A television show like The X-Files, dealing with aliens, mutants, hybrid life forms, and monsters is assumed to be science fiction with the emphasis on fiction. Dr. Anne Simon, with her book The Real Science Behind the X-Files, shows that there is a lot of hard-core, generally accepted science behind the fantastic scenarios presented on the show. Nature, it seems, is rife with possibilities so extreme that even Fox Mulder might have trouble swallowing them.

Geneticist and virologist Anne Simon has been a scientific advisor to The X-Files since the end of the first season. Chris Carter, whose wife Dori is a friend of Simon's family, contacted her for advice on the season's finale episode "The Erlenmeyer Flask." Her description of how a scientist would culture large amounts of an alien organism for testing even led to the episode's title. Thus began a long and successful string of conversations and late-night phone calls, often involving such odd topics as "how people can suddenly break out in reptilian scales, and oh, by the way, it needs to involve something they ate." Life will never be the same for Dr. Simon, and she will definitely miss the show when it's run has ended.

I have read very few other "science for non-scientist" books like this one where the author has managed to find the perfect middle ground between scientific theory and layman's terms. Dr. Simon nails it exactly with her almost conversational writing style. She does use technical terms, especially in her native fields of genetics and virology, but explains them in terms of real world analogies that anyone can understand. Rather than presenting a dry and boring listing of episodes and the scientific theories behind them, she also fills the book with anecdotes from her experiences both as a scientist, and as a scientific advisor to the show. The science itself is fascinating, but these stories are what make the book so hard to put down. All in all, anyone with an interest in science or science fiction should enjoy reading it, and it should have a place of honor on every X-Phile's shelf.

In The Real Science Behind the X-Files, Dr. Simon presents both the scientific theories that underly some of the fantastic creatures and cases Agents Mulder and Scully come across over the course of several seasons and several anecdotes about her involvement with the show. She divides her book into the following sections, each explaining the scientific basis of several related episodes:

  1. Hidden and Hungry

    Here Dr. Simon takes us on a tour of the kinds of life that exist in the most unlikely of places. From parasitic tapeworms capable of actually altering their host's behaviour to mite eggs that can survive long periods of time in harsh environments to deadly fungal spores, she shows that nature has set a precident for many of the surprising creatures found on the show. She also offers explanations for why carbon-based life would be preferred over silicon-based (on Earth, anyway), how the human immune system works, and how diseases can emerge from ever-shrinking rainforests.

     

  2. Visitors from the Void

    Aliens are a staple of many X-Files episodes, often because Mulder's sister Samantha was abducted by them in her childhood. In this chapter, Dr. Simon provides a solid explanation of how scientists would go about identifying an extraterestrial organism, and what features might identify one. Because of the sheer tenacity of life, it is entirely possible that our first alien contact could be microscopic organisms from space. She even introduces a bizarre creature, a cellular slime mold called dictyostelium discoideum, which bears a striking resemblence to the "black cancer" organism. These dicti, as they are called, start out as amoeba-like single-celled organisms, but can combine into a multicellular slug when food is scarce. Their life cycle continued when the environment dries out and they become immobile plant-like creatures. From this form, fungus-like spores are released, each of which can develop into an amoeba. Mother Nature continues to be just as inventive as science fiction.

     

  3. Mutants and Monsters

    Next, Dr. Simon tackles some of the monsters that appear in various X-Files episodes. She herself inspired "The Post-Modern Prometheus" when she described to Chris Carter the fly Proboscipedia, which has a genetic mutation that causes an extra set of legs to grow from its mouth. An explanation of genetic mutation follows as she shows how a thousand mutations to the "junk DNA" between the genes can have no effect, while one tiny change to an important gene can have catastrophic results. She covers everything from massive inbreeding to babies born with tails to the mechanics of cancer.

     

  4. Releasing the Genetic Code

    From accidental mutation we go next to deliberate genetic engineering. Both cloning (human and otherwise) and gene therapy are both covered here. Scully's battle with cancer leads into a discussion of how cancer is fought, and how gene therapy could allow cancer cells to be attacked directly without damaging the rest of the body. The episode "Zero Sum" shows gene therapy's dark side, with genetically altered corn being used to produce a plague to be unleased upon mankind by bees.

     

  5. Seeking the Fountain of Youth

    The holy grail of medicine is the ability to stop, or even reverse, the aging process. Though no one has yet discovered the precise mechanism that causes aging, theories abound. Dr. Simon explains the cutting-edge research in the area, from premature aging illnesses like progeria and Werner syndrome to a limit on the number of times a cell can divide (called the Hayflick limit) that seems to involve the telomeres (ends of the chromosomes) shrinking each time a cell division occurs. Damage to DNA by free radicals (oxygen molecules that have stolen an extra electron) is explored as one of the possible root causes of aging, and the science of cryonics is shown as a way to possiblly cheat death by having your body frozen until the technology exists to revive you and cure all your illnesses.

     

  6. Fooling with Mother Nature

    The final chapter takes on a variety of environmental issues. Dr. Simon explains how the delicate ecological balance can be tipped by people with the best or worst of intentions, and this shift can have unexpected and catastrophic results. Introduced species, half-understood insecticides, chemical and biological warfare, and food chain distruptions are all covered, with examples drawn both from history and fiction.


Sources:
The Real Science Behind the X-Files by Anne Simon, Ph.D.

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