Weird Science or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Research by Nicholas Kaufmann

Today we’re excited to welcome Nicholas Kaufmann to Ink Heist with a guest post titled “Weird Science or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Research”. Nicholas talks about how he came to love the research process and the book that inspired him to write The Hungry Earththe first book in a series focusing on Medical Examiner Laura Powell, which is out now through Crossroads PressThe Hungry Earth is a pulse-pounding Horror novel with a terrifyingly plausible premise and puts a fresh spin on familiar tropes. We recently read it here at Ink Heist and to but it simply it was a BLAST to read!  You won’t get any spoilers from us, but there are a few gruesome scenes in here that will stick in our heads for quite awhile. And now, we turn things over to Nicholas so he can tell you about the inspiration for The Hungry Earth and hit you with some weird yet true science facts.

“Weird Science or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Research”

A Guest Post By Nicholas Kaufmann

I was never a good student in school. Report card after report card said the same thing: “Nick could really excel if only he would apply himself more.” However, like many a budding writer, I was often daydreaming in class when I should have been paying attention. I had a similar aversion to homework. My at-home time was my own, and who were these people to tell me I had to spend thirty minutes reading an algebra textbook when there was a new episode of ThunderCats on?

Looking back, I do wish I’d paid more attention in class, done my homework, and just generally applied myself more, as my teachers loved to say. Because the truth is, even though I was frequently bored in school, I love to learn new things. I suppose it just has to be the right sort of thing to keep my attention. Case in point: If you had told me back then—or hell, even just a couple of years ago—that I would become absolutely obsessed with weird science facts, I would never have believed you. After all, science was another one of those classes where I spent my time doodling in the margins of my notebook instead of concentrating on how many neurons are in an atom.

My new novel, The Hungry Earth, is the first in a new series that’s all about turning weird science facts into compelling fiction. But how did I go from being a less-than-model student to a science obsessive? You can thank (or blame) my agent, Richard Curtis. He recommended a book to me called Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake (which has to be the coolest name ever), and that book set me on the path to A) wanting to learn everything I could about the fascinating, creepy, and occasionally violent world of fungi, and B) using what I learned in my next novel. Never before had I been so excited about research. In fact, I’d say the research phase was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing The Hungry Earth.

What I discovered about the wild and weird world of mushrooms blew my mind. Here’s just a taste (pun intended).

At this point, many of us are familiar with the Ophiocordyceps fungus thanks to the popular video game The Last of Us, as well as M.R. Carey’s exceptional novel The Girl with All the Gifts. In case you’re not, this is the infamous “zombie ant” fungus, whose spores infect and manipulate ants in tropical forests. All it takes is a single spore, and in a matter of days, the fungus has spread through the ant’s body and taken complete control. It drugs the ant’s brain with psilocybin, a hallucinogenic drug that promotes a feeling of well-being, and compels the ant to climb up a tree or a plant to a spot where the light and humidity are just right. Then it forces the ant to clamp down with its pincers and root itself in place. The ant dies, and the fungus’s mushroom dramatically bursts out of its carcass to send out more spores to repeat the process. In this way, an entire colony of ants could be wiped out by just a single fungus.

But it gets weirder. The cordyceps has been zombifying its insect victims for at least forty-eight million years. After all that time, the ants have started to catch on. In some colonies, the ants can now detect when one of their own has been infected by the cordyceps spore, even before that ant has been fully taken over. When this happens, the ants will remove the infected one from the nest, carry it somewhere in the forest where it won’t be a threat to the colony anymore, and leave it there to die.

Then there’s the Massospora fungus, which uses cicadas to spread its spores in one of the most horrifying ways you can imagine. Cicadas spend seventeen years underground when they’re in their pre-adult form. When they finally burrow to the surface as adults, some of them encounter Massospora spores in the soil. These spores enter the cicadas’ bodies and flood their brains with psilocybin to keep them drugged, docile, and unaware of the horror that is about to befall them. As the fungus grows inside their bodies, it takes control of them from within. About a week after the cicada’s initial infection, things turn gruesome. The bottom half of the cicada falls off, including its genitals. In its place is a white plug of fungal spores, which the cicada proceeds to sprinkle on other cicadas in order to repeat the cycle of infection. (One scientist dubbed infected cicadas “flying salt shakers of death.”)

But it gets weirder. The Massospora forces adult male cicadas to try to mate with everything they encounter, whether it’s another cicada or not, whether it’s female or not, but since their genitalia are gone, all they can do is shake more deadly spores onto their unwilling partners.

The Lepiotaceae fungus takes a different approach to subjugating insects, in this case leafcutter ants. You can be forgiven for thinking leafcutter ants eat the leaves that they cut off of trees, but they don’t. They actually get their nutrients from drinking leaf sap. The leaves they bring back home to feed to the Lepiotaceae fungus that lives in the center of their nest. In return, the fungus acts as a renewable food source for the ant larvae. Basically, it allows a small part of itself be eaten in order to ensure that the larvae will grow up to continue feeding it, protecting it, and giving it shelter in their nests.

Scientists call this ant-fungus mutualism, a beneficial relationship that both the fungus and the ants get something out of it, but to me it sounds a lot more like the relationship between a god and its worshippers. The worshippers spend all day in the hot sun gathering offerings for their god in the form of leaves to eat, and in return their god allows a small portion of itself to be given to its congregation’s children as sustenance, a communion of sorts, ensuring these young ones grow up to continue the ritual.

But, once again, it gets weirder. Scientists discovered leafcutter ants can tell when the fungus doesn’t react positively to certain kinds of leaves and change up the menu accordingly. Just more proof, in my book, that these ants are actually the fungus’ servants. Are they willing, or are they being controlled by the fungus somehow? We don’t know yet, but neither option is all that comforting.

You can see how facts like these might turn a bored student into an avid enthusiast, not to mention light a fire in the imagination of a writer! It might make one wonder what would happen if, instead of a fungus dominating and manipulating insects, it decided to turn its attention to human beings. And so The Hungry Earth was born, and its genesis has sparked what I’m sure will be a lifelong fascination with weird science facts. After all, the world is full of wonders and terrors alike, many of which are beyond anything you or I can imagine.

I’ll leave you with one last extremely creepy fact. Even though fungi could not be less humanlike, the genetic composition of fungi is more similar to humans than to plants. We share certain proteins that plants don’t. Additionally, fungi breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, which is the opposite of what plants do, but the same as what animals like us do. Some think this is because fungi and animals shared a common ancestor once, back in the misty reaches of time, and although we belong to separate kingdoms, fungi and human beings are actually close relatives. Just something to think about the next time you throw some mushrooms into your sauté pan.

Nicholas Kaufmann is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated, Thriller Award-nominated, Shirley Jackson Award-nominated, and Dragon Award-nominated author of seven novels of horror and dark fantasy, including the The Hungry Earth, an Amazon and Barnes & Noble bestseller. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Interzone, and others. In addition to his own work, he has also written for such properties as Zombies vs. Robots, The Rocketeer, and Warhammer. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Visit his website at https://www.nicholaskaufmann.com, and learn more about The Hungry Earth at https://www.nicholaskaufmann.com/book/the-hungry-earth/.


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