Archive for June, 2010

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Real Zombies Scuttle

June 19, 2010
A recent meme that’s proved almost worryingly popular around here is planning for a zombie holocaust. It might sound grim, and even a little crazy, but it’s a diverting enough theoretical exercise. At least, it is for most people – as ever, a few devote a bit TOO much time to it. I’ve actually heard it voiced in a serious tone that we ought to plan for it, as ‘you never know’, and there’s a slim but real risk of the plan being needed.

That’s always tickled me, as the plans people make are always to counter zombies as envisioned by George A. Romero. Romero was good at slow, tense horror films, but his idea of zombies is the least plausible I’ve ever seen. A Romero zombie shambles around, hunting all day and all night until its decaying flesh putrefies too far for it to move. They will eat voraciously, but they do not digest. From this alone we know they are impossible.

Picture the scene – a colossal treadmill, filled with Romero zombies. In front of them, a member of staff sits thumbing idly through a trashy magazine. The zombies, driven by pure, primal instinct, lurch forwards towards their flabby supervisor. The wheel turns all day and all night, as different staff members take their shifts, and in the next room, a generator rumbles. Cheap, renewable electricity for ever!

Romero zombies use energy to move, but they don’t gain energy from any source. They violate one of the most inviolable of physical laws, and for that reason alone they can’t happen.

28 Days Later paints a different picture, with an extremely contagious virus turning people into out of control, murderous animals. The victims are still alive, unlike Romero zombies, and presumably have the same physical weaknesses. As far as I can see, this approach is fairly feasible, although there’s no real virus that does anything close to this.

There’s a more feasible and infinitely more sinister possibility though, one that does happen in the real world, just not to humans. It happens to insects.

Cordyceps uniliteralis is a fungus found in jungles across the world. It acts as a parasitoid to certain specific types of ant – a parasitoid being defined as a parasite which kills its host as part of its normal life cycle.

An ant, picking its way through the jungle floor, might accidentally inhale a spore from a mature fungus. The spore lodges itself inside the ant’s body, and immediately sets about making changes. Any spare soft tissue inside the carapace gets converted to sugars, and any cracks in the carapace are sealed. The ant belongs to the fungus now, and it is not willing to share it with other pathogens. When the host is sufficiently prepared, the fungus begins to alter the chemistry of the ant’s brain. The urge is chemically implanted in the ant to find somewhere at just the right altitude, just the right temperature, and just the right humidity. The ant sinks its mandibles deep into the stem of the plant it’s climbed, and dies. The fungus then works quickly, bursting out of the host’s head and shedding its spores onto the breeze.

There’s something akin to a constant, low level war being waged between ant colonies and this fungus, with the colonies being built purposefully far away from likely spore areas, and ant drones being able to recognise infected individuals, and escort them far, far away from the colony before they reach the final stages.

As if that weren’t enough, there are other strains of this fungus which affect dragonflies, cockroaches, cicadas, beetles, stick insects, bees, wasps, butterflies and moths.

I invite you to dwell on how you’d recognise a human so infected, before their head splits open to release a cloud of spores.

That ought to fuel a few nightmares.

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Icarus is not to be emulated.

June 13, 2010

Icarus, as I’m sure you know, was a character from Greek mythology. His father Daedalus made them both feathery wings, held together by wax, that they might fly free from their captivity. Icarus got carried away with the joy of flight, forgot his father’s instructions, and flew to close to the sun – the wax melted, and he fell to his death.

The moral of the story is pretty obvious, I think, and Icarus is usually used as a byword for getting carried away, being too proud, or simply being on the verge of learning a rather harsh lesson.

Usually.

But the name crops up all the time in completely unsuitable places, and you have to wonder at times just what the decision-makers who chose the name were thinking.

In science-fiction it’s a little more understandable – the writers are giving us a rather heavy-handed clue as to what might lie ahead. It still begs the question of why the characters who chose the name thought it was a good idea, however.

A quick run-down of some more notable science-fiction examples:

The Matrix Reloaded featured a ship by that name, which was rather predictably blown up.

Stargate: Universe featured a military installation called Icarus Base, on a distant alient world. The official base logo was that of a feather against a sun.The alien world exploded in the first episode.

I mean seriously.
Just to drive the point home…

Sunshine featured not one, but TWO spaceships by the name of Icarus, both designed to fly right up to the sun. Their fate is of rather more plot importance than the other examples listed, so I’ll simply say that the mission is not without its hitches. Or deaths.

Use of the name outside fiction is even more baffling though, especially given some of the things it gets attached to. There was a major Greek airline called Icarus – would you be confident flying in a plane branded with the name of a man who tried to fly and fell to his death?

There are still flight schools, flying contests and aircraft manufacturers with the name, as well as bus manufacturers, for some reason, and Japan has just launched a solar-sail powered unmanned spacecraft named IKAROS.

Why not name flying endeavours after Daedalus? Alright, he was a murdering, jealous, devious  bastard, but he could actually fly without killing himself!