Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Mission Control, July 7 2017.

It’s hot. I’ve danced in the sun throwing my head back, losing my hat. I’ve burnt my nose. I have an ice-cream and there are tents all round the edges of the field, they’re full of clever people giving talks. I’ll chose somewhere to sit and relax. There’s a talk on writing science fiction in one of them soon, it’s going to be excellent I think but I duck into the wide cool space of Mission Control first. Just to check it out. Mission Control is a big tent, the stage has three tall screens backing it and I find a seat.

On my seat is a pair of 3D glasses, one blue lens one red, you know? I put them on. Dr Sheena Cruickshank walks out onto the stage. The Doctor, it turns out, is already 3D. I take the glasses off. Pretty soon I regret clearing my vision. She’s talking about parasites, she has pictures. There’s one of Richard III that is particularly irritating, also one of him being dug out of that car park that I like better. Apparently even King Richy had parasites, decades of haunting pay-and-display signs hasn’t rid his moulding body of them. The Lindow Bog Man had parasites, Mummies in the Manchester Museum have ‘em, we should not be scared of parasites. I lick my icecream and nod, she’s interesting this professor-of-things-that-require-hosts-to-live.

So many films and stories take the inspiration from the parasitic world she tells us. The film Alien did, To Kill a Mocking Bird apparently full of parasite stuff, Alien 2. Wait, I think, I hated Alien. All of them. Every Alien film ever. Sitting in the most recent one I remember wishing that the Aliens would win so that human kind would be wiped out and could never make another Alien film. I think about leaving. But it’s hot out there, and this kid is sitting all engrossed between me and the exit. Holding his adults hand tightly but still staring the unbreakable stare of the fascinated at the Doctor. I take a deep breath, sit back. This now, in front of us, on the screen, this is not made up, not fiction. It’s real. And maybe because despite the Doctor having some slick power-point skills, images and clips of research all lined up, it lacks that shiny over scored Alien-film-aesthetic I slowly loose the urge to run out screaming. I learn stuff: The most common parasite on humans is the Demodex, it’s a face mite. Lives on all of our faces. They don’t live on the under 15 human though, the Doctor says no one knows why exactly. The kid looks sad. A good seven years he’ll have to wait to have a face mite.

He perks up when we get shown a parasitic wasp inject a cockroach with mind control venom and a wasp egg. The cockroach gets driven by the wasp into a safe little burrow and will just stand still and wash itself, because says the Doctor you wouldn’t want a dirty place for your eggs would you? And then baby-wasp hatches out of its body. The wasps are conveniently an iridescent green. Their blue lowlights at the wings contrast sharply with the cockroaches warm orange and brown. They photograph beautifully. Especially crawling out of each other’s nice clean exoskeletons.

Mind control is a thing with parasites apparently. Sea Monkeys (not a parasite or a monkey but a kind of shrimp) go bright pink when infected with this kind of tapeworm; the tapeworm also makes them shoal. Gives happy solitary Sea Monkeys the urge to get together in swarms. All so that flamingos can see them better and eat them and the tapeworms and breed. Worms are pretty much the worst ones we find out. There’s one, The Guardian Worm, that gets into crickets and then makes the cricket aqua-philic. Gives it the uncontrollable urge to leap into open water so the worm can burst out of the crickets body and mate while floating in open water. We watch a film clip of that. My ice-cream is long finished, its a good thing, I don’t think I could have kept eating through the next bit. We put on out 3D glasses and watch as the human gut opens up, filled with worms. We watch worm trails through intestines. In 3D. We see the topography of parasites.

The next one, toxoplasma gondii, infects all mammals (so us almost certainly) and scientists have discovered, it gives infected mice a strong attraction to infected cat piss. A sexual kind of attraction. There is controversial research the good Doctor tells us into how infected humans feel about infected cat piss. She doesn’t sound like it’s her bag but cheerfully goes on to tell us about Guinea Worms, the fiery serpents they think, from the bits of the bible. I realise I have completely missed the science fiction talk. I’m not sad they were almost certainly going to tell us about the importance of plausibility and being believable when making stuff up. No one, I think, has told these scientists that. At question time the kid, Mark Stupin, lets his adults hand go just long enough to grip a mike and ask “Are there any worms in Ireland?” He nearly falls off his chair with delight when she says yes.

I wander out into the sun with my 3D glasses still on. It’s warm out here and everything is tinted blue and red. I get the other kind of ice-cream from the other stand. The second one is better quality, richer, but the cones not so crisp. If you’re looking for a recommendation I’d say the red stand, on the east side was the one. I decide I’ve already stocked my nightmare bank to bursting, what can more science hurt? So I head back to Mission Control for Dr Andrew Siemion’s talk on the search for intelligent life beyond Earth. I keep the 3D glasses on.

Tessa Harris


  1. News – manchesterimmunologygroup - August 2017

    […] Sheena Cruickshank gave a talk at Bluedot on her work on parasites and also talked about the challenges of conquering space in a panel discussion with Tim O’Brien, Danielle George, Aravind Vijayaraghavan, Matthew Cobb and David Kirby at the festival. Her talk on parasites was also reviewed. […]