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Dan Koboldt: Horrifying But True Tales from Science

Earlier this year I wrote the foreword to a book called Putting the Science in Fiction, edited by Dan Koboldt — the book’s goal is to talk to scientists and help sci-fi authors write more authentically toward their subject matter. Here’s Dan to talk a little about some *cue creepy theremin music* HORRIFYING BUT TRUE TALES FROM SCIENCE. 

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A few years ago, I started a blog series aimed at helping SFF writers create more realistic stories. Basically, I’d encountered so many misconceptions about human genetics that I wanted to set the record straight. People are always saying write what you know, and genetics happens to be my area of expertise. So I wrote a few articles to debunk some of the most common misconceptions. To my surprise and delight, some of my blog’s readers found them useful. They wanted more.

The problem was that science fiction encompasses a wide range of sciences and technical areas. I didn’t want to pretend to be an expert at everything (I save that for the grant applications). So I went out and recruited some other experts to contribute to my blog. Dozens of them — aeronautical engineers, neurologists, nurses, astrophysicists, and more – have written posts for my Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Now, we’ve collected 59 of those articles into Putting the Science in Fiction, a book with Writer’s Digest.

One of the best things about hosting this series (and editing the book) is that I get to read all of the articles first. I’ve learned as much as anyone. Then again, there were a few factoids here that I almost wish I could forget. Disgusting things. Frightening things. Horrifying things.

Chuck’s blog seems like the perfect place to share some of them.

You Don’t Want These Parasites

If you want a really freaky classic sci-fi read, I recommend The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein (1951), in which aliens turn up on Earth as mind-controlling parasites. Gripping stuff. As it turns out, a number of real-world parasites are able to change their host’s behavior. The most famous of these is probably Ophiocordyceps, the zombie-ant fungus. After it infects a carpenter ant, the fungus releases chemicals that disrupt the ant’s neural control, causing it to wander around until it finds the perfect leaf. Then it dies, and the fungus grows out of its head.

Toxoplasma gondii is another fascinating parasite. This one infects rats and, strangely, erases their natural fear of cats. Obviously, it makes the rats much more likely to be killed and eaten by felines. Then the parasite multiplies and gets released in the cat poop. Yikes.

If you’re a fan of the Aliens movie franchise, you’ll like this one: parasitoid wasps like the giant ichneumon wasp, reproduce by laying their eggs in other insects. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the unwilling host from the inside out.

Sources: Zombie Microbiology 101 (chapter 13) by Mike Hays and Insects in Fiction: What Bugs Me (chapter 27) by Robinne Weiss.

This Planet Can (and Will) Kill You

The Earth is a fairly dangerous place. Humans, as a species, have discovered countless different ways to die here. Sometimes the planet itself is responsible. Tornados, hurricanes, flash flooding, mudslides… it’s almost like we’re not welcome on this rock. Earthquakes are a particularly fearsome kind of disaster. Some of the deadliest side effects occur after the quake is over. Tsunamis – caused by earthquakes that occur under the ocean – are a good example. Another one is soil liquefaction, when water-laden soil essentially turns to liquid, swallowing people, cars, and even buildings.

The ocean is also a pretty dead place, though not in the way that many people imagine. About 1,750 people in the United States die each year by drowning in natural bodies of water. Hypothermia is another danger because water wicks away body heat so efficiently.  Many shipwreck victims survive the initial wreck, only to freeze to death while waiting for rescue. It’s a simple, if unexciting fact that many more people die from these causes than from shark attacks.

Even so, the ocean has plenty of inspiration for sci-fi and horror writers. There’s a parasitic barnacle that grows entirely inside the body of a crab, and compels the crab to tend its eggs. There’s also an isopod (an ocean version of a pill bug) that feeds on fish tongues and in some cases, replaces the tongue with its own body. Yech.

Sources: Earthquakes: Fact versus Fiction by Amy Mills (chapter 41) and How the Ocean Will Kill You (chapter 43) by Danna Staaf.

It’s Just As Easy to Die in Space

Many of my book’s contributors work in aeronautical fields. I love flying and have taken lessons on small aircraft, so I’m fascinated by this stuff. And also a little terrified. Pilot and aviation writer Sylvia Spruck Wrigley informed me that if you fly into a cloud (losing sight of the ground) and you aren’t an instrument-rated pilot, your life expectancy drops from decades to 178 seconds.

Flying in space is even more difficult, because you have no point of reference. There are no directions in space, so you have to navigate relative to a celestial body, such as a planet. The body itself may be moving. Sounds tough. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that without friction, moving objects in space is at the whim of Newtonian physics. There are no brakes and no flaps. You just move, and continue moving, until enough force is applied to stop your momentum.

Of course, it could be worse. You could get ejected from your spacecraft and die in space. Contrary to popular belief, it wouldn’t make your blood boil or your eyes pop. Instead, the oxygen in your tissues causes your entire body to bloat, kind of like a corpse. You won’t freeze to death (heat transfer works differently in a vacuum) but I’m guessing you’ll be pretty uncomfortable.

Unless you’re a Jedi, there’s not much you can do to save yourself. Holding your breath will cause your lungs to rupture. It’s best to exhale slowly. Most likely, you’ll lose consciousness and then expire from hypoxia or embolism. On the bright side, as this happens, you can rest assured that you’ve died in the best way possible: with great scientific accuracy.

Sources: Misconceptions about Space by Jamie Krakover (chapter 50), Realistic Space Flight (chapter 51) by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

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Dan Koboldt is the author of the Gateways to Alissia trilogy (Harper Voyager) and the editor of Putting the Science in Fiction (Writers Digest, 2018). As a genetics researcher, he has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. Dan is also an avid hunter and outdoorsman. Every October, he disappears into the woods to pursue whitetail deer with bow and arrow. He lives with his wife and children in Ohio, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard.

Dan Koboldt: Website

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