Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Abyss

"Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" published in 1870 by French writer Jules Verne can be considered the first story to introduce the life forms of the deep blue sea to the public, even if the title is a reference to the distance travelled by the "Nautilus", not the reached depth. The novel was adapted to various movies already since 1907; probably the most well-known adaptation is the version of 1954 with quite charming special effects and marine scenery.

A darker approach to the sea was adopted in the 1989 science fiction movie "The Abyss", where the crew of an experimental underwater oil platform encounters strange life forms in a depth of more than 5.500m. The expected success of the movie (the production was so elaborate that the final release was postponed) generated a lot of copycats: Leviathan (1989), DeepStar Six (1989), The Evil Below (1989), Lords of the Deep (1989), and The Rift/Endless Descent (1989) - all these movies follow a very similar plot: the crew of a submarine or underwater station is entrapped with an unknown life form (alien, mutant, sea monster, prehistoric monster) in an confined space. Proteus (1995) and Deep Blue Sea (1999) tried a decade later to revive the genre of underwater horror. DeepStar Six is insofar interesting as the main monster is a surviving prehistoric eurypterid.

Olaus Magnus' Map of Scandinavia (1539)
Since antiquity the unknown regions of the oceans were populated by terrible monsters. Only with the beginning of the age of exploration in the 15th century almost all the monsters vanished slowly from the maps, but still until the 19th century the sea floor remained unknown. It was considered almost impossible that life forms could survive in an environment without light, low temperatures and high pressure. With the first submarine telegraph cables in the mid of the 19th century it was discovered that life existed also in great depth, as the cables when lifted back to the surface were encrusted by organisms.
The Challenger expedition (1872-1876) was an ambitious research project that recovered samples of the sea floor and described for the first time the life forms of the abyssal zone (4.000-6.000m). However apart these single glimpses there was no possibility to explore and observe this extreme and vast environment.

January 23, 1960 two men, Jacques Piccard (1922-2008) and Donald Walsh (1931-), observed for the first time the seafloor at a depth of 10.916m in the Mariana Trench. They were surprised to observe various species of fishes and crustaceans swimming around.

In 1977 the crew of the submarine "Alvin" discovered life forms that dwelled in a self-sufficient ecosystem on a volcanic spot in the eastern Pacific, known as the Galapagos Rift. The hot fluids coming from the hydrothermal vents provided nutrients and minerals used by certain bacteria species to acquire energy from chemical reactions. These bacterial mats provide the base of the ecosystem; some organisms also host the bacteria in apposite organs and feed on them.
Research in the last years has shown that the assemblage of organisms differs between the single spots with hydrothermal vents - the classic "tube worms" Riftia pachyptila and "Giant Mussel" Calyptogena magnifica are found only in the eastern parts of the Pacific Ocean and in the Scotia Sea we find the "Yeti-Crab" Kiwa hirsute. Based on the species-association at least 11 types of hydrothermal vent biota were proposed.


ROGERS, A.D. et al. (2012): The Discovery of New Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vent Communities in the Southern Ocean and Implications for Biogeography. PLOS Biology Vol.10(1):1-17

Thursday, November 17, 2011

November 17, 1918: The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

"The Ghost of Slumber Mountain" is an 11 minutes long movie written and directed by special effects pioneer Willis O´Brien and released November 17, 1918. It features the - at the time - pioneering technology of "stop motion animation" with five models of dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts. The main scene of this movie is also one of the most classic images of monster movies - a fierce battle between Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus. Unfortunately the producer Herbert M. Dawley, decided to re-cut the original movie from 30 minutes to less than 11 minutes, most of this material is today lost (however there exists a restored version with 19 minutes). Parts of the footage were reused in the movies "Along the Moonbeam Trail" (1920, a movie were dinosaurs live on moon) and the documentary "Mystery of Life" (1931).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Collapse !

"Anyone who thinks that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."
Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993), American economist

The plot of the movie "Rapa Nui" (1994) is based loosely on native legends and the hypothetical collapse of environment and society on the remote island of Easter Island. This scenario is based primarily on the discovery during an archaeology expedition prior to 1961 of unknown palm-like pollen in sediments of swamps and lakes of the island - which today lacks completely native shrubs and trees.
The movie does compress more than 1.000 years of history in just one and a half hour, presenting a fast and sudden collapse of a highly developed society. 

However the available geological and botanical data are not unequivocally, suggesting that the supposed demise was a more complex and gradual process (but as a matter of fact the movie Rapa Nui was a financial collapse). Archaeological data also do not support the proposed overpopulation-scenario, followed by wars and cannibalism.

The idea of demise of societies became popular with the book "Collapse - How societies choose to fail or survive" (2005) by American biologist Jared Diamond.  Here the story of Easter Island is given broad space as one of the most compelling examples of ecocide. Despite various inaccuracies and possible criticisable statements (also the book is today more than 5 years old) "Collapse" is nevertheless an intriguing read. Diamond proposes environmental and cultural factors determining the collapse of a society:

Natural Climate Change
 - Floods
 - Drought
 - Impact on environment
 - Environmental and climatic change
Overexploitation of natural resources
 - Energy
 - Food
 - Water
Habitat destruction
 - Deforestation
 - Soil erosion
 - Introduced species
 - Extinction of species
 -Hostility & Wars
 -  Education
 -  Mitigation
 -  Adaption
 - or Collapse.

The signs of the end of the world: Climate Change, Overpopulation, Pollution and giant mutant Snails.."The Last Days of Planet Earth" aka "Catastrophe 1999: The Prophecies of Nostradamus", Japanese movie from 1974 !

Based on the book by Diamond the National Geographic Channel (and after the supposed collapse in 2055) produced in 2010 "Collapse", a fictional excavation 200 years into the future of a once mighty global civilization:


DIAMOND, J. (2005): Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Press: 592

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Introduction to Schlockology

"…Schlockthropus or Schlock, considered by us scientists as the missing link, I believe it's the greatest scientific discovery of the last eight weeks."
Professor Shlibovitz, in "Schlock" (1973)

"Schlock" is a word of Yiddish origin meaning "something cheap, shoddy, or inferior", today it has became part of pop-culture: In art and movies it is sometimes used as a synonym for kitsch or at least cheap appearing results, in the field of science "schlock" refers to shoddy or unreliable results.

Schlockology is therefore here definied as the science of Schlock - the missing link between good science and bad pop-culture - especially movies.


"Schlock" is also a low-budget film from 1973 that mocks itself low-budget movies, especially the early monster movies and missing-link science fiction films, so popular since the fifties. Excavated by a scientist, the classic ape-man of the genus Schlockthropus goes after a beautiful girl, causing havoc and killing douchebags with bananas.
Schlock is one of the first crazy satire-films that will characterize the decade 1970-1980, one of the last and most popular today remembered as "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes". Apparently the production of this masterpiece was inspired by "Trog" (1970) - a movie with almost the same plot (in short: missing link goes nuts) and considered one of the worst B-movies ever to be existed on this planet.
With 20 million years Schlockthropus is surprisingly old, far older than today recognized human ancestors (almost 5 million years old), a missing link between haired apes and naked apes.

The "missing link" is still a popular term in all sorts of media (newspapers and movies) and especially 2009 was the year of the supposed missing link Darwinius masillae. The first image coming in mind when the word is used is that of a parade of monkeys, apes, a caveman and Homo sapiens, marching decisively from the left corner to the right corner.
The term was introduced in Charles Lyell's masterpiece "Elements of Geology" in 1851, but became popular by the connection to the human ancestors in the "Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man" (1863). Lyell was one of the first geologists to shift the origin of man deep into geologic time and based on fragmentary fossil remains and comparative anatomy the naturalists at the time considered human evolution as a sort of "scala naturae", the ladder of progress in geological time, ranging from the African apes to the Victorian gentleman.

Schlock.2. Pithecanthrophus alatus, considered an early relative to the Schlockthropus - oil painting (1894) by Prof. Gabriel von Max, a gift to the 60. birthday of Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel had proposed this hypothetical ancestor of modern man based on his studies of comparative anatomy.

Apart of hypothetical missing links based on anatomical studies of humans and other apes the fossil remains helped reconstruct the barbaric appearance of early humans. 
The fossil remains of Neanderthal man were discovered in 1856 and were important evidence to promote the ancestry of humankind, one of the most popular artistic reconstructions of this species became widely known in 1909.
Schlock.3. "The Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints: an accurate reconstruction of the prehistoric cave man whose skull was found in the Department of Correze." Reconstruction by Frantisek Kupka, published in the journal "L´Illustration" (1909), based on the work of Marcellin Boule on the Neandertal skeleton discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints (department Corr├Ęze in central France).

The Schlockthropus, as many other missing links in movies, follows with no doubt these classic reconstructions - a biped, hairy ape with the combination of a relative large cranial capacity  - you have to interact with the creature to make an interesting plot, but it must be stupid enough to be outsmarted - with the face and the jaw of a monkey.

However modern understanding of hominid fossils seriously undermines the notion that large brains were an ancient characteristic. The reconstruction with a large brain resembles also a bit to much modern humans, Australopithecus (3 million years old) would be a more realistic approach, a bipedal primate with a not to unusual cranial volume.


WENDT, H. (1971): Der Affe steht auf - Eine Bilddokumentation zur Vorgeschichte des Menschen. Rowohlt-Verlag: 288