A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

Science/Fiction: Evolution

This was back in 2001…

Evolution is a film about, you guessed it, a famous shampoo brand. Any other idea would be preposterous. Who in their right mind would say that Evolution is a film about evolution? Well, I do. You do too, don’t you?

As a first point, I would like to say that I was overwhelmed by the number of scientific facts to consider in this film and I therefore chose not to include all of them. First because my knowledge is highly lacking in dragon aerodynamics and then because I do not intend to write a full essay on this film. This, actually, introduces my second point. This film is a scientific film (at least part of it). It is a comedy but mind you, it has some brains along with the laughs. Although it is originally intended to be taken lightly it manages to depict the current science world much better than many other films that dare pretend they are ‘serious’. With that in mind, let us dive into the unknown!

It all starts with a giant space rock, more often called meteor, that derives towards Earth and enters the atmosphere. Just like any space rock, it starts burning, except this one is big enough to reach the ground and not just vanish into thin air in front of the awe opened eyes of children looking for shooting stars. Instead of a child, a student firefighter spots it as he is rehearsing for his examination. Our character is quite unlucky as the meteor decides that his car looks like a perfect landing mat. Somehow, the car survives. I understand that this is played for comedy. What I do not understand is the tiny teeny hole of about 5 metres of diameter in the ground.
Let me explain. We are not dealing with a pebble here, but more something of a giant slab of 2x1x1m (so 2m³). A quick question on your favourite search engine will provide quite quickly a rough estimate of the density of meteorites. It varies a bit, mind you, but even when taking the lower end, it gives us around 2,8g/cm³. I will spare you the calculation, it just brings us to something like 5,6 tons in total (minimum). So now coming back to the impact. How come 5,6 tons launched at terminal velocity (most likely above 150km/h) only does a 5m diameter hole in the ground? Especially considering that there is a cavern network underground! The whole thing should collapse. Once again, I am no physicist and maybe I am mistaking, but something feels off here, that’s all I am saying. Maybe it is because such a huge rock seldom reaches Earth. Previous reports of such meteors falling involve also a loud impact that can shatter windows and consequences for the health of nearby towns.

The following day, we meet our scientific crew, or at least two thirds of it. Ira and Harry are teachers at Glen Canyon community college and, respectively, study biology and geology. Of course, Harry gets a phone call to tell him a meteor fell near the city. Not a moment to wait, he drags Ira along and sets off to see the giant space pebble. After all, there could be traces of extraterrestrial life… and there are! At which point I have to intervene. Ira and Harry collect some samples in a proper tube, they have gloves, then they go back to a proper lab and prepare proper microscope slides. Is this a dream? I was dumbfounded. In one sequence, this lighthearted film shows more about what actual science is (in a biology lab at least) than many others. And do not even get me started on this lab! There are benches with stuff on it, no white empty designer table but actual benches that feel like they are used with stuff on them. I’ll stop here because I could go on forever (like speaking about the fridge and… fine, fine, I am stopping). Looking through the microscope at extraterrestrial life, Ira promises Harry to run a spectrograph as “in the guidebook”. Am I finally watching a film where scientists follow established protocols? Well, that is original for sure.

Ira on the right and Harry on the left. See their protective gear? There’s obviously a lot of sun in a cave.

So I listed things that were done right, and there is a whole paragraph about it. Worry not, there are some things done wrong. When Ira said he was going to make a spectrograph, I was unsure what he meant. I needed to research a bit and I think he ran his sample in a Mass Spectrometer. The results displayed during the film are super clear. It is not a spectrum it is just a peak with “10bp” written next to it. Here, “bp” stands for “base pair”… which is not true. Ira takes a look at the extraterrestrial DNA and gets that they have 10 nucleotides, which is different from base pairs. Base pairs are actually the unit we use to measure a DNA or RNA strand length and not the number of possible elements in the chain (A, T, C, G on Earth). A small error that could have been easily avoided, just like the moment were Ira rushes to Harry to tell him that the sample has 10 nucleotides so it is extraterrestrial. Listen Ira… the sample you took was on a space pebble, so yes, even if it had the exact same 4 nucleotides as us, it would still be extraterrestrial.

Now let’s take a step back and comment on what Ira sees in his microscope, because he shouts “that’s impossible!” and I do agree with him. On the sample from the rock, cells are moving. Up to now, nothing crazy. What is impossible, most likely, is the fact that these cells divide in a matter of seconds. This process, where cells divide into two identical cells, is called mitosis and it takes for a cell about one to two hours. Mitosis requires the cell to metabolize enough material in order to split into two, therefore the metabolism involved in such a quick mitosis must be tremendously powerful. Actually, it must be so powerful it could hardly exist and that the cells would die of starvation in seconds in case they lack food. In this film, however, these organisms are fine, thank you!

On the other hand, the film at least gets one thing right in this impossible mess. At such reproduction speed, organisms are bound to evolve really fast, and that they do. A mere day after the meteor crashed, its unicellular organisms have already evolved into pluricellular ones. Most likely, the film exaggerated the rate of evolution, although, since the extraterrestrial DNA has more base pairs, maybe it is more susceptible to mutations. It must be more susceptible to mutations, and I am not saying this to help the movie sound more precise scientifically speaking (of course not). Still, that’s quite the jump. Several hundred millions of years of evolution in one day! What could possibly go wrong, right?

When they find all of this, instead of reporting their finding, Ira and Harry bring their student on the crash site. Yes, yes, this is the moment where I will go over security basics. Why involve your students? There can be an accident, an infection from an unknown bacteria or even worse. Because, yes, Ira does not require his students to wear any protective gear. That he endangers himself is already quite a problem, but well, at least make sure to protect your students (i.e. people you are responsible of) from your own mistakes. During this little field trip, they find basic fungi and flatworms that are not oxygen tolerant (they breathe hydrogen sulphide, methane and ammonia, according to Ira).

As soon as the second day, the army has set a proper perimeter around the crash site. To be honest, I do not know exactly why the army is involved but at least people cannot wander unprotected near the extraterrestrial life. The scientists that are to study the meteor and the ecosystem it has brought have an integral protective suit. Moreover, they have hired an epidemiologist, Allison, which is a most welcome sight. Indeed, as I said before, bacteria against which our immune system is useless must be around (as they are brand new). It is wiser to protect the population from diseases. However, it is an American movie, so the danger lies not in small infectious beings but in bigger voracious monsters. If you ask me why, I would say that you cannot use a shotgun as efficiently against microbes, that is the only reason. On a side note, I praise the film for offering a nice scientific panel: one white woman, one black man and one white man. Sad that, as always, the white male is the main character and that the film still has sexist jokes, but this is another topic entirely.

Not looking as smart, I have to admit. At least, though, you are protected.

At this point in the film, monsters crawl through the cavern network under Glen Canyon and start to attack poor defenseless humans. This is nothing to panic about as Ira and Harry are on their side up to no good. They are pissed that their discovery was taken away from them by the army. I would say they are acting as spoilt children if not for the breaking and entering part where all their lab was scoured for extraterrestrial samples. So… yes, their finding was literally stolen from them. I would probably lay low and hope the army will forget about me (I am so brave, am I?) nevertheless, Ira and Harry have another idea: breaking and entering into the army lab in order to get some new samples. Since the idea is stupid and terrible, I have the regret to inform you that it fails (some films make the mistake to make it work at this point, not this one). To make it short, Ira and Harry are prosecuted and there we learn about Ira’s past as a military scientist. Apparently, our dear main character prepared a new vaccine with terrible secondary effects. The list of secondary effects is only here for comical reasons but considering the number of different organs affected by this vaccine, I am really wondering what went wrong. I will not comment longer on this matter as I can only offer unconvincing theories and the film does not lose more time than necessary on this obscure past of our main character.

You must know by now that I like to find mistakes in films that are not at all related to science. I do not know if this one qualifies and you will have to tell me. Allison, the epidemiologist, is explaining the exponential spread of the alien menace to the Glen Canyon’s governor. Basically in a few days they take over half of the state and then… this comes out of her mouth: “… in two months US officially belongs to them and we are extinct”! So, let me check again, but last time I did, US citizens were still humans, right? So why is she saying humans are extinct if only the US are taken and not the entire world? Or… no… they would not dare! No. The persons writing the dialogue could not have possibly forgotten that there were other countries in the world. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, shall we?

Now we come to the best part. The best because it is so deliciously unscientific.

To make it quick, our heroes are despaired. The army is going to set on fire the bad aliens but it turns out they just discovered that fire made them develop much faster! Here we are again. Humans fighting to keep their Earth, because it is their territory, their filth, their pollution! So how to prevent the ultra quick surge of biomass that is about to happen when the napalm is going to set the cavern network where the aliens are ablaze? Do not worry, Ira has the solution on Allison’s T-shirt. There is a Mendeleev periodic table on its back and there is a really logical thing to do. We, as earthlings, are carbon-based. The aliens are nitrogen based.

First, why did this not come up earlier? This is the biggest thing ever… We only know carbon-based life and suddenly we can study the appearance of a entirely new ecosystem based on nitrogen. My mind is blowing up just imagining how this film could have been. Yes, if you ask the scientific community, nitrogen could be the pillar of an extraterrestrial biochemistry, but the truth is: we don’t know! It could be possible or not, and therefore these aliens are the proof that life is not always carbon based!

Second, Ira says with confidence that carbon-based life is susceptible to arsenic so nitrogen based must be to (grab your seat firmly) selenium. Why? If you move from carbon to arsenic and nitrogen to selenium on the table, you are doing the exact same translation. There is not an inch of scientific truth behind the last 20 minutes of the film. Arsenic is poisonous to us because it acts on some of our most important proteins and impairs their functions. Here, selenium comes out of nowhere. There is no evidence that it will work as they have never done an experiment with selenium. Be prepared though because they find selenium in shampoo bottles and load a firefighter truck with said shampoo to fire it on the bubbling mass created by the napalm raid ; all of this without testing whether the hypothesis is true or not.

Following this logic, nitrogen-based organisms should breathe difluorine and use magnesium and argon as major ions in their body.

You’ll be happy to know that it works and they do kill the monster with shampoo. This is a comedy, it was bound to have a happy ending and you know it. Overall I was impressed how, among all the silliness, this films manages to put some not fully accurate science but still kind of educational. The evolution of the monsters more or less follows what we know: from unicellular to pluricellular, followed by fungi and algae with the early animal lifeforms. The most upsetting fact is that this evolutionary process does not start in water. Although, once again, for nitrogen-based organisms, I cannot say if it makes sense or not. In my opinion, this film’s greatest achievement is to represent scientists in a more mundane way. They are people like you and me, they just happen to have a job about exploring the universe and its rules. And sometimes, they write blog articles.