Giant Ants and Illegal Acts

A month or so back, when I went to Vanderbilt to give a talk, I met Robert Scherrer, the department chair down there, who mentioned he was starting a blog soon. That blog is Cosmic Yarns, and has now been live for a while, but I've been too busy to do a proper link. He's using it to look at the science of science fiction, and has a bunch of nice posts up, including a good explanation of why you don't need to worry about giant ants:

Has this ever happened to you? While you are enjoying a relaxing picnic in the New Mexican desert, your lunch is overrun by ants: not ordinary ants, but 12-foot-tall behemoths, dripping saliva from their jaws and chittering wildly. You pull your Browning automatic rifle out from underneath the picnic blanket and empty an entire magazine into the nearest ant, but it doesn’t even flinch. Instead, it crushes you between its pincers. Then the ants eat all of your potato salad.

This scenario played out countless times in 1950s science fiction films. The populace ran screaming from giant ants, enormous reptiles of various kinds, and even a 50-foot woman. One of the first of these films was Them, in 1954, in which radiation from the New Mexican atomic bomb tests causes ants to mutate to an enormous size. Them contains many of the iconic elements of the “giant creature” films (radiation-induced mutations, skeptical authorities, elderly scientist-father with beautiful scientist-daughter), and it holds up surprisingly well. Who can resist a film in which James Arness and James Whitmore share the screen with Fess Parker and the young Leonard Nimoy? Parker got his big break in this movie -- Walt Disney saw it himself and decided to cast Parker as Davy Crockett. And Nimoy appears with a thick New York accent! If you haven't seen Them, you should definitely rent it. Or better yet, buy it, so you can watch it over and over and over....

You might suspect something is wrong with the idea of giant creatures just by looking at the shapes of animals of various sizes. Insects have spindly legs, little more than toothpicks, to support their weight. Dogs and cats have much larger limbs in proportion to their size, while humans’ are even bigger. By the time you get to elephants, you find legs that look like tree trunks. So there is clearly something odd going on there.

I also got a kick out of a tv trvia question about the time Albert Michelson was on Bonanza:

Michelson grew up in Nevada, where Bonanza was set. In the show, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) gets the young Michelson an appointment to the Naval Academy, thus setting in motion the train of events that would lead to Einstein's theory of relativity. Who would have guessed?

Amusingly, this is not a whole lot less likely than what actually happened-- Michelson was born in present-day Poland, and his family emigrated to the US when he was a baby. When he finished high school, he sought an appointment to the Naval Academy, but wasn't able to get one from his local Congressional delegation, so he traveled to Washington, DC to personally appeal to President Grant. Who, as it turned out, had already given out all of his allotted appointments to the Naval Academy.

The young Michelson sufficiently impressed Grant and his staff, though, that Grant decided to give him a spot in the Academy anyway, an "illegal act" that Michelson would chuckle over years down the road. So Michelson got to go to Annapolis after all, launching a brilliant scientific career that eventually earned him a Nobel Prize.

(Story via Dr. SkySkull...)

So, you know, what Twain said about truth and fiction...

Anyway, go check out Scherrer's new blog. And that pretty much exhausts what I'm capable of writing in my current pseudoephedrine fog.

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It was all those nature shows that led to these giant insects genre. They used to be me with all the claims that if that ant was the size of a human he would be able to lift a truck. Whereas the truth really is If SHE were made the size of a human, She would collapse under her own weight, and suffocate as her breathing system would be unable to deliver enough Oxygen. That used to bug me.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 02 May 2015 #permalink

The fact that people tend to dislike bugs and fear bugs is useful when discussing climate change with people who don't get the science.

1) Bigger bugs. I don't have a cite for this but one of the predicted effects of climate change is an increase in the size of certain insect species. When you hear someone exclaim about a big nasty bug, you can always drop a casual comment to the effect that "they're getting bigger due to climate change."

2) Badder bugs. This one's easy to look up: insects that spread dangerous diseases are spreading further north and south from the Equator as a result of climate change. One example: mosquitoes that spread Dengue are now endemic in certain parts of the US. Another: Chikungunya is coming to the US next. Describe the diseases and the insect vectors and casually mention that these things are headed our way due to climate change.

3) Bugs for dinner: The expected agricultural impacts of climate change already have various agencies searching for replacement food sources, and one that is frequently mentioned is the use of insects as food. For most Americans, that prospect is as appetizing as telling observant Jews that they will have to start eating pork and shellfish. A casual mention here and there can help translate the impact of climate change to an immediate visceral feeling of disgust.

4) Today's "Them!" is/are bedbugs, a highly unpleasant pandemic plague of most urban areas. While not directly connected to climate change, yet, they are none the less a useful symbol of highly unpleasant "unintended consequences."

Michelson's story is nicely told in 'Master of Light'. He did some pretty impressive work measuring the speed of light including his famous ether experiment. He built some of the first sealed vacuum tubes for longer scale measurements. He also manufactured some of the first diffraction gratings for use in spectroscopy. When relativity was developed, he stepped back admitting that it was a new kind of physics.