Hugo Gernsback, the father of Science Fiction

It’s time to put on your Spock-ears or fire up your light sabre (depending on whether you’re in a Star Trek or Star Wars mood, of course), dig out your favourite science fiction book or movie, and settle back for a day of serious sci-fi appreciation.  Today we celebrate the birth of Hugo Gernsback (16 Aug 1884 to 19 Aug 1967), the American inventor and publisher who is sometimes called the ‘Father of Science Fiction’ for the contribution he has made to the establishment of science fiction as an independent literary form.

Gernsback considered a perfect science fiction story to be “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science”.
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Gernsback was a pioneer of the modern genre of science fiction. He founded the first sci-fi magazine, ‘Amazing Stories’, in 1926, and later, after losing ownership of this magazine through bankruptcy, founded two subsequent titles, ‘Science Wonder Stories’ and ‘Air Wonder Stories’. Gernsback also played a key role in starting the idea of science fiction fandom, by publishing the contact details of the people who wrote letters to his magazines – this allowed the fans to start contacting each other, and to organise themselves into an active social movement.

In honour of Gernsback’s contribution to the genre, the annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards are called the ‘Hugos’. He was also one of 1996’s inaugural inductees into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Celebrating World Lizard Day – prehistoric looks and surreal abilities

Today we celebrate World Lizard Day. Yes, you read correctly – it seems there actually is such a day! Then again, if there’s a World Snake Day, why shouldn’t there be a World Lizard Day?

While there is a huge variety of lizards in the world (more than 5600 species, I believe) we only have a small subset of geckos and skinks down here in New Zealand – some 60 species in total. Well, at least we have some, unlike snakes, which we don’t have at all.

African wire-art lizard. Lizards are often depicted in African and South American art.
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Lizards are a strange bunch. Even though many of them (like the bearded dragon) look really scary, they’re mostly harmless to humans. Except for the Komodo Dragon, of course. Growing to sizes in excess of 3m, they’ve been known to stalk and attack humans – definitely a thought that could give me some sleepless nights.

The more I learn about lizards, the more surreal I find them. And it’s not just their prehistoric looks – they are blessed with some decidedly odd skills too.

Some lizards, like the chameleon, can change colour. While it is to some extent done for camouflage, the main purpose of this is actually to signal its physiological condition and intentions to other lizards – they can for example show brighter, more aggressive colours when angered, while displaying lighter, multi-coloured patterns when courting. This colour-changing is done using specialised cells called chromatophores, containing pigments in their cytoplasm which can be voluntarily set to different intensities by the chameleon.

Chameleons can also use their tongues to reel in food from a distance of more than two and a half times their body length, by shooting their tongues out of their mouths at high speed. They can do this because their tongues are equipped with powerful, super-contracting muscles that are unique among back-boned animals. The tip of the tongue is covered in thick mucus that sticks to the prey and allows the chameleon to pull its food straight into it’s mouth. Quite useful for a quick take-away snack!

Equally strange, when you think about it, is the fact that many lizards can voluntarily sever their tails when facing danger – an act known as autotomy (from the Greek auto = “self-” and tomy = “severing”) or self-amputation. Even after it has been severed, the tail continues to wriggle, distracting the lizard’s attacker. Amazingly, the lizard can partially regenerate it’s tail over a period of a few weeks (even though the new tail will contain cartilage rather than bone, and may be a different colour to the rest of it’s body).

Even more surreal – and this really gets me – when threatened, some species of horned lizard can actually squirt blood from their eyes! This action, called autohaemorrhaging, not only confuses predators, but the blood also tastes bad thanks to the chemicals it contains. The squirting is done by restricting the blood flow away from the head, so blood pressure inside the head increases, rupturing tiny blood vessels in the sinuses near the eyelids. This bizzare act can be repeated several times, and the blood can be squirted a distance of more than 4 feet.

Honestly, a prehistoric-looking, blood-squirting, self-amputating, colour changing creature with a tongue twice it’s body length – I wouldn’t be able to make that up even if I wanted to! Surely the stuff of science fiction fantasy, and more than worthy of a special day of celebration.

Fifty Shades of Red

Do you know why your blood is red? It’s thanks to the red blood pigment, haemin, which is one of the components of haemoglobin.

And why do I know this? Well, because I’ve been reading up on Hans Fischer, the German biochemist who was born on this day in 1881, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1930, primarily for his work on the structure and synthesis of the blood pigment haemin. In 1929, Fischer succeeded in synthesising haemin, the deep red, oxygen-carrying, non-protein, ferrous component of haemoglobin, that gives blood its red colour.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson – this is definitely not alien blood.
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Oxygen-rich blood (such as arterial blood and capillary blood) is bright red, as the oxygen intensifies the colour in the haemin. When oxygen is extracted from the blood it turns a darker shade of red – this can be seen in the veins, and in the blood collected during blood donation. The colour of blood can also be an indicator for certain medical conditions. Both carbon monoxide poisoning and cyanide poisoning result in bright red blood, as it inhibits the body’s ability to extract and utilise the oxygen in the blood. On the other hand, severe deoxygenation (which can be caused by respiratory diseases, cardiac disorders, hypothermia, drug overdose or exposure to high altitude) results in a condition called cyanosis, where the blood darkens to such an extent that it gets an almost purple-blueish hue, resulting in the skin turning a blue colour.

While the blood of humans and all vertebrates is always a shade of red (containing haemin), it’s interesting to note that it is, in a strange way, surprisingly close to being green! In addition to his work on blood pigmentation, Thomas Fischer also studied the components of the pigments in leaves. He found that, like the haemin in blood, the chlorophyll in leaves is a porphyrin, and that haemin and chlorophyll share a very similar structure, with only subtle differences.

All of this talk of blood, and red and green pigmentation, conjure scenes of science fiction in my mind – if haemin (that makes blood red), is so similar to chlorophyll (that makes leaves green), perhaps the idea of green-blooded aliens is not such a stretch. It makes scientific sense, right?

Anyway, let me rather stop before I get too carried away. Enjoy the day, and keep an eye out for those little green men! 🙂

Celebrating robots and robotics – useful and seriously cool!

Today we celebrate the birthday of Joseph F. Engelberger (born in New York City, July 26, 1925), physicist, engineer and entrepreneur, and the man often called the “Father of Robotics”.

Engelberger, together with inventor George Devol, was responsible for the development of the first industrial robot in the US, in the late 1950’s. The robot, called the Unimate, worked on a General Motors assembly line at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in New Jersey in 1961. It picked up die castings from an assembly line and welded these to the auto bodies – a potentially dangerous task for humans.

The Unimate was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame in 2003.

Engelberger and Devol also started Unimation, the world’s first robot manufacturing company. Engelberger was a strong advocate for robotic technology beyond the manufacturing plant, and promoted the use of robotics in fields as diverse as health care and space exploration.

Robots – not only are they useful in fields as diverse as manufacturing, transport, space exploration and surgery, but they make seriously cool toys!
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The field of robotics deal with automated machines that can take the place of humans, performing various activities in potentially hazardous or tedious processes in fields ranging from manufacturing to research to exploration. While Engelberger was responsible for the first industrial robot, the robotics concept dates back much further, to the start of the 20th century. The word “robot” was first coined by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in 1920.  In 1942, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published his “Three Laws of Robotics”, which constituted the first use of the term “robotics”.

A lot of effort and investment has gone into research and development in the field of human-machine interaction, covering areas such as voice synthesis, gesture recognition, and facial expressions.

I’m not sure if it’s thanks to the fact that robots are so popular in science fiction – often depicted as an intelligent, cunning and efficient super-race – but I find it difficult not to feel awed, and even a little threatened, when facing one of these amazing inventions.

Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto!

Seeing double – it’s Dolly the Sheep’s birthday!

Today we celebrate the birthday of Dolly the Sheep (July 5, 1996 – February 14, 2003), the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult cell.

Dolly was cloned at the Roslin Institute in Midlothian, Scotland. The technique used to clone her is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. It involves a cell being placed in a de-nucleated ovum, and when the two cells merge, it develops into an embryo. Originally code-named “6LL3”, Dolly was cloned from a mammary cell, which became the basis for her name. In the words of cloning scientist Ian Wilmut, “Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s”.

Cloning is the process of creating an identical copy of an original organism.
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Dolly was born to three mothers – the ovum and the DNA were harvested from two different sheep, and a third carried the cloned embryo to term. Her birth placed the international spotlight firmly on cloning research, causing great controversy that still rages on today. Many scientific, governmental, religious and humanitarian organisations oppose cloning, with arguments ranging from the medical risks involved, to the protection of the sanctity of life, to the protection of the identity of the individual.

Dolly died young, at the age of 6, after developing a progressive lung disease typically prevalent in older sheep. After her death it was also revealed that she had developed premature arthritis. With many sheep living to twice her age, Dolly’s death re-ignited the debate over the health and life-expectancy of cloned animals. One of the arguments in the debate is that animals cloned from adult cells have shorter telomeres (the pieces of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes) than other animals of the same age. Since telomeres naturally shorten as cells divide, they are, to some extent, a measure of age. It has been argued that, since Dolly was cloned from a six year old sheep, she was effectively born with a genetic age of six.

Since Dolly, many other large mammals have been cloned, including horses and cattle. Cloning can become a viable means of preserving endangered species, and potentially even reviving extinct species. In 2009, scientists in Spain succeeded in cloning a Pyrenean ibex, a wild mountain goat that had been officially extinct since 2000. While the animal died shortly after birth, it was considered the first successful cloning of an extinct species, showing a possible way forward in protecting endangered and recently extinct animals (using frozen tissue).

(I cannot help but wonder whether protecting our biodiversity and pursuing more sustainable ways of interacting with our planet, may not be a more proactive solution to the problem of more and more species being driven to extinction. But that’s another argument altogether.)

Cloning, in particular human cloning, has become a favourite topic in science fiction novels and movies, from the work of Aldous Huxley to the Star Wars series. This remains a highly sensitive topic, that is sure to continue being a point of public controversy for many years to come.