Biologist, daughter take on fantasy with science


By Cecilia Morales
Enterprise correspondent

Missing the “Game of Thrones” dragons? Still yearn to step in Queen Daenerys Targaryen’s shoes and fly on the backs of beasts? You just might be able to after reading “How to Build a Dragon or Die Trying:: A Satirical Look at Cutting-Edge Science” by Paul Knoepfler and his daughter Julie Knoepfler. Fortunately, it does not require walking into a burning funeral pyre.

Written in a conversational and accessible style, the book details the steps of how somebody could go about building a dragon — and other creatures like unicorns — using the technology of today and the near future. A lot of inspiration was drawn from traits of existing animals.

“It was pretty cool as we were doing research to realize just how amazing certain real creatures there are,” Paul Knoepfler said. “Like there are certain beetles that — for lack of a better way of saying it — have these explosive, almost boiling-point farts that they send their predators … if the dragon doesn’t work to breathe fire, then we came up with some other idea of, like, it can shoot a bolt of electricity or something like that based on electric eels.”

Julie Knoepfler, left, and her UC Davis scientist dad, Paul Knoepfler, co-wrote a satirical guidebook with detailed instructions on how to build a dragon. They hope it will inspire creativity and an interest in science in readers.
Courtesy photo

As emphasized in the preface and first chapter though, the Knoepflers recognize the ethics of creating a new creature and, especially, the various dangers of a dragon experiment for the environment, its creator and society. With this comes an added satirical tone to ground readers and caution them from rushing the scientific process.

“Part of the reason we wrote the book was to parody science hype. So, we want people to get out of the book that you can’t use these new science techniques to do anything without realizing that there are consequences and that it’s somewhat unrealistic to have these huge goals,” Julie Knoepfler said.

Several acknowledgments of how things could go wrong every step of the way in creating a dragon were also incorporated, which isn’t something they originally thought they would spend much time on.

“I ended up giving a lot more thought to sort of an ‘off switch’ to … shut the dragon down or make it fall asleep” in the heat of the moment if the created dragon is out of control or some other problem arises, Paul Knoepfler said. “Or in the most extreme scenario, which would be really sad, is to have a kill switch where you actually end up having to kill the dragon. That’s something I hadn’t thought about as much. If you go to all this trouble and the dragon’s almost like a pet, then the idea that you might have to knock it off because of a problem was really interesting but kind of dark.”

After all, the book idea was based off a smaller-scale version that Julie Knoepfler did for a junior high science fair.

Before actually writing the book, the Knoepflers did a lot of planning and discussions, which were key to their finishing the book in about a year. They benefited by living together so they could conveniently bounce off ideas and encourage each other.

“We worked well together. I think my favorite part was just getting to do something so creative together,” Paul Knoepfler. “We both sometimes found it challenging to carve out the time for this project since I’m busy with work in my lab at UC Davis and Julie was busy with school.”

Since the idea of scientifically building a dragon is right up Knoepfler’s alley, as his cancer, developmental biology and stem-cell research uses genomic and gene editing technologies, he took care of a lot of the hard science explanations necessary for the book. His daughter, along with writing the mythology chapter (since that is a big interest of hers), acted as a “test reader” by helping edit her dad’s discourse to ensure it was palatable for a broad readership.

“Our hope is that it will inspire this diverse audience to get more into science and be creative, so we have a definite STEM educational outreach goal with the book,” Paul Knoepfler said. “At the same time, readers will learn about many new things including cutting edge technologies such as stem cells and CRISPR. We’re thinking for most people it’ll be an enjoyable fun read, too.”

If the section names under each chapter — like “Would it be good for dragons if we made them?” and “Dragon sex ed and parenting class” — are any indication, readers are sure to get hooked and experience the same excitement the Knoepflers had with their project.

“How to Build a Dragon or Die Trying” can be found on the World Scientific website. Be sure to look out for Julie’s favorite chapter tackling the fire-breathing aspect of dragons or Paul’s favorite section on creating other mythical creatures.

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