The science story that has it all

Some scientific stories – think of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA – are so electrifying that you instantly realize they’re bound for a Nobel prize or some other lofty pinnacle of greatness. This wasn’t one of them. My first impression was that it was free-falling rapidly in the other direction. If nobody has put it up it for an IgNobel yet, you may consider this article an official nomination.

It’s one of those quirky little pieces that make you think, “Wow, you can obtain funding for anything if it’s crazy enough,” or “The guy who wrote this grant must be a genius; let’s hire him,” or “There are waaay too many people getting PhDs these days.” But then you bite into it, the way you might try a hamburger made of soybeans, just to please your girlfriend, and you realize that it’s the gift that keeps on giving, if only in the form of several days of gastrointestinal distress.

I’m speaking, of course, of the invention of 3D eyeglasses for praying mantises. If you haven’t seen the pictures, visit this site and prepare not to get much work done for the next few hours.

The project is the work of Jenny Read, from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. The story issued by their press office doesn’t mention publication in a peer-reviewed journal, but it does say that the group received £1 million pounds from a certain Trust, so who cares? (I’m not naming the Trust until I’ve sent them five grant applications that I’ve been hanging onto, waiting for just the right funding body; I found the story, so I have the right to a head start.) In case you were wondering, £1 million pounds amounts to 1.23 million Euros at today’s rate of exchange.
Besides, who cares about getting a paper published when your work produces a video that will go instantly viral? Or maybe the lab was about to be scooped, and had to get the story out there.

I will return to the fascinating scientific aspects of this story, and its wonderful potential for industrial applications, but first let me say that this is obviously one of those projects that started in a pub. They caught a praying mantis by trapping it in a beer glass; everybody gathered around, and somebody said, “Hey, I bet to that bug, we look like we’re on a huge IMAX screen.”

A lot of British studies, particularly from psychological research, start in a pub and spend millions proving things we already know. Remember the classic paper proving that “Men and women who have consumed a moderate amount of alcohol find the faces of members of the opposite sex 25% more attractive than their sober counterparts.” That one got its support from the Universities of St. Andrews and Glasgow, which were probably closest to the pub.

This type of research is much harder than it sounds. It requires a particular skill set: you have to be able to do statistics, or at least count, while drunk. Then you have to remember to save all the soggy napkins and beer coasters that you’ve been using to gather statistical data. Finally, you must be able to read your own handwriting in the morning. It’s worth cultivating these talents as you work on your PhD; they’ll practically guarantee you a position in a lab in the UK.

But back to the praying mantis. One intriguing part of the story is that, as opposed to other insects, this species already has 3D vision. That’s because they have smooth eyes, as opposed to the eyes of certain dragonflies and moths, which are broken up into 30,000 or so bubble-like ommatidia. I guess that means they have 30,000D vision, which probably makes it hard to see anything at all. It’s a good thing such insects don’t drive cars, because they’d need a lot of mirrors – all of which would be labeled, “Objects in the mirror are fewer than they appear.” Now those are insects that could really use 3D glasses, just to watch normal TV, but it would take a farm of Cray supercomputers 12 billion years to work out the optics and design the things, and by that time the dragonflies would have evolved into helicopters.

How do you attach glasses to a praying mantis? With beeswax, of course. You grab a mantis, glue some glasses to its eyes, and stick it in front of a computer monitor which is showing The Fast and the Furious 17, or whatever number they’ve gotten to these days. If the mantis jumps back to avoid getting mashed on the grill of an oncoming car, you know that the glasses work. Another good piece of evidence is if the mantis tries to grab Paul Walker, mate with him, bite off his head, and eat him. I’ve known a few human women who respond the same way when they see Paul Walker in 3D.

One of the researchers involved in this project was a certain Dr. Vivek Nityananda; say it three times in a row, fast, and you really have to wonder if Newcastle is pulling our leg. He proclaims: “This is a really exciting project to be working on. So much is still waiting to be discovered in this system. If we find that the way mantises process 3D vision is very different to the way humans do it, then that could open up all kinds of possibilities to create much simpler algorithms for programming 3D vision into robots.”

I find this somewhat enthusiastic, but molecular biologists say such things, too; translated into their discipline it comes out: “3D glasses attached to the eyes of praying mantises present a promising new target for potential cancer therapies.” Particularly cancer of the eyeball, I suppose.

Dr. Vivek Nityananda doesn’t mention the fact that the research should also result in a lot more customers attending the local IMAX. You could fit 1,980,722,314,222 praying mantises into the theater, although it’s unclear how they will pay, unless the research subjects are getting a cut of that £1 million pounds.

For a writer there’s an even more compelling reason to be interested in this project. Garrison Keillor, the great American humorist, once said that a great story has five elements: a mystery, religion, money, sex, and family relationships. In a Nov. 8, 1997 broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, he managed to capture them all in just twelve words, although it’s 14 if you expand the contractions:

“God,” said the banker’s daughter, “I’m pregnant. I wonder who’s the father?”

By extension, the perfect science story would have those elements, too, plus a bit of technology. That’s rare, but here we have them all, if you think about the mating practices of female praying mantises, usually with males from their own species, or perhaps with Paul Walker. Add this story’s elements of murder and cannibalism, and I foresee a book, a screenplay, and a feature film. I’m currently trying to buy the rights to the story. There’s still time to get in on this; just send me a mail and I’ll tell you where to send your contribution.

The sun has a sibling – but are they holding hands?

I guess the birth announcement got lost in the mail, which is understandable given the fact that it happened a few billion years ago, somewhat before the invention of e-mail or even a postal system. In case you haven’t heard: our Sun has a sibling! And it’s a girl!

She’s called HD 162826, which will give her some grief during grade school, but probably not as much as if she had been named Moon Unit Zappa, Elbow (3 children were given that name in 2009), Hotdog (2 in 2012), or Freak (34 in 1995). I don’t know how you determine the sex of a star, but apparently someone can, because everybody says HD 162826 is a sister. I’d love to send my congratulations to the parents, but their identity is somewhat vague.

In any case, the discovery of the Sun’s sister has triggered an outpouring of emotional responses and some typically wild speculations on the part of the press. The first article I saw on this was here, and this piece is interesting for a number of reasons. It gets off to a great start with this sentence:

“Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin has discovered that a previously known star may actually be the sibling of our own Sun.”

“Researchers… has discovered” is a little strange, but maybe that’s how they talk in Texas. All right, in the excitement it seems petty to quibble about the conjugation of verbs. The article continues:

“The possible solar system is located a mere 110 light years away from the solar system.”

This sentence is also intriguingly strange. First off, there’s nothing “mere” about “110 light years away,” at least if you’re using Google Maps to plan your trip. (I tried, and the closest hit is Hd’s Mesa, an employment agency on 1826 W. Broadway Road, Mesa, Arizona, a mere 9,100 km from my present location.)

A light year is 9.4605284 × 1015 meters. It would take the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is traveling at a maximum rate of 62,136 km/h, at least 1,909,787,303,382.4 years to get there. That’s only if Voyager 1 is pointed exactly in the right direction, which I kind of doubt, and only if I’ve done the math right. If you find an error in my calculations, let me know.

Of course you have to take into account that 1,909,787,303,382.4 years is about 138 times longer than the current age of the universe (depending, of course, on the date at which you are reading this.) In 1.9 trillion years the universe will either still be expanding, or collapsing in on itself, depending on your feelings on the topic of dark matter. In the expanding universe scenario, some scientists calculate that the universe might double its size in 11.4 billion years. It’s unclear how things will go after that, but Voyager 1 will clearly need somewhat longer to arrive. If, on the other hand, you’re a proponent of universal contraction, everything will be closer together, so the trip won’t take quite as long. Maybe Voyager 1 should just park somewhere and wait.

But the intriguingly strange sentence above (“The possible solar system is located a mere 110 light years away from the solar system”) has more to offer. I suppose “the possible solar system” means that the sibling sun might also have a solar system, and “the solar system” at the end of the sentence presumably means “our solar system.” If I’m wrong, and these two phrases refer to the same solar system, I don’t quite understand how a thing can be 110 light years away from itself. Unless you are talking about some sort of weird, alternate reality. Of course, physicists like that kind of thing – remember Schrödinger’s cat, which demonstrates not only the possible existence of parallel universes, but also that Erwin Schrödinger had some serious issues with cats.

The idea that our planets might have long-lost siblings is old news. Earth’s first sibling was found in 2007, as you can read here. I’ve covered that story in an earlier article. A second sibling was found this year. The first candidate, Gliese 581c, is a mere 20 light years away, while Kepler 186f is 500 light years from us. That’s just how it goes: “children” (or planets, in this contorted world of familial metaphors) grow up, relocate to distant places, attend the university, and acquire huge amounts of debt before moving back home to live in the basement.

Both of these planets are “sisters.” It’s easier to tell the sex of a planet, I suppose; at least you can get closer and inspect them, without getting burned to a crisp.

* * * * *

In case you hadn’t noticed, I could go on talking about unusual grammar and interstellar sex determination all day. But the discovery of our “sister sun” has also prompted some scientific speculations that are worth considering. Consider this from the Tech Times article I cited above:

“Aside from being a potential sister star to the Sun, Ramirez and his colleagues also believe that there is a very small chance that the HD 162826 system could have planets suitable for life. While the chances may be small, the researchers are certain that the odds are not zero.”

I can’t resist one linguistic point here: the first sentence implies that the potential sister star is Ramirez and his colleagues. This is a common grammatical mistake called a “dangling participle.” The problem becomes clear if you consider a sentence such as, “Hanging from a tree, the firemen rescued a cat.” But more intriguing is the comment, “the researchers are certain that the odds are not zero.” It’s hard to find just about anything for which the odds are truly zero (rather than 0.0000000…00001); try it sometime and you’ll see.

Another article about the finding puts it this way:

“One of the most exciting consequences… is the likelihood that these stars support planets, and possibly even life. Back when the Sun’s siblings were all hanging out in their nursery together, there would have been a robust, inter-system exchange of planetary material and chemical runoff. Enriched chunks of early Earth could have been launched into other fledgling solar systems, seeding the potential for life on other planets.”

Now I don’t know how this passage strikes you, but there’s a point at which you have to be cautious about metaphors. There’s some serious hanky-panky going on in this nursery school. “Exchange of planetary material and chemical runoff” are clearly euphemistic references to some sort of bodily fluids. If you’re generous you might think the topic is spilling KoolAid, but then you get to the part about launching “enriched chunks of early Earth,” and it’s hard not to think about kids throwing around poop. Finally we get to “seeding the potential for life” – a figurative climax, if not a literal one. If by that point you haven’t figured out what the author is talking about… Let’s just say it’s not the kind of day care I’d consider for my kids.

Coming back to the science, one should remember that this nursery probably existed over 4 billion years ago, when things were pretty hot, and I’d say the limb that supports these speculations is a pretty long one. But some notable scientists – Berzelius, Kelvin, Hermann von Helmholtz, Francis Crick, and Stephen Hawking – have promoted this type of panspermia hypothesis, and I’m not one to argue with such bright bulbs.

This second piece from motherboard.vice.com (clearly one of the first places you’d go to check out the latest findings from research) goes on to say:

“The idea that we might have genuine biological relatives on planets orbiting distant solar siblings is certainly tantalizing.”

I don’t quite know what they mean by “genuine biological relatives,” unless they’re referring to Vulcans, or a long-lost cousin named Bob, but it’s safe to say that the idea is tantalizing. Most things are, to somebody.

I’d like to jump into the fray of wild speculations by suggesting that our Sun and its sibling might be holding hands. That happens sometimes, as shown by the recent birth of twins. On Mother’s Day, at that. What are the odds of that? Certainly not zero.