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Scary Science: A Geek’s Guide To Halloween

From zombie plants to ghost particles, explore 13 thrills, chills and blood spills from real-world research.

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1. The bubonic plague-carrying giant gerbils of Kazakhstan (no, really)

Hand, flea and bacteria images from Public Health Image Library

When the Black Death swept across Europe in the fourteenth century, it inflicted an agonising death on tens of millions of people. But that could never happen now, could it? Bubonic plague’s a horror of the distant past, like smallpox or witch-hunting, right? Think again.

It’s still lurking out there, awaiting its chance to return. Where? Wild animals, and the US has seen a record number of new cases in people in 2015 – 15 so far, leaving four dead. The plague is passed on by fleas that have fed on infected critters, whether they’re rats, prairie dogs, ferrets or giant gerbils.

And it’s not just an American problem; the plague-causing bacteria Yersinia pestis has never disappeared from animals in the wilds of central Asia either, where it really kicked off back in the 1300s.

The redoubtable rodents of Kazakhstan live in giant interconnected burrow systems spread over vast distances, and form a reservoir of pestilence that’s near-impossible to wipe out.

But NERC-funded scientists have helped us understand how the disease spreads between gerbil groups, drawing on mathematical theories more often used to model subjects like how hot water percolates through coffee granules in an espresso machine. They’ve worked out why outbreaks sometimes fizzle out and sometimes spread hundreds of miles. Research like this should help keep the plague in check – if we’re lucky.

2. Plants can turn into zombies too

Images: John Innes Centre

It’s not just people or animals that can turn into the living dead. The picture below shows a normal plant on the left, and one that’s been zombiefied on the right. The attacker is a bacteria called phytoplasma, which is able to manipulate the way plants grow, causing infected plants to transform their pretty, virginal white flowers into leaf tissue – sterile and destined to only benefit the survival of the bacteria.

This is because the transformation makes the plant more attractive to insect leafhoppers for settlement, who like weary travellers taking a bed and a meal in Dracula’s castle, take up residence on the plants. After eating the infected zombie plant, the bacteria catches a ride in the insect’s saliva to the next plant they hop on to, starting the cycle all over again.

The research is funded by BBSRC and from labs at the John Innes Centre and Wageningen University.

3. Why are kids scared of funny things?

mwwile on Flickr / Via Flickr: mwwile

Children can be scared by more than ghosts and ghouls. Even an innocent flower can make them fearful, if they see others looking scared. Researchers funded by ESRC have explored how ‘vicarious learning’ – taking cues from others on how to react – influences children’s behaviour, such as believing that animals are disgusting and threatening after seeing an adult responding with disgust.

10% of the UK's 12 million children have a sense of low wellbeing, with anxiety being a major factor. A better understanding of how our reactions affect children might help prevent some fears from developing.

4. Bats, like vampires, sleep with their pals

Christopher Lee as classic Dracula. / Via en.wikipedia.org

As anyone that’s seen a good (or bad) vampire flick will know, they love to hang out with their fellow blood suckers, sometimes even sleeping in coffins in the same cellar or dark basement of Dracula’s castle.

As it turns out, real life bats are much the same. Although bats change where they sleep every few days, they nearly always roost with the same bunch of bats, forming tight-knit social groups with exclusive membership.

The research funded by NERC looked at around 400 Daubenton's and Natterer's bats in the UK, and was led by Dr Tom August who studied the bats as part of his PhD at the University of Exeter.

In other countries, certain bats are natural reservoirs of all-too-real flesh-rotting diseases such as Ebola. By getting a better understanding of how individual bats interact with each other, researchers are can learn how diseases might spread from bats to other hosts and ultimately onto humans.

5. Dear Esther: the science of scary storytelling

View this video on YouTube

youtube.com / Via Robert Briscoe's YouTube channel

Everyone loves a good ghost story. People like scary computer games too, like ‘The Last of Us’, that blend action, fear and a gripping narrative. But what makes them so appealing?

To research storytelling, Dr Dan Pinchbeck at the University of Portsmouth created what he calls “an interactive ghost story” called Dear Esther, where much of the game experience was stripped away to bring a creepy story to the fore.

The player takes control of a mystery character wading onto the shore of an uninhabited Scottish island. Three intertwining stories involving a Scandinavian hermit, a syphilitic 18th century explorer with a laudanum habit and a possibly drunk pharmaceutical salesman are revealed through fragments of letters to Esther read by a narrator, triggered as the player passes over particular locations.

Funded by AHRC, the award-winning game was deconstructed by rabid fans online and raised questions as to whether it was really a game or a dark “virtual art installation”. The author states this type of creative research should be repeated so universities can have a more meaningful dialogue with the multi-billion pound gaming industry.

6. Fangtastic restorative red stuff

Blood footage from Science Photo Library / Via sciencephoto.com

It’s every vampire’s worst nightmare – running out of blood. But what if it were possible to make your own?

Count Dracula and his undead friends could soon owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Rob Thomas, from Loughborough University, who is developing tools to manufacture large quantities of medically valuable cells from umbilical cord blood.

Thomas, an EPSRC Early Career Fellow, says umbilical cord blood contains immature cells with powerful properties to repair the human body. “It is effective, or being trialled, to treat many serious conditions such as childhood blood cancers, organ failure, childhood brain damage and diabetes. Cord blood cells could also potentially generate large numbers of high value red blood cells or platelets for transfusion, or immune system cells for immunotherapies.”

Bloody brilliant restorative powers that could make Dr Frankenstein jealous.

7. Head transplant, anyone?

Xiaoping Ren/WSJ / Via independent.co.uk

There’s nothing more Frankenstein’s monster than transplants. But first things first: why do folk continue to refer to ‘head transplants’? Who wants another person’s head?! You’d be, like, a completely different person! It’s a body transplant you want – your head onto someone who’s suffered an unfortunate but unmessy death: an athlete in their prime, or someone who was slated to go to the moon tomorrow, or an early twentysomething billionaire.

Ghastly as it sounds (and it is), it’s coming closer according to some scientists. The head transplant procedure has been completed in over 1000 mice and watched by journalists from the Wall Street Journal, who saw the animals move, breathe and drink before dying after a few minutes. Now doctor Xiaoping Ren wants to perform the operation on primates as a rehearsal for a human.

Reports say Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old Russian man who suffers from a rare and severe form of spinal muscular atrophy (Werdnig-Hoffman disease) is willing to undergo the operation, which is planned in China in late 2017. (Where the donor body will come from is anyone’s guess.)

In other transplant news, by now the world’s first penis transplant man should be a father.

8. Post-funeral decomposition

Life and death, all around us. Image: Paul Hopwood/University of Exeter / Via planetearth.nerc.ac.uk

This is what will be happening our bodies six feet underground when we’ve left this life and entered the underworld. It’s pretty gross, eh?

This is an award-winning picture shows two flesh-eating burying beetles standing on a mouse carcass, the male feeding his own offspring while the female tears into the flesh of the dead animal. Plus maggots and whatever else you can spot.

What, you’re not looking anymore? (Let’s move on).

9. Why are we more scared when we’re children?

View this video on YouTube

youtube.com / Via youtube.com

When we’re little kiddies almost anything from clowns to your big brother telling you the world is going to end tomorrow can freak us out. Ok, clowns are scary all the time, but in general as we age it takes more to get the fear factor flowing. Why?

Whilst investigating how our brain functions change as we age, researchers may have stumbled across the answer – distraction. As a part of a suite of experiments, scientists at the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) showed 218 subjects aged 18-88 a scary thriller by master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, called ‘Bang! You’re Dead’, where a child could accidentally shoot someone dead at any moment (see 02:48 video above to watch the research in action) while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure their brain activity.

Younger subjects’ brains showed similar responses at similar points in the programme. But in older people this similarity tended to disappear – their thought processes became more idiosyncratic, possibly because they were more distracted. The BBSRC-funded research suggests our ability to respond to everyday events differs with age, most likely due to altered patterns of attention.

10. Digging up bodies: secrets of Stonehenge skeletons

Skeleton remains of an ancient archer dug up at Stonehenge. Image: Pasicles / Via commons.wikimedia.org

Depending on who you ask, there are more uses, functions and histories of mega Mesolithic monument Stonehenge than there are bones in the human body: astronomical calendar; seat of great gatherings and fertility enhancer to name a few.

Fortunately, everyone agrees that the place was once used as a burial site; mostly likely for the more well-to-do higher castes of ancient Britain.

British archaeologists funded by AHRC analysed the remains of 63 bodies buried around Stonehenge. They concluded that the first monument – a large circular enclosure built 500 years before the Stonehenge we know today – was originally a graveyard for a community of elite families who were buried over a period of more than 200 years. Over 80,000 animal bones have also been found on site, making it the site of vast communal feasts and mass animal slaughter.

The findings were revealed in the Channel 4 TV programme The Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons.

11. Brain-in-a-jar

Researcher Patrick Brundell’s brain-in-a-jar photograph was a winning entry in EPSRC’s 2014/15 Science Photo Competition. Image: Patrick Brundell / Via epsrc.ac.uk

Are you scared yet? Scientists from the University of Nottingham’s Thrill Laboratory have publicly broadcast an experiment created to reveal the effect of horror films on the human brain.

A victim’s real-time neurological data was monitored, interpreted, and streamed online for viewer interaction at home. Data was also projected for the cinema audience, and used to animate a brain-in-a-jar (pictured).

The technology platform is massively scalable, enabling audiences to engage with data either locally or distributed worldwide over the web.

The research team say the technology has a wide range of potential applications across the creative industries, including multimedia TV broadcast and thrill rides.

The research was funded by the RCUK Digital Economy Research programme, led by EPSRC.

12. I ain’t afraid of no ghost (particle)

SNO detector under construction. Credit: SNO / Via sno.phy.queensu.ca

Neutrinos are nature's 'ghost particles' – so elusive that the physicists searching for them have to build their detectors in spooky locations such as abandoned mines and under the Antarctic ice.

These ghost particles are everywhere. They hurtle through the Earth at almost the speed of light, from all directions, all of the time. In the last second, about 100 trillion neutrinos have passed through your body.

If that's not enough to make you shiver, consider this: although the Standard Model of particle physics tells us that neutrinos come in three 'flavours' (electron, muon and tau), it seems that these particles are actually masters of disguise – appearing and disappearing like spectres as they change their flavour.

Scientists know that they change their flavour thanks to measurements of solar neutrinos made by the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO, pictured) in Canada. This discovery won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics (together with the discovery of neutrino mass by the Super Kamiokande experiment). A group of physicists at the University of Oxford played a very big role in this, and still have goosebumps from their experience (though that could be from the cold Canadian winters).

Neutrinos are proving reluctant to give up their secrets, but with funding from STFC the mystery particle hunters are already working on the next generation of detectors – they ain't 'fraid of no ghosts!

13. Lightning force – 21st century style

Powering up life: if only it were so cute and simple. Image: Matthias Weinberger by CC 2.0 / Via Flickr: 51035610542@N01

You’ve raided the graves, assembled the body parts and improved your sewing skills. But, as Victor Frankenstein knew all too well, this work would come to nothing without a devastating power source to bring your new creation to life.

Victor had a castle and shares in a giant kite factory, so harnessing a lightning bolt wasn’t a problem. But what if you don’t own a 75-room castle in Bavaria?

Fortunately, a team of physicists at Sussex and Southampton universities have invented a powerful new microchip capable of holding the voltage equivalent to a micron-scale bolt of lightning – tiny, but equivalent in force if confined to a small space.

Sadly, the team who were funded by EPSRC and the European Commission, have no plans to use the technology to create a race of microscale monsters. Instead, they say the lightning chips could be the key for developing next-generation, super-fast quantum computers.

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