Quantcast

«

»

Apr 11 2012

Adding dinosaurs always makes research sexier

Sometimes, following the path scientific results take as they enter more mass media awareness really is like a game of telephone — you can scarcely recognize the original work in the final summary that ends up in the news media. And sometimes, you find that the scientists contributed to the ghastly mess.

Take a look at this silly story, “Could ‘Advanced’ Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?”, illustrated with a picture of a T. rex stalking the landscape.


New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe.

Yeah. Right. I’d like to know what kind of research is finding intelligent dinosaurs on other planets. All you have to do, though, is read beyond the first paragraph to discover that this is from an article published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, that it is entirely about the chirality of prebiotic chemistry, and that its primary speculation is that the predominance of left-handed, or L amino acids, in our biochemistry is a consequence of a bias in the delivery of extraterrestrial amino acids to Earth…that biology expanded on a bias in the handedness of the raw materials at the beginning of life.

This work answers some of the questions in the general idea that the unusual amino acids delivered to Earth by the Murchison meteorite and related ones could have led to the dominance of L amino acids and D sugars on early Earth that would permit life to start.

OK, it’s a kind of fundamental chemistry. I didn’t dig too deeply into the science, mainly because I was terribly put off by the abominable English in the paper. Try to make sense of that sentence above; it’s an abomination, a muddle that confuses a modern instance, the Murchison meteorite, with ancient sources, and also is a general tangle of referents. Don’t chemists have to take a writing course somewhere in their careers?

But the main point to notice is that it’s not about dinosaurs. It can’t be about dinosaurs. It has zero relevance to dinosaurs. But then, the author flippantly tosses in some patent nonsense about dinosaurs in his last paragraph.

An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α-methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth. Such life forms could well be advanced version of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.

Clumsy English again, but worse, it’s stupid biology. Animal-like creatures that might evolve on other worlds will not be and cannot be dinosaurs. There is no reason to imagine that a saurian-mammalian transition is anything but a particular quirk of our particular planet’s evolutionary history — it is not a universal. This is nothing but badly written nonsense.

It is published in JACS in their “just accepted” category, which means the science has passed peer-review, but hasn’t been edited or formatted or proofed by the author. I hope that stupid paragraph gets cut; I also hope someone competent at writing in the English language takes it apart.

But the author ought to be a bit embarrassed at his ignorance of biology, and Science Daily ought to be ashamed about taking an idiotic paragraph and turning it into sensationalistic garbage.

Although, you know, if you want to make your scientific research newsworthy, all you’ve got to do is toss in some babble about extraterrestrial super-intelligent T. rexes, and it will get lots of attention. Maybe you think it isn’t relevant to your research, maybe you do psychology or statistics or bioinformatics or epidemiology or ethology…it doesn’t matter. Throw it in anyway. That’s what happened in this paper, after all.

(Also on Sb)

139 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts

    Ooh, ancient alien T. rexes, I smell a History Channel exclusive.

  2. 2
    A. R

    ALIENS!!!!

  3. 3
    Rip Steakface

    Well, in Mass Effect, switching the chirality of an organism’s amino acids resulted in the turians and the quarians – and the former are effectively avian (which means they are of course dinosaurs). So… they’re right in a fictional universe!

    Yay?

  4. 4
    Glen Davidson

    Such life forms could well be advanced version of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth.

    Or, uh, advanced houseflies that buzz and roar.

    As much sense, anyhow.

    Glen Davidson

  5. 5
    vitoxi

    They always get the damn forelimbs wrong. Drives me nuts.

  6. 6
    octopod

    Wow, this is the worst science writeup I’ve seen in a long time.
    oO,,Oo

  7. 7
    vernonbalbert

    Maybe you should throw in some stuff about intelligent plesiosaurs the next time you do a write-up involving zebra fish embryos? (Yes, I know that they branched apart a LONG time before either existed.)

  8. 8
    Cipher

    They always get the damn forelimbs wrong. Drives me nuts.

    Tell me more!
    Pls?

  9. 9
    Louis

    I shit myself when I read this was in JACS. JACS is a SERIOUS journal. It’s (nearly) a Nature/Science status journal for chemistry. And Ronald Breslow is a Big Name Dude (and also about a millions years old which might explain something). No slouch by any stretch of the imagination. That might be one reason his work is given a relative “free pass” in a ACS journal. So off I went to read (the ASAP PDF is available)…

    …FUCK ME! I didn’t believe you PZ, curse me for a sceptical fool, I didn’t believe Breslow actually put that IN A PAPER. But he did. To my eternal chagrin he did.

    There’s some decent science hidden in that paper, and that last paragraph…what the fuck? I’m actually ashamed. This guy is a stellar scientist in my field and this paper is, only partly admittedly, the work of a whackjob.

    Speculative dinosaurs. Oh yes, the underfunded and violently under threat field of origin of life research needs that. And from Breslow! {Shakes head}

    Louis

  10. 10
    Amphiox

    Tell me more!
    Pls?

    They’re pronated, like mammal forepaws (or human hands).

    The forelimbs of theropod dinosaurs are actually joined more akin to bird wings, and cannot actually pronate like that (with the palms parallel to the plane of the ground and the fingers curved downwards). Instead the palms should be held sideways, perpendicular to the plane of the ground, and the fingers curling inwards, towards the animal’s midline.

  11. 11
    cactusren

    But Amphiox, this isn’t actually a tyrannosaur we know from Earth. It’s a hyperintelligent alien tyrannosaur, so we have no idea how its forelimbs might have evolved!

    But yeah, this is seriously stupid. You’d think someone who works on origin of life issues (even if they focus on the chemistry) would have a basic understanding of biology. Enough to know that evolution isn’t deterministic, at least. *shakes fist*

  12. 12
    Amphiox

    But Amphiox, this isn’t actually a tyrannosaur we know from Earth. It’s a hyperintelligent alien tyrannosaur, so we have no idea how its forelimbs might have evolved!

    Well, this indeed could be true! In fact, hyperintelligent alien tyrannosaurs would need pronatable forelimbs in order to be tool users….

    (Unless they have prehensile tongues, or tails, instead)

  13. 13
  14. 14
    jahigginbotham

    #9
    Come on Louis, it’s throwaway lines at the end of the paper for humor. Science Daily is the one who misrepresented the paper, as PZ points out.

  15. 15
    cactusren

    jahigginbotham, I don’t know what papers you’re reading, but I can’t remember a single scientific paper I’ve ever read with “throwaway lines” for “humor”. Yes, sometimes papers end with some speculations and ideas about the larger implications for a particular finding. And I’ve read plenty of papers that overreach a bit in this area, but jumping from biochemistry to intelligent alien dinosaurs is beyond anything I could have imagined someone writing. It’s fucking ridiculous and doesn’t belong in a research article. I entirely concur with Louis’s reaction.

  16. 16
    ibbica

    There’s a simple explanation: they were trying to get it published in Science or Nature, and thought the “to assure publication in Science or Nature, just mention dinosaurs or space” hypothesis actually read “mention dinosaurs AND space”. Duh.

    /slightlybittersarcasm

    Hm… what is the job title for someone specializing in editing papers written by non-native English speakers? I’m already doing it for others around my lab, and any chance to add a bit to my meager paycheque by moonlighting is worth looking into…

  17. 17
    saintexuperantius

    Dinosaurs ruling other planets. Are they Mormons?

  18. 18
    Philip Langmuir

    I can’t remember a single scientific paper I’ve ever read with “throwaway lines” for “humor”

    They’re out there:

    For our purposes it may be more appropriate to say that estuaries are something like pornography – hard to define exactly, but we know one when we see one.

  19. 19
    garydargan

    I would be more interested in the implications of us L amino acid D sugar based life forms landing on a planet full of D amino acid L sugar based life forms. Aside from difficulties with the local diet just imagine if we took the dinosaur dizziness a bit further and found “humans” instead. Now the results of any miscegenation would be far more interesting than any Homo sapiens and Neanderthal monkey business.

  20. 20
    Louis

    jahigginbotham, #14,

    I’m not annoyed at humour in papers, far from it. What that last paragraph is isn’t humour it’s bad speculation. It cheapens the decent science of the paper with bad science. Sure the Science Daily folks have done the damage with an execrable article, but how did that paragraph (or more seriously the dozy speculation it contains) enhance or relate to the paper? It didn’t. That’s a pretty basic piece of material that needed editing out prior to submission.

    Louis

  21. 21
    pentatomid

    They’re out there:

    For our purposes it may be more appropriate to say that estuaries are something like pornography – hard to define exactly, but we know one when we see one.

    And how is this the same as the alien-dinosaur bullshit? Sorry, but this is from a paper about estuaries and it makes a humerous comparison between pornography and estuaries. Humerous, but still relevant.
    This alien dinosaur bullshit is completely insane. The paper has nothing to do with dinosaurs, so speculating about advanced alien dinosaurs is… WTF?! Even if it was intended as humor, it fails miserably.

  22. 22
    pentatomid

    I meant humorous, obviously. Oops.

  23. 23
    garnetstar

    Louis, you are so correct. I can’t believe this made it into JACS, the chemistry journal with the highest impact factor. Who was the editor? It’s not funny.

    I took some classes from Ronnny: the operative phrase was always “Let me tell you how smart I am”. He seems to be still working that.

    I used to get pretty tough reviewing from JACS. Ronny’s Old Boy network must have kicked in. What a shame.

    P.S. The funniest thing I ever read in JACS is “The marine specimens were collected from Australia’s Barrier Reef in areas patrolled by the great white shark”. They just had to tell us how much fun their research is.

  24. 24
    PZ Myers

    Its also incredibly BADLY WRITTEN. I felt like taking a red pen to every sentence for grammar and structure.

    And he’s a big name in chemistry? Even worse.

  25. 25
    AJS

    I thought reaction kinetics alone was sufficient to explain the dominance of L-amino acids and D-sugars on Earth?

  26. 26
    Ms Anne Thrope

    Funniest title from my field:
    “Will the real Trypanosoma b. gambiense please stand up.” Published in a journal with an IF 5 (which is not a whole lot, but as much as my publications added up)

    ibbica:

    Hm… what is the job title for someone specializing in editing papers written by non-native English speakers? I’m already doing it for others around my lab, and any chance to add a bit to my meager paycheque by moonlighting is worth looking into…

    I’m also interested to know if I could actually get someone to pay me for that. Although, spending my weekends deciphering Frenglish is not my idea of fun…

  27. 27
    Louis

    PZ,

    I don’t want to disavow Breslow, he’s done some awesome science. I will freely grant that paper isn’t the best written thing I’ve read. I’m pre-coffee and from what I remember of the paper I’ll agree that much of it was…shall we go with “less than fulsomely flowing”? ;-)

    As you note this is pre-proof/edit, I’ve seen papers in ACS journals receive substantial editing between ASAP release and publication. Not as bad as Elsevier chemistry journals…don’t get me started. This isn’t even at the ASAP stage (ASAP is “as soon as publishable” for those not in the know) so I’d expect it to get substantially rewritten.

    My old PhD boss, a contemporary of Breslow’s both in age and success, would have ripped this paper to shreds. If I’d written something like that (not topic, but style) I’d have been spending a significant portion of my time cataloguing the chemical stores.

    That’s partly what annoys me so much. Breslow is not necessarily a “missed Nobel” like Gilbert Stork*, but he’s not as far off as people might like to think. He’s so much better than the errors and lack of felicity of style this paper betrays. He really is genuinely very good.

    Louis

    * Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of E J Corey’s work, but if it’s a “services to synthetic chemistry” Nobel like his you wish to give, then Stork was robbed in my view. His work is elegant and hugely underrated by some. For reasons I cannot fathom. Mind you, Corey is still going strong.

  28. 28
    trondreitan

    Compare “According to Lande, the evolution of a phenotypic character can be be modelled by an Ornstein-Uhlenbeck process. This process has a normal stationary distribution.” with “According to Lande, the evolution of a phenotypic character such as the IQ of extraterrestrial super-intelligent T. Rexes can be modelled by an Ornstein-Uhlenbeck process. This process has a normal stationary distribution, which seems like a reasonable approximation for the IQ of extraterrestrial T. Rexes which has lasers shooting out of their eyes.”
    Quite an improvement, isn’t it? I think I will write my papers like this from now on (and hope Calvin in “Calvin and Hobbes” is the reviewer).

  29. 29
    pentatomid

    If we’re talking funny scientific papers, one of my favorite titles is: Mating behaviour of the marine turbellarian Macrostomum sp.: these worms suck.

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/1utyme1fqdj8m40v/

  30. 30
    Louis

    AJS,

    Not necessarily no. In (most) symmetrical reactions in symmetrical environments there’s no bias for one enantiomer or another. That’s one of the key things about asymmetric chemistry, you are deliberately biasing the system so that the normally equivalent but mirror image molecules (enantiomers) are no longer equivalent. Once you have biological (enzymatic) systems established, these are usually “handed” (i.e. asymmetric), then sure, kinetics can do the work because the enantiomers are no longer equivalent in that environment.

    Now why I said (most) above is there are exceptions. Well, sort of exceptions. One is the Soai reaction which can enantiomerically enrich a racemic mixture, or very nearly racemic mixture. It’s a fascinating reaction, look it up. Especially the work of Prof Donna Blackmond (who is a GENIUS in my book. I’d work for/with her in a heartbeat).

    Louis

  31. 31
    Nick Gotts

    I’m proud to have authored a paper (only a workshop paper, alas) with the title: “Defining a doughnut made difficult”.

  32. 32
    jamessweet

    Why do you think this guy is “ignorant” of biology? He tosses in a throwaway paragraph at the end which has nothing to do with the rest of the paper, and doesn’t effect the science of that part of it one iota (and couldn’t, because the paragraph in question is not scientific at all) and he has virtually guaranteed his next grant. Seriously, the paper is about the history of the chirality of amino acids, a topic that 99% of people in the world don’t have the first clue what that even means, and of the remaining 1%, 99% of them don’t give a shit… and he made the paper the subject of a trending news story. Holy fuck, give the guy some credit, that’s some serious self-promotion jujitsu there.

  33. 33
    Louis

    Is there room for humour in technical writing? Sure.

    Is there room for speculation, grotesque error and outright foolishness? I sure hope not. If there is, excuse me, I am about to up my publication count a whole bunch.*

    Louis

    * “Sex and what I learned about it from ladder polyether natural products”. “Penis size and the intramolecular Diels Alder reaction”. “Kinetic isotope effects, deuterium and the impact of calorimetry on the genitals of Peruvian shrews”. “Organofluorine compounds: sexy or vibrolicious”. “Organocatalyis in the formation of arsole”.** “Oh my gosh it’s huge: The life and work of KC Nicolaou and his work on Maitotoxin”.*** “Why do my balls hurt? Lab safety and why teabagging a dewar of liquid nitrogen is less fun than it sounds”. “Late night NMR runs and masturbation: An expose”. “I appear to have shit in my column: Chromatography woes and their psychological impact”.

    ** That one could be genuine.

    *** So could that one.

  34. 34
    w00dview

    I find it funny that people speculate what “intelligent” dinosaurs would have looked like when all they need to do is look outside their window and observe crows. This silly nonsense about alien T-Rexes is completely unnecessary, the intelligent dinosaurs live among us.

  35. 35
    carbonbasedlifeform

    I’m proud to have authored a paper (only a workshop paper, alas) with the title: “Defining a doughnut made difficult”.

    Reminds me of the old mathematical joke about a topologist being one who cannot tell the difference between a doughnut and a cup of coffee.

  36. 36
    Louis

    Jamessweet,

    1) Ron Breslow is not likely to be short of cash. Big name guy at big name institute.

    2) That throw away paragraph is not going to get him a grant. Speaking as someone who has both written and reviewed such grants, that paragraph is more likely to get him a check up with his doctor.

    3) Personally, I don’t think he’s ignorant of biology. I’ve read his work and seen him present, he isn’t. I think that paper is poorly written and the last paragraph is mystifying. If it came from some two-bit fresh out of postdoc academic I’d think this person knew no biology, but that benefit of the doubt doesn’t apply to Breslow. He’s a serious guy, it really is stupendously odd that he would put something obviously daft in a paper like that. Space dinosaurs? Come on. There’s no excuse unless he submitted it on April the first.

    4) Tragically, because if I had my way I’d be doing it, origin of life research is horrendously under-funded. Excuse me whilst I whip out this soap box for a second:

    I am a fan of biology. I am a fan of physics. Chemistry gets little to no love in the public sphere. Talk about a panda, a disease or a new particle and everyone jizzes their knickers. Chemistry gets the bad rap “oh noes there’s chemicals in that” “big pharma is evil*” “it’s not natural” etc etc. Chemistry also seems to get seen as a “technology” an “applied science” and sure, much of it is. But if you want to know how the upper atmosphere works, or how the pollutants we spew out interact, or how the rocks around us are made, or how this drug is made or even how it works or just what it looks like, or how that plant makes its chlorophyll, that is chemistry. You want to make a molecule? That’s fundamental chemistry, you want to join this thing to that thing, chemistry. You’ll probably have to invent new chemistry, new science to do it, and one thing is sure as hell, if you want to know about the origin of life, i.e. before there was even biology on the scene, then chemistry is the science for you.

    Stick a bio or a geo or an atmospheric in front of it if you must, but all of the above is chemistry. We cannot and do not live without it. One reaction, just one, one piece of chemistry is basically responsible for about two thirds of the people alive today being alive. It’s the Haber-Bosch process. The ability to make ammonia, and hence fertilisers, from hydrogen and nitrogen. The world’s population would be completely unsustainable without it.

    GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

    I appear to have ranted…this coffee is rather strong. Erm, sorry!

    Louis

    * I’ll be the first to point out much of that evil by the way. There’s too much of it. There’s also quite a bit of good, which goes horrendously ignored.

  37. 37
    Therrin

    Dinosaurs ruling other planets. Are they Mormons?

    If they aren’t now, they will be after they’re dead.

  38. 38
    Thomas Holtz

    If I were feeling less than charitable I would say “My field is more awesome than his field, so he can’t get any press for his own research without tacking on dinosaurs.” But that would be mean for me to say…

  39. 39
    AJS

    @ Louis,

    It’s my understanding that you get a chemical reaction when the right parts of two molecules slam into one another at sufficient speed to knock off the bits that were there before. So if you have complex-shaped molecules, then there might be bits that get in the way and prevent reaction altogether at certain sites. Whereas something nippy like H+ can pretty much get in anywhere.

    Initially, when life on Earth first bootstrapped itself, there might well have been both right-handed and left-handed life-forms existing in parallel, but chirality would have limited what each could digest — thus creating parallel selection pressures favouring each one’s own handedness over the other. Even a slight imbalance — which might even be completely random in origin; something has got to be the first to die — would eventually propagate throughout the entire ecosystem. And as soon as conditions were no longer right for life to arise spontaneously, nothing of the other handedness would ever appear.

  40. 40
    Lehooo

    Oh come on, of course intelligent dinosaurs are real! Haven’t you people read Dinosaur Comics? That T.Rex is one insightful reptile!

  41. 41
    gardengnome

    We’ve got a few dinosaurs in government – they aren’t intelligent though…

  42. 42
    Ing

    I’m thinking Doctor Dinosaur from Atomic Robo

  43. 43
    Louis

    AJS,

    Being very polite your understanding is….basic…erm…and wrong! :-)

    Sorry!

    Rather than me type the entirety of chemistry out for you, here’s the Wikipedia article on enantiomers. That should explain why enantiomers are chemically equivalent in symmetrical environments, for example.

    As for your second paragraph, the origin of homochirality is something that is very, very likely to have occurred before life arose. Chemistry is sufficient to do that job. Not only that, but once you have complex life (a very advanced thing chemically) like cells etc you are way past the point where asymmetric biomolecules are remotely chemically equivalent.

    Imagine a simple molecule with one asymmetric (chiral) centre. That has 2 to the power of n (can’t do superscript for some reason) stereoisomers. n here is the number of chiral centres, so this molecule has 2 stereoisomers, and they are that special type of stereoisomer called “enantiomers” i.e. mirror images of each other. All one R and the other S. R and S are the chemical notations for describing chiral centres. Again, I’m skipping a lot of material here.

    Imagine another molecule with 2 chiral centres, n now equals 2, so that’s 4 stereoisomers. Without getting bogged down in how and why, these stereoisomers are actually two pairs of enantiomers, two pairs of mirror images. If we label the centres 1 and 2 (and this really isn’t standard notation, but I’m doing what I can without pictures) then we have molecules R1-R2 and S1-S2 as one pair of enantiomers and R1-S2 and S1-R2 as the other pair of enantiomers. R1-S1 and R1-R2 are not enantiomers, they are just stereoisomers and have very different chemical properties, energies, boiling/melting points etc etc. The same applies to the other two molecules.

    Extend this to biomolecules, even a simple polypeptide of 10 amino acid units had 2 to the 10 possible stereoisomers, i.e. 1024 possible configurations based on stereochemistry of chiral centres alone. In reality it will be even more than that (think of geometric isomers, chiral planes, secondary and tertiary structure etc) but I digress. If you start from a racemic mixture of amino acids, you’re not going to get only all R polypeptide and all S polypeptide, i.e. enantiomeric polypeptides, you are going to get a whole messy mixture of different pairs of enantiomers and different stereoisomers. Granted there will be some biases due to the steric interactions you allude to with clashing molecules and other factors, but in the absence of any other asymmetric factor you’re getting huge mixtures. This is waaaaaaaay before the stage of “digestion” or “one dying out first”.

    This is just one of the reasons that people doing research on the origin of life are overwhelmingly focussed on the origin of homochirality problem being prebiotic, or at least largely prebiotic. It’s possible living systems, or proto living systems, enriched an already heavy enantiomeric bias, but it’s really not very plausible that homochirality was something that evolved in living systems as opposed to prebiotic chemical ones.

    Louis

  44. 44
    WharGarbl

    @PZ
    #24

    Its also incredibly BADLY WRITTEN. I felt like taking a red pen to every sentence for grammar and structure.

    And he’s a big name in chemistry? Even worse.

    Okay, this is my completely ass-pull explanation.

    You need to thank creationists. Biologists, under the relentless assault creationists/IDiots, are forced to adapted to the new environment within which they must survive, an environment where the pressure comes from those with little scientific knowledge on biology.

    Therefore, in order to survive, biologists must evolve to “speak” the strange language of the “layman”, and to learn proper grammar.

    Chemists, on the other hand, does not face such selective pressure. Therefore, those with horrendous grasp on language are able to remain competitive with the environment.

  45. 45
    Gregory in Seattle

    On Earth itself, life has been astoundingly varied. I’ve never understood this presumption that intelligence on other planets would look even remotely close to something that evolved on Terra.

  46. 46
    Ing

    @Gregory

    Convergent evolution. Similar environments may lead to similar solutions to problems guided towards some reoccuring themes or shapes due to the physics. *handwave*

  47. 47
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    Well, JACS is a journal that deals exclusively with chemistry. The dinosaur waffle was probably ignored by the reviewers in favor of the actual work. It’s almost always a problem when people get out of their area of expertise. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and neither do the reviewers.

    That they ignored it is wrong – it’s how bullshit gets into science papers. I would probably have sent back the paper with “WTF?” in the margin near this little nonsensical gem.

    It’s even more embarrassing though when this kind of thing affects the actual work, as in the case of the Journal of Diabetes some time ago where a couple MDs rediscovered Riemann integrals.

    That the stupid media ran with it is not surprising. I remember correcting several people a while ago who thought teleportation had actually been achieved when the media got hold of quantum physics research on how electrons could be detected at two places at once and somehow transformed it into “teleportation of a rock”.

  48. 48
    Ing

    As a side notre this is what bugs me when ME refers to Salarians as “amphibians”. No they’re organic alien life with some analagous physilogical structures to amphibians. Unless someone took an earth newt and seeded it on another world its the result of its own evolutionary tree (if not abiogenesis) and has no relation to amphibians. Krogan may be reptillian but are not reptiles, Jabba is mulusk like but not a mulusk.

  49. 49
    AJS

    @Louis,

    So it doesn’t work by bits of molecule always getting in the way, no matter which direction you approach from?

  50. 50
    wbenson

    The fact that Breslow’s statement passed peer review makes us think that chemists may often consider evolution to be relatively bounded cosmic ladder of progress. Some of the silly things that have come out of NASA also suggest that biological evolution may be widely misunderstood. Perhaps someone should write an evolution text specifically to educate chemists, astrophysicists and engineers.

  51. 51
    arakasi

    I think that we can all agree that the idea of dinosaurs developing on other planets is extremely silly.

    However:

    A highly advanced civilization of Tyrannasaurus Rexes fleeing this world in spaceships right before the K-T extinction event, after carefully eliminating every trace of their highly advanced civilization, would be incredibly cool.

  52. 52
    eidolon

    Woodview @34

    Quite true. Any of the corvine birds – among other families – give the lie to the term ‘bird brain’.

  53. 53
    andrewglasgow

    Reminds me of Bob the Angry Flower Attempts to Reconcile Quantum Physics with Relativity

    “That’s your solution? Put a *Hot Chick* on the cover of your submission?”

    “It’s not *MY* solution, it’s *History’s* solution!”

  54. 54
    What a Maroon, oblivious

    I’ve never understood this presumption that intelligence on other planets would look even remotely close to something that evolved on Terra.

    Would you really want to see Jim Kirk making out with some reptilian?

  55. 55
    futurechemist

    Here’s the nonchemical ananlogy I use in the organic chemistry class I teach. 2 people meet and want to shake hands. If they both use their right hands (or both use their left hands) it gives a solid handshake. If one person uses their left hand and the other uses their right hand, it’s a poor handshake. That’s how chiral molecules are selective, a right-handed amino acid may perfer to form a dipeptide with another right handed amino acid, rather than with a left handed amino acid. If we have an excess or right-handed amino acids, we could imagine how that would lead to an excess of all right-handed polypeptides. I think this is what AJS is saying, a physical explanation for why already chiral systems can be selective.

    The more interesting question is how did we wind up with an excess of right handed amino acids in the first place. (The same question works in physics, why do we live in a matter universe instead of an antimatter universe?) The simplest explanation I have heard is based on combinatorics. Like Louis said, for N chiral centers, there are 2^N possible stereoisomers. And this is for every chiral molecule we have floating around in our primordial ocean. Each isomer will require atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc. At some point, we’ll find that there is simply not enough matter around to construct the mirror image forms for every one of our chiral molecules. Maybe there was only a little sulfur around, so we randomly made a 9 molecules of right-handed cysteine and only 8 molecules of left-handed cysteine. By definition we have broken the symmetry, and once we’ve broken the symmetry even a little bit, we can keep increasing the asymmetry until we have the nearly 100% selectivity in biological systems.

  56. 56
    Louis

    AJS,

    So it doesn’t work by bits of molecule always getting in the way, no matter which direction you approach from?

    In symmetrical systems enantiomers are chemically indistinguishable, in asymmetric systems they are chemically distinct. As explained for the third time now. Read that Wiki article I linked.

    BTW I had typed out an explanation of precisely why this is, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, describing the translational forms of the products of an SN2 reaction at a chiral centre (for example) is tricky by words alone. Well, more lengthy than tricky! If you look at that article, and the Wiki on asymmetric chemistry and another on SN2 reaction mechanisms, they should be clear enough to explain why this is.

    Louis

  57. 57
    AJS

    @ Larry

    Yes, that’s pretty much what I was getting at.

  58. 58
    Louis

    Well that’s good, because I’d already mentioned it back in #43.

    Louis

  59. 59
    sqlrob

    There were intelligent dinosaurs, and they nuked themselves off the planet.

    Observed in this scientifically accurate simulation.

  60. 60
    axelblaster

    I’m embarrassed as a chemist

  61. 61
    nevera

    On the topic of funny article titles, my favorite is “The genetics of multi-nippled sheep: An analysis of the sheep breeding experiments of Dr. and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell at Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia.” linky
    The 10-year-old in me is amused that the inventor of the telephone spent so much of his life preoccupied with sheep nipples…

  62. 62
    raven

    Adding dinosaurs always makes research sexier.

    Not really. Only if you are appealing to geeks and children.

    What anyone really needs to do is work in cats and kittens somewhere. That always works.

    I suppose for some, an inferior substitute would be cephalopods and tentacles.

  63. 63
    garnetstar

    I’ve always thought that maybe homochirality was induced by metal-based chiral catalysis in the primordial soup. A metal can be close to 100% selective in its binding of enantiomers, depending on the rest of its coordination sphere.

    If there was ANY MONEY available for prebiotic chemical research(Louis, your rant is something that needed to be said), I’d look into that.

  64. 64
    cactusren

    Therefore, in order to survive, biologists must evolve to “speak” the strange language of the “layman”, and to learn proper grammar.

    BWAHAHAHAHAHA! This assumes that laymen know (and care) what proper grammar is, which anyone who reads comments on the internet knows is not true.

    Biologists, under the relentless assault creationists/IDiots, are forced to adapted to the new environment within which they must survive, an environment where the pressure comes from those with little scientific knowledge on biology.

    And this assumes that papers get selected for publication based on creationists’ standards. This is also not true–papers are selected for publication based on their scientific content. Wild speculations as mentioned in the original post should be screened out, though clearly they sometimes aren’t.

    And while biologists might be a bit more cautious about the potential for quotemining of their papers, that plays little role in the writing process (at least for me). While you don’t want to serve up easy fodder for creationists, they will distort whatever you say to their own purposes, so it’s not something worth worrying about too much when you’re writing a paper primarily for a scientific audience.

  65. 65
    Amphiox

    Hmm. It is entirely possible Breslow as senior author didn’t actually write this paper, but had some post-doc/junior researcher/graduate student write it, who may or may not be that proficient in written english language. He might even have plain missed that one paragraph while revising his student’s work.

    One has to ponder the possibility that the paragraph in question was even added by someone in the chain as an April Fool’s joke.

    And as a “just accepted” paper prior to proof-reading and final editing, what’s the possibility of one of the peer review comments being “Otherwise a publishable paper, but please chop out that one paragraph about the dinosaurs at the end”, only with that final edit not yet done? Or a mistake on the journal’s part in mixing up the submission files (the original submission with the paragraph with the revised submission with the paragraph chopped out per reviewer request)?

  66. 66
    Amphiox

    One should point out vis-a-vis the intelligent T-rex question, that the presence of those ginormous chewing muscles, along with the structure of the skull and jaw to allow for T-rex’s enormous bite force, pretty much excludes the possibility for an expanded brain case to house an enlarged, intelligent brain.

    So, intelligent dinosaurs are certainly possible, as corvids and psittacines (and perhaps even Troodontids) demonstrate, but they would likely not have heads and skulls that look like T-rex.

    (Unless, of course, this alien T-rex like thing actually has its brain wrapped around its esophagus, instead of housed inside its skull….)

  67. 67
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    Hmm. It is entirely possible Breslow as senior author didn’t actually write this paper, but had some post-doc/junior researcher/graduate student write it, who may or may not be that proficient in written english language.

    Totally.

    I don’t know what is the practice elsewhere, but I have written all my papers as a grad students. My director would review them before sending.

    In my case, this was a good thing – I am more proficient in english than my thesis director, so this would mean less hassle with outside translators. And also there was some part of my work that he did not quite understand (computer modeling).

  68. 68
    lordshipmayhem

    I’d like to know what kind of research is finding intelligent dinosaurs on other planets.

    Political science, on Planet Wingnuttia. The intelligence is of a very low level, but still it’s measurable.

    You’re welcome.

  69. 69
    microraptor

    @Ing #48: I think that when the salarians are referred to as amphibians it’s supposed to be in the more general sense that they’ve got a partially aquatic lifestyle and are analogous to Amphibia rather to imply that they’re related to any Earth species, similar to how turians are sometimes referred to as birds in game.

    The big offender of biology statements in the series was when humans were described as having much greater genetic diversity than other intelligent species and a bunch of traits that at best are only partially influenced by genetics were listed as examples.

  70. 70
    carlie

    It is entirely possible Breslow as senior author didn’t actually write this paper, but had some post-doc/junior researcher/graduate student write it, who may or may not be that proficient in written english language.

    And if that is the case, then the person who wrote it should have been first author. Full stop. I don’t care what the tradition in that lab or that subfield is, when someone does the work, they should get the credit. Almost all the senior researchers running labs I know always had their names on the paper, but never as first author when they weren’t the one who did all the work. Putting the lab director’s name first is asinine and egotistical and just plain wrong, no matter how “traditional” it is.

    And as we can see here, it can open that senior person up for a world of hurt when something stupid gets through with their name emblazoned across the top, and it’s their own damned fault when it does.

  71. 71
    Rip Steakface

    @microraptor

    Yeah, that was how I saw it. It’s not that salarians are literally Amphibia, it’s simply that they live a partially aquatic life similarly to Earth amphibians, so we found no use in inventing another word to describe them. Same for turians – they’re not literally Aves, they’re just avian in nature and biology, so we describe them as such.

    And yeah, the biggest mistake was overestimating human genetic diversity in comparison to other species. It may be that non-humans/asari (since asari can mate with any species – sci-fi stuff, biologists :P) have dangerously low levels of genetic diversity, but that seems unlikely.

  72. 72
    Heliantus

    @ Louis #33

    Is there room for speculation, grotesque error and outright foolishness? I sure hope not. If there is, excuse me, I am about to up my publication count a whole bunch. [...]“Why do my balls hurt? Lab safety and why teabagging a dewar of liquid nitrogen is less fun than it sounds”. “I appear to have shit in my column: Chromatography woes and their psychological impact”

    If you decide to write those papers after all, I can provide you data on these two topics :-)

    More seriously, as a biologist, I approve of your rant about chemistry.
    Obligatory xkcd comic of circumstance (although Randall Munroe continued on past chemistry).

  73. 73
    Louis

    Garnetstar, #63,

    Sure metal catalysts are possible, lots can be done with organometallic catalysis. The most selective stuff is, IIRC, usually done under conditions remarkably unlike prebiotic Earth though.

    The absence of dry ice/acetone baths and Schlenk lines was pronounced! ;-)

    Sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!

    You’re definitely right though, organometallics offer hugely selective processes. I would, however, check out the Soai reaction I mentioned above. It’s a corker for getting from very small enantiomeric excesses to very high ones.

    If I were a betting man, and I am, I’d bet on some autocatalytic process like the Soai reaction (though obviously not exactly like it) being the origin of homochirality on earth. The source of scalemic mixtures could easily be astronomical (comets etc).

    Louis

  74. 74
    Louis

    Heliantus, #72,

    Oh please don’t for a second think that I think biology reduces to chemistry in some narrow, greedy reductionist fashion like those physicists claim.* If I’ve given that impression I heartily apologise.

    I’m not really as territory/discipline focussed as the rant might indicate. I do really think that OOL research is a chemistry issue though, at least until anything that can evolve kicks in, then it goes over the road to another department! The second you have selective pressures on a replicator I reckon biologists are allowed in! ;-)

    I will confess that a really good public engagement campaign with chemistry is sorely lacking. People seem fascinated by very broad, general physics and biology. Take TV programmes for example, physics has had its Feynmans and Sagans and Coxs, biology its Attenboroughs and Morrises and Bronowskis, but the chemical sciences seem to have missed the prolific populariser boat. I have some vague ideas as to why that might be, but I am relatively sure they are wrong.

    Louis

    * If there is anything reasonable people can agree on it’s that physicists are a) generally arrogantly dismissive and clueless regarding proper science and b) unlikely to ever have sex with a lady. Even if they are a lady physicist. Regardless of the truth value of these statements, they must be used AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY to mock physicists. It is LAW.

  75. 75
    garnetstar

    Louis,

    Yeah, that Sokai reaction looks very good!

    I do like metals, though–the 99% enantiomeric excesses are for the designer catalysts, but you wouldn’t need such high ee’s in the prebiotic soup. Just to kick things off, you know.

    Wouldn’t need Schlenk lines => no atmospheric oxygen! (an organometallic chemist’s dream world).

    My rant: creationists drive me even more crazy than usual by claiming that large molecules are too “complex” to assemble “by chance”. They contain “information”, so they’re special.

    Creos usually make these statements to biologists or physicists, who are not as likely to have the correct answer (which is: Learn some chemistry, dammit!) on the tips of their tongues.

  76. 76
    Louis

    Garnetstar,

    Ahhhh yes creationists and complex molecules…

    {twitch}

    {shudder}

    They make me see red and start fondling a combat burette.

    Louis

  77. 77
    dobbshead

    I’m a current grad student in Breslow’s department. He’s really a nice guy and he knows a hell of a lot about organic chemistry. I never talk with him about my work because he isn’t remotely in my project area. He has a tendency to go on a bit, especially with topics he’s only tangentially familiar with (like solar power, you guys have no idea). He throws in off topic comments exactly like his last paragraph in person (robots will fix the installation cost issue!).

    Honestly for chemistry the grammar and writing style aren’t terrible. Chemistry has this huge flux of Chinese publications which makes most of the articles in even good journals like JACS difficult to read. When you review five or six articles in terrible chinglish, this stuff looks like gold. Hell, most peer-reviewed journals articles have terrible grammar. You just stop noticing it for the literature you read.

    The worst is when you work cross-disciplines. I read a lot of physics, chemistry and electrical engineering journals. I never get used to one discipline’s writing quirks and they are all horrible to read, especially when they define the exact same concept ass-backwards from each other. Try comparing electrochemical semi-conductor analysis with an electrical engineering analysis of the exact same system if you want to see my own personal version of hell.

  78. 78
    ibyea

    @Louis
    Having studied chem for associates degree, I completely agree with your rant.

  79. 79
    Ing

    (which is: Learn some chemistry, dammit!) on the tips of their tongues.

    Actually that’s been my response to incredulity that natural selection can work.

  80. 80
    Ing

    can’t*

  81. 81
    Curious Chloride

    ibbica at #16:

    Hm… what is the job title for someone specializing in editing papers written by non-native English speakers? I’m already doing it for others around my lab, and any chance to add a bit to my meager paycheque by moonlighting is worth looking into…

    Scientific/science editor. Many companies are available online, allowing freelancing from anywhere in the world. One example is:
    http://edanzediting.com/
    but there are plenty more!

  82. 82
    Inaji

    Curious Chloride, gotta say, I ♥ your nym.

  83. 83
    Heliantus

    @ Louis

    Oh please don’t for a second think that I think biology reduces to chemistry in some narrow, greedy reductionist fashion like those physicists claim.* If I’ve given that impression I heartily apologise.

    No need to apologize. I was agreeing that, indeed, Biology has some strong foundations in Chemistry, and these should not be ignored.
    I could not resist quoting a xkcd comics, but it may have overshot my intent.
    If I wanted to summarize my own feelings, I would said that one should not be too attached to the little labels we use to categorize things. A lot of stuff in science overlaps between different fields, and it’s a good idea to consult people from the nearby fields, rather than going by yourself and getting it wrong.

    A bit OT: I’m analyzing biological samples using analytical chemistry methods (well, I was – in-between jobs now), and I often wished that my biologist colleagues were more curious about the instruments we are using (I could do better myself, true be told). When you use a black box, you cannot fully critically analyze what is coming out of it.
    A chemist teacher of mine used to joke that the ideal instrument for a biologist is a square box with a hole for the sample and a switch to get a reading.

  84. 84
    Curious Chloride

    Thank you Caine! – Can you tell I’m a chemistry geek??

    Also, I love this thread. Schlenk lines? Chirality? Catalysts? Enantiomers? Pure heaven! :)

  85. 85
    Shplane, Spess Alium

    So Dr. McNinja is real?

  86. 86
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    A bit OT: I’m analyzing biological samples using analytical chemistry methods (well, I was – in-between jobs now), and I often wished that my biologist colleagues were more curious about the instruments we are using (I could do better myself, true be told). When you use a black box, you cannot fully critically analyze what is coming out of it.
    A chemist teacher of mine used to joke that the ideal instrument for a biologist is a square box with a hole for the sample and a switch to get a reading.

    I used to be a bit frustrated at not really understanding the machines, most especially the NMR spectrometer. We’d get a fairly complicated series of commands to use with it, without really understanding what they were for.

    Then the computer connected to it broke down and we could not use the (still functional) machine anymore or do anything with our old files since nobody had the skills to write a program capable of reading them.

    Now I could do that, and I could probably build an acquisition card to use the machine with a new computer.

    Sigh.

  87. 87
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    Wouldn’t need Schlenk lines => no atmospheric oxygen! (an organometallic chemist’s dream world).

    Are you perchance working with organosamarium ?

    I spent quite a bit of my PhD working with it and cursing oxygen. (stay blue, BLUE, DAMNIT! And when you came back from lunch it would be all piss-yellow).

    That, various derivatives of estrogen (eh, if you miss a period or two, it’s totally normal) and microwaves (KABLAMO!).

  88. 88
    snarkmatter

    Hmm..combat burette. Our lab is without one at the moment–I guess someone left that off the checklist. Where can I order one? Is there a discount if I order in bulk? Our lab is in the babble belt buckle so we’ll need quite a few (and you know how often undergrads break shit).

    The article about late night NMR runs and masturbation could probably be true too. Gotta do something during the 15-20 minutes for that cycle.

    And it’s funny. My biochem class has been teaching that the resultant dominant chirality is likely the result of enzymatic processes. An enzyme may only operate in one conformation which would eventually lead to a dominant conformation or that pairing up is, to borrow the above analogy, required in order to complete the handshake.

  89. 89
    Bill Dauphin, avec fromage

    Gregory (@wayupthere):

    On Earth itself, life has been astoundingly varied. I’ve never understood this presumption that intelligence on other planets would look even remotely close to something that evolved on Terra.

    Life on Earth is astoundingly varied, to be sure, but it also includes an astounding amount of commonness, especially within broad categories: Sexual dimorphism (among those living things that reproduce sexually), certain types of symmetry, certain body plans (e.g., are there any mammals that aren’t tetrapods?), etc.

    Science fiction writers often deliberately violate these expectations — sexual trimorphism, grossly asymmetrical body plans, intelligent rocks — in order to make their alien life forms more plausibly alien, but I wonder if that’s not an error on their part: Given that evolution, at its base, operates according to physical laws that we presume to be universal, is it not possible that there’s an evolutionary “design space” within which certain categories of life are likely to fall, regardless of where in the universe we find them? Perhaps the evolutionary pathways that lead to higher intelligence invariably also lead to bipedal tetrapods (which would allow for intelligent T-rex like creatures), or to bipedal mammals (which wouldn’t)?

    Maybe the field of evolutionary astrobiology already exists, and I’m just not aware of it, but I’d love to see a serious evolutionary theorist take on the question of what (if any) evolutionary boundaries exist for life we can expect to find in alien environments.

    Or, rather, I’d love to read the popular book such a scientist might write; I would, no doubt, be incapable of reading the unfiltered serious science.

  90. 90
    Bill Dauphin, avec fromage

    raven:

    Adding dinosaurs always makes research sexier.

    Not really. Only if you are appealing to geeks and children.

    You say that as if appealing to geeks and children is a bad thing! ;^)

  91. 91
    Bill Dauphin, avec fromage

    carlie:

    It is entirely possible Breslow as senior author didn’t actually write this paper, but had some post-doc/junior researcher/graduate student write it, who may or may not be that proficient in written english language.

    And if that is the case, then the person who wrote it should have been first author. Full stop. I don’t care what the tradition in that lab or that subfield is, when someone does the work, they should get the credit.

    I took the original suggestion to be not that Breslow didn’t actually do the bulk of the research work, but just that he assigned a more junior colleague to do the “scut work” of actually writing the paper. I’m not familiar with the customs of academic science writing, but in the kind of technical writing I work on, it’s entirely likely that the individual most responsible for the actual work (program manager/lead engineer) is not the same as the individual responsible for producing the document.

    Of course, most of the documents I work on don’t have named authors anyway, but you see what I’m getting at.

  92. 92
    tn4th

    Was this published on April 1st? Wouldn’t be the first time that a serious science writer got punked by an April Fools journal article. It does seem extravagantly out there to be serious.

  93. 93
    Louis

    Kemist,

    In a former life I did quite a bit of organometallic chemistry. I quite like it, although I have to say I have developed a real passion for organocatalysis of late. The idea that I can produce materials (relatively) free of metals is not unattractive when doing med chem/process chem.

    Louis

  94. 94
    Louis

    Snarkmatter (great nym btw),

    Combat burettes can be purchased in the “Offensive Glassware” section of Aldrich and Sigma catalogues. Also available is a particular favourite of mine, the hand-to-hand combat ampoules of caesium. Just throw, squirt with water from a distilled water squeezy bottle and run like buggery.

    Note 1) Any self respecting lab chemist should be able to pick the wings off a fly at 20 paces with a wash bottle of any solvent.

    Note 2) Running from large lumps of exploding moist caesium doesn’t do much good, but at least it is something to do. Alternatives include putting your head between your legs and kissing your arse goodbye.

    Louis

  95. 95
    Louis

    Book recommendation:

    Anyone interested in OOL research could do a lot worse that to read Pier Luigi Luisi’s “The Emergence of Life”.

    Caveat 1) Luisi is a bit of a character with not a few strange ideas and biases of his own. Don’t let that put you off, the book is excellent, but bear it in mind.

    Caveat 2) The book is technical to some degree. If you are totally unfamiliar with chemistry, it’ll be a tough read. That said, it not beyond undergrad level reading, and anyone familiar with chemistry at an early undergrad level should come away with a lot from it.

    Louis

  96. 96
    WharGarbl

    @Bill Dauphin
    #91

    Life on Earth is astoundingly varied, to be sure, but it also includes an astounding amount of commonness, especially within broad categories: Sexual dimorphism (among those living things that reproduce sexually), certain types of symmetry, certain body plans (e.g., are there any mammals that aren’t tetrapods?), etc. Science fiction writers often deliberately violate these expectations — sexual trimorphism, grossly asymmetrical body plans, intelligent rocks — in order to make their alien life forms more plausibly alien, but I wonder if that’s not an error on their part: Given that evolution, at its base, operates according to physical laws that we presume to be universal, is it not possible that there’s an evolutionary “design space” within which certain categories of life are likely to fall, regardless of where in the universe we find them?

    It certainly possible that there’s a “design space” constraint for evolution.
    But more than likely, the reason most organisms on Earth shared many similarity in structure is simply because once a sufficiently good solution was “chosen” (for example, mammal with tetrapod), the energy cost to transit to other solution became prohibitively costly (in short, statistically unlike to build up sufficient mutation to “switch track” without one or several of those mutation killing the organism out right).

    A way to visualize it is to imagine a large field with many pits and bumps, some are deep, some are shallow, some are small hill, while other are mountains, some have steep edge, other have gentle edge.

    The field is a space of possible solutions, and the “goal” of evolution is to reach the lowest point in that field (think of it as a ball rolling down the field). Over time the field will fluctuate (some depression gets shallower, deeper, or actually became a hill).

    Now, for earth, our “mammal ball” may have rolled into a fairly large pit that denotes “tetrapod”. There are other solution for locomotion, maybe even right next to us (say… three-legged). But since we’re already in the “tetrapod” pit, it’s difficult for mutation (random motion) to shift the selective pressure (the field) enough to get us out.

    It’s still possible, but the energy required might involve a sufficient drastic change to the environment (change the shape of the field itself) that we’ll all be extinct.

  97. 97
    tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach

    Combat burettes can be purchased in the “Offensive Glassware” section of Aldrich and Sigma catalogues

    You elicit tear-jerking (should turn on the extractor fan) memories of schoolday chemistry classes; the sheer joy of launching a yard of Leibig still up through the lab ceiling on plume of flaming…. something deadly or other. My ‘A’ level exam practicum, synthesising a bucket (really, a gallon or more) of bromo-benzene. Happily no one important died. Yet. Attempts at making ones own glassware that became exercises in bomb disposal techniques. The girl that injured herself terribly whilst masturbating with a large test-tube. The hydrofluoric acid burns on the bench and my hand.

    Truly, blowing things up is so much safer.

  98. 98
    microraptor

    @ #96

    I agree. I think the real reason that most creatures in science fiction look so similar to Earth species is simply for familiarity’s sake. Oh, and because it’s much easier to rig a latex mask than to construct a large, highly complex puppet in the case of movies and TV.

  99. 99
    WharGarbl

    @microraptor
    #96

    I agree. I think the real reason that most creatures in science fiction look so similar to Earth species is simply for familiarity’s sake. Oh, and because it’s much easier to rig a latex mask than to construct a large, highly complex puppet in the case of movies and TV.

    That’s certainly true. I also believe it’s not just the writer’s familiarity then the fact that it is difficult to describe to the readers what the alien look like (without having to release a companion book that offers full picture illustration of the alien in question).

    In addition, a sufficient strange alien would require a very, very involved world building regarding their social structure.

  100. 100
    Ing

    In addition, a sufficient strange alien would require a very, very involved world building regarding their social structure.

    Been trying to do that for a RPG setting for friends. I mentioned it first I think in January and game is still not started…yeah.

    Part of the problem I find is that when you get something with a radically different way of life; language becomes almost impossible because it’s thought process is entirely different.

  101. 101
    WharGarbl

    @Ing
    #100,

    Been trying to do that for a RPG setting for friends. I mentioned it first I think in January and game is still not started…yeah.

    Part of the problem I find is that when you get something with a radically different way of life; language becomes almost impossible because it’s thought process is entirely different.

    Ooh… what’s your alien like (at least the currently planned one).

    Personally, I’m no good at RPG. I’m decent at “ass-pulling” on the basic construct of a world. Writing story? Kapoot.

  102. 102
    Ing

    @Filthy HUman

    I’m trying to keep a good mix of humanoid and starfish alien and to play with the tropes and subvert them with science! One of the rules I’ve set up is that each species has to have at least two “hats” (the sort of generic stereotype race categories old sci-fi aliens fall into: klingons are warrior race hat, Vulcans are logical scientist hat, Halflings are innocent man children hat etc)

    I have pretty much the races penned down but the really challenging ones are the “Moths”

    Basically they have a larva->pupa->adult life cycle where the “pupa” is the sentient stage. adults are mindless and just reproduce leaving the pupa to take care of both the infants and their siblings who are in the reproductive phase. Obviously a lot of staples of culture and society as we know it simply do not exist for them and their interactions are a dance between being sentient individuals and bee/ant like meta-organisms social interactions. in addition to their spoken language for each other each one releases pheromones that influence the actions of each other; leaving a lot of the ‘decision making’ up to emergent behavior.

  103. 103
    woodsong

    FilthyHuman, Bill Dauphin, I agree that there is likely a bounded range of possibilities for life (not sure I like the term “design space” in an evolutionary context, but that’s beside the point). One example of something I’d expect to see limits on is the distance between sensory organs and brain, at least in creatures that rely heavily on those senses. Apologies to Larry Niven, but his Pierson’s Puppeteers would have a much slower reaction time to visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli than a creature with shorter “necks”, given the same neuron structure. Earthly creatures with eyestalks or ears on their feet are small.

    I would also expect selection to limit the number of limbs for large creatures, by which I mean wolf-sized or bigger. What possible advantage, in a terrestrial environment (all bets are off for marine organisms!), could eight limbs give over six, that is worth the metabolic costs of maintaining them and carrying them around? Six over four I can see: four limbs for locomotion, two for manipulation. A six-limbed spider monkey would never be at risk for dropping her baby, and may well be able to adapt one pair into wings.

    I would expect large terrestrial aliens to have: 1) Some kind of supportive skeleton, either internal or external (possibly highly flexible, although less so as the creature’s size increases) (exceptions for pancake or worm-shaped critters that creep along the ground); 2) A sense-organ cluster within inches of the brain (number of sense organs may be highly variable, although predators, brachiators, and avians should have at least two eyes in front for stereoscopic vision), located at either the top or front or the organism (better for observing the environment around for food-gathering and predator avoidance); 3) The anus at either the bottom or rear of the organism (anus may also be mouth in the first location, in the case of two gastric tract openings, mouth should be located near the sense-organ cluster).

    Within these constraints, damn near anything may be plausible!

    Caveat: IANAB, I just read voraciously and try to think critically (I don’t always succeed, unfortunately). Any biologists here, have fun picking apart my ideas!

  104. 104
    Ing

    Well glad I havnt violated any of those rules yet.

    Though one advantage to 8 limbed could be the stability of hexapode locomotion plus two manipulators (could even possibly be modified mouth parts like scorpion claws.

  105. 105
    Amphiox

    I would also expect selection to limit the number of limbs for large creatures, by which I mean wolf-sized or bigger. What possible advantage, in a terrestrial environment (all bets are off for marine organisms!), could eight limbs give over six, that is worth the metabolic costs of maintaining them and carrying them around? Six over four I can see: four limbs for locomotion, two for manipulation. A six-limbed spider monkey would never be at risk for dropping her baby, and may well be able to adapt one pair into wings.

    Arthropleura would be an exception from earth’s own history, as that critter got to about the size of a wolf.

    However, one should note that there is a well documented evolutionary trend in that the more primitive members of clades that are segmented tend to have many multiple reiterations of similar repeating parts, while the more derived members have a tendency to reduce the number of reiterations, while specializing them. So a trend towards decreasing limb number over evolutionary time is a broadly realistic observation.

    But of course, humanoid bipedality really is completely contingent on the accidental fact that the LUCA of all land vertebrates just happened to be a four limbed fish.

    The movie Avatar did attempt to portray a biota wherein all the major large terrestrial animals were six-limbed. But then they screwed it up with the inexplicably four-limbed humanoids (a major lost opportunity, too. Think of all the, even merely aesthetic, potential of a third pair of limbs, free to specialize into different forms from the arms or legs….)

    I think the real reason that most creatures in science fiction look so similar to Earth species is simply for familiarity’s sake. Oh, and because it’s much easier to rig a latex mask than to construct a large, highly complex puppet in the case of movies and TV.

    The issue of familiarity extends to practicalities beyond simply audience recognition and latex masks and actors, too. Even for wholly computer generated imaginary creatures, or stop-motion or puppets, or whatever, movement is still largely based on trial-and-error motion capture and related techniques – which or course all require a real-life organism to model. (Witness again, the fauna of Pandora in Avatar. Motion capture was critical in producing the illusion of reality in all their movements).

    I don’t think anyone has dared to try to produce a wholly non-earthlike alien form and animate it for media mass-consumption purely on mathematical first principles.

  106. 106
    WharGarbl

    @Ing
    #102
    Hm… so a sort of species where their brain was sacrificed to provide the energy for reproduction (or prepare for one, anyway) later on in life.

    Sounds a bit disturbing, it’s like Alzheimer, except it is guaranteed to happen.

    @woodsong
    #103

    not sure I like the term “design space” in an evolutionary context

    Yeah, I’m aware of that implication when writing the response. Maybe “feature space” or “expression space” is better. I chose “design space” because my tendency to think in engineering term.

    As for the constraint, you can expand the possibility even more if you allow, say, air-borne sentient creatures.

  107. 107
    danielhaven

    To Louis

    The goo you filled the previous blog with must obviously be filling every page of your journal/magazine that you read.

    Yuck, that must be one very sticky, slimy place.

    To All

    Guess there’s fun in watching how much you agree.

  108. 108
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Seeing the title brought this to mind:

    A few years ago, Boy was taking a final exam in a philosophy class. Four pages into one of the essay answers (they exam was three questions and the student picked two), he, in the middle of a paragraph, wrote, “I know you are bored reading these essays, so here is a sauropodomorph for you to enjoy,” and added a small line drawing of a sauropod.

    So I have no idea if research is better with dinosaurs, but, since he got an A on the test, they are really good on philosophy tests.

  109. 109
    Ing

    Hm… so a sort of species where their brain was sacrificed to provide the energy for reproduction (or prepare for one, anyway) later on in life.

    Sounds a bit disturbing, it’s like Alzheimer, except it is guaranteed to happen.

    Yup, or rather the reverse. The advanced brain was developed to get them to the reproduction stage, once they mature it’s no longer needed and is eschewed (otherwise it’d be a big metabolic cost that they need to refocus towards reproduction). They of course see nothing “wrong” with it as it’s the natural order of things. Most of their 50 year life cycle is spent as Pupa and all agriculture, and technology is developed in that phase to support themselves, care for larvae, and provide a safe environment for adults to mate. Their method of reproduction itself is interesting. Adults mate en-mass and then metamorphasize into a 4th meta-adult phase where their bodies become incubation organs providing nourishment and development for their offspring. Adults basically mate and then gorge themselves to fuel their transformation into their final/first stage of life.

    Physically they have a bit of a tripod stacked on tripod shape. Walk on bottom 3 limbs and their body arches over and they manipulate with the other 3 limbs. Most life on their planet has this “inverse U” body shape with four ventral limbs and two dorsal. The #3 is prevelent in their body plan. 3 limbs per set, 3 eyes, 3 mandibles. Larvae are basically skittering hexipode worm like critters and adults are ambulatory mouths and genitals.

    The movie Avatar did attempt to portray a biota wherein all the major large terrestrial animals were six-limbed. But then they screwed it up with the inexplicably four-limbed humanoids (a major lost opportunity, too. Think of all the, even merely aesthetic, potential of a third pair of limbs, free to specialize into different forms from the arms or legs….)

    The Nelxi in my setting have that. They have tentacle limbs (and “hair” which are really modified mostly vestigial crests/feeding limbs) that end in 3 forked ‘fingers’. The bottom pair are used for locomotion, top for manual manipulation and the middle alternate based on what’s needed. Each limb is about half as strong as a human equivalent so they do often need to the extra boost for running or lifting.

  110. 110
    woodsong

    Amphiox, I hadn’t heard of Arthropleura–talk about a giant centipede! I did know that some Carboniferous arthropods were much bigger than today, but I didn’t know they got that big. I’m always glad to learn something new.

    I have seen Avatar, and the “transitional” creature with the partly-fused arms was jarring. How would a brachiator with reduced movement of all four arms not be at a disadvantage? Reduced lower arms would have made more sense to me. And why get rid of the arms at all? What does James Cameron have agaist hexapods? If a human animating an alien body can easily adjust to having a tail and biological USB port, he should be able to adjust to having six limbs!

    Certainly there could be a large creature with more limbs, but, as I understand it, selection tends to reduce structures that aren’t advantageous in some way. Eight or a dozen limbs could work, especially delicate manipulators, but I have trouble seeing Sleipner having an advantage over Secretariat!

    Ing, your game sounds cool! I hadn’t seen your post before I wrote mine. The “Moths” sound like an interesting challenge. I have some questions–you compared them to bees or ants, so I assume they live in a colony? Do they have specialized castes (queen, drones, workers, warriors)? If so, are the workers fertile?

    Balancing independent thought with pheremone response sounds fun. If the workers are sterile, they wouldn’t be affected by sex pheremones, except maybe to become more vigilant while the queen is too distracted by mating to watch out for her own safety? Larval pheremones could have a powerful effect–the smell of “hunger” pheremones could cause all of the nearby workers to regurgitate their last meal to feed them! I’d play it that the closer a worker is to the nursery or queen’s chamber, the less independent thought they’re capable of. A Moth might walk into a nursery chamber looking for someone, tell them “I need to talk to you when you’re free”, and then find themselves tending the larvae until hunger takes over, at which point they regain their mind and find the person they wanted to see. That’s just my own thoughts, I’m sure you have your own ideas, and I’d enjoy hearing them.

  111. 111
    Ing

    The other odd one are the Mammoths, who are basically a cross between a starfish and elephant. Imagine a starfish to start, only 4 of the limbs are adapted for terrestrial walking. Instead of a 5th arm they have a dexterous trunk that looks like a cross between an elephants and a starnosed mole, as the tip has many fingers/nostril ridges to manipulate. on the center of their body is a raised mound like head that houses their 8 eyes (like a wolf spider). Being as large as their name suggests they are the size cap for sentient races.

  112. 112
    Ing

    Ing, your game sounds cool! I hadn’t seen your post before I wrote mine. The “Moths” sound like an interesting challenge. I have some questions–you compared them to bees or ants, so I assume they live in a colony? Do they have specialized castes (queen, drones, workers, warriors)? If so, are the workers fertile?

    They live in “colonies” but not. Each one has sentience and a mind, but acts as a “node” of the “colony”. Basically each one reads pheromone information and produces it based on their own experiences. The pheromones of those around them have a strong influence “pushing” their behavior in certain ways. For a simple example if those around one start suffering from hunger they produce a pheromone that pushes their fellows towards food seeking behavior. They’re intelligent so they can over ride this with reason, but it is a heavy social pressure. Similarly anxiety is shared through their colony as one being at stress alerts the others unconsciously which can cascade quickly as the stress compounds, giving them all a strong incentive to solve problems quickly. That’s what I mean by a lot of decisions being from emergent behavior. They’re not themselves adapted into ‘castes’ physically but they have behavior drives that are activated by the pheromones. So a defeciet of one needed type of work causes a growing pressure that influences some of them to change their priorities.

    Each one becomes a breeding adult at the end of its life so they’re not sterile. They do however wind up “culling” larvae eggs to keep their population in check as they no longer need to reproduce in as great numbers as their ancestors did (now that with their technology they can keep most of themselves alive to adulthood).

  113. 113
    woodsong

    Ing, that sounds really cool. I love good scifi, and imaginative aliens that sound plausible add to the enjoyment. The “Mammoths” also sound interesting.

    Unfortuntely, I’m having some connectivity problems here–my last comment disappeared (in which I acknowledged that I hadn’t read your first description carefully enough, I missed the larva-pupa-breeding adult life cycle and just focused on the bees-ants comparison. My only excuse is discomfort due to a draining abscessed tooth!).

  114. 114
    A. R

    Shit, DH666 got out of TZT! Ing, fire up your weaponry, and I’ll bring the LOLstar over from TZT. theophontes must be notified…

  115. 115
    Bill Dauphin, avec fromage

    Thanks for all the responses to my “design space” question!

    FilthyHuman:

    not sure I like the term “design space” in an evolutionary context

    Yeah, I’m aware of that implication when writing the response. Maybe “feature space” or “expression space” is better. I chose “design space” because my tendency to think in engineering term.

    And that’s exactly why I used it, too: I’m familiar with the term from my work with engineers. That, and I was confident this audience wouldn’t think I meant to imply a conscious Designer, and that they (excepting the odd passing troll) would know not to take it that way.

    But we shouldn’t let the ID trolls drive us away from a perfectly cromulent usage: There clearly is design implicit in biology; it’s just not conscious or “intelligent” design. Instead, we’ve been designed by the collection of physical laws that, taken together, we call evolution by natural selection. I’ve just started listening to the audio version of Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, and he’s spent quite a lot of the first bit talking about how engineers infer (reverse-engineer) design from examining complex objects. It seems the error is not in infering design from complexity, but in inferring a designer from design.

    But OK, I’ll say feature space instead. ;^)

    Rather than commenting point by point, I’ll try to do it categorically:

    1. I grok the “first past the post” thing: I’m not assuming that the way things ended up on Earth are the only way they could have, nor that evolutionary outcomes in alien environments represent the only possible outcomes; I’m only wondering whether there are boundaries beyond which evolutionary theory can predict that outcomes are not possible (or, failing that, at least not bloody likely).

    2. I wasn’t thinking of lazy TV SF art directors making “aliens” with a latex nose and some green body paint; I was thinking of the opposite situation, in which SF creators (print authors, usually) go out of their way to create really alien aliens, and in the process leave me wondering (most distractingly) “how the fuck could that have evolved”?

    3. Yes, truly alien creatures would imply truly alien social structures, which might be inaccessible to human audiences… but some authors are bold enough to make the attempt. I’m thinking of an old John Barnes (pre Thousand Cultures era) novel in which (pardon me for not remembering the details exactly; it’s been years since I read it) the local intelligent alien race reproduced in triads of critters so distinct that, except for the fact that they were reproductive triads, you would have assumed they were three separate species. Their tri-sexual reproductive model drove their social customs, conflicts, and religions, and I’m sure that Barnes designed them to get at these themes… but their reproductive scheme was so bizarre and tortured that I couldn’t accept it as a plausible evolutionary outcome, and that ended up distracting me from Barnes’ intended (I think) ideas.

    4. I can’t help wondering if evolution “allows” more than one species of people — by which I mean creatures that use tools; use language not only to communicate but to express abstract ideas, to make art, to record history, and to do all these in durable, preservable ways; who change their environment in purposeful ways on a large scale; etc. — to arise in the same evolutionary space, or if that’s a “first past the post” thing as well. IOW, assuming we learn of “intelligent life” on other worlds, should we expect to see more than one “intelligent” species on the same world, or is that an evolutionarily precluded outcome?

    I’d still love to see a Guide to Plausible Extraterrestrials based on sound evolutionary theory.

    PS: Yeah, Pierson’s Puppeteers are at the top of my “how the fuck could that evolve” list, much as I love the Known Space stories!

  116. 116
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ DH666 #107

    How did you get out? Back in your box!

    (SRSLY: quod licit TZT non licit Omni. You are not as welcome everywhere as you are on TZT. I don’t want to have to come and bail you out of the dungeon.)

  117. 117
    danielhaven

    TO theophontes 777

    I am just simply ‘danielhaven’, the DH666 is your form or conotation of devil worship that was the response once [on purpose] that you think puts a mark on me. DUH.

    I am sure you want me back in my box an PZ wants me to DIE.

    Tends to happen when you run out of answers.

    How low can a person go? The Dungeons (think of that word ‘dung’ with ‘eons’ of time…..Bbrrr Scary). In all honesty and you will deny, I am grateful for the offer of bailing me out.

    As for TZT, there are far too many unanswered questions as the only replies are snippets, twists and avoidance.

    On a screen near you……

  118. 118
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    I am just simply ‘danielhaven’,

    No, you are simply a pointless egotistical idjit who thinks we care what the fuck you think. We don’t.

    I am sure you want me back in my box an PZ wants me to DIE.

    Why would we want you to DIE??? Everybody does that eventually. We just want you to stop showing your incoherence and idiocy here. Nothing more.

    As for TZT, there are far too many unanswered questions as the only replies are snippets, twists and avoidance.

    That describes your responses, not ours, which supply real evidence. Typical godbot to project your behavior unto us. But we know better. You need to learn, but are afraid to open your mind to real knowledge.

  119. 119
    Louis

    Dear Spiderman’s Silky Spinnerets!

    What the dribbling happy-time hell are you wittering about DH666?

    Could you try for coherence just this once?

    Louis

  120. 120
    Ing

    Rather than derail on daniels turing test can we focus on imaginary aliens? Something grounded in coherance if not reality

  121. 121
    chigau (違う)

    DH666
    … ..… …. ……. ..

  122. 122
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    chigau:

    Oh, you are good. You are good.

  123. 123
    danielhaven

    TO Louis

    Wittering, wet, whatever….you are a self-professed w@n@e@.

    TO chi-chi

    You gonna make double7 7 a little jealous.

    A.R. was the first to try infiltrate, now Ogvorbis (that didn’t belong).

    Keep your guns blazing my way.

  124. 124
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    now Ogvorbis (that didn’t belong).

    It is not your job to decide who belongs here.

  125. 125
    Ing

    Ah AR was first to try it? How was Infiltrate? I heat it has 30% more fizz

  126. 126
    jahigginbotham

    louis (cacusren)

    see the 12th (and 14th) of april posts by bracher
    http://blog.chembark.com/

  127. 127
    danielhaven

    TO Ogvorbis: Insert Appropriate Appelation Here

    You obviously belong and that was not the point, Sometimes a spare part just stares you in the eyes…..

  128. 128
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    You obviously belong and that was not the point, Sometimes a spare part just stares you in the eyes…..

    The incoherent one is still incoherent. And if it was trying to be funny, don’t quit your day job, and quit trying to be funny. You fail at that, just like you do at everything else…

  129. 129
    A. R

    DH666: Go back to TZT. No one will engage you anywhere else.

  130. 130
    danielhaven

    To A. R

    You now speak for all?????????

    Can you handle that sort of power?

  131. 131
    'Tis Himself

    DH666: Go back to TZT. No one will engage you anywhere else.

    QFT

  132. 132
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    You now speak for all?????????

    Yep, and you speak for the incoherent, the ignorant, and the stupid. Your OPINION is drivel.

    Oh, and DH, back to the TZT, or maybe you will get your wish and be banned.

  133. 133
    danielhaven

    TO Nerd of Redhead

    Apart from the other response, BAN ME from all your sites.

    And then keep convincing yourself about a ‘Free Thought’ concept.

    You just cannot handle the porported incoherence that dummifies theories, false beliefs, false attachments and total insults.

  134. 134
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Apart from the other response, BAN ME from all your sites.

    And then keep convincing yourself about a ‘Free Thought’ concept.

    You just cannot handle the porported incoherence that dummifies theories, false beliefs, false attachments and total insults.

    Talk about incoherent. I don’t run this blog, Dr. PZ Myers does. You don’t understand anything. You have free thought and express your inane opinions. You seem to think you shouldn’t be told what your OPINIONS are worth. NOTHING. The incoherence isn’t with the elegant and well evidenced theories. That is with you and your inability to articulate and evidence your alleged rebuttals, and if you are attempting to refute science, it can only be done with more science, not OPINION. Your incoherence starts with your inability to understand that reality.

  135. 135
    Louis

    Jahigginbotham, #126,

    Thanks for that, I read Chembark regularly, so I’d seen those, but thanks for thinking of me! :-)

    Louis

    P.S. Cacusren?

  136. 136
    Louis

    Hey Danny,

    a self professed w@n@e@r? Do you mean wanker? Boy, if you are going to call a man a wanker, have the balls to call him a wanker.

    As for being a wanker: Yes, I have wanked in my time. So what? Are you claiming to have never had a wank? If so, that explains a lot. So Danny, do you wank?*

    Louis

    * This is about the level of discourse you are fit for.

  137. 137
    'Tis Himself

    Louis, you should know better. Danny, as a good Christian, never wanks. His pet deity, The Big Guy In The Sky™, is anti-wanking. At least that’s what his many spokescritters and other mouthpieces claim. And it’s not easy knowing what an imaginary being is thinking, which is why there’s no many divergent interpretations of TBGITS™’s desires. But all TBGITS™’s gasbags agree, no wanking! That’s one of the two things we know for sure about TBGITS™: No wanking and no regrowing limbs for amputees regardless of how hard they pray.

  138. 138
    Louis

    ‘Tis,

    I will echo the cry one of my 13 year old classmates gave after a lengthy exposition by our Scripture master on the evils of “self-abuse”:

    NO WANKING? WHAT’S WRONG WITH WANKING? IT’S GREAT!

    It was a good moment.

    The Scripture master had been waffling on for about 40 minutes on this particular evil, and no one had the faintest idea what he was talking about until he blushed and mentioned “toilet parts” in conjunction with self abuse. The dawning of realisation in a classroom of 13 year old boys was worth every lesson before and after that.

    This kid never lived this incident down. Over 20 years later his Facebook page gets {ahem} regular reminders from some quarters who will remain unnamed. {Whistles innocently}

    Louis

  139. 139
    saguhh00

    Imagine what will happen when that research paper falls into the hands of the Reptoid conspiracy guys.
    “Science has proven the reptoids! The Illuminatti are real!”

Comments have been disabled.