Coma studies and jungle madness

"Days of Our Lives" was paving the way for science long before real-life eggheads had figured anything out.

Published June 7, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

In the form of elementary particles, black holes and other such nerdy delights, science in fiction has long been the province of Trekkers, computer programmers and clerks in secondhand-book stores. Indeed, much has been made of "The Real Science Behind the X-Files" and "The Physics of Star Trek," but the relative movement of time, just like sands through the hourglass, is a concept familiar to anyone who has watched "Days of Our Lives." Spurning the showoffy special effects and spaceship sets of other shows, "Days" does relativity on a domestic scale: Small misunderstandings last an eternity, pregnancies come to term in weeks and marriages evaporate faster than you can say "I made sweet love to the best man's twin brother the night before our wedding."

But gently flicking at the boundaries of space and time is child's play for "DOOL," which prefers psychosurgery to particle physics. In fact, the show sits firmly on the cutting edge of 21st century scientific research -- long before the completed draft of the human genome heralded the new sexiness of the biological sciences, "Days" was swapping brains, transplanting memories and shuffling identities galore. It was Stephen Hawking, clearly a "DOOL" fan, who said, "Today's science fiction is often tomorrow's science fact." Thus, here follows a brief guide to the real science facts behind the 35-year-old serial and its answers to some of the most important scientific questions of our day.


What is the one essential ingredient of any true scientific endeavor? The dodgy guy in the white coat: Los Alamos had Robert Oppenheimer, Celera has Craig Venter and "Days" has Dr. Rolf. With such crazy, bastardized vowels that he seems to come from eastern Europe (the entire geographical east of Europe, unfettered by national or linguistic boundaries), Rolf is a scientist's scientist. As comfortable with biotechnology as with psychotherapy, Rolf will operate on you as soon as he looks at you, and if necessary, he'll shoot you, too. Taking his orders from "DOOL's" crime boss, Stefano Dimera (a Svengali's Svengali), Rolf sails effortlessly from one experiment to another in the neurological wonderland that is Salem. His high-tech lab is impressively packed to the rafters with computer banks that look a little like stacks of stereo amplifiers.


What will happen when human cloning gets off the ground? Months ago, the New York Times published photographic evidence of the dangerous side effects of this process. An obese mouse clone was pictured alongside its normal-size progenitor. Why was the clone obese? Scientists still don't know. But before the mouse was cloned, "Days" had us prepared. In addition to three kinds of Hope, two John Blacks, a couple of Marlena Evanses (Black's wife) and two Romans (Marlena's ex-husband), the show featured four versions of Kristen, Dimera's daughter. The beautiful Kristen's carbon copies varied just as inexplicably as the mouse's: One was a nun with buck teeth and another a gormless bumpkin.


What about the social consequences of unconstrained body/brain swapping? They're not pretty. Witness Bo Brady, the man who mistook his wife (Hope) for her clone (Princess Gina). Apart from a few physical (a small birthmark) and behavioral features (narrowing of her eyes, trying to kill her son), there was little to distinguish Hope the housewife from Gina the dashing art forger and seductress. Over the course of many years (time is relative), Princess Gina masqueraded as Hope. Hope, once thought lost, was found. Hope masqueraded as Gina. Gina eventually died. And Dr. Rolf made Hope think she was Gina by inserting the princess's memories into Hope's mind.

John Black, another character similarly manipulated by Rolf, alternates between experiencing flashbacks to a former personality as a brutal commando and his current life as a man who experiences flashbacks to his former personality as a brutal commando. You don't need to watch more than five minutes of Black and his surgically enhanced nostrils (all the better for flaring at you) to know that brain swapping is a bad idea.


What is the future of cybernetics and nanotechnology? Recently, biological computer chips were developed in the real world for livestock. The chips are used to identify the animals, detect the presence of disease and record other biological changes. Take this just a few steps further, and you're back on "Days," where Rolf developed a microchip to be inserted into the head of character Vivian Alamain. Building it so perfectly that the chip docked seamlessly with Vivian's neurons, Rolf was able to control Vivian's moods. With the flick of a switch, he swung her emotional pendulum back and forth from manic through to depressive, hitting all points in between, including sad, happy, kooky, crazy and wacko. Cheaper than Prozac, it may not be long before the technology is available from a surgeon near you, your family, your illegitimate children and their lovers, who are also their cousins.


Are viral diseases increasing in number and virulence? Yes. "Days" foresaw these uncertain times during which epidemics like foot-and-mouth, West Nile virus and even bubonic plague threaten. The show faced down the threat in the form of an insidious pathogen, "jungle madness." Found in the swamps of the jungle, the bacteria responsible for this disease are not exactly airborne -- they just sort of hang in the air, like an oppressive mood. Jungle madness can be transmitted to humans via liquid, and once the liquid is consumed, the incubation period is about one or two seconds. Symptoms include swollen glands, blurred vision, fever and barking mad behavior. Jungle madness is 100 percent fatal, unless you drink the antidote made from rare orchids, in which case it is zero percent fatal.


What is the future of brain trauma medicine? Poorly understood in the medical community, comas are frequently regarded as a bad thing. Indeed, it's not often that real-world patients awake from comas and go on to a full recovery. But on "Days," a show that is a pioneer in coma and paralysis studies, virtually every character has surrendered consciousness at one point or other, some more than once, only to awake refreshed and, crucially, more attractive and much slimmer. Along with the curative powers of amnesia, "Days" shows how comas can help you avoid painful realities, like the fact that your husband is sleeping with your sister.

Seeking not just to distract primary caregivers and freelance writers, "Days" pushes back the boundaries of science like no other soap opera has dared to do. Does it deserve a Nobel? Or just a daytime Emmy? The answer is logical, as logical as this classic "Days" teaser: "If his father's father slept with my father's son, then who am I?"

By Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is an Australian writer who lives in New York City.

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