an analogy general emergency and disaster preparedness. A perfect example is the Zombie Squad which teaches first aid, home survival, firearms safety, discusses disaster preparation activities as food and water storage in the context of natural disasters, and participates in community service and assistance. The idea is, if you're ready for zombies, then you're ready for just about anything! Fighting zombies is also very popular in the shooting sports, as evidenced by the popularity of paper targets featuring zombies attacking innocent civilians.

Apocalyptic fiction is hardly new, it ranges from the bleak (On the Beach) to the triumphant (Lucifer's Hammer) with many levels of pure survival (Alas Babylon) in between. So, to what do we owe the popularity of the zombie theme? Essentially, zombies are very popular in fantasy and horror genres; however, in recent years the idea of a "zombie outbreak" has moved from fantasy to science fiction as more speculation regarding the "cause" or source of zombies begins to take on a more scientific tone (or at least a pseudoscientific one). Current literature and movie themes reflect this, and will be the subject of the rest of this blog.

Zombies in TV film and literature fall into approximately 3 categories with some overlap between them:
  1. Zombies are magically animated dead creatures
  2. Zombies are dead creatures that have been brought back to life through a combination of science and/or  mysticism; 
  3. Zombies are essentially living creatures that have been infected with a disease, virus or spell which turns them into a basically dead creature.
Interestingly, the current concept insatiably hungry, killing machines is a fairly recent development in literature and can largely be attributed to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).  This movie clearly falls into category number one above. In this instance, the zombies are corpses which have been reanimated; hover, there is a considerable element of the "ghoul" - a creature which may or may not be dead, but which inhabits graveyards and eats human flesh.  In contrast, the classic monster Frankenstein, is basically a zombie, in that it is composed of cadaver parts and animated by a mad scientist, but lacks the modern concepts of "hunting" and feeding on humans.  Consider, for example, the "humorous" zombies of Piers Anthony's Xanth series:  The Zombie Master is a human sorcerer who reanimates corpses as servants.  The corpses are constantly losing parts, and present no real danger to humans, but only one individual can repair or even create zombies in the first place.

The hybrid crossover produced by Romero in Night of the is very important to the more modern notion of a zombie craving "brains" or feeding off of human flesh.  The Resident Evil video games and movies feature category two zombies which are dead humans brought back to life after being infected with a virus. Max Brooks's classic book World War Z is an example of category three, in which the victims of the mysterious virus first fall into a deep coma and seemingly "recover" hours later, but as a mindless, virtually unkillable creature. One of the common features of the zombie story both in film and print is that the "zombie infection" is spread by a bite. This is one of the main causes of crossover between the different categories of zombies, as in the Will Smith movie Legend in which it's not clear whether the zombies were precisely dead creatures reanimated, were living creatures infected with the "zombie virus."  Of course there's always fun movies such as Bruce Campbell's Army of Darkness, which to be honest, is not really a zombie movie, since the primary creatures are reanimated skeletons and not corpses per se.

While it is not my intent to go into a full analysis of horror movie psychology, the essence of a zombie movie is to play on both fear of the unknown, and fear of the unkillable. The basic concept of a zombie, is a creature that can be hit, shot, sliced, or even set on fire, without stopping it.  In Larry Correia's recent book Monster Hunter Alpha, the reader comes face-to-face with the rather infamous character Joe Buckley, who survives being shot, sliced and even blown up and still comes back to menace the protagonist not once but three times. The idea of a creature that can be run through with a sword, and still keep advancing means that most means of defense would not work. Hence the appeal of "preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse" implies preparing a defense that can deal with situations that are seemingly indefensible. Again, psychologically this plays into combating the "helpless" feeling of nightmares.

A discussion of zombie books and movies is not complete without discussing types of  zombies.  The classic shambling, (barely) animated dead - or shambler - is the most scientifically "logical" based on the idea that the an animated corpse has no source of energy, no way to recover from broken bones, amputations, and no mental facility.  On there other hand, if one allows magic, the animation need not concern itself with such mundane matters (i.e. Harryhausen's animated skeletons).  No, it is the fast zombies that are problematic - the ones in Zombieland which chase down their prey, or the "Ax-man" in Resident Evil: Extinction.  For a zombie to exhibit strength or speed, we must posit an energy source, and the most likely explanation is that the zombie virus or drug consumes the remaining tissues of the body. Then there is the hunger for "braaaaaaiiiiinzzzzzz" that is prevalent in the genre.  Perhaps lipid-rich neural tissue provides the perfect energy source despite the fact that brain tissue contains little to no glucose, glycogen or sufficient fatty acids to actually constitute a metabolic energy source!  Ah, maybe it's just the drive to spread the Z-virus that accounts for all of the behavior.  Finally, once you get to the horror-movie elements of  creatures in Resident Evil (First movie or Extinction), you're not talking about zombies at all. 

All of which leads to the idea that being prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse might not be such a bad thing after all!  That way, you will be prepared for the worst, so anything else can't be quite so bad.  So next blog, we'll talk about the humorous and serious means of defeating zombies, including a careful scientific look at the curious notion that brainless creatures must be defeated ... by destroying their brains! Finally Friday, we'll talk some more about preparing for that Zombie Apocalypse.

Until then, remember ladies - if a guy likes you just for your brain... he must be a zombie!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

FUNNY: The LabRats' Favorite Zombie Movies

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Speaker:  OK, Folks, I've gathered the LabRats around to help me on this special edition of Teddy's Rat Lab blog.  We wanted to give the opportunity for everyone to chime in on their favorite Zombie-themed movies.

S2LA:  So, I guess I'll start.  I like action movies, and I like humor - not the 'Dumb' variety, but I can't resist Good Schlock (Hint, Hint, new book preorders still available, right, Howard Tayler?), so I would have to nominate Army of Darkness for my favorite.

Ratley: "Squeak"

S2LA:  Yes, I know that technically those are animated skeletons, not classic zombies.

RTL: "Squeak"

S2LA:  What was that?

RTL:  "Squeak.  Squee-squeeek. Squick-squee."

S2LA:  Oh, right, the translator.  <pulls out a little box and flips a switch on top>

RTL:  <ahem>  Thank you you, oh absentminded one.  As I was saying, if you're going to allow animated skeletons, I would have to go with the 'Dragon's Teeth' warriors in Jason and the Argonauts. 

S2LA:  Yes, indeed.  Classic Ray Harryhausen.  I loved and feared those things.  Good, now Ratso, if you would be so kind as to stop eating for a moment.

Ratso:  <chew, swallow>  You know, Boss, I'm surprised you didn't go for Shaun of the Dead?

S2LA:  Yes, I know.  There's a lot to like about that movie.  Especially the fact that Shaun is so totally oblivious.  Oh, by the way, you've got red on you.

RSO:  <looks frantically>

S2LA:  Oh, sorry, that's just ketchup.  So is that your choice?

RSO:  Nope, just thought I'd ask.  I like classics, too, so I would have to go with Frankenstein - after all, he's basically a corpse and the Doc reanimates him, sort of a favorite among the grad students.

S2LA:  I suppose you're right, and you can't get much more classic than that.  On the other hand, I have to ask - Frankenstein or Young Frankenstein?  The classic monster or 'Abby Normal'?

RSO:  Classic, of course.  Besides, it's pronounced FRAWNK-en-SHTEEN.

S2LA:  Riiiiiight.   And you, Ratfink?

Ratfink:  Zombieland.

S2LA:  <pauses, waiting for Ratfink to continue, but he doesn't>  A rat of few words, eh?  I have to admit I haven't seen that one.

FNK:  Woody.  Reloads.  See it.

S2LA:  Well, okay, if you insist, you're so persuasive, given your elocution and charm.

FNK:  <gives Speaker the evil eye>

S2LA: <shudders>  Yeah, so.  Ratface?

Ratface:  Squeak

S2LA:  <flips switch repeatedly on translator>

FAC: Squeak.  Squeak. . . Squeak

S2LA:  Hmm, I guess I'll just have to translate.  You were saying?

FAC:  Squeak.

S2LA:  'The Greatest Story Ever Told?' <pauses>  No!  I've told you before, Ratface, we are not going there!

FAC: Squeak!

S2LA:  I *know* people say 'Happy Zombie Jesus Day.'  We're not going there.

FAC: Squeak.

S2LA:  No, you can't pick what someone else has already picked.

FAC:  <sullen> Squeak.

S2LA:  Fine.  *you* can pick Shaun of the Day, then.  Moving on.  Nestor?

Nestor:  I'd like to go back to the first of the main *Zombie* movies.  Night of the Living Dead.

S2LA:  Yes, good choice,but what about the rest of the series, like Day of the Dead? 

NST:  Well, George Romero milked the franchise for 6 films, but Night and Day are the worthwhile ones.

S2LA:  Agreed.  Good, well, that brings us to You Dirty Rat.  Um, you'd better let me do the typing, here, YDR, I'm not sure I want to be cleaning the mouse and keyboard all weekend..

Mick: Squee!

S2LA:  Not you, Mick, I'm mean the computer mouse.  So, YDR?

YDR:  Resident Evil.  Extinction, I think.

S2LA:  Yes, Extinction seems to be the pure zombie movie, some of the creatures in the other movies aren't exactly the classic undead.

YDR: <shivers> Like the dogs in Afterlife.  They're worse than cats.

S2LA:  Agreed.  OK, that's the main cast.  How about you other guys?  Gals?  Rattina, Ratlette?  <pauses>  No?

Rattina:  Guy movies. 

Ratlette: Ugh.

S2LA: Ohhhhhkay.  Norbert?  Whitey? Mick?

Norbert:  Walking Dead.

S2LA:  OK, TV qualifies.

Whitey:  Can I name a book series? 

S2LA:  Whitey - you're so nearsighted you might as well be blind.

WHT: Mick reads to me.

S2LA:  What?  Mick?

WHT:  Sure, what's the point of having a seeing-eye mouse if he can't read to you?  Also, there's plenty of Audiobooks.

S2LA:  That's true, ok, what's your book series.

WHT:  Well, Mick likes to read the Xanth series by Piers Anthony, and there's a character in there called the Zombie Master.  The zombies are a bit scary, but basically ok.  But lately, I've been listening to a bunch of audiobooks, and I like the Monster Hunter series on Audible books.

S2LA:  Good choice, Larry Correia is a friend and an excellent writer.  I like that choice. 

S2LA:  Well, then.  Good blog, everybody.  I think this will make a good starting point for our next blog on zombies in popular culture.  Until next time, be sure to vote on the messiest ways to kill zombies (go to this link http://teddysratlab.blogspot.com and click on the poll at the top of the right-hand column) and...

...take care of your ... BRAINZ!

Friday, May 18, 2012

NEWS: The Zombie Drug?

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Wow!  It looks like I could not have chosen a better week for Zombie Week here at Teddy's Rat Lab.  I had initially planned on just having a couple of posts, but it looks like I can fill the week (and more) just with Science, News and Comment.   However, I do promise to have a little fun with the idea of Zombie Wars and the Zombie Apocalypse later (and possibly into next week).

But for now, Sunday and Monday, I planned out this week with the contest announcement and topic tie-in to Schlock Mercenary.  Wednesday was to be a scholarly look at the nonmagical concept of Zombies and think of ways to get the "Zombie effect" purely from scientific methods.  I had planned that Friday I would take a look at Zombies in literature and media and discuss some of the origins of the ideas, then have a bit of fun over the weekend.  [And by the way, if you are getting this by Facebook or email, please visit the website using the link above and participate in the "Messy ways to kill Zombies poll.  It will run through next Monday and will be used in the later discussion.]

However, that plan has already changed.  Today I was websurfing and found this gem:   http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2143584/Scopolamine-Powerful-drug-growing-forests-Colombia-ELIMINATES-free-will.html

SO - I am postponing Friday's post on Zombie Lit and today we will discuss... The Zombie Drug!

Let's start with the drug itself.  The Daily Mail article  mentions the "Devil's Breath" powder made from flowers of the Borrachero tree.  These trees are what are known as nightshades, plants that produce the alkaloid drugs of the solanum family.  [Not to be confused with the fictional "Solanum virus" of The Zombie Survival Guide.]  This has got to be the strangest taxonomic classification in the field of biology, because it encompasses so many disparate types of plant: flowering trees, vines, roots and legumes.   On the other hand, all of these plants produce similar substances of pharmaceutical significance - i.e. the nightshade alkaloids.  Devil's Breath is essentially a powdered plant extract consisting primarily of the anti-acetylcholine drug: scopolamine.

The pharmacological actions of scopolamine are very well known.  The figure at the right shows scopolamine and the similar drug atropine.  These two drugs are quite frequently used to treat conditions in which there is too much acetylcholine present at neuron synapses.  There are a few cases in which that may be necessary - organophosphate (insecticide or nerve gas) poisoning, motion sickness, asthma/bronchospasm.  In the first case, the poison affects the acetylcholinesterase enzyme which breaks down acetylcholine and normally acts to regulate activation of acetylcholine-dependent synapses.  In the latter two cases, overstimulation of acetylcholine neurons results in nausea, excess salivation, excess lacrymation (tears), diarrhea, and build-up of fluid in the lungs; scopolamine is an antagonist which blocks the excess neural activity by blocking the acetylcholine receptor.  Scopolamine is also used in some cases for the treatment of depression and bipolar disorder.

The effects of scopolamine in the central nervous system are primarily to produce amnesia - by blocking the acetylcholine receptors, patterns of neural activity cannot be consolidated into long-term memory.  Scopolamine is used in the laboratory to mimic the effects of amnesia and disease states such as Alzheimer's Disease.  Scopolamine is also used illicitly to produce hallucinations and anesthesia - however this use is dangerous due to the low levels required for toxicity (10 micrograms per kilogram of total body weight if given IV, 100 micrograms/kg intramuscular, but over 1 milligram/kg oral/inhaled).  Accepted medicinal uses tend to be about 1/10 to 1/4 the toxic dose, but the moderate doses can also trigger adverse reactions such as malignant hyperthermia.

Is there truth to the "Zombie" claims?

Well, in a way, they are true.  Scopolamine has been used in the past for prisoner interrogation (along with sodium pentothal, another amnesia-producing anesthetic).  It easily passes the blood-brain barrier, and can easily cause hallucinations and amnesia.  The "lack of mental function" claimed for the drug results from a condition known as hypofrontality in which the suppression of neuron activity (particularly acetylcholine neurons) leads to a lack of the type of cognitive activity that neuroscientists call executive function. So, in essence, overdoses of scopolamine can indeed cause a condition in which the subject shows no awareness and no resistance to suggestion.  However, it should be noted that this is the "brainless" variety of Zombie - no voluntary motion,no conscious thought - and is a far cry from the urban legend reports of people being forced to perform many acts against their will after just a brief exposure to scopolamine.

Should travelers to South America be frightened of  being turned into Zombies by a brief whiff of plant extract (and dropping dead of scopolamine toxicity a few hours later)?

In short, no.

To start with, the flower of the Borrachero tree, once dried and ground, is going to contain just a few grams of material, but only a small portion is active drug - maybe 1-5 milligrams.  Given that about 10-20 milligrams of scopolamine-derived chemicals are used as a bronchodilator for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, getting a whiff of "Devil's Breath" may give you a slight dry mouth - but at least you'll breathe easier!  The actual psychoactive effects (anesthesia, amnesia, hallucination) will require about 40-50 times the dosage from simply breathing the powder (not to mention the fact that only a small amount of "blown powder" will actually be ingested. This is not to say that individuals who smoke solanum extracts are not endangering themselves, as they actually do ingesting amounts close to the toxic dose levels. 

There you have it.  A real-life Zombie drug, but not too much risk of a Zombie outbreak from this urban legend.  Stay tuned this week for more Zombie Science... at Teddy's Zombie Lab!


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The GUIDE: Zombies, the serious side

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[Note:  I originally planned to post MWF this week only, but I'm discovering soooooooo much material to work with, I'll will likely be extending into next!]

Urban fantasy as elevated the appreciation and acceptance of such fantastical characters as vampires and werewolves.  Classic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings for example, it shows us the honorable side of else, the words and more of the fantastical creatures which inhabit the world of myth and legend.
Zombie crowd from "Shaun of the Dead"

Ah, but zombies there just doesn't seem to be any way to make them honorable or acceptable.

In movies and novels, zombies are either mindless horde animated by evil magic, or "animalistic sub humans created by evil technology."  They may attack under funny circumstances, as in Bruce Campbell movies or the campy classic "Shaun of the Dead." On the other hand, the zombies may be coming at you in an unstoppable or as in "The Night of the Living Dead."  Anyway you look at it, the zombies are the enemy and are out to get… You!

So what makes a zombie, scientifically speaking.  In the voodoo mythology, voodoo priests could turn living humans into mindless servants through their magic, which in reality consisted of a combination of pharmaceuticals, which suppressed higher thought functions.  One of the chemicals used, traditionally, was tetrodotoxin or TTX.  TTX is well known in neuroscience, it is a chemical which blocks sodium channels, preventing the depolarizing sodium entry into neurons necessary for the formation of an action potential.  In the presence of tetrodotoxin, neurons are unable to receive and transmit the neural signals which underlie information processing of the brain.  TTX is an extract from puffer fish, fish used in the risky Japanese dish known as "fugu."  Fugu is a dish for risk takers and adventurers, and that the chef must take great care not to break the poison gland, which contains the TTX, and would kill anyone who consumes the dish.  On the other hand, just the slightest amount of TTX will cause a slight numbness to the tongue and lips and give the sensation of daring and risk to aficionados.  The dosage high enough will block all nervous system and muscle activity, while moderate doses will block some brain activity, but not all.  The use of neurotoxins is hardly unknown, considering that the neuromuscular blocker curare, was first discovered in use by native tribes on their blowgun darts to disable large prey.  So is not unheard of that primitive medicine and ritual may very well have developed the use of tetrodotoxin as a medicine for suppressing violent and aggressive behaviors.  It is that only a small step from such use too much more serious case of deliberately suppressing higher mental function, leading to legends of the "Voodoo Zombies" who functioned as slaves for their "evil masters."

On the other hand, there are a number of other possibilities from a scientific perspective for the classical "mindless, reanimated dead."  Aside from the fantastical gimmick of magical reanimation, science fiction authors have toyed with the idea of zombies created by alien organisms, viruses, stem cells, and nanomachines.  I mentioned the latter in Monday's blog, in conjunction with the web comic Schlock Mercenary.  Science fiction author Larry Niven postulated an alien virus that could reanimate bodies of dead soldiers on battlefield.  In the short story "Night on Mispec Moor" Niven's protagonist finds himself the only survivor as night falls after a brutal battle.  Unable to leave the scene as the bodies of friends and enemies begin to reanimate, he seeks high ground where he can make his own defense, only to discover that his medical kit holds the secret to survival.  The arising that an alien virus or microorganism is reanimating the bodies, he sprays them with a broad spectrum antiviral/antibiotic, causing the bodies to collapse and returned to the fully dead state.  Robert A. Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters" provides a similar cautionary tale in which aliens are able to control the bodies of humans, whether those humans are in fact alive or dead.

And yet the most intriguing notion, comes from recent studies with stem cells.  As medical research increasingly looks to the possibilities of stem cell therapies for tissue regeneration and growth, one question that is often asked is what will happen if the stem cells begin to grow in a manner that was not planned for?  While the most obvious result would be cancerous tissue, another possibility is that stem cells could result in a restoration of dead, necrotic tissue.  If enough of this tissue is restored to a near living state, would this not make zombies?  Still, the problem is one of reanimation of the brain tissue.  It is an interesting contradiction in fictional literature that zombies are essentially brainless, yet the only way to effectively defeat a zombie is to destroy the head and brain.  Reanimation of neural tissue would require the ability to not just provide glucose, oxygen and other essential nutrients to the neural tissue, but also a way to restore the electrochemical activity.  Perhaps it is most telling, that what we think of as memory and personality is primarily the result of the synaptic connections that are neurons make with each other.  Once an organism is killed, the once living cells undergo a process of necrosis.  Essentially what that means for our zombies, is that the cells no longer have intact intracellular mechanisms, nor do they have the same connections between cells.  If we extend this now to the brains of humans, we begin to understand the very soon after death the synaptic connections between neurons would break down.  With the loss of synaptic connections, the knowledge, skills, memory, and personality of that human would also be lost.  Thus, if we reanimate the body, the "mind" would still not be functioning.  Nonetheless, control of the muscles which allow the zombie to moving walk would still reside in spinal cord and brain stem with some residual signal coming from the motor cortex.

Thus, the idea that some these represent some form of reanimated corpse, necessarily brings with it the idea that brain function would not be restored.  Thus, zombies that results strictly from reanimation, would be able to do little else than lurch and moan.  On the other hand, zombies created through transfer of whatever agent cause the reanimation could very well affect living humans to the point that they exhibit the same characteristics as the living dead.  Thus, the popular fiction and movie concept of a few rare individuals able to plan, use tools, and organize their fellows into the pursuit of living prey, may n fact, represent a few "Voodoo Zombies" within their midst.

No matter what the source whether scientific or fantastic, rest assured that your faithful Lab Rat is prepared and equipped to deal with the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse.  I recently joined Zombie Squad, an organization that can be found at their forum http://www.zombiehunters.org.  While the zombie squad motto "Making Dead Things Deader" is purely and fun, the philosophy behind the movement is one of emergency preparation.  The philosophy is, if you're prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse, then you're prepared for just about any disaster that might come your way.  Zombie Squad members include volunteers who assist in communications, emergency services and recovery efforts from weather, geological, and civil emergencies.  They promote emergency preparedness in the event of a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, winter storm, flooding and many other situations that are quite real, and have little to do with fantasy and science fiction.  They also sponsor firearms awareness, safety, training and target competitions.  In addition, the idea of preparing for zombies is just plain fun.

So that's the scientific view of zombies and the Zombie Apocalypse.  In the next couple blogs will take a look at the fantasy and science fiction view of zombies with an eye to not just how science is used and abused, but also at the absurd and the amusing.  For anyone interested, author Michael Z Williamson and I will be participating in several zombie themed panels at liberty con and Dragon con this year.  The panels range from funny to serious, and we do hope that you find them enjoyable.

Until next time, be prepared, and protect your brain. After all the zombies only want you for your "BRAINZ!"

Monday, May 14, 2012

NEAT STUFF: Schlock Mercenary

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Back in August I started the first of my Monday Funny posts.  One of the first online comics that I linked to was the "Schlock Mercenary" which I cited as having one of the funniest mad scientist characters in Web comics.  Well, right now Howard Tayler is opening preorders for Volume 8 "The Sharp End of the Stick" - from the collected adventures of Tagon's Toughs and the irrepressible Sgt. Schlock.

Schlock Mercenary is science fiction, it takes place several hundreds if not thousands of years in the future, and tells the story of some tough guys just trying to make a living keeping the peace, and breaking it just a little. What makes the web comic about science is the well-developed "history" of the technology used in the future.  From matter annihilation (the next big step past matter-antimatter) to medical nanotechnology, Howard Tayler has created a well-thought-out world for his stories.  Make no mistake, these are indeed stories told in a graphical format.  I came to the web comic rather late, and bought one of the bundles of the early collected comics.  I then sat down read everything that I had in print in front of me, and then went to the website and picked up where I left off.  I should say right now that with seven volumes in print, there's quite a bit to read, and yet the printed volumes still make up only slightly more than half of the total number of strips that have been published.  As I read through the stories I realized the excellent storyteller skills of Howard Tayler. There is a grand sweep and the real direction to the stories that may not always be evident from day to day, but as you look over these strips, you can see that the author has always known where he's going and takes the reader along for wonderful ride.

Last August at Dragon*Con, I had the opportunity to meet Howard  Tayler.  First off, anyone that can wear those awesome boots must himself be pretty awesome - as in Marvel Superhero awesome.  In fact, we probably need to add a new Avenger in his honor.  After watching him do a masterful job at moderating a webcomic artists panel, it was my honor sit at dinner with Howard, his "neighbors" Larry Correia and Dan Wells, and several other writing friends and fans.  I must tell you that I have never had a funnier dinner, than listening to this trio pick and tease with each other. The dinner conversation ranged from Boy Scouts and model rockets to automotive engine fires and "meat sweats."  Yet along the way I got a glimpse at the wonderfully warped and funny, creative minds behind their stories.

I bring this up now, because in honor of the release of Volume 8, Howard and the Schlock Mercenary team have announced a contest.  The contest is for readers to tweet, share, or blog about Schlock Mercenary, and the availability of Volumes 1 through 8 of the collected strips.  I provided several links throughout this article, that you can use to discover this quirky, fun comic on your own.  In a way, this is a shameless plug on my part, because I do hope to win the contest.  Howard has promised numbered, sketched versions of Volume 8 to the winners of this contest.

But surely there must be another reason for bringing this up at this time.  After all, what does this webcomic have to do with brain science?

Actually, quite a bit.  From the start, in the world of Schlock Mercenary we've seen medical technology that rebuilds the injured (sometimes from just their heads), computers bonded to human nervous systems,  medical nanites run amok (here, here, and here).  Even though he did it all without my help - it's awesome, and one good reason why I recommend this webcomic to my friends.


As if I needed another reason, over the next several blogs, I plan to take a somewhat serious, somewhat lighthearted look at the subject of zombies.  As a scientist and a science fiction writer, I wondered, what type of scientific explanation could account for zombies.  Many scientific explanations have been used by writers in the past, starting with the real-life "Voodoo Zombie" produced by drugs that remove volition and higher thought levels from still living humans.  The standard explanation used in many movies is magic, but if a scientific explanation is put forward, it's usually some form of virus that can reanimate dead tissue.  As a physiologist and pharmacologist, I've had some experience with studies involving stem cells.  My own theory, captured in a short story, is that stem cells may be able to restore the ability to function as if alive, without requiring blood flow and oxygen delivery (and hence a heartbeat and breathing).  Again, this is a science fiction explanation, and we can do a little bit of handwaving to make it all work out.  A similar explanation would be a small nanomachine that can deliver nutrients to cells in the event of compromise to the blood system.  These "healing machines" could,  for all intents and purposes, produce a zombie in the process of attempting to heal damage that has already killed the patient. In fact, this is precisely the situation that occurred just a few weeks ago in the current online comic for Schlock Mercenary.

The idea of medical nanomachines that can take a "snapshot" of a human or other subject, and restore it after medical damage, seems to keep recurring, as I found out much to my chagrin last year.  I had just finished advising one of my author friends who needed a way for one of her characters to begin having memories that belongs to someone else.  I had no sooner worked out the details with her for the story, when the comic strip Sluggy Freelance had a similar storyline.  I spoke with Sluggy artist Pete Abrams about it, and found out that he too was chagrined when he had written his comic strips, and found a similar storyline in use in the Doctor Who television show.

So there are many things to like about Schlock Mercenary.  The strips comprise a well told story, and make no mistake: taken together, it is a story every bit as complex as a text-only novel.  The strip includes very well thought out and researched science.  The concepts used in Schlock Mercenary.  Our current, and cutting-edge with respect to science, but also with respect so the to some subtle satire and commentary.   Of course, it has been referred to by some as "that Blackwater comic" but this is unfair.  The comic is not about war, and it's not really about mercenaries even though those are the main characters. The comic is about people doing what people do, making friends, making enemies, and trying to deal with both.


So check out Schlock Mercenary.  Buy some books, read some books.  Check out Howard's online store, my favorite are calendar and the magnets from the mad scientists laboratory.  Spend a little money and help keep this web comic artist producing more enjoyment for us.

After all, where else can you get your daily dose of schlock, but from Schlock?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It's Zombie Week!

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This is Zombie Week at Teddy's Rat Lab.

biohazard green symbol logo 1 pictures, backgrounds and images

No, we don't have Zombie Lab Rats... yet... but Monday's column will be a special promotion that ties in with our theme.  Wednesday will feature The Science of Zombies, in which we discuss myth, traditional and the science and science fiction of zombies.  Friday's blog will be Dealing With Zombies in which we discuss the science and fiction behind the standard ways of fighting zombies.  We will finish the week with a special zombie-themed challenge, and I'll wrap up over the weekend with the best comments and questions.

Enjoy!

Friday, May 11, 2012

unfortunately delayed

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It's been a hellacious week.  This is the time of year when the lab writes abstracts for the presentations we are planning for the big scientific meeting next fall.  We were delayed up to the last minute by other issues, and then had to fight with "scientists" who can't seem to write science (and the irony compared to my last blog is not lost on me) and crashing websites.  But it's all done and I was exhausted and missed the Friday posting.

However, I have just joined "Zombie Squad" - the Elite Ambulatory Cadaver  Removal Service - and I am working on a couple of blogs on Zombie Neuroscience.  Max Brooks would be proud.

Until next time!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

COMMENT: The Pros and Cons of Scientific Peer Review

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First, my disclaimer:  This is my *opinion*.  It is an opinion shaped by 30 years in science, both participating in, and at the mercy of, peer review.  Since 1998, I have reviewed research grant applications for NIH, NSF and several private funding foundations.  I have *officially* reviewed manuscripts for various scientific journals since I became an Assistant Professor in 1995 (I have assisted others with reviews since the 80's).  My first publication subject to peer review was in 1985, the first in which I was the primary author ("First Authorship") was in 1989.  My first peer-reviewed research grant was awarded in 1995; I've been a co-investigator on peer-reviewed research grants since 1989.
While this is what my field would consider *extensive* experience with peer-review, it is also fairly limited in that it is only within my field, and only with respect to research papers and grants.  The other take-home message is that my field requires you to be the *victim* (excuse me – the *recipient*) of peer-review before becoming a reviewer.

What is driving the doubts about the effectiveness of peer-review?

1) Recent evidence shows that the second generation anti-psychotics and antidepressants such as Abilify are not as effective as they were shown to be in initial research and clinical trials...

2) A 2005 article in Public Library of Science journal claiming that 50% of published research findings are false due to statistical inadequacies...

3) The article that was sent to me a while ago states that pre-publication peer review does not provide any guarantee of lasting importance of scientific results...

4) There is a field of opinion that pre-publication peer review serves to limit publications to a level that meets the print capacity of the available scientific journals.  The advent of on-line internet publication eases the space restrictions, so why not publish everything and let the broader scientific community sort it out?

5) The highly public "ClimateGate" scandal has exposed abuse of pre-publication peer-review to publish articles by the AGW crowd and block publication by the AGW skeptics. 
--------

I have a number of responses to the above.  I don't believe that peer review is "broken" per se, but I do agree that the scientific community as a whole needs to police it better.  I will take on several of the issues above, but not necessarily in that order.  I'll refer to the topic numbers as needed.

#5 is the most egregious violation of peer review.  Sadly it is not unusual for a "good-old-boy" network to operate in science.  Would *I* tend to look more favorably at submissions by people I know and generally agree with?  Probably.  However, I also try to ensure that someone I know professionally does not get a "pass" on sloppy science, I can actually be *harder* on my colleagues than on strangers.  That said, I *like* new ideas, but I detest articles that are little more than "I got this great idea and I think it works like this even if my results don't support it."  I was asked to review an article in which the author decided that he could apply the principles of scalable physics models to biology, that all biology should be able to be treated the same, just on different scales.   The manuscript, however, proved that the author really had only the vaguest grasp of either biology or physics, and had never considered the fact that in physics there is such a thing as singularity, beyond which the models *don't* scale.  Thus with biology we get emergent properties and behaviors which are not explainable by a scaled model (which is also where I differ with a certain Baen author and his quantum theories of the mind).  That article was eventually published in another journal, likely because the reviewers were selected to address the modeling aspects and were not as well versed in areas outside their discipline.  Because I am a nerdy geek that is fascinated by physics, I was able to see fundamental flaws in the exemplars that would not have been obvious to someone less well versed in physics.  

On the other hand, I have been the victim of the "not invented here" syndrome.  I am senior author on an article that has been rejected by three different journals on the basis of "not appropriate (or too complicated) for the readership of this journal."  (see link under #4)  The problem being that what I have is a really neat effect that is relevant to brain-to-machine interfacing.  When read and reviewed by engineers and neuroscientists in the neuroprosthetics subfield, it is very well received.  When reviewed by mainstream neuroscientists, it is subject to highly critical reviews.  The weak point is the "cause" of the cause-and-effect function.  My colleagues in the mainstream would prefer that I run a number of controls to prove that my effects are not coming from a number of direct or alternate sources.  Part of my response is "so what if it is?"  In some cases it *doesn't* matter if the effect is due to one neuron or two, or occurs via three relay connections or none at all.  What is important to publish is that an effect *exists* (#3) and then move on to more complete characterization later.  Of course, the desire to get into print first and lay claim to a result drives this need, and it is very frustrating to know that a neuroengineering journal would publish in a heartbeat, but I'd *still* not get appropriate recognition from the neuroscience community.  

This is where #2-4 interact as listed above.  PLoS One is an online publication that does not make value judgments on the "appropriateness" of an article, but *will* subject it to review by 2-5 peers.  Typical review is 2 outside reviewers, plus the editor.  Reviewers are *supposed* to know the field.  As a submitting author, I can suggest people who *should* know the field (and the editor should know who are my cronies!), as well as provide names that would have a conflict of interest with my work (either they hate my guts or my work disproves their work).  The editor is under no obligation to use my suggestions, but hopefully will use *one* of my suggestions and I'll get one good review.  If the two reviewers are diametrically opposed in opinion, the editor will call in a third.  I have seen a case where 5 reviewers were used (aside from PLoS One) and the editor basically used the reviews as a vote.  The biggest problem in publication and grant proposal review is that it can be difficult to find reviewers that fully understand *all* of the material in the article or grant proposal.  Multiple reviewers are better (#2 & #3) – NIH uses 3 main reviewers plus a committee of 12-15 additional discussants for grant proposal reviews.

The philosophy of PLoS One is to let the scientific community sort it all out post-publication (#3, #4 & #6).  With unlimited space, there can be publication of *every* article that passes basic peer-review; however, the scientific community will decide for itself what is worth keeping.  The problems with this are two-fold:  supply of reviewers is limited, and once released, there is no good way to "retract" the worthless publications.  The first point is exemplified by NIH.  Beginning in 1992, the NIH budget was increased each year with the goal of doubling the available research funding within 10 years.  In that same time, the number of new grant applications increased ten-fold.  By 2002, NIH was funding approximately more than twice as many *new* grants per year, and overall, funding 3x as many grants as in 1992.  However, starting in 2003-2004, there was no longer any *additional* funding, and the percentage of new and renewed grant applications funded each year dropped from 20% to 7%.  With further belt tightening, altered focus of the grant programs, and a mandate to continue to fund *new* grants (or more importantly, new investigators) at a minimum 5-7%, the funding percentage dropped to 3%, largely at the cost of grant renewals (typical grants must be renewed every 5 years) which were only 20% likely to be renewed - even though a renewal would not cost the NIH any more than was already budgeted! 
  
Meanwhile, researchers have continued writing *more* grant proposals in hopes that they would have a better chance of being funded.  [Note, since the mid 90's, Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement to Medical Schools and Teaching Hospitals has been locked to the same rate as *all* medical care.  Previously Med Schools could charge more on the basis of the higher levels of care, and that extra helped subsidize teaching and research.  Since 1990, tuition has increased, and researchers must bring in >80% of their salary on grants to keep their jobs.]  In 2004, when I rotated off of a "Study Section", a standing review committee for NIH, I typically reviewed 6-8 grants every 3-4 months.  Each grant was 25 pages long with up to 10 appendices (articles and supplemental data) to help explain the research.  I considered going back on a Study Section last year, but the average review load was 10-12 grants every 3-4 months.  NIH shortened the grant proposal length to 12 pages last year, and virtually all appendices are now merely online links to published articles.  The goal was to reduce the *volume* of the grants so that they could increase the *number* of grants each reviewer was assigned (up to 15) – yet the reviewer is expected to do more reviews with less description on which to base judgment, while making the reviewer look up *more* material on their own!

So, publishing *more* while maintaining the peer-review process is not necessarily a winning game.  Now, what if we were to publish more while *reducing* the peer-review burden?  Nice idea, but who *really* decides what results are worthwhile?  What if all scientific publishing were done on the internet, and anyone wanting to find a particular result just had to search for it?  Which "one" result should our hypothetical researcher choose?  The most recent?  The one with the most links? Consider the Wikipedia model:  Who judges worth?  Is Science a popularity contest?  Can *anybody* - with or without formal training edit WikiScience?  And who is to say that the person giving my result a "thumbs up" has any idea that my research is valid other than thinking I must be alright just because I write cute stories about LabRats?  
By far, my strongest criticism of #4 is that if there are *no* gatekeepers, then there is no way to weed out the junk science.  ClimateGate (#5) serves as a cautionary tale to #2 and #4 as well.  If *all* scientific findings are available online, then *somebody* - whether politician, publisher or progeny - will pick up the least-worthy result and decide to base law or policy on it! 

On the other hand, the NY Times opinion piece cited in #6 illustrates just such a case in which the scientific and governmental regulatory communities have stuck by the validity of a peer -reviewed article while "the public" has thoroughly debunked it.  I think I can be honest enough to admit that there is validity in the idea of opening up scientific results to commentary and public scrutiny as in the case of the so-called "ivory-billed woodpecker" cited by the article referenced in #6.  In my defense, however, I would also point out that those who have debunked the peer-reviewed claims are hardly unskilled in the field, and consist of ornithologists and birdwatchers who *do* follow the science of the field rather closely. 
Finally, to #2 and #1.  Human studies and drug studies are particularly prone to errors of statistical power.  In many cases it is just not possible to take into account individual variability in reaction to a drug.  Hence a carefully selected population may *randomly* not represent the true population mean, or it may simply not have enough subjects to be reliable.  It is one reason why I tell a particular friend to look at the clinical trials and be sure to read the side-effects and reactions of people who *dropped-out* of the trial, because sure enough *that* is the reaction she will have to the drug.  

However, there is another factor that contributes to diminished efficacy of drugs on the market (#1):  A.  Before a drug is in clinical trial, the initial "pre-clinical" testing is on animals.  FDA requires tests on at least two different species from different taxonomic orders (i.e. rats - dogs, cats - monkeys, mice - pigs, etc.).  Pharmaceutical companies have been caught too often by drugs that work in animals, but not humans, thus one of the *preferred* preclinical trials is in nonhuman primates, but their use is quite often restricted by animal rights movements.  B. Phase I clinical trials are strictly to generate toxicology results, and are in animals and humans.  C. If a drug passes Phase I (i.e. is not toxic in proposed doses) it is tested in Phase II to find out if it has an effect at the proposed dose, and if not, what dose is required.  D. Phase III is a larger population test to find out whether the drug has the desired effect at the prescribed dose, and whether the effect is robust and lasting.  E.  The drug is approved by the FDA and can be prescribed for a specific disease or treatment.  F. The drug becomes widely accepted, and is prescribed for patients with similar or marginal conditions.  G. The drug becomes generic or there are "off-label" uses - such as the antihypertensive that became a hair restorative (minoxidil).  With each subsequent step, the patient base becomes broader, the symptomatology becomes looser, and the appropriateness of the use becomes less assured.

There is a much simpler explanation for #1 than that proposed in the article:  appropriateness and compliance.  As a drug becomes accepted, it gets prescribed to individuals who would never have been included in the initial clinical trials.  Given that Rogaine (minoxidil) is used by so many people that do *not* require a vasodilator, is it appropriate to judge its effectiveness as a vasodilator on the *entire* population that uses it?  Abilify (aripiprazole) was found to be highly effective in Phase II and Phase III trials in patients with moderate to severe schizophrenia.  Lehrer (#1) cites the "startling news" that these drugs were no longer as effective as the initial studies had indicated.  But!  Abilify is no longer prescribed just for schizophrenia – but has been FDA approved for treatment of bipolar depression (since 2006), unipolar depression (since 2007) and autism (since 2009).  Now, what has changed?  The original research?  The drug?  Or the patient base?  The flip side of appropriateness is compliance:  The drug may be entirely appropriate - but do the patients *take* the drug as directed?  The biggest problem with antibiotic-resistant bacteria is not the effectiveness of the drugs, but the fact that so many patients do not take the antibiotics as frequently or as long as prescribed by the doctor.  Drug dosing schedules have been carefully worked out in preclinical and Phase I-III testing, but if a patient stops taking the drug because of financial, emotional or other reasons, the effectiveness is reduced and it has *nothing* to do with whether the preclinical results were effectively peer-reviewed prior to release.

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So, do I think peer-review is broken?  Well, #5 tells me that it can and has been warped.  I do *not* think it should be scrapped, but I think it needs better watchdogs.  Who are those watchdogs?  We all are.  If a scientist witnesses abuse of the system, they should be able to speak out and not get shut out because of political whim.  The public needs to be better educated so that they do not get told what to do be manipulative media politicians and yes, scientists.  I would be all for fully open access to science if the public were educated enough to understand the basics to be able to tell what is and is not good science.  Unfortunately the reality is that there exists a high level in science where only a very few people worldwide understand or even care.  Only time can judge the worth of such research, the rest requires an educated populace.  As long as there is *any* stratification within the populace based on education, there will be those who must translate science to the masses, and become a gatekeeper.  The gatekeeper position can all too easily be corrupted as we have seen.  

Knowledge is power.  Be powerful.