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February 06, 2006

Science: More Boring Than You Think

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Given my semi-lupine nature, it falls to me to address the issue of human-animal hybrids.  (Also, Ezra is a little busy today and tomorrow, so us weekenders will be filling in.)  Let me point you to Pharyngula, who explains that human-animal hybrids are a lot more innocuous than they might seem.  Putting a couple human genes in mice allows us to generate an animal model of how Down's Syndrome works.  These mice aren't the Rats of NIMH or freakish mouse-men plotting to control the global cheese supply -- they're basically ordinary lab mice with Down's Syndrome.  Figuring out how the disease works in mice will help us cure it in humans. 

The general point to be made here is that science fiction far outruns science, and people shouldn't freak out when they hear astonishing descriptions of scientific discoveries.  The media will make science seem more sci-fi than it really is (cloning is another example) to generate exciting stories that sell nicely.  On the public's side, there's a large stock of exciting story elements from comic books and movies that guides the popular imagination of real discoveries.  This creates a lot of confusion and error. 

February 6, 2006 in Science | Permalink

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"freakish mouse-men plotting to control the global cheese supply"

Before the night is done
Their plan will be unfurled
By the dawning of the sun
They'll take over the world
Because they're Pinky and the Brain
Yes, Pinky and the Brain
One is a genuis, the other's insane
To prove their mousy worth
They'll overthrow the earth
They're dinky, they're Pinky and the Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain.

Posted by: Greg | Feb 6, 2006 12:19:45 PM

Not bad free association, Greg.
There used to be an influential scifi editor (Campbell) who steered fiction towards imaginary worlds which did not violate too obviously the science of the day ; therefore science fiction as opposed to straight fantasy. The resulting stories were slanted to guesstimating the possible effects (and side effects) of new tech on the world. Character development tended to suffer as a result, but many of the ideas that came out of the genre (mostly before about 1961) have shown up in reality.

Posted by: opit | Feb 6, 2006 2:32:17 PM

Seriously though, how cool would it be to have tiger-men?

Posted by: Ben | Feb 6, 2006 2:49:56 PM

I wonder how P. Z. feels about the use of his posts to prove that science is, in fact, boring :^).

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 6, 2006 7:27:09 PM

Mice plotting to take over the world... There Pinky and the Brain... :)

Sorry, couldn't resist.

Seriously though... the day-to-day practice of science is a bit of chaos and good luck and serendipity... very few scientists ever stumble into something truly earth-shattering, no matter how it is portrayed in the movies and on TV. Just a daily grind to get your particular product out the door (whether it be an academic lab or a for-profit company) that is only interesting to the geeks who actually do the science. I spent the day today wondering if my freeze-dryer was going to work properly... to show how geeky I am.

Posted by: Jeff | Feb 7, 2006 2:05:55 AM

I was amused to see the P&B stuff, though I'm not especially familiar with it.

The other title I had in mind, Julian, was "Of Mice and Men." But the recycled-literature-title thing strikes me as a bit overdone, especially when the book has no real relevance to the issue. (Though if Lennie had Down's syndrome...)

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 7, 2006 3:18:44 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 1, 2007 5:13:49 AM

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