Overlooked: Alternate Realities

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Y’all, I need to be up-front about something. You probably shouldn’t watch this movie. I had vague memories of enjoying it as a young teenager, knew the science was absurd enough to provide plenty of material for this column, and will watch anything with David Duchovny. But it’s a terrible movie. The soundtrack includes a Powerman 5000 song. This song plays in the movie for over a full minute. Head & Shoulders shampoo is a key element to the plot. Orlando Jones spouts incessant, not even thinly veiled innuendo. David Duchovny, bless his heart, manages to look more like a jackass as a biology professor than he ever did as a skeptical FBI agent. And poor, poor Julianne Moore. You can’t help but wonder how she got roped into this. Maybe 2001 was just a different time. Consider yourselves warned.

Evolution begins as galactic debris crashes into Earth, nearly missing a wannabe fireman (Sean William Scott) practicing firefighting in the Arizona desert. Local geology professor Harry Block (Orlando Jones) heads to check out the crash site, as part of his duties as a representative of the United States Geological Survey. He brings along his colleague, biology professor Ira Kane (David Duchovny) “in case I actually have to do something scientific.” The duo collect samples from the meteorite, including a strange liquid that oozes out of cracks in the rock. Back at the university, Professor Kane puts samples under a microscope and sees single-celled organisms rapidly proliferating through simple cell division. Through some sort of movie science magic, he also learns that this unknown life form contains “ten base pairs” in its DNA.

“Their DNA has ten base pairs. The DNA of all life on earth has only four base pairs!”

The single-celled organisms rapidly evolve into multicellular organisms, then into many diverse lineages modeled after real terrestrial species, including insects, plants, amphibians, and primates. The United States Army gets involved. Julianne Moore shows up as the clumsy director of the Centers for Disease Control. Someone has the bright idea to blast the aliens with napalm (why not?) which somehow makes them all fuse together into one massive organism. Oops! Then, in a magical moment, Kane is inspired by a periodic table t-shirt and wonders if the nitrogen-based aliens are sensitive to selenium in the same way Earth’s carbon-based life is sensitive to arsenic (if that’s confusing, the movie version doesn’t explain it much better.) Two of Kane’s students, who happen to be the worst in the class, remember that selenium sulfide is the active ingredient in Head & Shoulders. This results in a scene with a fire truck full of dandruff shampoo, and Professor Block climbing the fire ladder to shove the spewing hose into an orifice, causing the alien to explode. That’s pretty much the end, minus an implied sex scene in a fire truck and a commercial for shampoo. Like I said, you don’t really want to watch this movie.

As you might imagine, I had some science gripes. Meteors (or meteorites) and other interplanetary flotsam can’t sustain cellular life, as far as we know. I watched this movie thinking I would address the misconceptions of evolution presented, but the movie gets it so wrong that any assessment would need to be as thorough as a semester long course on evolution. Let just say that the organisms as the product evolution at warp speed, purely via asexual reproduction makes my head spin it’s so wrong.  Instead, we can practice a little willing suspension of disbelief as we dive into some details about selenium toxicity.

The aliens of Evolution are nitrogen-based life forms. Though there’s no evidence that nitrogen-based creatures exist, hypotheses about extraterrestrial life suggest they may be based on nitrogen rather than carbon (other elements have also been nominated: arsenic, boron, phosphorous, etc.) Looking at the periodic table, Professor Kane notices that if you start at carbon and move down two compounds and over one, you reach arsenic, which is toxic to most organisms. Starting similarly with nitrogen then moving down two and over one, you hit selenium, hence his hypothesis that selenium can kill the aliens. Yes, it’s absurd. No, it doesn’t make sense from a chemistry perspective.

Selenium is also essential for many cellular functions of life as we know it. According to the National Institutes of Health, both selenium deficiency and excess can cause problems, though toxicity is rare. They do, however, warn against eating too many Brazil nuts, which are rich in selenium. In a particularly well-known case of selenium toxicity, twenty-one polo horses died from selenium overdose when a pharmacist accidentally added ten times the required amount to a vitamin mix. Oops.

Over the counter dandruff shampoos, like Head & Shoulders, contain around 1% selenium sulfide. Force-feeding gallons of shampoo could plausibly contain enough selenium sulfide to kill a horse, or a human, or even an alien, though it seems likely some other ingredient would be toxic in that quantity. While Professor Kane’s hypothesis was supported by his observations (the alien did explode), it is rooted in a misunderstanding of chemistry. He probably could have killed the alien by using an excess of any number of elements. Unfortunately, without a series of replicates and controls, there’s no way to see if the observation is repeatable. Looks like he and Professor Block will miss out on that Nobel Prize after all, but the Head & Shoulders endorsement should help supplement that adjunct professor salary.