I’m thinking that if I had it to do over again, I might be a Science Man. Because it is becoming increasingly clear to me that Science Men get paid money to do Fun Things.
Adamatzky is something of an aficionado of slime mould; previously, he had employed the creatures to solve a geometry problem usually approached via complex computing: “finding the many-sided shape that encompasses a number of points—called the ‘concave hull’.” Slime moulds have also been used to navigate mazes, including one that reproduced the Tokyo subway system, and to mimic “logic gates,” the foundation of computers. At this fascinating link, slime moulds can be perceived forming, in a virtual United States, a more efficient interstate highway system than exists in the “real” one.
As I confessed here, I am a fan of slime mould myself. These are people neither fish nor fowl—not an animal, not a plant, previously misapprehended as fungi, now understood as, instead, “protists.”
Slime moulds wander all the world, where they feed on microorganisms that in turn feed on dead plant material. Like all protists, slime moulds are unicellular, or multicellular without specialized tissues. Meaning they don’t have what we understand as “brains,” or much of anything else.
For most of their lives, slime moulds behave Normally. But when the food supply runs low, they release signal molecules that allow them to find one another, and then they group together in swarms, sometimes creating a tiny, multicellular, coordinated, slug-like creature, that crawls like an animal to an open, sunny place, and there grows into what the Science Men call “a fruiting body,” releasing spores. A picture of one a slime mould conglomeration, going after beer, can be seen above.
With such photographic evidence, baldly exposing the slime mould’s brazen predilection for alcohol, it is not surprising that Science Man Adamatzky, once he had completed his Study, concluded that slime mould will, when give the choice, prefer drugs, rather than food.
Science Man Adamatzky had previously fed his slime moulds on oats and honey, to encourage them to get up and go after geometry problems. But, alas, such foodstuffs sometimes proved not enough to spur his protists on.
“For some tasks, oats and honey are not enough,” he told BBC News. “We cannot approximate the concave hull using only attractants. So, last November I was trying to find what would be an ideal substance which can play the role of a long-distance attractant and short-distance repellent.”
Adamatzky knew from previous studies “that it was clear that nutritional value of a substance is not a prerequisite for its chemo-attractant effectiveness.” So, puckishly, he decided to try on his slime moulds “the herbal tablets Nytol, Klams Sleep and Kalms Tablets.”
Given a choice between these sedatives, and their previous diet of oats and honey, the slime moulds ran right off from the latter, in favor of the former.
“I became curious why Physarum becomes so mad about these tablets – it ignores vitamin pills completely,” [Adamatzky] said. “So I tested all active substances present in the tablets.”
When Adamatzky broke out the various ingredients from the herbal tablets—passion flower, wild lettuce, hops, and the like—he discovered that slime moulds were taken most with valerian root.
Why does this not surprise me. I eat the stuff myself. When I can get it away from the cats. Who, if a capsule happens to stray from the bottle, will carry it off, devour the contents, and thereby achieve, for a time, bliss.
Adamatzky, who roams in the realm of “unconventional computing,” cheerfully admits that these experiments “were nothing more than pursuing his curiosity about the slime mould’s unusual tastes, though the outcome will help with future experiments exploiting its computational abilities.”
“We can now compute planar shapes, and therefore do more advanced procedures of image analysis with slime moulds,” he said. “Also, using these herbal tablets we can attract slime moulds and keep them ‘concentrated’ in a local domain of space.”