Saturday, 15 February 2014

Dougal Dixon's Microplatia; part II

The previous post dealt with an unknown project by Dougal Dixon meant for the Science Museum, and today's post will deal with the rest of the project.

First, I must rectify something I wrote previously. The 'bones' of animals on Microplatia are very springy and tend to curve in one direction; they are curved the other way by muscles. On Earth, vertebrate and arthropod limbs with a joint with one direction of movement need muscles pulling the bone or segment one way and other muscles pulling the other way. On Microplatia here are just two elements: a bone curving one way and a muscle pulling it the other. The fact that such bones can bend poses interesting problems regarding their capacity to withstand compression, as you would not want to load a bent bone too much. Then again, quite

Anyway, I assumed that the tube slung under the fishing rods of the Walkingmouth would represent the muscle, but I was wrong. Dougal remarked:
"The 'muscle and spring' arrangement is not visible. The trunk-like organ below the 'fishing rod' is merely the gastric tract. All the musculature involved in casting out the 'fishing rod' is contained within the body of the beast. So the action involved is just like that of an angler casting his line. The 'muscle and spring' arrangement is better seen on the bubbles-on-stilts; I attach a sketch and the photo of the model (now alas lost to me)." 

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
Before we go on to 'bubbles-on-stilts' I will post the remaining sketches of the Walkingmouth. The one above shows some surface structures. I rather like the idea of a 'mother of pearl' type iridescence.  I have considered painting an animal with such a surface myself, but will need to study the visual appearance of mother of pearl in more detail before I can paint that in any believable manner. I wonder how the model makers charged with building model Walkingmouth for the Science Museum exhibition would have solved that problem. As far as I know there is no paint that gives that effect.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
Here is the next picture. It shows that the animal is equipped with three slug-like feet. This image is also the first to show the animal's eyes, placed on the front below the 'fishing rod/gastric tract' ensembles.  I will just call it a 'tackle' to save words.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
Moving on... literally, in a way, as this sketch shows how the tackle can move: it is interesting that the text says the bow is being 'cast'. I would expect it to be deployed slowly and deliberately, but the image of these five tackles flying out and being reeled in slowly is appealing and quite alien.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
Here is a mouth unit, of which the animal as a whole will have five. I think that the structures that look a bit like scimitars in their overall shape are examples of the 'bone/muscle assembly', with the bow forming one curved edge of the structure while the muscles fill the concave side. There seems to be a scraper on the underside of the mouth. I see four small 'limbs' near the mouth, two vertically and two horizontally, while further along there are two much larger limbs on each side. My guess is that four smaller ones are there to manipulate food into the mouth, and that the four large ones are the ones that actually walk the mouth over the ground. I wonder what types of food the Walkingmouth eats. If I am right in thinking that the lower 'jaw' is a scraper, its food might consist of animals secured to the substrate such as clams. Then again, plants need to be freed from the ground too. That's all I can show you of Walkingmouths.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
Another body plan resembles a Walkingmouth turned upside down: the bubbles-on-stilts. The sketch above shows a few; they remind me of Wells' Martian tripod walking engines because of their overall shape.   There are four here, which certainly helps to make their gait a lot easier to imagine than if there would have been three only. Then again, the order in which their legs move is probably the easiest thing to visualise as far as their legs are concerned. The nature of the 'curving bone plus muscle' arrangement is well visible here. Each walking legs apparently consists of a large proximal segment and a smaller distal segment curving the other way; we might as well call it a foot. The front view shows that the animals are quite narrow. That is not surprising at all; if you look closely at many large mammals, including elephants, you will find them to be quite narrow in relation to their other dimensions as well. The build of the legs must say something about the internal structure of the curving bones: their direction of bend depends on their own curvature and the muscles pulling on them, but they must be ery resistant to bending in other directions as I see no muscles controlling their curvatures in other directions than the front and aft one.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
Finally, here is a photograph of a bubble-on-stilt model. It shows the translucent carapace covering the body quite well, as well as the structure of the legs. The reddish parts of the legs have considerable size in the fore-and aft dimension, no doubt to provide leverage for the muscles.         

It is a pity the model was lost, and a greater pity that the exhibition, perhaps with an accompanying book, was not realised. There are not many projects on Speculative Biology that actually make it to the stage of a book of a television programme, so each one counts. I would have liked to see more of Microplatia, and am visualising a mother-of-pearl Walkingmouth in crystal-clear sea water, gobbling up pearly clams. I wonder which kind of animal in turns feeds on Walkingmouths...
a few vertebrate bones are not held vertically when loaded, and I see no reason that such bones could not be bent. As always it will depend on the mass to be carried relative to gravity.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

An unknown speculative biology project by Dougal Dixon: Microplatia I

I recently exchanged emails with various people involved in speculative biology, including Dougal Dixon, about a possible common project. This bit of knowledge might just make you a little bit curious, but I will not say more about it until we know that it will go through. That should be in a month or two, and if it does I will definitely write about it here. 

Anyway, Dougal mentioned that he had drawings and illustrations from a project on exobiology with the Science Museum in London. Unfortunately the project was abandoned when the sponsor decided to withdraw. Apparently there were models as well, but those got left with the animation house and are no longer available. Somehow I forgot to ask whether any actual animations were ever done.

Dougal Dixon does not need an introduction in a blog on speculative biology; you could say that he introduced speculative biology. He put two of the three major fields of speculative biology on the map: the first was future evolution in the book 'After Man (1981)', and the second was alternative evolution in the book 'The New Dinosaurs' (1988). I have seen some of the themes in those books referred to as clichés, and perhaps they are now, having been copied and paraphrased many times. But nothing is a cliché when done for the first time, and these books were full of novel ideas. Scientific American recognised that not long ago and published a slide show on his work: Dougal's 'alternative dinosaurs' were less alternative than anyone could have guessed in 1988. Subsequent dinosaur discoveries showed that actual dinosaurs had features very similar to Dougal's earlier fictional ones. Moreover, if it had not been for recalcitrant publishers, his book on the third field of speculative biology, 'fictional exobiology', would also have appeared long ago. As it is, you need to speak Japanese to read 'Greenworld', about which I wrote earlier here and here.   

Back to the aborted project; I was curious and asked whether he would mind sharing some of that material. He did not, and was kind enough to send me several images and an accompanying text. So here is his text on 'Microplatia' and three images. I shall be cruel and post the remaining five images later. 



As with the Earth, Microplatia’s structure consists of a core, mantle and crust. The core is very large and consequently the mantle is shallow. Tectonic plate movements take place on the surface as they do on Earth - expanding and shrinking oceans and moving the continents about in continental drift - but as the mantle is shallow, the convection currents are very small. This results in a large number of very small tectonic plates (Microplatia - geddit?) that move around quite quickly.

With small continents - mostly no more than island chains - and rapid tectonic movements, the surface conditions are dominated by what we would term “natural disasters”. Not a day goes by without earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of all sorts, geyser and hot pool activity, tsunamis and so on. The energy of these movements is what supplies the energy that is exploited by the life forms (like the life forms around the hot smokers in the depths of modern earth oceans).

Life forms

No magnetic field, and so nothing to block out dangerous solar radiation. Most animals protect themselves by wading in the shallow seas. Those permanently on land have developed sun-proof shells, or transparent body coverings making them look like jellyfish.

Plant life is protected by layers of translucent resin that solidifies and persists as glassy cities and towers even when the plants that produced them inside have died off. They act as greenhouses protecting a whole range of animal life beneath them. Frequent earthquakes bring them shattering down, and the shards are used as raw materials for the next generation.

Amongst the animals the walking limbs are not like ours - rigid bone with muscles on each side pulling one way and then the other. Instead the bone is springy and the muscles are only on one side - muscles pulling one way and the spring pulling the other. (There is precedent in our own zoology.)

Attached are the plans of two of the animal types developed for the project.

The first is the Walkingmouth. A big animal of coastal shallows. Spends most of its time with its body just under the water. Several mouths on the ends of long springy rods that are cast out like an angler’s fishing rod. Each mouth has a set of legs that allow it to go looking for food on the shoreline. The youngsters grow on the back, and are broken off and carried inland on tsunamis, surfing on the giant waves.

The second are Bubblesonstilts. These are land-living animals that forage on the slopes of the volcanoes."

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
Here is the planet. It looks like Dougal painted over an existing sphere to produce the map. I did exactly the same thing to produce an actual globe of Furaha, but never finished it: it became fairly boring to paint yet another mountain range.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
This shows the ancestry of  Walkingmouths and Bubblesonstilts. I wonder whether these names are temporary placeholders or were meant as the final names of these groups. I rather like the idea of starting with an ancestral pattern and developing your life forms from there. Personally I did it the other way round, and am paying for that: having given my beasties' evolution more thought, the poor creatures on my paintings find that their transformation into digital form is accompanied by a ruthless rearrangement of their anatomy.

Have a look at the animal's arms or branches: these consist of the elements Dougal described above:  a springy bone, labelled 'gristle' with muscles attached to it to pull it against the direction the gristle pulls in, which must be upwards. When I read the text I imagined that the two structures would be placed alongside one another, but there is a lot of space between them along most of their length.  That is best visible in the Walkingmouth sketch at the bottom.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
And this is a more detailed sketch of the Walkingmouth. The top view shows a rotund body with 'up to 5 mouths', and the side view shows just one of those mouths, or perhaps 'mouth limbs'. The gristle is now at the top, and forms a bow-like shape. What would be the string on a bow is defined as a 'trunk like gullet', with a 'mouth unit' at the end. These have there own 'legs', the details of which will be shown in another post.

That is a pretty radical departure of 'life as we know it', but there is more:  the youngsters on the back are described as the 'haploid phase'; there is another phase as well? 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Film with Furahan life in it on Dutch TV today!

A year ago I mentioned that Furaha appeared in the film 'How to describe a cloud' by David Verbeek. It did well, and now I am informed that it will be on television tonight. I have known that for a few days only and had no time to write about it earlier.

So, those of you with access to Dutch television can tune in to the 'Nederland 2' channel. The file starts after midnight at 00:20 hours, local time and is broadcast by the 'Boeddhistische Omroep Stichting'; that is -incorrectly spelled- Dutch for 'Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation'; I had no idea such a foundation existed, by the way.

The film is in Chinese, and I assume that it will be subtitled in Dutch (although the cinema version was subtitled in English).

This post will probably have the shortest half life of all my posts, many of which are still read and even commented upon five years after publication. Oh well, tomorrow I intend to publish something that may attract attention over a longer time period: it will be about an unknown and unpublished speculative biology project by Dougal Dixon.