Monday, February 21, 2011

Mad Science Monday, 2/21/2011

Sometime around the time it came out in 1996, I saw Project Grizzly, the documentary about Canadian inventor and awesomely crazy person Troy Hurtubise. Troy doesn't have a whole lot of scientific training, so he didn't immediately come to mind when I started Mad Science Monday... but I think he might really be a mad scientist (or at least a mad engineer with thoughts of mad science). I can't remember the exact quote, but he has a monologue in the doc about how his suit will let NASA study hibernating bears, which they can't do because the bears might wake up and rip the researchers to shreds. That argument made all of the madness he expresses in the rest of the doc, trying to build his bear-proof suit, seem worthwhile.

Today's research isn't as mad as Troy, but it enhances his madness (and has some mad applications of its own), so it fits the theme.

Mad Reference! "Hibernation in Black Bears: Independence of Metabolic Suppression from Body Temperature." Øivind Tøien, John Blake, Dale M. Edgar, Dennis A. Grahn, H. Craig Heller, and Brian M. Barnes. Science 18 February 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6019 pp. 906-909 (via National Geographic). That might not sound all that mad, but the National Geographic title made it more sensational: "Hibernating Bears Keep Weirdly Warm." Yes, that sounds deliciously mad indeed!

Mad Background and Observations! When most things hibernate, their bodies get cold, sometimes really cold. For example, when frogs hibernate in cold climates, parts of their bodies freeze solid under the snow. Even hibernating mammals allow their body temperatures to drop several degrees during their torpor.

Mad Hypothesis! Bears hibernate, so presumably they get chilly like everything else that hibernates, right?

Mad Experiment! This was the part that made me think of Troy. Surely to test this, the scientist had to suit up in a Mark V Anti-Bear Super Suit and get lowered by a crane into a hibernating bear's cave, ready to quickly read a well-placed thermometer and bolt, right?

It turns out it's much simpler than that. The researchers rescued four "nuisance" bears, which presumably had been stealing picnic baskets and/or making bad movies, and were slated to be euthanized. They rigged the bears up with various sensors to record their vital statistics, and placed them in artificial dens to hibernate. And that's all. I'm beginning to think maybe Troy was making up the whole "NASA would love this thing" explanation for his suit (or I guess it's possible nobody had thought to do things this way, since they didn't know until now how cool bears got while hibernating).

They All Laughed, But! This is one of the (many) cases where disproving the hypothesis is what makes things interesting. While hibernating, these black bears held their temperature between 30 °C and 36 °C (86 °F to 97 °F). To put that in perspective, normal human body temperature is 37 °C (99 °F, or, if you insist on too many sig figs, 98.6 °F). If you snuggled up against a hibernating black bear, it wouldn't feel particularly chilly. That's a big difference from the frogcicles hibernating near their dens.

Mad Engineering Applications! Troy wasn't completely wrong that NASA would likely be interested in better understanding hibernation. Hibernation for long space voyages is a staple of science fiction, because it's a good way to avoid many of the problems of long space flight. However, significantly cooling (or even freezing) tissues presents other challenges. If we can figure out how the black bears do it, we might not have to protect the astronauts' bodies from freezer burn (although we would, of course, have to spend a lot of energy keeping them warm in the coldness of space). To the terrestrial mad engineer, this could be even more useful. Cooling your clone armies for storage could be very expensive, particularly if your lair is hidden inside a volcano. Using the black bear hibernation techniques, you might be able to simply fatten them up for storage, and then let them hibernate at non-freezing temperatures.

Have you seen any other useful research for clone army construction and storage? Let me know in the comments.