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Living Light

When I was little, most kids marked the beginning of summer by the end of school. I always felt summer arrived with the fireflies. They were a special kind of magic of the same brand as heat lightning. Now as an adult, after a very long day, I am still working on this article as my husband streams the first season ”Once Upon  Time.” The last episode was about dreamers and love. A dwarf was invited out on a date with a fairy to Firefly Hill. I think the magic of fireflies transcends age. Even when you know the science behind a thing, sometimes it remains as wondrous.

Bioluminescence is a form of luminescence, or “cold light” emission by living organisms; less than 20% of the light generates thermal radiation. It should not be confused with iridescence, structural coloration, phosphorescence.

By etymology, bioluminescence is a hybrid word, originating from the Greekbios for “living” and the Latinlumen “light”.

Bioluminescence is a form of chemiluminescence where light energy is released by a chemical reaction. Fireflies, anglerfish, and other creatures produce the chemicals luciferin (a pigment) and luciferase (an enzyme).[4] The luciferin reacts with oxygen to create light. The luciferase acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction, which is sometimes mediated by cofactors such as calcium ions or ATP. The chemical reaction can occur either inside or outside the cell. In bacteria, the expression of genes related to bioluminescence is controlled by an operon called the Lux operon (Bioluminscence, Wikipedia)

Why do organisms glow? (complete with a cool video)

How Bioluminescense Works ( a several page How Stuff Works Article with several visual aids)

How Light Works (a several page How Stuff Works Article that discusses many different kinds of light)

Many groups of animals bioluminesce. Various insects produce light-emissions. Some fungi and bacteria also possess this ability. The Milky seas effect is caused by bacteria in the sea and can sometimes be viewed from space. The majority of creatures that are bioluminescent live in the open sea, especially the deep sea.

It must have been during one of those magical summer breaks the first encountered the anglerfish in a deep sea documentary. It might have been something along the lines of this or this or this. The image of that fish left such an impression. It looked sinister and somehow lonely. The strangest thing was not the big gaping mouth that had such disproportionate rows of teeth. There is a long filament that shoots off of the fish’s spine. For the deep sea varieties, the ones featured on that documentary, these filaments not only dangle but they also emit cold light; they are bioluminescent.

With a greater understanding of the how and the why behind the light, I wondered if any research was being done into bioluminescence. It is! Check out this article on oil spill clean-up, Could Color-Coded Bacteria Help Spot Oil Spills?  Also, Lu Fong has a great article on Discovery’s, How Do Scientists Use Bioluminescence in Research? The article summarizes several areas of research and includes links to articles about the projects themselves.

Between my last animal camo article and this one, I tried to think of my own applications of bioluminescence in fiction. I only came up with lighting caves with bioluminescent bacterial culture containers.  As it turns out in something I read today, dried fish skins were used for this purpose ages ago. Neat. Can you think of a place for bioluminescense in your fiction?



Follow the Rats Out

Last weekend I got lost twice, once going to and then coming from a local bookstore that I’ve been to several times. I only travel out of town in cases of rare necessity. My ability to get lost defies the assistance of MapQuest and the like.  The timing of my adventure couldn’t be better. It was the event that tipped the scales in favor of rats vs. the promised glowing fish from my last article.

I knew as soon as I saw the link to “A Sense of Where You Are” on Jay Lake ‘s Link Salad, that I had to explore the topic here. The article discusses two doctors, May-Britt and Evard Moser. The husband and wife team direct the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for the Biology of Memory  which is a neuroscience research center at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Under their direction, the center has become known for the discovery of grid cells. The cells help rats know where they are, remember where they’ve been, and understand where they are going.

“The scientific goal of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience is to advance our understanding of neural circuits and systems. By focusing on spatial representation and memory, the investigators hope to uncover general principles of neural network computation in the mammalian cortex.” (Wikipedia Kavli stub article)

My husband is very good at finding his way around our city and reaching destinations without getting lost. My parents are too. In fact, I couldn’t remember a single time that we got lost on road trips as a kid. I decided to call my mom and fact check my memory against her’s.

Mom told me that Carol is more like me. She has difficulty placing the city, county, and state on the map in her mind without one in front of her. I just hadn’t known Mom was her co-pilot for our road trips back when we were kids. Mom then reminded me of Kittery, Maine.

We’d been house hunting in the great state of Maine, and Kittery was one of few towns that a motel that allowed you to take dogs inside. We always stayed there a few times while going up and down the state. When Carol and I would go out foraging for local take out, we got lost. Often. I remember crossing a bridge that meant you were leaving Maine and going into New Hampshire. The roads were confusing to us, and somehow we kept making the same mistakes. It was scary at first but funny after a while. it turned into Groundhog Day – the you aren’t from around here version. I had a good laugh when Mom brought up the movie. That is exactly how it felt.

It got me thinking about how Bill Murray’s character learned the layout of town and the timing of the events of the day. Rats in these experiments become familiar with their mazes and will often return to where they found or stored food even with their sense of smell taken out of the equation. (Researchers apparently put food under the maze to mask where it might be in the maze.) It isn’t just rats; squirrels and birds also remember where they put their food. I have no link for the squirrels. I have a friend that could attest to this: something about flower pots and peanut shells. I am not sure I recommend that you ask her, though.

Rats also know how to get out of a flood. I’ve seen it in movies and read it in books countless times. In times of disaster, you follow the rats out. There is a test that demonstrates this, Morris water navigation task.

In reading about Spatial memory I began to understand some of the reasons behind my uncanny ability to get lost anywhere. The added layers of sensory input, echoes of previous trips that went to nearby locations (which blur landmarks, boundaries  and my  association to them), the distracting traffic and receiving imput from a passenger who is a little challenged herself with this at times (the overlay of routes she’s taken with others does this to her) all work together to confuse the Grid cells that create my Cognitive map. At least, this is the theory I am going with after the research I’ve been doing for this article.

Maybe with my brain sorting through data in unorganized, rapid succession I get gridlocked. No, that isn’t a scientific term, but maybe it is coming. Speaking of gridlock, some scientists have tested taxi cab drivers in virtual settings. Hello, The Matrix! They found out that these spacial memory experts are better at recall of this nature and worked to understand why. In another study, a virtual taxi driving game was used to further analyze this sense of direction while testing  to see if stimulation of this memory area in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex (EC), while learning, makes the memory stick. The entorhinal cortex is one of the first areas affected Alzheimer’s Disease causing patients to suffer the loss of spacial memory very early in the progression of the disease. This research, Memory Enhancement and Deep-Brain Stimulation of the Entorhinal Area, might tie into ways to counteract those effects.

Here are some random thoughts I had regarding this topic:

I wonder if my inability to accurately translate dance moves I see to ones produced by my body has any relation to my frequent adventures in getting lost. Spacial memory is also in charge of movement. Does this explain why I can’t dance?

Is the memorizing technique, Method of loci, more difficult to use for those of us with a poor sense of direction?

Are we more or less likely to notice when things are rearranged at home or work because it upsets our landmarks and boundaries that we rely so heavily upon even in these familiar places? I know it leaves me feeling off kilter.

Do grid cells, cognitive maps, and spacial memory tie into animal migration and navigation? Some animals are born with an understanding of where they should be headed when they get older. Elephants remember where their ancestors are buried. So are there genetic markers that lead the hippocampus to develop this understanding? How does this factor into their social learning?

Consider what might happen if scientist found a way to tinker with this in animals.  Imagine being able to create natural psychological boundaries for packs of wolves, the selling point being they would be kept off the farmland or ranches and kept in their sanctuaries. We have bears that keep coming into Greensboro. It is a little exciting and unexpected. Local wildlife authorities just tranquilized a bear that has been here twice now. He is tagged and they know this for certain. What if there was a way to steer him clear of this danger before someone decides he is just going to keep coming back and should be shot? Say a nanobot-sized thing could be put in the drinking water of a herd, and the nanobots could wind up in the brains of a herd of moose and steer them clear of say the busier highways or cities so that as they travelled they would face less peril.

In Stephen King’s Cell the not-zombies seem to flock and seem to migrate. I wonder if the heart of that fictionalized action could also be based in the hippocampus as the non-zombies still possess their motor skills.

We have GPS systems at our finger tips. Will this memory exercise become stale for us? Five generations out from now, will we only be able to travel with the aid of technology. Will we lose our sense of direction?

And just for fun because I enjoy this series and it is remotely related: Tattoo Typos, Senses, Posters and Bad Movies –  A Vlogbrothers YouTube Post


Housekeeping…Don’t Eat Me

Clearly it has been too long since I’ve visited the good folks at Science in My Fiction. I’ve forgotten how to insert pictures and videos. Do make with the clickie though folks. You will not be disappointed. I promise. I’ve found you some interesting reading accompanied by cool pictures. Our editor here recommended a few topics for me as I get myself back in the groove. My first choice of those topics was “animal pigmentation patterns.” Of course it was! I love any excuse to talk a bit about my beloved cephalopods.

David Gallo: Underwater astonishments  (YouTube) I’ve enjoyed several TED talks. This one covers several sea creatures but also one octopus in particular that does a stellar job of making like algae. I was hunting a video of one octopus I saw ages ago that kept changing from one thing to another. If you happen to see it or remember it, please leave a link in the comments.

Octopus Escape (YouTube) This is another example of an octopus blending in quickly with its environment. You will see the blanket like spans between its tentacles also change color. Here is a cool article about a blanket octopus (RealMonstrosities). It even has a neat video with it.

When you start looking into camouflage  and more specifically animal coloration, you find a history of study going back hundreds of years.  The Wikipedia articles linked in the previous sentence do a great job of discussing the how, why, types, and applications of the topics. I encourage you to read them and chase down the links. Yes, I will make you tangent hounds yet.  Seriously though, much of what I want to cover in this post involves the new things I learned, some comparisons I had between animals and humans, and some loose story ideas.

Now about the title of the post,  when you visit the animal coloration article, the first thing you see is the spotted finned and tailed, striped oriental sweetlips fish hanging out while two  striped cleaner wrasse clear off parasites. According to the article, the sweetlips’ spots signal sexual maturity. While  ”the behaviour and pattern of the cleaner fish signal their availability for cleaning service, rather than as prey.” So much of this leaves me wondering exactly how. In human behavior, uniforms often help convey our participation in a specific profession.

The concept of mimicry was one I recalled from middle school science. In Batesian Mimicry, harmless species imitate the harmful ones. In Müllerian Mimicry, the harmful creatures look like each other. Think bees and wasps here. In everyday life you can convert this to think of various law enforcement agencies resembling each other. Not that they are harmful, but the uniforms are meant to convey authority.

I learned that some frogs change their skin color to regulate body heat. There has to be something here to work with. While others have use melanin to tint their bodies to protect from sunburn. Sound familiar?

Here are three new things I learned from How Animal Camouflage Works (HowStuffWorks):

Chameleons might not only change their color to match their environment and as a matter of signaling, but also to broadcast their mood. My clothes, my hair style, my makeup often are affected by my mood. I wonder what it would be like if I could choose to shift my skin color and hair color by my mood. I wonder what it would be like if these parts of me gave away my feelings. Now imagine what that would be like in the political and diplomatic arenas. I read an anthology a while back about alien life. It had more than one story in which a person communicated with another by changing the tones of their skin.

Nudibranches change their color gradually thanks to a change in diet. I love pizza. I had bad acne as a teenager and young adult. Make of that what you will. I can assure you I turned red while deciding to share it.

Some fish change their appearance by released hormones that react to a change in environment. I know some couples start to look alike after being together a while. I really don’t think I’ve taken on the appearance of the cities I’ve lived in. It could be interesting though. I mean think about the folks that get painted up to support their local sports teams. On a scarier note, I am back to thinking about hormones that can change the way you look without your input on the matter.

One more article for the road: Why do some organisms glow? ( one also includes a cool video. This has to be one of my favorite aspects of this topic. I have always been fascinated with deep sea creatures. I am thinking of covering this topic separately in my next post. Interested? Leave me a comment. Also, share with me some stories in which camouflage played a role. Does this post inspire some story ideas for you? What neat things did you learn from making with the clickie?

Thanks for reading; it’s so nice to be back.

*All links are to Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.


Traumatic Brain Injury

Last spring, I put out a call on my public journal for topic suggestions. A friend of mine and traumatic brain injury [Wikipedia] (TBI) survivor suggested I explore what TBI [Mayo Clinic] has taught us.

Like many of the topics I’ve written about here, I had much to learn before I could begin. Once I researched TBI [Neurologic Rehabilitation Institute at Brookhaven Hospital], I had difficulty breaking the vast topic [Open Directory] back down into a streamlined piece. I have my former editor, Kay Holt, to thank for some of the links I will be including and also for the flow of the piece. As usual, the links will take you to articles that explore the main and related topics more thoroughly. Please have a look beneath the surface.

Read the rest of this entry »

Memory, Habits, and Doorways

Tis the season to NANOWRIMO. Fa la la la la la la la lahhhh.

For several years in a row, I’ve signed up to write fifty thousand words in the month of November. I do so knowing that my life is not conducive to such output. I am not setting myself up for failure. I am hoping to foster the habit of writing daily. I am not alone, and while I’ve already seen some of my friends cross the 50K finish line, I know many more of them are trucking along or even puttering along with a mumble mumble current word count. Read the rest of this entry »

Memory and Fear

As I write this, I have a Halloween soundtrack playing behind me. It does a great job of setting the mood. Every now and then, it will get to a screaming child sequence from a long ago movie. I know rationally what this is, yet it triggers something in me and I find myself anxious and creeped out just a bit.

For most of the month, I’ve been planning to write on memory and fear to celebrate Halloween with you. When I started the research, I was quite surprised on how deep this goes. I was considering where fears might be stored. Yet, I hadn’t given any thought to PTSD, depresssion, or how memory factors into conditioned responses. Read the rest of this entry »

Roller Coasters and Reapers

With emphatic thanks to Jay Lake, I bring you this link: Suicide by Roller Coaster posted up at Discovery News.  Julijonas Urbonas, a PhD candidate at London’s Royal College of Art’s Design Interactions department, has developed a voluntary euthanasia roller coaster. I highly recommend you take the time to read the entire article.

I have a few reaper stories creeping around in my brain. In some of those cases, I consider how a reaper might deal with an assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia situation. I have many more stories that involve death and  leave out the reapers altogether. I’ve studied rituals related to dying and burial. I’ve studied the technology involved in cryonics. I’ve also followed with great interest the various issues and movements related to voluntary euthanasia.

One of my favorite story ideas involves a place where people can go to die in just this kind of way. It is on their terms and is representative of the lives they’ve lead. An industry has grown around it. When I saw mention of and then read the roller coaster article, I was very excited. Other ideas also sprouted.

This is just a short snipit today. Most of the links take you to Wikipedia as usual (for my post). I encourage you to check out many of the resources linked below the Wiki articles. Certainly some of the information includes links to how these topics are treated in culture and more specifically in fiction. I hope you check those out.

In the meantime, share your thoughts. I’d love to hear them. Does the roller coaster bring any stories to mind either in your own writing or something you’ve read?

Memory and Pumpkin Spice Lattes

Yesterday was Pay Day. Today is Friday. Most days, I drink kitchen coffee. Today, I wanted a treat. I hadn’t been to Starbucks in a very long while despite the fact it resides on the first floor of my office building. I convinced a couple of coworkers to join me and off we went. I am ashamed to admit this, but as soon as I walked in the door, I smelled it and knew that the Pumpkin Spice Latte was back! It only took one glance up at the center of the menu board to see the swirly, pastel chalk letters validating my glee.

The smell brought back the memory of the taste. The memory of consumption coupled with the chilled feeling as we strolled back to the office brought back the sense of the season. In a flash, last fall unfolded in my mind. I recalled which friends  heralded the arrival of  these drinks in their blogs last year. Then I was remembering more details I associate with them. My mind shifted again, and I thought of other times I had enjoyed the drink with my husband and reflected on the intensity of our shared coffee joy. Read the rest of this entry »

Check the Expiration Date

I think this is the first time in my life, I have been completely blocked as a writer when approaching a topic. I couldn’t see a way to approach it. Eventually I decided instead to figure out why this leg of the series became the most difficult to complete. Life, Death, and Water Mythology involved symbolism and myth; topics I love to research. The Fountain of Snake Oil was just plain fun. Live Long seemed like a less playful and more realistic extension of the topic. I ended with the intention of discussing placebos and the consequences of aging or not.  However, during this series two people that I cared about passed away. At some point, with permission, I will tell you more about those wonderful people. For now I can tell you that the second death occurred last month. I found myself struggling on a deep level with this topic. I choked. With the gracious permission of my editor, I took a moment and collected my writer self. Read the rest of this entry »

Live Long

In my last post, The Fountain of Snake Oil, I explored the Fountain of Youth, the Elixir of Life, and the Philosopher’s Stone and their place in our quest for longevity. The latter involves alchemy which was a predecessor of modern chemistry.

Science still plays a role in this search as it has continued. There are many fields of study, many approaches to the question, Can We Prevent Aging? Some researchers study the endocrine system for answers. Some researchers study cellular structure and genes. Read the rest of this entry »