Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction--Rotifers Don't Do It, But Bees Do

I saw two interesting science articles in the New York Times Online today. The first one has to do with asexual creatures, like rotifers (a class of microscopic animals, most of which live in fresh water). The vast majority of animals reproduce sexually, even though that means each parent passes down only half their genes. One possible reason sex is so popular (besides the obvious) is that shuffling genes helps animals cope with pathogens. So, what do asexual creatures do to avoid parasites and pathogens? In the case of rotifers, they can literally dry up. By doing this, they can either outlast their pathogens, like fungi, or be blown away to a cleaner place.

I think this is an interesting idea to consider when creating alien life forms. If you want to create asexual aliens, how do they avoid disease? (And what do they do on Valentine's Day?) The dry-up-and-blow-away approach may not work for multicellular creatures; they would need to come up with some other method of dealing with parasites and pathogens. The fun part is dreaming up what that could be.

The second article is about bees, which do have sex. However, this article is about their ability to recognize human faces. Although they have a much smaller neural network than humans do, they can still be trained recognize human faces, and they even use the same technique (mapping parts of an image into an overall pattern). The science fiction aspect of this suggests that insects might be more intelligent than one would suspect. This research may also be used to make computers better able to recognize faces. Humm, could a hive of bees be used as a biological computer, with each bee processing a few bytes of information? It's a fun idea to think about, but I sure wouldn't want to be the computer programmer!

No comments:

Site Meter