Aliens and the Alcon Blue Butterfly

Aliens and the Alcon Blue Butterfly

First off a heavy disclaimer here: This post is based upon segments from a chapter of Jim Al-Khalili’s recent book ‘Science Asks: Is There Anybody Out There?’ (2016).

The publication is a spellbinding compendium that summarises the bleeding edge of science’s rapidly evolving hunt for extraterrestrial life and includes contributions from 20 expert minds, each at the vanguard of there respective fields.

If you’re even slightly interested in the scientific approach to ET this simply is a must-read, and offers both tantalising and tangible solutions to one of humanity’s greatest questions – Are we alone in the universe?

Lets then focus on Chapter 15 and introduce you to the superior wit and intellect of British geneticist, author and broadcaster Adam Rutherford.

‘It Came from Beyond the Silver Screen! Aliens in the Movies’

For his contribution Rutherford sets out to explore the way film-makers (and in extension video games) have sought to portray on screen alien lifeforms. It’s a frankly hilarious, yet logical, smackdown of all the most common sci-fi movie tropes. The cornerstone of which, of course, is anthropomorphism, and thus the essay begins with:

“They mostly get it wrong. Mostly. Film-makers have been infusing culture with their visions of aliens for more than a century, and almost all of them have been a lot like us.”

From here on in Rutherford glides from decade to sub-genre in a century-spanning sojourn that ranges from the downright ridiculous to the potentially plausible. Predictably the balance swings far in favour of the prior.

Indeed so much is covered, so eloquently, in such a short space of time, it leaves one feeling like Keanu Reeve’s character Neo in The Matrix (1999) in which, via digital upload, he instantly learns kung-fu. Interestingly that film sits firmly on the more credible end of the SF movie spectrum, (read Simulation Theory).

One particular highlight is a total assassination of the threadbare science that seeks to underpin Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). As Rutherford quickly points out why (via panspermia) would an alien race seek to seed life that then takes 3+ Billion years to evolve into a slightly shorter, darker skinned and less beach-bodied version of itself? Science shows us that evolution is raw happenchance. Adjust even the slightest variable in our cosmic and planetary evolutionary history and life would be completely different or would not be at all.

Prometheus - Yes Iceland really is worth visiting!

Of course, it’s not all negative, there are indeed a handful of films that got it right. They work because they do not seek to anthropomorphize the alien form, it’s behaviour or motives. I shall not list any – you should buy and read the book – though I’m sure you can perhaps guess one or two.

Let’s then move to the main event as Rutherford shifts his attention to the parasitical, razor-tipped nightmare that first terrified viewers with the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).

The Art of Alien Isolation

Alien is the absolute definition of a Sci-Fi classic, but how does the science hold up?

Here the perspective takes an astonishing slant, as Rutherford beautifully demonstrates how even the black, blank genius of H.R.Giger’s phallic, biomechanical killing-machine can easily be trumped by the work of ‘mother nature’.

Let’s then introduce you to the Alcon Blue butterfly (Phengaris Alcon). Butterflies are graceful and beautiful things, sugar and light.

Not this one.

Alcon_Blue_Butterfly_Phengaris_Alcon

The following italicised excerpt is the writing of Adam Rutherford:

The Alcon Blue butterfly (Phengaris Alcon) is very pretty, but appearances can be deceiving for it is a rather wicked creature. It lays its eggs on the Swiss wildflower Gentiana, where the larva feed until they are fatted, and then roll on the ground waiting to be discovered by ants. The grubs secrete a chemical which mesmerises the poor deluded ants into thinking they are their own babies, and bring them into the hive, whereupon the butterfly grubs eat the ant grubs.

Once ready to emerge into the world from its ant-cuckoo brood, the butterfly does have to run the gauntlet to escape, as the ants suddenly realise that this flap-winged thing is not actually one of them at all. However, the newborn butterfly is armoured with flaky scales that the ants struggle to grab hold of, and it bludgeons its way out, hotly pursued by some irate cuckolds.

And if you think all this evolved opportunism is remarkable, consider the wasp Ichneumon eumerus: its main hosts are Alcon Blue grubs! The females scour the ground for the scent of the ant colonies, and will only enter those that have the butterfly larvae in them. Inside, she pierces the belly of the fattest butterfly grub using her very pointy ovipositor, and inserts a single egg. She also marks the nest with a chemical that warns off other ichneumon wasps from doing the same. After nine or ten months of being nurtured by ants inside a butterfly maggot pretending to be an ant, the wasp is ready to burst from its host, and releases a chemical that causes the ants to fight each other and not attack the wasp.

Parasitism like this is very alien to us humans, and yet it abounds in nature, and it’s pleasing to see elements of a parasitic life cycle present in the Alien films; the insertion of an egg into a host; the messy bursting forth; the armour plating; the shed skin. But imagine pitching the story of the Alcon Blue to a Hollywood producer.

Nature is frequently hard to believe, and this butterfly story sounds just a little unlikely. Alongside the original Alien films (of which there were eventually four), there were two horrid spin-offs featuring another filmic alien, the Predator. The best thing about these wretched films was the tagline for the Alien versus Predator poster: ‘Whoever wins … we lose’. That’s how the ants must feel.

**

Notes:

Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There? is available from all good bookstores, or as I purchased via Amazon for Kindle

The best five bucks I’ve spent in a long while, I cannot recommend it enough!

Follow Adam Rutherford on twitter and read more about him via Wikipedia.

Follow Jim Al-Khalili on twitter.

Title Image is, of course, the work of H.R.Giger, other Alien images are renderings from Sega’s Alien Isolation. Also featured prior, a still from Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012).

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Adam Makarenko – Exoplanets & Interview

Sci-Fi-O-Rama resurrects with a very special feature on Canadian miniature Photographer and Film Maker Adam Makarenko.

An award winning multi talented Artist Adam’s obviously involved with a plethora of supremely interesting visual projects, but it’s his outrageously ambitious ‘exoplanets’ mission we focus in on.

Adam Makarenko Exoplanet

Exoplanets of course are rarely out of the news these and the science to hunt them has come along way since the first definitive detection back in 1995 (Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva). Fast forward 22 years and as of the start of April 2017 confirmed exoplanets number over 3,500 and range from huge gas giants right down to worlds a similar size to our own precious Earth.

Just how earth like are these worlds, and are they suitable for life ? These are the tantalising questions cosmologists and biologists face today. To answer is a mammoth technical challenge, not unlike Adam’s endeavour to experiment and construct his vision of these far flung worlds in miniature.

Creative Computer Graphics (1984)

Some original material here, as scanned from ‘Creative Computer Graphics’ (Cambridge University Press, 1984) this one I came across whilst searching through the Google Books archives, and intrigued I decided to order a hard copy. Google Books by the was is well worth a look, countless printed publications are logged and categorized dating from recent to way back. Most modern titles are subject to copyright so show just a selection of internal pages, but this is plenty to gain a flavour and if you have 10 mins to burn, I highly recommend a trawl through.

Creative Computer Graphics  - The Last Starfighter

To The Moon (Time-Life Records)

To The Moon (Time-Life Records)

To The Moon - Time Life Records

Something of a special feature here, original photography scanned from the breathtakingly beautiful ‘To The Moon’ (Time-Life 1969) an audio and visual chronology that documents NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and (of course) Apollo projects. ‘To The Moon’ includes 6 doubled sided 12″ Vinyl’s full of famous radio transmissions and interviews, plus an accompanying 190 page slip case book, and that’s the focus of this post. Many thanks to Craig for the temporary loan!

2010 Cassini Orbiter Gallery

Cassini Saturn Photography

Cassini Saturn Photography

Cassini Saturn Photography

Cassini Saturn Photography

Cassini - Saturn Gallery

Spotted this breathtaking selection of abstract space photography earlier today and thought it’d make a good meander to the flow of the blog…

This post then is something of an expanded retweet which I first saw linked via We Are Build’s Twitter feed http://twitter.com/BuildsBlog. The full article comes via Wired Magazine and that’s where you can see a complete set of 12 images. Here’s my thoughts and notes on the selected imagery…

All 5 photographs have been taken this year by NASA’s enduring Cassini probe which started it’s long mission to Saturn and it’s many moons back in 1997. Cassini–Huygens was developed as a twin NASA/ESA venture, with NASA constructing the Orbiter and the Europeans building the Huygens Probe (lander) which touched down on the surface of Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) on January 14th, 2005 transmitting data (via Cassini) back to earth for 90 minutes. Whilst not without some glitches both probes have been a phenomenal success making many significant discoveries such as confirming the existence of liquid hydrocarbon lakes, cryovolcanoes and mysterious “spokes” in Saturn’s rings, plus with plans to potentially run Cassini through to 2017 there is of course scope for learning so much more…

Top Image: The Icy moon of Tethys in silent transit around the enourmous gas giant. Tethys is just one of sixty two discovered buying atorvastatin online Moons in orbit of Saturn.

2nd Image: The moons of Rhea (large in frame) and Epimetheus, despite the deceiving appearance these moons are in fact 250,000 miles apart. Rhea with a diameter of of 946 miles is Saturn’s second largest moon whilst at just 70miles across Epimetheus ranks 16th largest.

3rd Image: The dark side of Saturn cast’s a long heavy shadow across it’s rings – stunning! – the aforementioned moon of Thetys can be seen top right whilst Enceladus spins away bottom right.

4th Image: Perpetual storms on Saturn can feature wind speeds in access of 1000 mph and can be interspersed with violent cracks of lighting, amazingly Cassini managed to capture this phenomenon on film, check it out. Though unimaginably fast Saturn’s wind speeds are in fact trumped by those of far flung Neptune which can clock over 1300mph!

Bottom: Dione (Saturns 15th largest moon) is dwarfed by the looming Titan. Titan appears yellow in colour and is the only moon known too have a dense atmosphere, consisting of 98.4% Nitrogen with Methane making up the remainder… possibly not a holiday spot then.

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As I mentioned do check the full post at Wired for another 7 images, or indeed try the NASA source.

Flickr Round Up (2) Aug 10

North American X15

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Salinas_Blanch_Los_amos_del_tiempo

Kelly Freas - Rhapsody in black

Micheal Whelan Spring

Ok so once again apologies for the sparse activity on Sci-Fi-O-Rama, legitimate excuses this time – broken shoulder via downhill mountain biking then stolen Mac Book Pro via little scumbags! Anyway all up and running again (thanks to time machine and a sling) so I’m going to start off with an easy post, another Flickr favourite round up, here’s the notes on the images…

Top: “North American X-15” – A superb painting of the legendary late 50’s experimental Rocket/Space plane, which at Mach 6.72 still hold the record for the fastest manned flight… Well worth reading a bit more about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_X-15. Here’s an additional link to an amazing photograph that shows the X15 slung under a B52 wing (from which it was launched) http://is.gd/eh8Ac …the Cold War did have it’s perks… Not sure of the artist here so please post if you now more, Illustration via X-Ray Delta One

2nd Top “The Man Who Fell to Earth” – a subtle composition and unusual Gothic display font make up this interesting jacket for the 1963 Walter Tevis SF novel that was adapted to the big screen (starring David Bowie) by Nicholas Roeg in 1976. The covers tattered quality lends that extra finishing coat of charm. via Curly-Wurly

3rd Top “Los amos del tiempo” (The Masters of Time) – Another feature for one of my favourite artist’s listed here, Horacio Salinas Blanch, this cover with it’s ultra vivid palette typifies his work, such a great style… Art via C. Rancio

4th Top “Rhapsody in Black” – A beautiful enchantress takes prominence in this haunting book cover by late American SF Illustrator Maestro Kelly Freas. Illustration via mystique123_2000 – a wonderful photostream.

Bottom: “Spring” This final image is a sister piece to something I posted almost two years ago, exuberant flamboyance from Michael Whelan. Illustration via Flickr user Fantasy.Gallery also check Michael Whelan’s portfolio at: http://www.michaelwhelan.com/

More updates soon…