The Japanese game designer and producer Satoshi Tajiri collected insects as a child – a hobby that would inform his greatest success. The Pokémon line of Nintendo video games, trading cards, comic books, and anime was inspired by the insects of Tajiri’s youth. The name Pokémon comes from “pocket monsters”. Pokémon hit the US in the late 90s and early 2000s. I was too old for it, but the one Pokémon character I knew was Pikachu.
That wasn’t an accident –the marketers chose Pikachu to be the face of the franchise. I didn’t realize it then, but Pikachu isn’t a character so much as a species or type of creature. There isn’t one Pikachu, there are many. Although he looks like a large rodent, Pikachu’s ephemeral nature and quick movements are more reminiscent of butterflies. Satoshi Tajiri’s butterfly collecting influenced the “electric type” of Pokemon creatures. Like butterflies, Pikachus metamorphosize. One website describes the creature as “It evolves from Pichu when leveled up with high happiness and evolves into Rauchu when exposed to a Thunderstone.” There must be some analogy with improvisers changing character on the fly in that, but that isn’t where I am going here.
Where I am going is the playfulness that Pikachu inspired in some research scientists
In 2008 biologists identified a previously unclassified protein in the human retina. You probably learned in high school biology that the body is made of cells, but there is plenty of extracellular stuff in the body including the tissue that makes the retina like a camera. This newly found protein plays a part in converting light to nerve signals that the brain can process. The scientists named the protein Pikachurin after Pikachu, because the protein acted so fast in response to stimuli.
The Pickachurin protein may help with visual acuity and the scientists expressed hope that the discovery could lead to treatments for the eye disease Retinis Pigmentosa. What I find fun is that the scientists could be so fanciful in naming a new protein – naming it after a video game character.
The 7 Things exercise improvisers often use to warm up is designed to get your mind running the thinking outside the box. If you were challenged to come up with a name for a new retina protein ex tempore, would you come up with anything as absurd as Pikachu? I wouldn’t, but here we see such inventiveness happening in the wild, outside of warm-up games.
A second example also comes from the field of biology. For a long time it was a mystery how embryos develop. How does a new cell in the growing embryo know how to become a hone cell or a muscle cell or a leg cell or a brain cell? This question is important in possible future stem cell therapies, too. How do you make the stem cells turn into what you want them to turn into?
Part of the answer lies in the discovery of the hedgehog signaling pathway, a complex series of chemical reactions that regulate morphogenesis. Why did they call it the “hedgehog” pathway? Because mutant embryos that develop when the scientists interrupt the pathway look spiky under a microscope and reminded researchers of a hedgehog.
That’s pretty brilliant-stupid right there, but there’s more. In mammals it turned out there are more than one hedgehog pathway. Scientists named the first two after real hedgehog species – the Desert Hedgehog native to North Africa and the Indian Hedgehog. There was no reason to give them these names other than the following the absurd pattern established by the initial “hedgehog” name.
Then a third hedgehog pathway was discovered. The scientific community could have continued their slightly absurd naming pattern of using species of hedgehogs. Instead, they elevated. This third pathway got the wonderfully goofy name Sonic Hedgehog.
The origins of this name were in another video game series – Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega platform. Sonic has become one of the most famous video game characters ever and recently celebrated his 20th anniversary.
The naming of a series of biochemical reactions and feedback loops after a blue video game character strikes me as representative of what we try to achieve on stage. It’s the synthesis of two different things from different fields of human endeavor. It’s bold and dumb and awesome all at the same time.
The Sonic Hedgehog pathway has been of great interest to cancer researchers, and if you have an appetite for scientific abstracts you can follow much of the cutting-edge cancer research in the Sonic Hedgehog pathway. This is evidence that a little fun doesn’t stop the important work of the world, and indeed, can make it better.