Parental Trolling, lvl 50

This is a story of how my parents trolled me…on my birthday, no less!

You may remember that one of my pet peeves is cute holiday imagery of penguins and polar bears living together in harmony, because as a biologist I know that penguins and polar bears do not overlap in the wild.  Penguins live in the south pole (only Galápagos penguins live near the equator), and polar bears live in the Arctic.  Never the twain shall meet.

My mom also makes me a creative birthday cake every year.  She’s done Jane Austen books, a Skellig Michael landscape, and even jungle animals. After I analyzed the species of the jungle animals, I think she assumed I’ll always be blogging about her cakes.

So here’s what I got this year:


Yes, she spent hours making these intricate cupcakes, just for the sake of irritating me by putting polar bears and penguins together.  She has whole books full of cupcake designs, so I imagine that once she saw these two animals she couldn’t resist.

To be fair, they were really cute, and also tasty.


A Christmas Biology Lesson

My mom gave me an adorable ornament for Christmas: a bunch of festive animals on a see-saw, and you can actually turn a little crank to make the see-saw go up and down.  It’s a 2013 Hallmark ornament called “Up for fun!”


Isn’t it cute?

You might, then, be surprised to know that my mom only bought it for me because she knew it would push my buttons.  They have heard me complain on this topic often, so this is like a family joke at this point.

See those two larger animals on the ends?

Polar bear: lives in the Arctic.

Penguin: only found in the Southern Hemisphere (the Galápagos penguin is the only one to potentially cross the Equator, and then not by much)

These two animals NEVER MEET in the wild, and it drives me crazy when holiday stuff has them hanging out next to each other like best buds.  My family thinks this is hilarious (to be fair, it is), so they point out this stuff to me regularly.

The poem text on the ornament box even says they are hanging out at the North Pole–there are no penguins in the Arctic, let alone the North Pole!  Unless Santa has some kind of illegal menagerie.  He clearly has reindeer, but at least they are native to the region.

And what are those other two animals on the see-saw?  The smallest one is clearly a mouse (ok? cute but slightly random); I honestly thought the larger one was a kangaroo until my mom suggested it was a rabbit.  There are definitely lagomorphs in the Arctic, but that far north they are always white! WHITE! To blend in with the snow!

Now I’m picturing Santa as having some kind of Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole, like a jolly Superman.  His zoo just has holiday animals instead of intergalactic creatures.  I guess we’ve all learned something today…


Bad Biology in Marie Lu’s Champion

*SPOILERS* ahead for Legend, Prodigy, and especially Champion by Marie Lu.


As I’ve been reading popular YA dystopian series, I’ve noticed a common motif: plagues.  The Matched, Maze Runner, and Legend series all have a plot element (generally in the 3rd book) involving some kind of terrible disease that main characters are trying to stop.  This element is used for societal and ethical commentary, because these plagues were engineered and unleashed by people. However, using a disease as a plot device opens the door to biological science fiction, which is something I really enjoy…when it’s done well.

Sorry, Eureka, that's not how you pipette. Nope.
Sorry, Eureka, that’s not how you pipette. Nope.

Now, I really enjoyed Champion, the finale of the Legend trilogy, but its biology is utter crap.

The first two books, Legend and Prodigy, don’t really go into biological details, and that’s fine.  We know that Day’s brother Eden is being used as a bioweapon against the Colonies, having been infected with a virus by the Republic government.  June, who as one of the Republic’s elite has had regular vaccinations against the plague viruses, also came down sick with something as she and Day were escaping to the Colonies.

The science starts to take a turn for the worse in Champion.  First, the Colonies threaten to halt the peace process unless the Republic provides the cure for the viral plague spreading through their territory; the Republic government assumes it’s Eden’s plague and requests to study him to develop the cure.  Herein lies our first problem: who in their right mind would attack a NEIGHBORING COUNTRY with a weaponized virus without first having the cure, or at least retaining samples to study?  It’s no good if you win the war, only to kill your own population when the virus makes its way back to you, which it inevitably will if it’s as extremely contagious as you designed it to be.

This is merely a flaw of logic; it can be waved away by supposing that the Republic is a thoroughly incompetent government.  Almost exactly ¾ of the way through Champion, we reach flaws in biology.

Scientists tell June that they haven’t been able to develop a cure from Eden’s blood, because the virus attacking the Colonies is a mutated form.  The cure they are trying to develop consists of “cure particles” which attach to an infected cell and keep it from lysing (breaking) open and dying.  But the mutated virus paradigm somehow changes the way the cure particles interact with the cells, and the ones made from Eden’s blood can’t attach to the cells infected with the mutated virus…

This explanation takes at least two pages, where plenty of scientific jargon is thrown around, and none of it makes any sense.  I am not even clear on whether the “tubes” are initially part of the cure particles or the cell itself.

Viruses do work by attacking a cell, then commandeering its machinery to produce more copies of itself, then lysing the cell open to let the new copies of the virus spread.  But treating a virus typically doesn’t mean stopping the cells themselves from lysing, but rather encouraging the immune system to attack the virus itself more effectively.

Most of what we do to treat viruses relies on the principle of antigens and antibodies in the immune system.  When our body recognizes virus invaders (“antigens”), it creates specific antibodies to attach to them, which prevents them from entering cells and also helps direct other aspects of the immune system to destroy them.

This wikipedia schematic shows how antibodies bind to specific antigens with a "lock and key" model
This wikipedia schematic shows how antibodies bind to specific antigens with a “lock and key” model

The idea that Eden and June’s blood could hold the key to treatment of the virus follows this principle.  In the current Ebola epidemic, we have seen survivor Dr. Kent Brantly’s blood used to successfully treat one other patient, and is now being tried for two others, including the Dallas nurse who contracted the disease on American soil.  His blood serum has antibodies against the virus, which when transfused into another patient will help effectively tag the virus for the patient’s immune system to destroy.

So, the book’s “cure particles” seem similar to antibodies, but it has confused their target, which is the viral particles themselves, not the cells they infect.  (I still have no idea what the “tubes” are meant to be.)  Unless the setting is meant to be in an alternate universe (no indication of this in the books), antigens and antibodies would still work the same in future North America as they do now, and I doubt the knowledge regarding them would have been lost in ~100 years.

So to take that concept further, it also makes no sense that Eden and June would have to go through all kinds of harrowing tests, including taking bone marrow (?!), when all that’s needed is the antibodies in their blood.

The supposed mutation of the virus is another issue.  We find out that Eden is not Patient 0 for the Colonies’ current virus after all; the virus is actually a combination of Eden’s and the one that June had while crossing the border.  (Shouldn’t June’s vaccinations have protected her?  Was she only vaccinated against viruses prevalent in LA?  Or are the vaccinations a sham to keep the populace calm?)

Viruses mutate naturally all the time; that’s why the components of flu vaccines change from year to year.  (However, there’s no reason to think Ebola will mutate specifically to become airborne.) I don’t know how likely it is for two random viruses to combine together naturally.  It can and does happen with similar strains of viruses, like two types of influenza; it’s called “antigenic shift” and is thought to be responsible for several flu outbreaks, including the H1N1 outbreak of 2009.  But we have no way of knowing if Eden and June’s viruses are at all similar.  So the scientist’s assertion that the Colonies tampered with the virus to create the new mutated strain could make sense.

Except…there’s no scientific way that I know of to prove it.  Splicing DNA or RNA together generally doesn’t leave any kind of fingerprint, certainly not a “marker” that could be “labeled” in a cell.  Perhaps if the Colonies’ scientists added extra “foreign” DNA or RNA not found in either virus?  But the Republic scientists would have had to sequence the whole viral DNA to find it, analyze what every gene does, then develop a way to tag the foreign ones.  And I can’t think of a reason for the Colonies to do that anyway.

Lastly, where are the original researchers that did the bioweapon research on Eden?  They should be involved in making the cure, since they oversaw the development of the virus.  Instead, we have random doctors at the hospital working on Eden and Tess, and a “lab tech” explaining the science to June.  Perhaps all the lead researchers have been executed, or Day refused to let them around his brother to avoid trauma.  But for such an important project, with the future of the country literally at stake, it seems the people with the most expertise should have been called in.

All these scientific inaccuracies cannot be fully explained away by the story; the fault lies with the author.  I truly wish Marie Lu had biologists critique these pages, or even better, left them out entirely, and not just because it would have slightly increased my enjoyment of the book.  With the current Ebola outbreak and inane controversies over vaccination, it’s important for people, especially young adults, to be scientifically literate about virology and immunology.  While the bad science probably doesn’t do any harm, Champion could have been used to educate young people about how viruses work, and how we try to fight them.   A sad missed opportunity in an otherwise great book.

I am not an epidemiologist/virologist/immunologist, but I do have a degree in zoology and work in medical research.  If you think any of my science in this post is wrong, or if you have any better explanation of the virology as presented in the book, I would love to be corrected and learn more.  Also, I’ve only read this series once and I don’t own it, so please correct me on any details from the books that may be relevant.

Some rational words about Ebola

I am scared of a lot of things.  Tornadoes.  Spiders. Venomous anything.  I am also scared of Ebola.  Terrified, really.  I am more scared of Ebola than pretty much any other disease, including things I might actually have a slight chance of getting, like breast cancer or AIDS.  I blame my sixth grade science teacher, who described the movie Outbreak to us in class one day.

Now, of course, this is totally irrational.  As a scientist I realize this.  So, let’s all calm down and talk about some facts.  Since my epidemiological knowledge is limited to some undergrad courses in biology and the mechanics of the game Pandemic, we’ll turn to the experts.

Tara C. Smith is a microbiologist/epidemiologist at Kent State University, which is just a short car trip away for me here in Northeast Ohio, and she also writes about infectious diseases for media, books, etc.  She has written a very nice piece describing why we in the US should not be panicking about the possibility of an Ebola outbreak here, because a lot of public “knowledge” about Ebola is exaggerated or incomplete.  Please read it, and take some deep calming breaths with me:

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong

Also, here are my suggestions for naming the diseases in Pandemic:

Yes, those are petri dishes to hold the game pieces
Yes, those are petri dishes to hold the game pieces


Yellow: AIDS (Ebola, yellow fever)

Blue: Spanish Influenza (Bubonic plague, Swine flu)

Black: Leprosy

Red: Bird flu (SARS)

Purple: ??


There is no hot air balloon in Around the World in Eighty Days

At the concert the other night, the conductor was talking about how sci-fi stories have been around for over a hundred years; one of the early pioneers was Jules Verne, whose books describe many things that seemed fantastical in his day, but are now part of modern technology, like a submarines.  Or traveling around the world in a hot air balloon for 80 days.

My first exposure to Jules Verne; I fell in love. Don’t worry, I’ve read the “real” versions, too.

Thinking about this comment, I polled my husband, figuring that he, like the average American, hadn’t read Jules Verne.

Me: Have you read Around the World in Eighty Days?

B: Nope.

Me: Can you tell me what it’s about?

B: People traveling in a balloon….and they only make it in time because they cross the International Date Line, or something.  And I think there’s a bet, too.

Ok, guys.  For all you people who have not read this book, I’m going to to blow your mind.  There is no hot air balloon in Around the World in Eighty Days.  The characters do not circumvent the globe in one.  They do not so much as set foot in one.  No balloon. No balloon of any kind.

(FWIW, B was right about the rest of the story.)

Around the World in Eighty Days (or AW80D, as I’m going to refer to it from here on out) is not really a science fiction story like some of Verne’s other novels.  It is an adventure story, based not on fictional technology, but real technology that was changing Verne’s world.  Phileas Fogg and his traveling companions mainly use trains and steamer ships to complete their journey; the only exception being an elephant ride in India, and a wind sledge ride across the Great Plains, both to get from train to train.

Phileas Fogg’s journey. Map by wikipedia user Roke, available under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

Around_the_World_in_80_Days_(1956_film)_posterThis misconception comes about because of (what else?) the movie version.  The 1956 film adaptation starring David Niven, Cantinflas, and Shirley MacLaine added a bit where Fogg and his valet Passepartout travel from Paris to Spain in a hydrogen balloon (not even hot air).

There were of course also other changes and additions, including a bullfight in Spain, partly to enhance the role of Passepartout, played by the famous Mexican comedic actor Cantinflas in his Hollywood debut.

This film won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, so these changes must have worked!

The idea for the balloon may have come from another of Verne’s works, Five Weeks in a Balloon, published in 1863.  It tells the story of an adventuring party crossing the continent of Africa in a hydrogen balloon; it was very successful and laid the groundwork for his later novels.  AW80D was published only 10 years later in 1873.

It has always baffled me how ingrained in popular culture the idea of a balloon as part of AW80D is.  It is so ingrained that even some book covers have a balloon pictured on them.  Talk about false advertising!

Book covers: you're doing it wrong.
Book covers: you’re doing it wrong.
Shame on you, Bantam.
Shame on you, Bantam.