TV/Netflix series review: Orphan Black



The five main clone characters all played by Tatiana Maslany (from left to right, top to bottom: Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima, and Rachel). Image from Wikipedia, fair use.

When it comes to biology, especially molecular biology,  TV and films usually show nonsense. One of the famous examples is King Kong – a case of 30 feet gorilla (impossible from the biophysics point of view, his bones would have shattered under the weight of the body). And the case of extreme interspecies romance based on very human male interest in buxom blondes. Rare examples of (sort of) plausible scenario include Jurassic Park – I saw an article in Nature about the plausibility of cloning mammoth. Surely, the dinosaurs can follow. NB Outbreak, which shows a few very real “how to”.Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction television series available on Netflix. I was very skeptical about it – its blurb talks about human cloning. I was surprised to find a very sober approach to the plot: a military program in human cloning in the 70th resulted in several identical women raised in different countries, mostly in the US. Well, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the US is the center of the world </sarcasm>.

The  10+ clones played by excellent Tatyana Maslyany, who is the main attraction of the series. There are no usual pseudoscience traps such as “cloning of soul” and “mind sharing”. The clones are biologically identical with underlying active character but have very different personalities depending on where and how they were raised – from a mad Ukrainian orphan Helena to a PhD in Experimental Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Cosima. The deadlocked PhD student is also a lesbian, while the rest of the clones are heterosexual.

The underlying science of human cloning is plausible. Even better, the contemporary science that the PhD engages with is good as well. For example, clones suffer from genetic abnormalities that is possible to repair using stem cells. Of course, there’s an inevitable conspiracy centered on biomedical companies but it would be a dull series without whodunit and action.

I liked not only biology and action but especially the post-Soviet connection. The Western science in the 20th century for all its glory also embraced biological explanation to human differences and proposed radical solutions such as eugenics. The racism was postulated, confirmed and reconfirmed.

In the meanwhile, Soviet biological science was a part of a huge experiment of molding a new Soviet person. Conceptually it was based on Pavlov’s experiments on conditioning, not Mendel‘s immutable genes. The Soviet ideology I was raised with believed that humans are products of their environment – you change the environment, you change the person. While the US was engaged in compulsory sterilization programmes for undesirables, the Soviets gave the ignorant free universal education and healthcare. While in the US black people were segregated on the basis of their inborn inferiority, Soviet Union declared the equality of races.

The traces of this eugenic and racist thinking are still there in the 21st century. Time and time again a few scientists, notably,  Nobel Prize winner,  James “DNA” Watson try to dust off racial and/or genetic inferiority theories. There’s also a recent trend to absolve people from responsibility on the basis of their genetic makeup – “my genes made me do it“. So it was very refreshing to see a pop-culture phenomenon that is subtly firmly in the “nurture plus nature” camp.

All five seasons of Orphan Balck are available on Netflix and I recommend to give it a go, it’s one of the best SF series of the decade.



Film Review: “What Happened to Monday”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,  this Netflix production flatters “Orphan Black”. Like in the Canadian TV series, one actress plays septuplets born in a world with “one family – one child” policy.  It’s thriller as well but considering the rate of siblings demise, I wondered how the authors going to sustain a series, not realising that’s a stand-alone “made for Netflix” movie.

The pace of “What Happened to Monday” is frantic but the story formulaic, nowhere near the depth of characters and ideas explored by “Orphan Black”.

The movie is a perfect illustration of New York Times article that is unsure if Netflix is capable of truly original production or will just copy what’s been done before.

Book review: “Family Trade” by Charles Stross

A readable parallel worlds fantasy/SF, despite an obvious plothole of a journalist turning into a competent assassin overnight.  A plausible description of industry journalism, a female protagonist, a romance with a tall blonde Roland.

Капиталистическое решение “проблемы Трудно быть богом“: не вывозить художников и учёных, погрязших в Средних Веках, а разработать экономическую программу замены оных веков на промышленную революцию через отдельно взятую компанию на основе изученного в Гарварде.

Picking a bone with cuttlefish



Common cuttlefish (Image by Magnefl via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

After ethical concerns excluded all vertebrates from the UK school experiments, the only animals to observe are invertebrates e.g. stick insects and snails.

We buy garden snails and students sketch them and feed them various foodstuffs. Apparently, snails like cucumber or bread and don’t like tomato or carrot. We also abandoned giving them sugar as one of the tutors swears that “snails crazy on a sugar rush”.

The same tutor had collected snails and decided to keep them until needed for experiments. She keeps them in an aquarium with moss on the floor and they are so happy that they have laid eggs. Snails need calcium to maintain their shells. My colleagues had a discussion about the best source of calcium – crashed egg shells or ‘cuttlefish bones’.


The upper side of cuttlebone – not a bone but a shell. It’s comparable to a length and width of your hand.  (Image by Mariko GODA via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Cuttlefish bones? I was surprised. Cuttlefish is a relative of octopus, a mollusk, it shouldn’t have bones. However, all mollusks used to have a shell made of calcium carbonate, it just been lost in snail evolution.  But they have a remnant inside their body called ‘cuttlebone’. I was even more surprised to learn that cuttlebone is not a useless atavism but its chambers are filled with gas and used for buoyancy.

See also: Wikipedia article about cuttlebone contains nice images made by industrial micro-computed tomography.


Nautilus. The ancestor of cuttlefish looked like it, notice the tentacles. (Image by  J. Baecker via Wikimedia Commons)

Literature:  Rexfort, A.; Mutterlose, J. (2006). “Stable isotope records from Sepia officinalis—a key to understanding the ecology of belemnites?”. Earth and Planetary Science Letters247 (3–4): 212–212.


Book review: “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari

homo_deusThe first book of the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind made The New York Times Best Seller list and won the National Library of China’s Wenjin Book Award for the best book published in 2014. It is a  panoramic view of the human history from a surprising angle. While the history taught in schools mostly tells it as a chain of events, Harari tried to look at the species development as a product of several revolutions – cognitive, agrarian, industrial.

The second book reiterates a few of the first book’s points and I think these are the best parts.  For example, did you know that in Babilon swathes of the country were owned by gods via temples?  Concerning history, Harari is on familiar ground. However, his attempts to continue the imaginary line of Homo sapiens development into the future is much less successful. He overpromises and underdelivers in the second book. Continue reading

19th Century Art on Medicine: “Homeopathy looks at the horrors of Allopathy”


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Homeopathy looks at the horrors of Allopathy, by Alexander Beideman (1857) (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

“Homeopathy looks at the horrors of Allopathy” — an allegorical painting by Russian artist Alexander Beideman, painted in 1857.

The allegorical image was created by Alexander Beydeman in Munich in 1857. According to the homeopath Nicholas Gabrilovich, the painting was commissioned by his father, Eugene Gabrilowitsch, who at that time studied in Munich.

“The positive pole of the scene” is located in the right part of the picture. In the background an allegory of soaring in the clouds Homeopathy. In front of her in a red cloak,  the god of medicine Aesculapius holding a symbol of medicine snake in the right hand. His left hand raised in anger and indignation. Behind him,  the goddess Athena who protects the sciences and shadowy Jupiter-like figure. At the right edge of the canvas is the German physician Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy. Goddess of Justice is holding a balance and flaming sword in the background. I can only guess who is the winged child with a flame on his head (god of light Apollo?) and I cannot even guess who is the half-hidden woman.

All gods and heroes look with disapproval and indignation at associated with allopathy (modern medicine) “negative pole,” located on the left side of the picture where doctors mistreat a patient. One of them is sawing off the patient’s  leg, two other filling an enormous spoon with the medicine intending to shove it into the patien’d moth. The third MD is prizing the patient’s mouth open to receive the medicine under duress. In the corner, black-clad doctors congregate.

In the foreground, a doctor attaches leeches to the patient lower arm and belly – a popular universal remedy and one of the very few medicines available to pre-modern conventional doctors. The figure of Death is waiting for patient’s demise in the doorway. Patient’s wife sobbing and crying children depicted in the lower left corner.


«The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus» (1771).

Let’s compare the picture with painted a century earlier Joseph Wright’s. Gone is the divine inspiration in form of light beam. It’s replaced by Roman gods and a saint – Homeopathy founder. Gone is the lonely, hermit-like figure of scientist replaced by the group of untrustworthy-looking black-clad group of men. Gone is the uplifting harmony of Enlightenment and it’s replaced by a black and white struggle.

“Homeopathy looks at the horrors of Allopathy” is a blatant propaganda via 19th-century medium – painting.

Note: I used my translation of Russian Wikipedia article by  Adavyd  as a starting point for this post. CC-BY-SA 4.0


  1.  DK (1 September 2016). Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. Dorling Kindersley Limited. pp. 107–110. ISBN 978-0-241-28715-6.
  2.  Государственная Третьяковская галерея — каталог собрания. 4: Живопись второй половины XIX века, книга 1, А—М. М.: Красная площадь. Я. В. БрукЛ. И. Иовлева. 2001. ISBN 5-900743-56-X.
  3.  Верещагина, Алла Глебовна (1958). “Александр Егорович Бейдеман” (Русское искусство: очерки о жизни и творчестве художников. Середина XIX века. ed.). Москва: Искусство. А. И. Леонов: 275—286.