Posts Tagged ‘Fact of Fiction’

Absinthe drinking makes Homer something something

// January 15th, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Drugs, Poisons

When I was but a lass, freshly ID’d and able to finally hit the local tavern, there was a rumour around that Absinthe was THE drink if you wanted to get drunk fast, and as a bonus, if you could get the proper stuff, it causes hallucinations. OMG terribly exciting. I could feel jolts of electricity down my spine as I tremulously ordered (with much nudging from my friends) a round of Absinthe.

And oh, the DRAMA of it all! Green liquid, a sugar cube on a special spoon, and all of it on fire! We could only afford one each, before our pockets resolutely returned us to ordering jugs of Sangria. The bitter licorice taste lingered on though, and we were rollickingly tipsy.

Ah, the folly of youth. ‘Tis all a lie!

At the core of the myth is that Absinthe contains essential oil from the Wormwood plant, which is psychoactive and hallucinogenic. It’s true that Wormwood does contain thujole, which is a GABA antagonist (it blocks the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA), but it’s more likely to cause seizures than hallucinations. Also the amount of thujole in Absinthe is very low because of the way the spirit is made, and nowadays there are rules about what percentage of thujole is allowed. People have studied old bottles of the stuff too, and it wasn’t found to be super-thujolated. It was very popular with poets and artists; they said the green fairy helped them be more creative.

More creative, or more deadly? One tale tells of a man who killed his family in 1906 and claimed Absinthe drove him crazy. He was actually excessively drunk from a number of drinks, and was found guilty. After this and the subsequent public outcry, Absinthe was prohibited in Switzerland. France and the USA followed suit. Nonetheless, it’s the remarkably high alcohol content in Absinthe that makes it a dangerous drink, you’d definitely die from alcohol poisoning before dying from Wormwood poisoning.

The scariest story by far is the one in Eurotrip where a guy makes out with his sister after an Absinthe bender. “Dude, you kissed your sister!” That’s way worse then killing your family!

So by all means, if you like Absinthe (I’m not a fan) then drink it, but any mind-alterations are probably just your imagination. You’re supposed to mix it with water to let the flavours come out. Has anyone actually done this? Apparently it makes the clear green liquid go cloudy, because the essential oils are not soluble in water. Now that’s science.

My Opinion on the Science behind Avatar

// January 4th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Science in the Movies

Avatar Movie Still

Have you seen it yet? It’s the best movie of the decade, and it just became the fastest movie to make $1bn in ticket sales. This post contains spoilers, so if you’re lagging behind the majority then run along now, come back later. I’ve held back from this post to give people a chance to see it, but I’m gonna explode like cannon fire if I don’t do it now. Note: This post be me opinions, and make no mistake, I want to believe.

What struck me most about the movie is how REAL it was, after seeing it I had this overwhelming urge to go there, to see it for myself, even if just in a dream. To feel authentic, an animated world needs to pay extreme attention to detail to how the real world works. Director James Cameron brought in Jodie Holt, chairwoman of the department of botany and plant sciences at UC Riverside, as an expert. She helped suss out the plant-communication thing and how a botanist would study plants on another planet. After that she helped put together a massive tome called Pandorapedia, with Latin names (yay!), taxonomy and descriptions of the plants.

According to this interview, Jodie Holt had one major problem with the movie – Grace smokes in the lab. A big no-no, not only for OH&S but also because of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus which dwells in tobaccy and can be unleashed on unwitting plants causing mass destruction. I counter with this – why would a virus that evolved on Earth have any effect on plants that evolved on Pandora? Viruses and the cells they infect usually evolve together. Sure, some viruses can jump species (like HIV) but not, you know, species from another planet. Plus in the future we might have wiped out the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, indeed, she might be smoking some non-cancer-inducing super-tasty tobaccy from the future.

These communicating plants though – that’s something else. Very cool. It actually reminded me of an Animorphs book (the Andalite Tales, anyone?) I think talking trees is definitely possible – Strawberries can communicate a caterpillar attack to other bushes in the network (albeit connected together by runners) so the other bushes can protect themselves. Given the right environment, I think it’s entirely possible that a whole ecosystem could evolve to communicate for mutual protection, and over time I think it could give rise to consciousness. Hell, that’s how we did it, right?

Actually, a lot of the plants and animals look mighty similar to Earth counterparts… I always thought if we met aliens they would be completely and utterly different to us. My sciencey explanation for this is that a meteor containing biological building blocks started life on Earth (the “a rock did it” theory), and one of those same meteors hit Pandora. With the same start and similar environments, it’s not altogether impossible that similar life would start on both, is it?

Finally, the Avatars themselves. How can you get your mind to control another body? Was the Avatar brain computerized to respond to the movement sensors in that sensor-bed? The human-alien hybrid concept is pretty out-there, and the idea of DNA being important to a mind-body link is something totally new, but think of this. As shown in the making of – Avatar was made mostly by motion capture. The actors performed in front of a screen and then a 3D image of the alien was mapped over them. Isn’t that exactly like being an Avatar?


// October 26th, 2009 // 4 Comments » // Drugs, How Things Work, Poisons, The Realm of Bizzare

Halloween is on the horizon. Today’s post is on the science of Zombies. Because Zombies, apparently, exist. In Haiti.


Haiti is located in the Caribbean, near Jamaica and Cuba. Ah… the Caribbean… Anyway, this story is not about cocktails served in coconuts with little umbrellas on the side. It’s more about mind control.

The guy mainly credited with this discovery is Wade Davis, who wrote two books on the subject The Serpent and the Rainbow, a bit of an adventure, Indiana Jones wannabe read and Passage of Darkness, a more scientific work. Davis went on location at Haiti, which has voodoo as part of their religion, and found evidence that zombies really exist – having met a man called Clairvius Narcisse whose death was reported in 1962 by hospital staff, and 18 years later claimed to be an escaped zombie.

Davis managed to get his hands on some ‘zombie powder’ by bribing some informants. The powder was found to have toxins from a variety of natural sources: Bufotoxin from toads, a neurotoxin released on the skin, and the reason why toad-licking can be psychedelic. Also the reason why many princesses took to kissing frogs to find a prince, in my opinion; and puffer fish venom – tetrodotoxin, which can cause muscle paralysis, low blood pressure, and a pseudocomatose effect, and which always reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Homer thinks he’s going to die because he ate puffer fish at a sushi restaurant.

Puffer fish Bufo alvarius

However, the amount of toxins in each of the samples Davis gathered varied wildly, and often the amounts were so trace as they would scarcely have any effect at all. Not to mention, getting the amount of toxins correct to make someone enter a death-like state without actually dying would be an extraordinary feat. We do a similar thing with anesthetics, but natural products tend to vary the concentration of toxin they have plant-to-plant (or toad-to-toad in this case) so getting it right would be trickier than teaching your parrot to swim. Davis’ answer to this is psychobiological – the idea that psychoactive drugs are effective not only because of what they do on a biological level, but also because of what we expect them to do and the cultural influences around us. If someone thinks a little bit of alcohol will make them giggly and relaxed, then they’ll giggle their way out of a goose egg after a mere drop of rum. In this case, if you think a powder is going to knock you out and make you appear dead, if you really BELIEVE it, then maybe it works even if the quantity of drug is a little low. It’s like the placebo effect, except with zombies.

Following the death-like state, the zombie is revived and kept in a submissive state by being given Datura stramonium, aka the Zombie Cucumber. Datura is both highly poisonous (NOT a party drug!) and psychoactive, and due to a mixture of toxins it contains it can cause severe anticholinergic delirium – read ‘off your face, probably in a bad way’. Again, part of the effects are probably due to mind and cultural influences. If someone just almost died, and then is given Datura and treated like a zombie – well that’s a pretty bad trip!


However, let me point out that if there are zombies as Davis suggests, there are not very many of them, and they don’t eat brains. Davis believed zombies either worked a farm as cheap labour, or more likely are turned into zombies by a Bokor (like a voodoo high priest) as an extreme form of punishment similar to a death sentence used by a secret society in Haiti called the Bizango. It’s interesting to note that creating a zombie in Haiti is considered illegal, and if a body is buried it is considered murder, whether the person dies or not. Good to know the law is on the side of the undead.

In essence, zombification may exist as a form of punishment by voodoo believers, and involves a seriously dangerous drug cocktail (not the kind served with a paper umbrella) whose action is probably assisted by mental and cultural influences. Turning people into zombies is against the law in Haiti, and totally not cool anywhere. Cross me and I might make you walk the plank, but I won’t turn you into no brain-craving undead.


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