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Here is an interesting story from days gone by.  Back at the beginning of the 21st century, when there was a faint sense that things could be improved somewhat (a sentiment which has entirely vanished from the present moment) the world famous engineers of Mercedes Benz looked afresh at the animal world to see if they could find a way to maximize maneuverability, structural integrity, flow resistance, AND maximize space for a small fuel efficient car.  In the past such design exercises always centered around racing–and thus concentrated on sharks, falcons, and swordfish–animals which are fast and maneuverable but not really suited for carrying a little passenger cubicle.

The engineers of Stuttgart found an unexpected animal to mimic–the boxfish!  It turns out that boxfish are maneuverable, spacious, and tough but have an astonishingly low drag coefficient of 0.06 (as opposed to a swimming penguin which seems like the height of sleekness but has a drag coefficient of 0.19). Their amazing design capyured some of the sleek simple lines of the boxfish, while still keeping the functional practical aspects of a smart small hatchback (although the engineers could not figure out or incorporate the fish’s elegant heat-exchange mechanism (located in the tiny gill opening) nor could they utilize the creature’s three point tessellated scale plates (speaking of which, we need to talk about tessellation, if I can ever bring myself to look into the underlying math).

This car looks awesome to me, and I wish they had pursued the idea further. Probably some automobile executive informed the team that car companies are in the business of killing the world as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and so ended the quixotic project, but you never know, perhaps some boxfish elements will crop up again if and when autonomous super-efficient cars start to make their way onto the road (assuming that ever happens).

The Chimera

I have a special affection for the next monster on my list.  Of all of Echidna’s brood, the Chimera seems like the most fanciful: she was a mixed-up creature with three heads from completely different animals.  The Chimera had the body and head of a lioness, but a goat head protruded from her back, and she had a live snake instead of a tail. The Chimera breathed fire and haunted the volcanic mountains of Lycia.  Even in mythology, this was an improbable beast, and therefore, since classical times, writers and poets have called unbelievable fabrications “chimeras.”

Zoomorphs! The chimerical building toy

I am fond of the Chimera because I designed a line of toys, the Zoomorphs, which is a kind of do-it-yourself chimera kit.  The toy consists of a set of plastic animal parts which can be snapped together to make an actual creature like a Tyrannosaurus, a dog, a goldfish, or a parrot (to name only a few).  The user can also pop the different pieces together to make crazy fantasy creatures such as a dino-dog with parrot’s wings and a fish tail.  You can find them for sale at finer independent toy stores.  Here’s a link to the company site. Sorry for the shameless plug—but it was germane to the subject.  Anyway…back to mythology….

Like a surprising number of the monsters born of Echidna, the Chimera was slain for no good reason–thanks to a sequence of events which had nothing to do with her.  Bellerophon, prince of Corinth (and the grandson of wily Sisyphus) fled from his father’s court after committing murder.  He took refuge in Tiryns, where he was a favorite guest until the queen accused him of ravishing her.  The king of Tiryn sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law with a sealed note to kill the bearer (coincidentally, do such death warrants ever work properly in fiction?). The father-in-law also had qualms about murdering a guest, and so he dispatched Bellerophon on a suicide mission to kill the Chimera.  With assistance from Athena and Poseidon, Bellerophon tamed the magnificent winged horse Pegasus.  In order to deal with the Chimera’s fiery breath, Bellerophon attached a hunk of lead to a spear.  When the Chimera breathed on the lead the soft metal melted down the creature’s throat causing the poor animal to suffocate.

Bellerophon fighting the Chimera (watercolor by Walter Crane, 1895)

Bellerophon performed a few other heroic deeds and ultimately became king.  However the dark shadows in his character did not vanish with a crown. After a few years of increasingly tyrannical behavior, he resolved to fly Pegasus to Mount Olympos and join the gods as an equal.  Zeus sent a blowfly to sting the winged horse, and Bellerophon was thrown down into a thorn bush.  Maimed and blinded, he wondered Greece as a beggar, while former subjects pretended not to recognize him. The moral of the story is that Greek gods can tolerate murder, rape, chimeracide, and despotism, but woe to those guilty of hubris!  And thus does Bellerophon’s troubling story come to a stupid end.

Fortunately modern biologists do not agree with nonexistent gods (or their adherents) as to what constitutes hubris.  This is relevant because the creation and study of “chimeras” in biology has become widespread.  In the context of biology, a chimera is an organism (or a part of an organism) with tissues created from more than one distinctive sets of genetic information. Such an organism can come about through organ transplant, grafting, or genetic engineering.  Some chimerical organisms have a long history and are familiar–like grafted rose bushes or organ-transplant recipients.  Other chimeras, particularly those created by genetic tinkering, are rather more apt to stir up passion among the traditionally-minded.  For example, in 2003, Chinese biologists created an early stage embryo which combined rabbit and human parts. Bio-ethics and our transgenic future merit further writing, however splicing the genes of organisms together is about to become more frequent.  Why not join the wave of the future with some delightful, high-quality morphing toys!

You are not getting off this merry-go-round!

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