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The weird Upside Down science behind ‘Stranger Things’

Luckily, there is no analog in our reality for the demogorgon, the Mindflayer or whatever new terrors lurk in season 3 of “Stranger Things,” which premieres on Netflix on Thursday. But there are plenty of connections on the popular show to real, weird science that happens every day.

Here’s a look at some of the parallels between the science we know and the science fiction of the Upside Down in “Stranger Things.”

Upside Down biology

The Upside Down isn’t the most hospitable place. It almost resembles something we might expect to find on another planet, which is fitting, considering it’s a mirror dimension of our own. But in this parallel universe, everything is, well, a little off.

“We know that, probably accidentally, an experiment opened a portal to a parallel reality,” said Marcelo Gleiser, professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. “We don’t know if it is alien or earthly, although clearly, it appears alien and very aggressive. One possibility is that the creatures came from a wormhole in space from another point in the galaxy. If we relax the idea of a ‘parallel universe’ and think more in terms of alternative life forms, then, yes, strange complex life like this one could be viable somewhere else in the galaxy. It has a fungal element to it, and it is invasive. For us, it looks like a very bad takeover by a fungus, a bit like the ‘Alien’ worm from the past, plus the ability to affect electricity.”

A kind of slimy growth seems to cover everything. Monsters without eyes, which have clearly evolved after generations without sunlight, roam freely, searching for prey so their faces can open up and consume them.

The demogorgon from season 1 and the smaller-scale “demodogs” from season 2 could be compared to some of the peculiar and slightly terrifying creatures found in some of the deepest parts of the ocean that have evolved to suit their environment. The pressure is intense, there is little oxygen or food, it’s extremely cold, and no sunlight reaches these places.

Down there are bioluminescent or transparent fish and seaworms, giant spider crabs, vampire squid and the famous anglerfish.

It’s also where microbes station themselves at deep-sea hot springs and vents, converting chemicals into the energy that the other creatures at these depths need to survive.

“The significant amounts of carbon these organisms produce daily provide an important source of food and energy for other organisms in the deep sea, where there’s generally a lot less carbon available,” said Stefan Sievert, a microbiologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and senior author of a 2018 study of the microbes.

And then there’s the slime. It seems to cover everything in the Upside Down. In fact, it’s not unlike slime molds.

The slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum can exist as individual cells that eat bacteria in the soil. But when food is harder to find, the cells come together to form a multicellular organism. They form trains and secrete a chemical to attract other cells called cAMP, according to a 2019 study at the University of Tokyo.

“Many people think you have to go to Mars to look for the fundamental rules of what makes life. But we can look at all the still-unexplored branches of the tree of life here on Earth. Slime mold gives us hints at what to look for to understand the mechanistic logics underlying more complex species,” said Satoshi Sawai from the University of Tokyo, an expert in biological physics.

A 2017 study put slime molds in a maze to reach food sources but disrupted their environment with light. Similar to the biology of the Upside Down, slime molds work to avoid light. In the maze, the slime mold was about to communicate through chemicals, reach the food and avoid light.

This chemical communication isn’t unique to slime molds. Plants also communicate with each other in times of drought and crowding, among other instances. A 2018 study of corn seedlings revealed that they secreted chemicals through their roots into the soil to let other plants know they were growing in a crowded area.

The demodogs act to protect the Mindflayer and the spreading of the Upside Down into our own world, roaming the tunnels to attack anyone causing harm, whether it be Hawkins Sheriff Jim Hopper or scientists armed with flamethrowers.

A 2014 study shed light on the phenomenon of ants who link their bodies to build rafts in the event of flooding, putting the queen in the middle of the raft to protect her. Their buoyancy means their mortality rate is low, but the position of some of the ants suggests that these soldiers, like the demodogs, may die protecting their queen.

It’s not unlike what happens when scientists start trying to burn away the invading roots and creeping vines of the Upside Down. While they emit a kind of scream, plants do this in a more silent way.

When the gate was opened between our world and the Upside Down in “Stranger Things,” it allowed new kinds of life to creep in and flourish, like the tunnels spreading beneath Hawkins in season 2.

It’s not unlike the kind of life that thrives after a mass extinction event. When an asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago, dinosaurs were wiped out. Birds and insects were also significantly affected, although they would thrive later.

Earth was largely inhospitable then because ash clouds blocked sunlight, cooling the planet and destroying plant life.

But lichens, made of fungi and algae that live together as symbiotic organisms, evolved to replace plants, according to a recent study published in Scientific Reports.

“We thought that lichens would be affected negatively, but in the three groups we looked at, they seized the chance and diversified rapidly,” said Jen-Pan Huang, study author and postdoctoral researcher at Academia Sinica in Taipei. “Some lichens grow sophisticated 3D structures like plant leaves, and these ones filled the niches of plants that died out.”

Mindflayer mind control

In season 2 of “Stranger Things,” Hawkins Middle School science teacher Scott Clarke shares the story of the most famous neuroscience patient, Phineas Gage.

In 1848, 25-year-old Gage worked as the foreman of a railroad crew. Explosive powder sent his tamping rod ripping through his left cheek, brain and skull. The rod was 43 inches long and weighed 13.25 pounds. Gage survived, losing his left eye and apparently his personality. As Clarke tells his students, he became known as “no longer Gage” by his friends. It was the first case to link brain trauma with a personality change.

The lesson connects well with the big bad creature of season 2 called the Mindflayer. The evil Mindflayer uses Will Byers as a “spy,” first using his eyes and ears and gradually taking over his brain until Will no longer knows his own identity.

The Mindflayer’s ultimate goal is to consume worlds, and it wants the one where Will and his friends live in Hawkins, Indiana, circa 1984. Although Eleven uses her powers to beat back the Mindflayer into its own dimension, the evil creature is seen lurking at the end of the season in the Upside Down.

In a lab on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, neuroscientist Eric Yttri is researching and teaching how the brain transforms thought into action.

In the lab, the assistant professor of biological sciences and his students teach mice how to play video games. Meanwhile, the researchers listen to thousands of neurons in the mice brains as they work together to orchestrate something like reaching to toggle a joystick left or right to receive a reward. This allows the researchers to understand how the neurons work together, subdivide jobs and translate the computations of neurons in the brain to resulting actions and behavior.

In the lab, they can also create a kind of mind control. It’s not unlike the way the Mindflayer controls Will.

“In neuroscience, we have a much less sinister but similar notion of that control,” Yttri said. “We can record neurons and essentially thoughts in the brain, read those out, decode them and then encode them into actions.”

This can be used to control a robotic arm through a computer and electrodes.

“But if we attach those electrodes to someone else’s arm, you can control it,” Yttri said.

It’s an experiment they do in class, causing someone’s hand to squeeze no matter how much they resist or command someone’s hand to open and close quickly.

A key part of improving the reading of neuron signals is understanding sensory feedback. Yttri compared it to picking up a glass: You don’t drop or crush it, but you can feel if it’s slipping or heavy. If the Mindflayer couldn’t know what Will was doing, seeing or feeling, it couldn’t control him as effectively.

“Will is just a robotic arm of the Mindflayer,” Yttri said.

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