Friday, October 30, 2015

The Five Medical Mistakes in SF that this Doctor Finds Most Annoying by Ken Altabef

Please welcome Dr. Ken Altabef to The Qwillery with a post on medical mistakes in SF!

The Five Medical Mistakes in SF that this Doctor Finds Most Annoying

As a family practitioner/ObGyn for 25 years it always annoys me to see medical inaccuracies in stories and TV. I’m also a longstanding sf author, so I understand the challenge of balancing creativity and fact when crafting an entertaining story. But really, some mistakes are just too annoying to ignore…

1. Mr. Spock Can Not Exist

            As a lifelong Star Trek fan it pains me to write this but it’s true. There can be no such thing as interspecies children. In fact, that’s the definition of species – anything you can mate with and produce offspring is the same species as you. Anything you can’t mate with and produce offspring is another species. All dogs are the same species. Dogs can’t mate with cats.

            And humans can’t mate with Vulcans. Reproduction is a very exacting thing. In order for conception to occur both gametes (that’s the sperm and the egg) have to have the exact same number of chromosomes with the exact same types of genes in corresponding locations. If they don’t line up side by side, everything goes wrong. No fertilization.

            Vulcans aren’t just people with pointy ears and a comically stoic personality. Their entire physiology is different. Vulcans have different organs, a different muscle structure (which makes them stronger than us), faster metabolism, a telepathic brain, a bizarre method of reproduction and totally different blood. All of these traits are coded by genes. There’s just no way a Vulcan’s genes are going to line up next to a human’s. Look at it this way – a gorilla might be considered a hairy, mostly stupid alien. Humans and gorillas are about 98 percent identical on a genetic level and have all the same organs and basic structures. We can’t mate with them.

            On a more obvious level, Spock’s blood is an unsurmountable problem. Human organs certainly can’t use copper-based blood. Believe me, if you got a transfusion from Mr. Spock, your head would probably explode. Copper-based blood will only work for Vulcan organs, so Spock’s entire body has to be Vulcan. So how then is he half human? I guess a crazed geneticist might argue that human genes are all recessive to Vulcan genes. But in that case Spock would have only one copy of each active gene and be riddled with birth defects. There’s a reason why we have two copies of each gene.

            With Klingons it gets even worse. They have creepy magenta blood and every organ has a backup, including extra pairs of lungs, kidneys, an extra heart, different skeletal structure and even a secondary brain stem. These genes on a Klingon sperm all have to have direct counterparts in a human egg or it won’t work. B’Elana Torres and a whole host of mixed-species Star Trek characters can not exist. Sarek might have been amok for human girls and he can rub index fingers with Amanda all day long but they won’t get a child out of it.

2. Pheromones Stink

            There are no such things as human pheromones. There, I said it. I know this will be shocking to most sf fans. The idea of human pheromones has appeared, much to my annoyance, in so many sf books and movies it’s become one of those self-perpetuating fallacies. Writers keep reading about it, and knowing no better, keep writing about it. But they don’t exist.

            Pheromones are chemical markers used by nonverbal species (primarily insects) to communicate information. For example an ant comes across a particularly tasty bit of road kill and leaves a chemical trail (pheromones) to lead its friends to the booty. If it were you or I, we’d just tell our friends where to find it, or maybe leave a note or send a text. The grain of truth to the myth is that people do have a sense of smell and react to smells, but odors are just not the same thing as pheromones.

            I couldn’t possibly list all the ridiculous usages of pheromones in sf but now that I’ve mentioned it you’ll soon notice them popping up everywhere. There’s even a Marvel superhero based on this idea. Stacy X uses pheromones to make people love her or do whatever she wants. It can be argued that as a mutant she may have developed human pheromones and I wouldn’t argue with that, but the problem is the rest of the people she’s spraying these things at don’t have them and have no receptors for them. Her pheromones just won’t work on normal people.

3. Bonk Bonk On The Head

            This one isn’t specific to sf but is epidemic in TV and literature of all types, going all the way back to the pulp era. We’ve seen this so many times on TV everyone thinks it’s real. I’m talking about the notion that someone can be hit on the head and forget their own identity. This never happens in real life. It’s not even remotely possible. The grain of truth is that a knockout will cause you to forget the events of the few minutes preceding the hit, because the memories haven’t been set down in your brain yet. That’s not a case of forgetting so much as not remembering in the first place. But your identity is the last thing you could ever forget. You are reminded of your identity a million times every day – every time you look in the mirror, sign your name or even think about yourself. You are aware of who you are from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to sleep (and even while you are asleep and dreaming). There are rare cases where a person has blocked out their identity after a tremendous trauma, but it isn’t going to happen from a bonk on the head. Not ever. So all those people stumbling around at the beginning of sf and suspense stories seeking to unravel the mystery of their identity, or who’ve gone suddenly missing on soap operas, have got it all wrong. But if it does happen, the cure for this condition is equally ridiculous – another bonk on the head.

4. Needle in the Neck

            Lately I’m seeing this one a lot on TV. Some thug comes up behind our hero/heroine and jabs a syringe into his/her neck to knock them out. This makes me cringe, and not just because of the needle. It’s just crazy. I suppose they are injecting into the jugular vein, the big vein deep in the neck. Putting aside the fact that it would bleed like crazy, the idea that some goon could find the right spot in a sneak attack against a struggling opponent is beyond belief. As a doctor for a quarter century I couldn’t hit that vein on the fly in a million years. It’s not just finding the right spot; it’s also a matter of depth. The needle has to penetrate the vein and stop before passing out the other side. As anyone who’s ever had blood drawn can tell you, needles are inserted almost parallel to the vein. Any other angle and you’re likely to overshoot. But these untrained idiots jab the needle in perpendicular to the vein and gauge the depth exactly. And even worse, this whole procedure is completely unnecessary. Why not just use the old blackjack or chloroform? Stick a needle in this one, it’s done.

5. The Living Dead Living

            In the old days zombies were magical creatures – some voodoo priestess worked a spell and raised the dead to do her nefarious bidding. Scary. That was fine with me. But in recent years sf writers seem compelled to say that zombies are caused by a virus. I get it. Brings a fear of disease into it. And that could be scary too if it wasn’t so ridiculous. It’s interesting to note that in the granddaddy of the recent zombie era, Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, the beasties were reanimated by that old sf bogeyman “mysterious space radiation” and not a virus.

            Zombies on TV don’t need to eat or breathe, and have recently been seen to exist as decapitated heads kept underwater in fish tanks.

            This pseudo-scientific virus explanation falls flat. You see, viruses don’t work that way. Zombies still have a human body and muscles need oxygen in order to move (or electricity but that’s beside the point). I can get into the physiology of it and bore you silly but take my word for it muscles don’t work without a supply of oxygen. They can’t, except by magic. So zombies must be breathing in order to move their limbs around. Of course the oxygen has to get to the muscles from the lungs, so the heart must be pumping as well. And let me tell you folks, you can ask any doctor, if you’re breathing and your heart is beating – you’re alive. And it wouldn’t take a blow to the head to stop your heart or bleed you out. You’d just die from, well, whatever killed you in the first place.

            Bring back the Voodoo priestess please. A virus just can’t animate dead tissue. It’s like saying the onboard system on my car has a computer virus so now it runs without gasoline. Nope.


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