Matt Brady talks about THE SCIENCE OF RICK AND MORTY

I’ve known Matt Brady for years. We both worked at the Comic Buyer’s Guide in the 90s. When I was working at Silver Bullet Comicbooks he recruited me to come to Newsarama over AIM. (AIM was a big deal at the time). Matt left Newsarama and became a teacher but I will be forever grateful for my time working with Matt at Newsarama and the lessons he taught me. I was very excited to see Matt reenter the world of pop culture and couldn’t wait to see his new book. Matt was nice enough to stop by First Comics News and let our readers know all about The Science of Rick and Morty.

First Comics News: You are a teacher by trade, what grade and subjects do you teach?

Matt Brady: I teach high school physics and chemistry at a couple of different levels. Been doing that for about 11 years now, ever since I left

1st: Do your students know you are into comics and cartoons?

Matt: They do – I use a lot of pop culture examples in my classes, as examples of weird, made up, good, or extreme science, as well as problems for them to solve. My room has posters of the Flash, Star Wars, Black Panther, and Miles Morales, as well as logos from the ships and stations of The Expanse and a good number of action figures that find themselves as science props from time to time.

1st: How did you get into comics?

Matt: How do any of us, really? I started reading them when I was about 10, and have never stopped. There’s something about them that always resonated with me at different times in my life, whether just the coolness of superheroes or the moral ambiguity of the heroes of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, to the medium being used to tell so many different kinds of stories as the industry expanded and exploded over the last 20 or so years.

Series have come and series have gone from my “currently collecting” list over the decades, but there’s never been a time since childhood when I wasn’t a comics reader and fan.

1st: What is the difference between science fiction and scientific theories?

Matt: Scientific theory is something that is backed up by mountains of data and experimental results. Evolution is a scientific theory – that doesn’t mean it’s a “best guess” or “just an idea,” that means that there have been countless experiments and research done over the past 100+ years that have all pointed to the idea that the basic tenets of evolution – graduation adaptation to environmental stresses, speciation, and fitness for survival – all of those are the best explanation we have for how things are in reality. As new findings that can be supported come along, the theory is changed to include those new findings. That’s not wishy-washiness, that’s just how science works. Theories are explanations that are backed by evidence.

Science fiction is what the name says – fiction with a certain amount of science in it, either “hard science fiction,” where the universe and characters follow pretty hard and fast rules of physics, chemistry, cosmology, etc, and the problem often has a scientific solution or fiction that uses a lighter touch of science, anything from spaceships to time travel to mind-bending aliens.

The fun really starts though, when science fiction becomes scientific theory.

1st: Rick and Morty is a cartoon, is there any real science in the show?

Matt: Yes and no. The series gives a pretty fair shake to modern science, as well as bigger scientific ideas, but by and large, most of the science in Rick and Morty is fictional, perhaps with a toe in reality.

1st: Can we make animals smarter?

Matt: That depends on what you think of as “smarter.” If you’re thinking about something like making the apes from Planet of the Apes or something that turns an otherwise non-self-aware animal into a self-aware animal with whom we can communicate…that’s a “probably not.”

There are many animals that we think have intelligence that may, in fact, rival ours, based on the structure of their brains – things like elephants, gorillas, dolphins, and others…and you could say that they are “smart,” by virtue of their communication and behavior, but how do you compare a smart elephant with a smart human? One’s really, really good at being a human, the other is really, really good at being an elephant. That’s the difference that we come into with the idea of “uplifting” animals like Snuffles in Rick and Morty.

Research has put human astrocytes (a type of nerve cell) into rat brains, and the effect seemed to indicate that the added structural support that the human astrocytes provided helped the rats be…better rats. They weren’t building cities or making apps. They were able to run mazes faster and perhaps show some enhanced memory. But again, judging a “smart rat” is a tough call, since we’re not rats.

Long story short(er) – there are some lines of research that seem to suggest that we can enhance animal “intelligence” or cognitive function a little, but making them “smarter” will always be a tough judgment. Enhancing animal intelligence to the point where they can communicate telepathically and build mech suits…that’s a little far fetched.

1st: What is the difference between reality and perceived reality?

Matt: What we call “reality” is our own perceived reality. It’s the reality that we are able to perceive, given the tools with which we’ve got built-in and those that we have created. Take away our tools and we can’t “see” as much as we could otherwise, which affects our interpretation of reality.

Point a box at a larger box, push a button and the larger box starts showing you moving pictures. That smaller box is magic, right? Now look at the front of that smaller box – let’s call it a “remote” with a camera that can see infrared light, and push a button again. See that flashing signal? Clearly, there’s some information being sent to the larger box that we couldn’t see – or perceive – prior to using a tool. It’s a minor, minor example, but reality has changed a little with that knowledge. There’s a whole world out there of stuff we can’t see.

Bigger picture-wise, there may actually not be anything as an “objective reality,” since we all see it and experience it a little bit differently. But that has a book-worth of ideas and thoughts that could go with it.

1st: Are multiple timelines a real science thing?

Matt: In theory yes. Well, perhaps. According to something called the Many Worlds Interpretation, there are countless gazillions of other realities/timelines. Every moment has them branching out – think of them as multiple “roads not taken.” Travel down one of them, and Robert Frost exists as a physicist.

Proving that these alternate realities exist – that’s another thing altogether. There are some ideas about somehow…perhaps communicating with them – if they even exist, but most of the thoughts in that vein lie in science fiction.

1st: Can we control a cockroach’s brain?

Matt: We can hijack its nervous system, sure. Just put electrodes in through its antennae, or use really tiny needles to send electric signals into a chunk of its nervous system, and you can get it to behave in ways that you want it to.

When it comes down to it, we’re all running on electricity – if you can interrupt those signals and replace them with your own signals, in theory, you can control anything’s brain or nervous system. It’s just a matter of finesse.

1st: Rick Sanchez has created life, but is their life beyond Earth?

Matt: I’m hoping that we have a confirmation of some form of extraterrestrial life in my lifetime, and I think that’s pretty likely as long as we can get missions up and running to places like Europa and Enceladus, and maybe some rovers on Titan.

But when we find it in our own solar system, it’ll most likely be small – bacteria to small shrimp-sized perhaps. Europa and Enceladus both have liquid water under their ice – and that water is the key, at least as far as we know it, to having life. Wherever you find water, you’ll often find the rest of the ingredients for life.

Fingers crossed.

1st: What is the Great Filter Theory?

Matt: The Great Filter Theory is the idea that there’s something – or maybe multiple somethings – that has the potential for stopping life’s progress or preventing types of life from discovering one another. We’re looking at this from the standpoint of having “made it” in terms of being intelligent life, so just what these “filters” are is a little tough to discern. Going from prokaryotes (no cell nucleus or internal structures to speak of) to eukaryotes (which is what we are, with our sweet cell nucleus and other structures) is a huge leap in life’s progress. On earth, it took millions of years, and ultimately just came down to luck, really. Could that be a filter that some life forms just never get through? Are there microscopic aliens on Europa, for instance, that have been prokaryotes for millions of years longer than prokaryotes were the main life form on earth that just can’t catch that lucky break and become eukaryotes? Maybe.

Again, are we looking at this from a biased point of view? Have we made it through “filters” to be here now, or are there filters ahead of us? Does every intelligent life form face a time of a “filer” where they may annihilate themselves with the weapons they have created? Do all intelligent civilizations have a filter where they may destroy themselves because they’ve poisoned their environment, and only a set number of intelligent civilizations have managed to get through it?

1st: Can you have sex with an alien species and create a human/alien hybrid?

Matt: This got weird.

But mostly, no. On earth, one of the major stumbling blocks for different species breeding and creating hybrids is matching chromosome number. Eggs and sperm are sex cells, each has half the number of chromosomes in a normal cell. Add an egg and a sperm, and you have a full complement of chromosomes – half from mom, half from dad.

Hook up with a species with a different number of total chromosomes, and you’ve got a problem. Your sex cvell will have too many, or its will. That’s not the recipe for a baby. Uneven number of chromosomes = no bueno.

And that’s just the start in terms of genetic compatibility from what we know about it on earth. On earth. Try that dance with an alien life – all physical and physiological differences aside, and there’s a multitude of other issues and compatibilities that can go wrong. So very wrong.

Stop talking about having sex with aliens.

1st: Can you get an alien virus?

Matt: Maybe, but probably not. We didn’t know when we sent men to the Moon, which is why Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins had to remain in quarantine for about a month after touching back down on earth. All space missions have strict sterilization protocols as well – we don’t want to pollute the solar system (or beyond) with earth bacteria and viruses just as much as we don’t want space bacteria and viruses to pollute the earth.

Best case? You’re exposed to an alien virus and your immune system is more than enough to swoop in and save the day. Worst case? Your immune system doesn’t recognize the virus or your body’s natural defenses aren’t enough, or it attacks your system in new and novel ways, unlike any virus you could get on earth. You’re toast. Best bet – always wear your helmet and go through decontamination every time you come back in from outside.

1st: Is cloning possible?

Matt: Yep – but it’s not as easy as science fiction makes it looks. Some animals, like mice, are relatively easy. So are sheep and many other domesticated or agriculturally-important breeds. Primates – of which we include ourselves – are really tricky. Lots of problems from the get-go.

Not saying it will never happen, or…given China…it already has happened…maybe, but right now, we just don’t have the technology to make your own personal clone army.

1st: Does asking a scientific question about a cartoon instill a love of science in younger people?

Matt: I think it can – it shows a fantastic world, couched somewhat in science. If it gets some kids wanting to read more about the science of alternate realities or parallel worlds, that’s awesome. If it gets others thinking about biohacking and cloning, great! The key is making the science easily digestible and friendlier than a formal education setting, which Rick and Morty certainly is.

1st: Is the Rick and Morty show just a trick to get kids excited about scientific theory?

Matt: Not at all – it’s a show that’s made just to entertain. IF there’s some science in it, okay, but the creators of the series make no bones about it – they’re looking to make a funny cartoon.

As I said – if kids get interested in science, that’s gravy.

1st: Is the Science of Rick and Morty just a trick to make kids want to read a book about science and get smarter?

Matt: Of course.

1st: What makes the Science of Rick and Morty so cool no true fan should miss it?

Matt: I like to think it deepens your relationship with the show. It broadens things out. It makes you appreciate what’s left unsaid and the parts of the world that aren’t shown. I’m not saying you’ll never look at the show the same again, but at least you’ll look at it…differently, and hopefully with a little more appreciation.

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