by David Powell
It's time once again for my somewhat irregluar column containing tales of wonder and imposibility from the world of nature and science - proving that "nature" has a far greater - and more horrifying - imagination than we could ever hope to aspire for. Plus a few other amusing items, all taken from various scientific journals and off the Internet.
Gene therapy patients to be freed: We all know that the law is full of strange regulations that are never enforced, but by British law anyone who has undergone "gene therapy" for diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, is considered a "genetically modified organism" and must be kept in laboratory conditions - not even day leave for good behaviour. Fortunately the law is being changed and has never been enforced. Incidently, the "crime" carries a mandatory gaol sentence, if convicted.
Unpalatable parasite: In the continuing series of parasites straight out of a Stephen King novel (or Aliens) comes the tale of the "tongue worms". These lovely "little" beasties start off as small wrigglers that chew their way through the gut of some plant eater before making their home in a choice muscle. There they remain until their "host" is eaten by a predator, whom they then infect by migrating from the gut through the body to the lungs and throat where they take up residence, drinking blood and laying hordes of eggs. They grow up to 16 cm long. They are also incredibly successful, 500 million year old fossil remains have been found, making them the old known parasite (on Earth). And you wondered where the X-files gets all it's ideas from?
Voyage to the Stars:Move over Voyager! Scientists at NASA and elsewhere are currently working on the preliminary stages of a proposed space probe to Alpha Centurai. The probe would weigh up to 10 kg's and would reach a speed of 1/10 that of light, taking about 45 years to reach it's target. The scientists are currently working on what would be the best propulsion system - so far the front runner appears to be using a Solar System based laser to provide the propulsion, a concept familiar to any sf fan. A trial run, using proven gravity-assist "propulsion" is planned for early next century.
Vacuum ain't?:Since the start of this century a "vacuum" has been viewed as just that, the absence of everything. But scientists now know that it is anything but nothing, in fact it's full of "stuff" and with far reaching consequences. As a result of combining quantum mechanics and relativity scientists now know that a vacuum (space) is only "on average" nothing, instead it is full of spontaneously appearing transient particles and energy fields. "So what" you may be tempted to say ... but the implications are huge. Physicists are contemplating the prospect of harnessing these transient energy fields to provide a limitless supply of energy and have even proposed ways of tappng that energy. If that is not enough, if vacuum does indeed have a positive energy density, as it begins to appear, then by relativity there must be a corresponding negative density (or force) - which exhibits itself as a negative gravitational effect - in other words, anti-gravity. Are there any more surprises in store? Classic sf brought up many amazing "inventions", faster then light travel, antigravity, time travel and that much derided invention of Doc Smith, the Anti-Inertia Drive - derided because it had absolutely no scientific justification, inertia was. well, inertia. It has now been suggested that inertia is caused by the flucuating energy fields I mentioned above acting on a moving object, resisting it's motion. Surprisingly similiar to Smith's original "logic". The next step may well be to propose a way of overcoming inertia, using the appropiate "shielding", like Smith did.
Calling Dick Tracy:A look-alive copy of the famous Dick Tracy wrist phone is soon to come on the market. The "wrist phone" looks like a normal watch but has a hinged display that can be opened out to reveal the keypad. The phone operates much the same as a mobile phone.
The Oldest War:The origin of war has long been blamed on the first agricultural societies such as in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Recent findings have, however, shown that the history of war goes back much further. Rock paintings dating back at least 10,000 years depicting war scenes have been found in northern Australia showing that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies also knew the "art". The scenes depict individual fights along with pitched battles between opposing bands of warriors numbering in the dozens and led by leaders with fancy headdresses. It is now thought that the history of war goes back to the origin of language, a time when people were first beginning to think of "us" and "them"
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