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Artist, Heather Oliver             

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The Storytelling of Science

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

“Who says that fictions only and false hair // Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?” — Jordan I, George Herbert

To Shape the Dark, SF antho about women scientists (cover: Eleni Tsami)

——

A little while ago, my friend Anil Menon commented on a Shashi Tharoor essay that discussed science versus religion. Among other interesting remarks, Anil made a statement that gave me significant pause: “Tharoor makes the mistake of posing religion as the great enemy of science. It isn’t. The great enemy of Science is Story. // When science marches in, stories march out. When fiction marches in, facts march out. When the enlightenment marches in, the enchantment marches out.”

I suspect that much of Anil’s argument hinges on the definition — is there a definitive one? — of story. The term story, of course, is derived from history. That, in its turn, is the latinized version of the hellenic istoría, which means both story and history (the hellenic word for fictional history, i. e. story, is mythistórema, which makes the fictional component explicit). Many definitions of story emphasize the fictional part. However, there’s one major definition that gives a wider, and in my view more accurate, interpretation: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”

Science, especially primary research, is a fascinating hybrid. At its best, it combines lucid dreaming (what I call “shaping the dark”), informed intuition honed by knowledge of previous iterations, the ability to recognize patterns, the strength to let go of a beloved notion if results disprove it, and the discipline to concurrently keep track of details and the big picture. One of science’s core kernels is how hypotheses are tested. [Parenthetical clarification: in scientific terminology, which in this instance differs from its lay equivalent, a theory is not hypothetical; hence, to give one example still pertinent in US politics and education, “the theory of evolution” is not up for validity debates, except in its finer points.]

But back to hypotheses — and vocations. People become scientists because they want to tell stories, preferably exciting, original ones; and once trained in their discipline they weave stories without cease — stories that attempt to explain how the universe and its inhabitants are made (they also explain why, unless someone insists on intelligent design or intent). Before the stories go into the testing crucible, they’re called hypotheses. Observations or measurements are done in the framework of a story at its hypothesis stage. If a story jibes with reality, it gets renamed to theory. To put it succinctly, science cannot be practiced without stories, without the call and response between story and world. The stories dictate what experiments/observations get done; the stories, to some extent, dictate what conclusions are drawn (and thereby can bias the venture, as all powerful stories do).

There are two differences between the stories of science and the stories of religion or folklore. One is that science stories constantly change as new facts come in (they share this plasticity with the protean retellings of folk tales, though not with religion stories which tend to petrify as dogma at some point during their development). The other is that science stories do try to hew to the truth(s) of the world, as much as bounded senses and instruments can achieve such a feat.

There are other important aspects of science related to story. One is aesthetics – making the story eloquent, incorporating once disparate elements into a coherent, compelling whole. The grand unified theory of forces, the periodic table, the genetic code, the expanding universe. These are all potent stories, even more so for being true. A related aspect is pride of craft – designing elegant experiments to shape and test these stories.

So far I’ve addressed science versus story. Now we come to enlightenment versus enchantment. Scientists are often accused of “making things dull” or “draining them of mystery” by explaining them. But, to my mind, such explanations trail immense, awesome beauty in their wakes. What is more evocative: stars as metal studs on a glass dome, or fiery engines that create elements which have made all lifeforms possible? Swallows hibernating under lake ice, or flying enormous distances guided by brain maps? Wherever scientists look, they always find beauty: the directing dances of honeybees; the vivid colors of transition element compounds, including the iron that turns our blood crimson; the intricate ideograms of equations and their descriptions of shapes found in galaxies, seashells, flower centers.

Scientific understanding does not strip away the mystery and grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more and more of them appear and come into focus. In the end these glimpses of the whole, not fame or riches, are the real reason why the scientists never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts of humanity’s starship, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn, the stars ignite and darken.

The hellenic word for “awe” is dhéos; its linguistic kinship to theos/deus/Zeus is obvious. Science fully retains one aspect of awe: the sense of wonder, of ever-changing stories with ever more stories to come, many far stranger than even the wildest fiction can invent. What science strips from awe is fear. Science tells us that the sun will rise tomorrow (for the next few billion years – after which it will evolve into a red giant and, Cronus-like, engulf the inner planets). We don’t need to rip war captives’ hearts out to ensure sunrise, nor do we need to burn humans and animals in wicker cages to ensure the return of spring. Science is like the sea:

“There is the sea, and who will drain it dry?
Precious as silver, inexhaustible, ever new,
It blooms the more we reap it. Our lives are based
On wealth untold; fortune has seen to that.”

— Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

Related Articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

Safe Exoticism, Part 1: Science

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

The Making of Stephen Hawking

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

“And I do this for a living, mister,
don’t you understand
that I’m dancing, dancing, dancing
dancing as fast as I can?”
— Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

For the last decade, I’ve lived with relentless, incurable chronic pain on top of the joint and bone pains of aging. It’s an invisible lead weight that often causes me to suddenly deflate like a pinpricked balloon — to the surprise (even, sometimes, disappointment or indignation) of people who expect more of me based on external appearance. I recognize it as a limitation that requires pragmatic resorting to workarounds, though I still get frustrated and angry when crushing fatigue smothers me with essentially no warning. Ditto for my disappearing hearing, that’s gradually depriving me of the pleasure of music, multi-person conversations, and the ability to hear those blurry but all-important subway, train station and airport announcements.

I’ve seen the protests around the “ableist” mentions of Stephen Hawking’s ALS which formed an inevitable part of his obituary. I think that most mentions of his condition, though they’re often lazily phrased and can be read as stigmatizing, are nevertheless a recognition of his determination to get on with his life and accomplish what he wanted to get done. [NB: this lenient view doesn’t include the statements which express the hope that this committed atheist (who knew and explicitly stated – as I do – that a person ceases to exist the moment their CNS neurons stop firing) now finds himself among supernatural beings of the upstairs or downstairs variety.]

Hawking’s body shaped his brain/mind in a complex, feedback loop, as is the case with every single human. He was brilliant, courageous, incisive, driven, opinionated, mischievous, interested in fame and money (who isn’t?). He was also incredibly lucky: he happened to be located at a nexus that made his immense achievements possible (the Theory of Everything eluded him, but it’s pretty clear that reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics may take a tesseract- or string-shaped convergence).

It was Hawing’s luck, and ours, that he could continue with the vocation that he loved and was so outstanding at – he could not have done so if he were, say, a prima ballerina who got polio (look up Tanaquil Le Clercq, who received a very different treatment from both family and society than Stephen Hawking). It was his luck, and ours, that his temperament and mettle ensured that he could keep his focus on the things that mattered. And it was his luck, and ours, that the devotion of his family and the structures and resources of his society gave him the framework that he needed to be maximally productive (which, incidentally, is the protective cocooning often vouchsafed to male geniuses that conform to certain acceptability standards regardless of other specifics; women virtually never receive such buffering, nor do men who fall outside narrow norms).

We all need Hawking’s steely determination to focus on what we need/want to accomplish, and this means a constant balancing act between our vocation and other portions of our lives and ourselves that matter. We all have to make choices, often painful ones: even under the most favorable circumstances, we will never have enough time and stamina to do even a fraction of what we’d like. This is particularly true for women, whose socially enforced roles, “progress” aside, remain fundamentally antithetical to dedicated visionary pursuits. Hawking’s family to a large extent had to act as an extension of himself; and as is invariably the case in such configurations, they paid steep prices for his brilliance and his ensuing celebrity even as their involvement made them crucial participants in his achievement. He was not a lone star but a planetary system, an ensemble work – as are we all – and his statements show that he was keenly aware of it.

We’ll also all need support equivalent to what Hawking received at one or more points during our lives, even if we start out as “perfect” – and we’ll almost certainly need it not when we’re cherubic infants who are easy to love (and just as importantly, easy to manage). We’ll need it when we’re prickly adults, with notions and expectations, with unwieldy, no-longer-lovely bodies scarred and battered with use. And at that point, absent a titanium-strong family/friends network, all we’ll have is the mindset and safety net of the culture we find ourselves in. I can only wish myself Dr. Hawking’s luck when my time comes – and I certainly plan to do my own utmost as long as I can, pain and fatigue notwithstanding.

Selected Related Articles

It’s All in Your Head

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Where are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Dawkins and Saul: Dudebros under the Skin

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Images: Top, a still from a BBC interview with Jane Wilde Hawking; bottom, M. C. Escher, “Drawing Hands”

Southpaws: The Hops in Humanity’s Beer?

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

Note: I discovered that today is Left Handers’ Day (there is such a thing?!) and so I decided to reprint an essay that first appeared on Science in My Fiction.

“Light is the left hand of darkness…” – Ursula K. Le Guin

Those who are, like me, left-handed and older than fifty probably recall being forced to write with our right hand and the frustration of using many “handed” tools, including scissors, rulers and computer mice. We also remember being told that left-handers are prone to immune deficiencies, shorter lives, depression, dyslexia, schizophrenia and a host of other woes… and no wonder, given the drizzle of harassment! Finally, there is the conflation of left with evil, wrong or inept in practically all religions and languages (sinister, gauche, linkisch…) not to mention most political systems, especially those which place high value on obedience and conformity.

Left-handedness is genetically determined, although controversy swirls around candidate genes that have been tentatively linked to the trait and the complications supposed to accompany it – most prominently a protein with the impressively lengthy name of Leucine-Rich Repeat Transmembrane Neuronal 1. LRRTM1 is involved in regulation of the synapses, the tips of the neuronal processes where exchange of information takes place by molecules bridging the gaps between cells. Other theories propose that left-handedness may arise from exposure to increased testosterone during gestation. Yet others attribute it to the asymmetry of the human brain, brought about by the appearance of language whose centers almost invariably reside in the left hemisphere (which regulates the right side of the body).

In contrast to the even distribution of paw preferences in our ape cousins, the percentage of human left-handers hovers around 10% regardless of race and culture. The most common explanation for the persistence of the trait was that left-handed warriors had the element of surprise in primitive societies. As a result of this sneakiness, they survived long enough to leave a few like-handed descendants. Notice that this explanation is exclusively male-oriented and also implies that the trait is both monogenic and dominant. In fact, LRRTM1 is maternally silent – but at least in my case, I know that I inherited my quasi-ambidexterity (loaded word!) from my mother’s side.  On the other hand, nobody who has met me can conclude that I’m low on testosterone.

From my professional knowledge of biology and my own awareness of what strengths and weaknesses I possess, I hit upon a slightly more flattering explanation for the persistence of the trait. Namely, I decided that left-handed people must be less lateralized in their thinking. This can lead (literally) to crossed brain wires – and hence to such outcomes as dyslexia. But it can also lead to less mental compartmentalizing, more efficient multi-tasking, enhanced ability to see the big picture and to think across boundaries.

Recent results from several neurobiological disciplines lend support to these speculations. Apparently, left-handers do cluster at the two ends of the IQ range; the connections between the two sides of their brain are faster than in right-handers; they often use both hemispheres for language; and they excel at complicated tasks. Lists of southpaws in history show that they are disproportionately represented among mathematicians, scientists, artists and, for better or for worse, among charismatic leaders — from Alexander the Great to Jeanne d’Arc. Moreover, a disproportionate ratio of US presidents since WWII have been southpaws, partly because schoolchildren in an increasingly un-corseted culture were no longer forced into right-handedness. So left-handers may not be a relic of barbaric times, after all. Instead, they may be the hops that add zest to humanity’s beer.

Images: top, Southpaw by RobtheSentinel; bottom, an illustrious left-hander — Marie Sklodowska Curie, Physics Nobel 1903; Chemistry Nobel, 1911.

As the Water Wheel Turns

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

I’ve been relatively silent on social media for a while; work load & health issues (plus an upcoming new endeavor) have conspired against extensive broadcasting. But these items are on my mind and, when I clone myself, will become full-length ruminations:

1. Targeted gene editing has come of age: the National Academy of Sciences cautiously endorsed it even for germline alterations (in cases of debilitating genetic disease) and George Church declared that a mammoth — well, mammophant — birth is two years away.

2. In the wake of Likhain and Zen Cho’s posts on Requires Hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew after the Apex and Future Fire cynical, eyes-wide-shut debacle I’m glad to see more people from SFF contingents that have been affected by her relentless venom take courageous stands. I’ve been pondering the obvious, extensive equivalences between RH/BS and Drumpf, including the roles of “useful idiots” (to use Paul Krugman’s term).

The upcoming new endeavor will become public in mid-March. Anyone who’s willing can help me light the beacons!

Related articles:

Blastocysts Feel No Pain
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Genome Editing: Slippery Slope or Humane Choice?

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?
The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker
How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 1

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of The Other Half of the Sky, focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, has become as widely acclaimed as its illustrious predecessor: among other recognitions, it won a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and two of its stories have been selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF 2016 (Melissa Scott’s “Firstborn, Lastborn” and Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork”).

To deepen the readers’ enjoyment of the antho stories, I asked the contributing authors to share thoughts about their works. Below are some of their musings. More musings will appear after the new year.

 

Constance Cooper: Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

I decided to write about a botanical survey after hearing my husband’s stories of childhood trips with his dad the botany professor, driving across the country with bundles of specimens tied to the roof of the car. What, I wondered, would it be like to do that on an alien planet? For me, it was a short step from there to giant carnivorous plants and a murder mystery.

On a deeper level, I tried to imagine how it would feel to grow up knowing you were a stranger on your planet—not part of the fossil record, not related to any local species, separated from the animals and plants that have been part of human culture for millennia. And what if the humans weren’t there by choice? How would that affect people’s attitudes toward their world? My botanist characters are among those who’ve embraced their new home. They find their work so involving that they can’t stand to leave it–even to take a shower after getting slimed by an enormous pitcher plant.

 

M. Fenn: Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water

My story “Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water” got its start with a suggestion from my alpha reader and husband Roy, who wanted me to write a tale about an old woman who was known as a plant wizard in her community, but there was more to her knowledge than anyone suspected. My first thought was witchcraft, but doing some research into the science of plant intelligence inspired me to make my characters be scientists conducting their own research. Choosing to make these women Japanese-Americans who had been interred during World War II came about because of my reading about George Takei’s play Allegiance. What started as a minor point of back story eventually manifested into strong motivation for my characters.

Also, I love writing about old women. They just don’t have time for anyone’s silliness. While Susan and Hina bear little if any resemblance to the witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, Granny Weatherwax and Gytha Ogg were certain influences in the creation of my own powerful old women. A point of interest that some might find amusing: while all the human characters are fictional and not based on any living person that I know, the parrot who lives at Whitman’s Feed Store in North Bennington, Vermont, is very real, although not named Tony.

 

C. W. Johnson: The Age of Discovery

I have been writing a sequence of stories revolving around a particular technology, the Casimir pump (which is not real, but the Casimir effect is), and had vaguely thought of a story line involving some of the first applications. I wanted it to be a story about the love of discovery, and wanting to invert the commonplace trope of the heroic lone inventor, I wanted to place it in the context of heavily bureaucratized research. I needed my protagonist to have a foil, and I realized the best additional context to the love of discovery is the discovery of love. From these pieces I wove, with many fits and false starts, my plot.

 

Jacqueline Koyanagi: Sensorium

The central concept for Sensorium is that of communication across umwelts. If it is a fundamentally unique cognitive experience to be a particular species, then language alone falls short as a vehicle for cross-species communication. I wanted to briefly explore what might happen when those cognitive barriers are broken down technologically–particularly to the people who submit to a neural connection that dissolves the stark delineation of “the individual” that we are accustomed to. What does it mean for a mind if awareness expands beyond its natal umwelt? What changes occur when previously inconceivable sensory experiences are now accessible? What, then, does it mean to be a person? These are the questions that fueled Sensorium and the attendant books-in-progress.

 

Susan Lanigan: Ward 7

When I was approached by Athena to contribute to her new volume, To Shape The Dark, I was very excited but also a bit anxious. It had been a while since I had written short fiction that was longer than 1,000 words and I knew it would be necessary to construct a small universe in a short space of time. Also I tend to adhere to “hard” sci-fi rather than space opera, so I tend to stick to the near future rather than its more distant counterpart, just as I stick to the nearer past when writing as a historical novelist. Working with Athena was a pleasure as she proved to be a diligent and sensitive editor and I hope to repeat the experience again sometime.

 

Shariann Lewitt: Fieldwork

The moment I read the parameters about stories for TO SHAPE THE DARK, I knew I had to write about science that takes place in the field.  Most people think scientists wear white coats and work in climate controlled labs, with a rest room down the hall and a coffee bar down the street.  When I studied Evolutionary Biology as an undergrad, I learned about fieldwork the hard way, on a dig.  While I realized I definitely preferred climate control, rest rooms and coffee bars (and ended up in computational biology), I have always had the greatest respect for those who go out into the field and I knew I had to write a story that highlighted a way that science is really done–and that rarely comes to mind.  I had also just finished reading a number of articles on Europa, and a friend who works for NASA’s climate research group was posting pictures from his mission to Antarctica to drill ice cores.

Those things knocked around together in my head and out came Anna Taylor.  Irene came from a more complex and personal place, but also from a desire to turn around the SF trope on the “genius kid who saves the world.”  Because Irina is that kid–but she has to suffer the consequences as well, and later face her own very deep fears because she understands what drives Anna.  This story is immensely personal for me, both from a family perspective, and from my relationship to work I’ve done in science as well.

To Shape the Dark: Liftoff!

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

shapedark-final-cover-titles1200

Today is the day!  Spread the word, To Shape the Dark is spreading its wings. Focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, the anthology is sister to The Other Half of the Sky, which won unprecedented accolades.  This family of feral astrogators may eventually have a third member — keep frequencies open!

The book, both print and digital, is available on all major online venues (Amazon, B&N, etc) but Candlemark combines the print version with a DRM-free bundle. More direct sales also make it likelier that we’ll break even. Relevant sites:

Candlemark & Gleam direct sales
Reviews, interviews
Goodreads

Analog SF said of To Shape the Dark: “…these stories make the reader think. // They challenge us to question some cherished conventions of the field… // If you like well-told, intelligent science fiction that respects the search for knowledge, you can’t afford to miss this one.”

As I say in the introduction, “Scientists are humanity’s astrogators: they never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn while they attend to the hydroponics. To Shape the Dark is part of that vigil.”

To Shape the Dark cover: Eleni Tsami

Music: End of “Love” theme from Joss Whedon’s Serenity (composer, David Newman)

Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

sail

Early this week, venture capitalist Yuri Milner (backed by glittering names that included Stephen Hawking, Ann Druyan, Mae Jemison and Mark Zuckerberg) announced the next step of his Breakthrough plan. Part 1 is Listen – equivalent to passive SETI efforts; Part 2 is Starshot, a mission to reach Alpha Centauri within twenty years by using miniaturized probes. Such a rapid journey is theoretically possible if the probes are equipped with tiny photon sails and accelerated to a percentage of lightspeed by ground or orbiting lasers.

All of the technology needed for Starshot has passed proof of principle, though none of the specific components is actually at hand. The concept itself has enough original aspects – and enough advantages – that it could well succeed: sending armadas of small-cross-section vehicles dilutes the risks and increases the collective chances of reaching the destination. The mission length is just short enough to sustain interest (though people tend not to mention that it will take several more years for any information gleaned by the probes to get back to us — and that the Alpha Centauri three-star system has no confirmed planets). It’s not burdened by the prohibitive demands of slow ships to Alpha-Cen, with or without live cargo. And just starting the engineering of the Starshot components will lead to a spate of innovations, whether the mission is undertaken or not.

Starshot, with its emphasis on new research on miniaturization, laser technology and materials science, underlines the almost complete lack of equivalent biological research that might make larger, slower starships possible – from self-sufficient ecological systems to ways of keeping a crew safe and sane during long star travels. Astrobiology has confined itself almost exclusively (though with some justification) to extremophilic bacteria and nobody is trying to untangle bear-style hibernation, to give but one example. The sole non-bacterial/fungal critters that seem to have engaged the interest of astrobiologists are tiny invertebrates with the formal name of tardigrades (= slow walkers).

The popular monikers of tardigrades are water bears or moss piglets, but they resemble nothing as much as eight-legged micro-manatees, including their habit of placid munching (though they have bear-shaped fangs and claws and some are cannibals). They’ve become media darlings by dint of both perceived cuteness and grace under pressure. Their average size is that of a sesame seed (1-2 mm) and, like mites, they’re found everywhere – from deep sea trenches to the slopes of the Himalayas, from the equator to the poles.

Their anatomy, habits and life cycle are unremarkable, except for their record endurance of extremes of temperature, pressure (both deep-sea high and vacuum-level low), gravity, dehydration, radiation, toxins. They accomplish this by rolling into a compact configuration known as a tun (barrel) and decreasing their water content to 1% of the normal. Just as arctic fish use glycol to keep their structures intact in freezing water, so do water bears, though they deploy another type of sugar (trehalose). Several other invertebrates can enter and exit cryptobiosis – rotifers, brine shrimp, nematodes – but water bears are the only organisms known so far to be successful at all types of it.

That said, media fail to convey the fact that this endurance is statistical: the longer and harsher the conditions, the less likely the survival of water bears – or their eggs, especially at early embryo stages. So one take-home lesson here is that we can shrug at the percentage of tuns that revive successfully, because they’re not fellow humans or even loved pets; they’re not losses that cut us to the quick. It’s also no surprise that people tried to pin the water bears’ abilities to unique genes or gene networks, whereby the tale turns to the dangers of both reductionism and love of magic bullets.

Recently, two groups published the genome sequence of a tardigrade species. One of the two reports, ahead of the other by a few days, got the lion’s share of the press – not only because it was first, but also because it made the flashy announcement that tardigrades are as sturdy as they are because ~17% of their genes come from horizontal transfer. The authors of this study hypothesized that such an influx of foreign DNA is possible when the water bears reconstitute their chromosomes during revival from tun status, at which point they’re leaky across scales. Of course, one prediction of this hypothesis is that tardigrades should have undergone incredibly rapid and divergent evolution, which is very visibly not the case (I fully expect a cult theory of tardigrades as single-point earth life ancestors to spring up as a result of this blog post).

People who know how genomes, organisms and evolution work shook their heads at this announcement and waited for the other shoe to drop. It promptly did with the close-following second sequencing study, which demonstrated that horizontal transfer in tardigrades does not exceed the average 2-3% found in all organisms, and that the results of the earlier study came from contamination of the tardigrade genomic material with DNA from bacteria in the water bears. To be fair, it’s incredibly hard to avoid such contamination, especially with something of water bear size, though there are ways of detecting and correcting it after the fact. However, separating wheat from chaff requires long, painstaking work – and in these days of dwindling-to-nothing funds for basic research, being first is at a premium.

Learning how tardigrades go through literally killing regimes will teach us much about basics, and may show the way to useful applications. But I suspect that most of that knowledge won’t be portable to large, slow-metabolizing mammals like us. What will undoubtedly be of direct use is deciphering the mechanisms behind bear hibernation. Results from such a study will not only be applicable to human spacefaring, but will also help revive patients from long comas and serious traumas with less muscle waste and/or irreversible brain and other organ damage.

Like much research nominally focused on space, investigation of other non-bacterial terrestrial biologies may not only enable us to travel into the beguiling star-studded darkness beyond our friendly base, but may also improve our life here and now. If/when we venture past our gravity well, it’s certain that the imperturbable water bears will be on board with us. And despite stringent precautions against contamination, I wonder if the Voyager craft are carrying tiny sleeping tuns on the winds between the stars.

tardigrade space

Sources

Breakthrough Project initiatives
Summary of tardigrade sequencing results in Science Alert
PNAS paper about the bacterial contamination in the first study

Related articles

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle
Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri
Damp Squibbs: Non-News in Space Exploration
Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, But Still Terrestrial
Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, concept art of a Starshot probe and sail (Breakthroughinitiatives.org); bottom, the intrepid water bear in a challenging environment (Microbiologia General)

Drums in the Deep: A Ninth Planet?

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

planets-w-belts

[Click images to embiggen]

From the first moment humans looked at the sky, their eyes — with or without aids — could see five wanderers against the celestial backdrop: Mercury, fleetingly visible outside the Sun’s glare; Venus, so bright it can cast a shadow (Eosphóros at dawn, Phósphoros at dusk); Mars, its brick-reddish hue apparent even at aphelion; Jupiter, second to Venus in brightness; and Saturn, about as dim as Mercury – though someone with exceptional vision might just discern the slightly elongated shape that would later prove to be its rings.

And there the count of the solar family remained until the late 18th century, when telescopes and the mathematics of trajectories got sophisticated enough to enable astronomers to make and test predictions. At that point, the Herschel siblings established that Uranus was not a star but the planet next out from Saturn. A little less than a century later, Le Verrier noticed the “tugs” at Uranus’ orbit. Based on these, he predicted, then visually found, Neptune. But Neptune’s orbit showed irregularities also, plus its mass did not totally account for the Uranian perturbations either.

So the search started for Planet X (pedantically speaking it should have been IX, but X is the standard denotation for an unknown). And that’s when things stopped being simple.

The next iteration of the methods that had added Uranus and Nepture to the solar herd yielded Pluto. The problem with Pluto, which led to its eventual dethronement as a planet, is that there are many Pluto-sized planetesimals in the asteroid and Kuiper belts and in the Oort cloud — several with accompanying moons, like Pluto has Charon. Amusingly, many carry names of female gods or heroes and/or from mythologies beyond the Roman in a belated effort to change the heavily skewed naming ratio of the major planets.

So either Pluto of tiny mass and eccentric orbit did not deserve the distinction of being called a planet – or Vesta, Ceres, Eris, Sedna et al had to be included in the roster (side note for SFF doofs like me: Eris, named after the goddess of discord, was originally called Xena; its attendant moon is officially called Dysnomia, the Greek term for Lawless… as in Lucy Lawless, who played Xena the Warrior Princess; personally, I think they should have stuck with Xena and Gabrielle, but I’ll admit to some lack of objectivity). To the relief of both astronomers and astrologers, scientists drew the line at entities so small that, even if they’ve attained roundness, don’t have the oomph to either fling or pull planetesimals in their vicinity.

Yet the idea of a giant planet or brown dwarf hiding in the outer darkness has too strong a hold on our imagination. Starting with paleontologists Raup and Sepkoski, scientists proposed such a distant lurker whose orbital movement might have caused impact events resulting in the mass extinctions that occur on Earth about every 27 million years. For obvious reasons, they called this hypothetical planet Nemesis (Retribution). The long, systematic hunts for Nemesis yielded nothing except the conclusion that nothing larger than Saturn is rolling for several thousand AUs beyond Neptune. That’s disappointing, but there’s a large size gap between Saturn and Pluto where a respectably sized outcast can still dwell.

The productive game of checking for orbit irregularities and sweeping/herding behavior got applied again recently, when several astronomers (first Sheppard and Trujillo, then Batygin and Brown – all Kuiper aficionados and decisive influences in demoting Pluto) noticed a pattern in six “sednoids” – largish denizens of the Kuiper belt. Their behavior indicated that they had been disturbed by something large. So Brown and his collaborators fed the pertinent details to a simulator… and out popped the prediction of a planet at least 10 times as massive as Earth (i. e. Neptune-sized) with a highly eccentric, off-center orbit – a victim and survivor of ejection from the inner regions of the solar system during the early stages of its formation.

Brown was meticulous in exploring and evaluating all other possible explanations of the planetesimal disturbance pattern, just as Boyajian and her co-authors did with the anomalous brightness dips of KIC 8462852. The hypothesis of a Neptune-sized planet at that region passes the Occam’s razor criterion. But only one thing will make Planet Nine move from hypothetical to real: seeing it with a telescope. So some astronomers have been sweeping the starry dark with high-powered wide-field telescopes, while others have been comparing time-lapse photos to see if a bright needle has moved relative to the rest of the haystack.

If Planet Nine proves to be real, it will give us important insights into the workings of our solar system and will help us judge how unusual it is compared to other systems found by the industrious Kepler telescope. And if its existence is confirmed, the arguments about its specific details will pale in comparison with those over what to name it. Some want it called Jehosaphat; others, Janus. But I propose Tiamat, the exiled Great Goddess of the Deep.

Orbits Planet X

Primary sources

Trujillo, Chadwick A.; Sheppard, Scott S. (2014). A Sedna-like body with a perihelion of 80 astronomical units. Nature 507: 471.

Batygin, Konstantin; Brown, Michael E. (2016). Evidence for a distant giant planet in the Solar system. The Astronomical Journal 151: 22.

Related article

Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, current view of the solar system (credit: NASA’s Space Place via http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/ice-dwarf/); bottom, the predicted orbit of Planet Nine (credit: (data) JPL; Batygin and Brown/Caltech; (diagram) A. Cuadra/Science)

Starry, Starry Night

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Julian Kay - Conjunction, Oct 2015

This morning, an hour before dawn, I put a coat over my sleeping togs and went outside.

In the west, the Hunter and his Hounds were accompanying the near-full moon, Sirius as bright as a mithril coin. In the east, where the black was starting to turn to indigo, was the jagged procession of the three bright candles – silvery Venus, golden Jupiter, bronze Mars.

It never ceases to grip me, this beauty that floods my breastbone with longing.

Part of this yearning is our eternal quest for companionship, recently sharpened by the report of odd light dips of the F-type star KIC 8462852 — nicknamed Tabby in honor of Tabetha Boyajian, the lead author of the study and the head of the crowdsourced Planet Hunters project that sifts through the Kepler Space Telescope findings.

About 1,500 light years away in the direction of the Cygnus constellation, the star is too old and stable to have a dust accretion disk. The dips could be the result of a cometary collision or gravity darkening from rotational flattening… but for the first time the SETI community uttered the words “Dyson swarm” with the slight, slight likelihood they might be more than fond wishes.

We have to be dispassionate and rigorous in this, as in all other scientific explorations – especially ones that we’re vested in. After all, pulsars were first designated LGM (Little Green Men) before the non-sentient basis of their regular pulsing was deciphered. But now there’s at least one reputable paper out that outlines how to distinguish megastructures from natural planetary bodies.

If there was a civilization around Tabby that was advanced enough to create sunlight-capturing structures, what we see may no longer exist or may have evolved into something “rich and strange”. More time on different types of telescopes may resolve this. In the end, the yearning will remain; we’re wired for wonder. There’s a reason (beyond the fact that I sorely miss my own beloved father – ally and confidante since toddlerhood) why the alien in the guise of Ted Arroway caressing Ellie’s cheek in Contact brings tears to my eyes.

Sources and Further Reading

Ross Andersen, “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy” The Atlantic, October 13, 2015.

Boyajian et al, “Planet Hunters X. KIC – Where’s the Flux?” Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. (preprint)

Wright et al, “The Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. IV. The Signatures and Information Content of Transiting Megastructures”. Submitted to Astrophysical Journal (preprint)

Conjunction 2015 photo by Julian Kay. Left to right: Jupiter, Mars (faint), Moon, Venus.

Destination, not Destiny: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

by C. W. Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Interstellar, and the works of Hanya Yanagihara, Ken Liu and Liu Cixin.

2-torus starshipScience fiction is full of ideas. But the ideas in science fiction seldom have the depth and rigor of ideas in science, or in philosophy, or politics and ethics. The reason I say this is: in fiction, the game is rigged. The debates are one-sided. The author gets the first, middle, and last word.

This is not to say that the ideas in science fiction cannot capture the imagination. Indeed many classic SF stories that have inspired careers or even presaged the future. But not all have. The ideas in SF are not fully developed theories or philosophies, but more like Edison’s famous ten thousand attempts at making electric light: we remember the one that worked and forget, mostly, the ten thousand that didn’t.

But the ones that work, either through vivid imagery or asking difficult questions or getting lucky and “predicting” the future, stay with us. Once in a great while, there is even a story that causes me to rethink my opposition to describing science fiction as a “literature of ideas.”

Such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora.

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Let me explore the concept of fiction as being rigged. Science fiction typically assumes some future technology, whether it be interstellar travel or time travel or life extension, is possible. It is only after such an assumption that we arrive at the “idea” in science fiction: a fable about unintended consequences–step on a butterfly in the Cretaceous, change all of history–or to ask, a la James Blish, Who does this hurt?

But these moral fables–for that is what they really are–gloss over the assumption of a technology. Many enthusiasts believe in a kind of technological manifest destiny: we can achieve any technology, if only we are smart enough, or put enough effort into it, or let market forces achieve it.

In support of such a view the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project, and Moore’s Law are often cited. Such citations often ignore the fact that those successes were a matter of scaling known engineering. The basic physics of fission reactions, of space flight, and of transistors were known long before those projects and observations began.

Here’s the problem: one should not conclude, by way of analogy, that any technological goal can be achieved by sheer perspiration. The easiest and most obvious example is in human health. By a wide margin, the most crucial leaps to better health have been good sewage management and vaccines, followed by antibiotics. But after that it becomes much harder. If market forces alone were enough, we would have conquered cancer long ago, but while some cancers are curable, many others we can at best slow down. (This, of course, is because “cancer” does not have a single etiology.) There are start-up firms devoted to engineered immortality, but none have added a single day to human life spans.

In short, just because you can imagine it doesn’t mean it is actually possible. I’m still surprised how resistant people are to this basic principle.

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Of course, interstellar flight might seem like a straightforward if ambitious scaling-up of the Apollo program. But Tau Ceti, one of the closest singlet G-class stars (i.e., like our sun), known to have at least five planets, is almost 100 billion times farther away than our moon. That’s a lot of scaling; by comparison, Moore’s law from 1971 to today has seen a mere one million times increase in the number of transistors on a chip.

And Moore’s law has a cost. As transistors shrink, the chip foundries become increasingly complex, costing over US$1 billion to build, and using prodigious amounts of caustic chemicals. The market pressures so far have masked these costs, but even so the market for personal computers has saturated and it is the market for phones which has largely driven further developments. But now with billions of phones across the globe that market too is becoming saturated. We’ll see replacements, of course, but that is linear; the pressure for geometric growth described for Moore’s law is diminishing.

And in a way, this is the story that Robinson tells in Aurora.

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tau-ceti
[Click twice to see full-size image]

Some minor spoilers ahead; I’ll keep them to a minimum, but I will outline some key plot points. If you want me to cut to the chase, it’s this: in my opinion, Aurora is the best hard science fiction novel since Benford’s Timescape, and Robinson achieves this by blowing up the usual assumptions, and jumping up and down on them until they are ground into tiny bits.

Aurora is about interstellar travel. A ship, one of many, is sent at one-tenth of the speed of light to Tau Ceti. This journey takes almost two centuries, and so generations are born, live, and die aboard the ship.

In Robinson’s novel, interstellar travel is possible, but costly. First and foremost, keeping a closed ecosystem running is not easy. Robinson has hinted at these concerns in previous novels, in Icehenge and his Mars trilogy, and here he spells them out in detail, thinking out how a generation ship would work (and not work) to a degree not achieved before. The specific biochemistry is a little beyond me, but he is married to an environmental chemist and, most importantly, the principle is sound. Managing trace elements such as bromine isn’t easy: too little can have dire consequences, but too much and you have toxic effects. The designers of the starship had to try to predict how the ecosystem would behave over centuries. Robinson assumes the designers did a pretty good job, but even in a pretty good job a few miscalculations or oversights can grow over time.

Just as big a source of problems as technology is politics. Robinson’s politics lean to the communitarian and the ship’s governance reflects this, but he recognizes that every polity can fracture and every system of governances privileges some over others. In this he echoes LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, a novel I first read many years ago in a class Robinson taught at UC Davis, and which is also set in the Tau Ceti system. And as in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, when society is stressed, some people respond badly, even violently.

The politics back home, i.e., on Earth, also shifts. People lose interest in interstellar travel, which soaks up enormous resources, leaving the crew of the ship to their own devices when things go awry.

Most SF novels assume that Things Work Out in the end. A crisis convenient for a thrilling plot pops up, but Our Heroes/ines figure out it in the nick of time, and humans triumph over the odds. This future version of Manifest Destiny has been here since the pulps and never really gone away.

Robinson attacks this idea, in detail and in depth. The technology goes wrong, and there is no magical fix, and people die. (Not always; there are some spectacular saves.) The politics goes really wrong, and more people die.

Moreover, Robinson suggests that Manifest Destiny breaks apart upon the rocks of the Fermi paradox, i.e., if there is intelligent life out there, why haven’t we heard from it? Recently I wrote of the Chinese author Cixin Liu’s solution to the Fermi paradox, a dark and paranoid vision.

Robinson’s solution to the Fermi paradox is more measured and frankly more believeable than Liu’s. In most science fiction novels people on alien worlds can easily breathe the air and eat the native organisms with no ill effect. This has always bothered me, because, for example, humans actually can only tolerate a fairly narrow range of atmospheric mixtures; and as for food, we’ve had to co-evolve to digest plant and animal tissues.

Robinson suggests that most planets are either sterile, and would require centuries or millenia of terraforming–in stark contrast to the decades he unrealistically postulated in his Mars trilogy– or the established life would be so biochemically hostile at a fundamental level that humans could not survive. The latter is of course speculative, but speculation is the game in science fiction.

The universe is full of life in Robinson’s vision, only that life is each trapped on its planet of origin. We can’t conquer distant stars; the costs are too great.

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Aurora is not a perfect novel. Like most hard SF novels, it is plot and exposition heavy. Only three characters are fully realized, and one of those is the ship’s artificial intelligence. The bulk of the prose is plain and to-the-point, which Robinson cleverly covers by having the ship itself be the narrator. Only in the opening and closing sections, not narrated by the ship, does the prose sing and does Robinson use his literary skills fully.

But few novels in my reading have examined the technology and the difficulties therein in as much detail, acknowledging that science and people are always flawed and limited. I seldom say this, but Robinson’s novel is truly an “instant classic” of SF, and the hardest of hard SF at that. The year 2015 isn’t over, but Aurora should be a shoo-in for major award nominations. Not only that, it should win.

KSR

Related Articles:

Making Aliens (six part series, starts here)

Once Again with Feeling: The Planets of Gliese 581

The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Damp Squibs: Non-news in Space Exploration

Images: 1st, a two-torus starship like Aurora; 2nd, the Tau Ceti system; 3rd, Kim Stanley Robinson

Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, but Still Terrestrial

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

octopus_flask_(new_palace)_minoanEveryone agrees that cephalopods are fascinating, octopuses in particular. Apex marine predators, they hunt primarily by ambush and escape foes by water-jet swimming, mimicry, ink ejection and tentacle shedding (which they can regenerate, like lizard tails). Their niche dominance is buttressed by their ability to rapidly color-merge with their surroundings, squeeze through small openings (no bones or even the cartilage of cephalopod cousins) – and intelligence. They possess keen eyesight (their eyes evolved independently from those of vertebrates, as did those of insects) and chemoreceptors on their suckers allow them to taste what they touch, though their sense of shape is poor (more of that anon). Octopuses use tools, are known to play, may be capable of observational learning and are deemed so intelligent that they’re the only invertebrates almost universally protected from pain in research experiments.

Recently, the sequence of the octopus genome was published. This is an ongoing effort of gathering as many terrestrial genomes as possible, with the goal of figuring out the many black boxes still surrounding intelligence and emergence. The consensus of the genomes sequenced so far is that terrestrial life forms are as unique at the level of their genomic structure as at any other scale – yet the underlying common ancestry is also plainly visible. Of course, the PR departments of the teams doing the octopus sequencing had to figure out something to make that particular study stand out. Result: the numerous lay reports carried titles like “Don’t freak out, but scientists think octopuses might be aliens.”

I held my peace and tongue until I read the original paper itself. My verdict from reading it – which, incidentally, coincides with that of its authors – is that the octopus genome is as marvelous as its owners, and as unique as that of any other organism. However, it falls squarely within parameters in terms of structure and the organism it helps produce is therefore as terrestrial as anything else that moves on earth. So what allowed the churnalists to indulge in the customary hype? Well, primarily ignorance of basics such as the dynamic nature of genomes and the many alternative paths by which they generate complexity.

One fact touted as “amazing” was that octopuses seem to have more genes than humans (~35K versus ~22K, respectively) and the number doesn’t arise from a wholesale duplication, as it does in some insects and plants. However, there’s an immediate solution to that seemingly Gordian knot. It’s called alternative splicing. Alternative splicing (henceforth AS) is THE primary contributor to proteomic complexity and allows production of many proteins that vary in structure and function from a single gene. Some human genes produce hundreds of final products by this method, which then get further variegated by post-translational processes like phosphorylation and glycosylation (full disclosure: I spent my entire science career researching alternative splicing in the human brain and will be unmoved by arguments that “it’s mostly non-functional junk”). The AS mechanism is nearly universal in human genes but extremely limited in octopuses which instead use an on-off gene product modulation mechanism called RNA editing (ADAR). All eukaryotic species use varying ratios of AS and ADAR. Octopuses just happen to be mostly on the ADAR end of the spectrum.

Churnalists also presented two items as independent that in fact correlate: the octopus genome is rich in transposons (elements that allow genes to move around)… and gene families that arose as a result of duplication, which are most often tandemly organized, are dispersed in octopuses. Transposons are abundant in many other species (Barbara McClintock first documented them in maize, though the groundbreaking discovery took nearly four decades to gain her the Nobel she so richly deserved) and organisms with high numbers of transposons in their genomes inevitably show significant levels of gene mobility.

NodesOfRanvier

The cephalopods did not evolve just eyesight by a different path than that taken by vertebrates. The same is true of their nervous system, which is one reason why they’ve long been used for comparative studies in neurobiology and intelligence. Yet another point of hype was that octopuses appear to have more neurons than mice and have vastly expanded member numbers of two gene families involved in neuronal regulation. But as with the high gene count, there’s an interesting but non-exotic explanation for these findings as well. Namely, cephalopods need to coordinate their neuronal feedback loops locally unlike vertebrates, which depend on brain coordination.

Vertebrates have fast neuronal responses in large part because the myelin sheaths that wrap sausage-like around the neuronal axons allow what is known as saltatory conduction through the Ranvier nodes (the gaps between myelin sheaths). The loss of this propagation method is what creates most of the debilitating outcomes of such hereditary diseases as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher and the adult agonies of demyelinating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and Tabes Dorsalis. In contrast, cephalopods don’t have myelin sheaths; the propagation of their neuronal impulses is linear which means it’s relatively slow (they also require large-diameter axons, which is one reason why these species were used as models in neurobiology research). In turn, the slow conduction requires local regulation of neuronal responses if octopuses want to remain predators instead of prey. Hence the large number of neurons and quasi-unique neuron-regulatory proteins.

So in this process, vertebrates opted for speed and integration; cephalopods for numbers and local autonomy. The locality of this coordination also means that, unlike vertebrates, octopuses have no integrative brain map. So, for example, they can minutely “taste” something within their tentacles, but cannot form a view of its overall shape. Not are they aware of the position of their tentacles, though each tentacle knows what it’s doing, so to speak. An eerie but non-mystical result of this is that a severed octopus tentacle will exhibit reflex behaviors for a while after it’s severed. But again, this is nothing exotic; it’s local autonomy at work, until degradative processes neutralize it.

The other side of this coin is that octopuses will never suffer from phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia, syndromes caused by disjunctions between a body and its brain map. The lack of integrative maps puts some limits to large-scale undertakings by aspiring octopus overlords, Hokusai’s famous Tako to Ama aside. So does the fact that octopuses die after procreation like salmon – males after mating, females after their egg sac matures. Their intelligence is individually based and they have no culture transmission, each octopus reboots de novo. Undoubtedly, their thought processes are alien. But – as I discussed in “Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” – so are those of chimpanzees, uplift or not.

Nemo KrakenI fully expect to hear theories that octopuses may be like Larry Niven’s Pak: aliens trapped in axolotl-like neoteny because earth lacks a vital ingredient that would allow them to transition into adulthood (there’s also a Polynesian myth that posits octopuses as the sole survivors from a previous universe cycle). However, the octopus proclaims its terrestrial provenance at all scales. What its genes and neurons do illustrate, unequivocally, is the near-infinite variety of solutions to common problems. Or, as another “alien” (who’s actually all too human) would say, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Related Articles:

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry

You Only Find What You’re Looking For

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

”Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Floating Brains and Invasive Minds

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Images: 1st, Minoan clay jar, New Palace period (~1500 BC, Irákleion Museum); 2nd, depiction of a vertebrate neuron with its myelin sheath; 3rd, Captain Nemo and his guests contemplating a rival intelligence in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Éduard Riou).

To Shape the Dark: Table of Contents

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Comet-Hale-Bopp“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless at planetfall (Planetfall).

As before, I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony.

All the protagonists are scientists who transcend the usual SF clichés about that vocation, especially when undertaken by women. I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves.  For those eager for more, the projected launch is early spring 2016.

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Introduction: Astrogators Never Sleep

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home
M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water
Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium
Kristin Landon – From the Depths
Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork
Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire
Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate
Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn
Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan
C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery
Terry Boren – Recursive Ice
Susan Lanigan – Ward 7
Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One
Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project
Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

Let the storytelling begin:

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

After all our weeks of travel, those final few miles in a wagon drawn by ox beetle seemed the longest of all. The wagon reeked of peat, and the ox beetle periodically dug its claws into the mud and surged forward to free up the wheels. McMurrin, our dour driver, actually managed a chuckle as his insect’s motions flung me and Gwen back and forth. Gwen kept her pet project, a custom high-eye, cradled protectively in her arms.

Every moment I knew that we were getting closer and closer to haunted, hated Can’t-Go-Home Bog, right on the southern fringe of settlement, where no other botanist had ever set foot.

M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water

“Afternoon, Dr. Yamamoto.” The old woman looked up from the flower seed display she had been studying while waiting.

“Afternoon, Billy. How’s your mother?”

“Good! She told me to thank your partner for the lotion, if I saw you. Her hands are much better.”

“I’ll tell Hina you said so. And how’s your skin doing?”

The boy blushed. “Fine.”

She smiled kindly. “Good. I’ll tell her that, too. Did my order come in?”

She trundled her round frame closer to a display of wind chimes. Hina would like one of these new copper ones, she thought, brushing her calloused hand against the metal pipes. A ceramic frog mounted on the top remained stoic as the chimes tinkled.

Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium

Yora spends her first night in cultural realignment training thinking about the isolation of a life lived between stars.

The Tagli came to Ila, her planet, ten years ago, having crossed unthinkably vast distances in slow increments, bodies and vacuum separated by a mere skin’s breadth of material. Full generations had passed with no knowledge of ground and sky. And then they came, a bombardment of unfamiliar life on Yora’s planet, their twisting ships suspended over fourteen cities like itinerant gods.

Kristin Landon – From the Depths

“Rinna!”

Rinna Heinonen turned, one hand on the hatchway that would let her out of the family quarters, and suppressed a groan. Her fifteen-year-old daughter stood across the small common room from her—in her iso suit, fluorescent orange, its hood and mask dangling around her shoulders.

Rinna sighed. “Just where do you think you’re going?” Sealed in, Petra would be ready to leave Hokule’a with a minimal chance of contaminating the air and sea with her human DNA and microflora.

Petra’s long mass of tight braids was tied back in a ponytail, and she carried her backpack. She smiled tentatively at her mother. “I thought you might need a hand today.”

Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork

“Grandma, do you think Ada Lovelace baked cookies?” We were in her kitchen and the scent of the cookies in the oven had nearly overwhelmed my childhood sensibilities.

“I don’t think so sweetie,” Grandma Fritzie replied. “She was English.”

“Oh. Mama doesn’t bake either.”

Grandma Fritzie shook her head. “There wasn’t any good food when she was young.”

“Did her Mama bake?”

“Maybe. But not after they left Earth. They only had packaged food on Europa, and no ovens or hot cookies or anything good. That’s why your Mama is so tiny. We’re going to make sure you get plenty of good things to eat so you grow up big and strong.”

Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire

I have been falling for most of my life. I see my village in dreamtime: an enormous basket, a woven contraption of virrum leaves and sailtrees, vines and balloonworts, that drifts and floats on the wind. On the wind are borne the fruits from the abyss, the winged lahua seeds that always float upward, and the trailing green vines of the delicious amala — windborne wonders that give us sustenance. But the village is always falling. Slowly, because of the sails and balloonworts, but falling nevertheless. We hang on the webbing, the children and babies tethered, shrieking in joy — and we tell stories about what might lie below.

Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate

Dan Linh had walked out of the Purple Forbidden City not expecting to return to it – thankful that the Empress had seen fit to spare her life; that she wasn’t walking to her execution for threefold treason. Twenty years later – after the nightmares had faded, after she was finally used to the diminished, eventless life on the Sixty-First Planet – she did come back, to find it unchanged: the Midday Gate towering over the moat; the sleek ballet of spaceships between the pagodas and the orbitals; the ambient sound of zithers and declaimed poetry slowly replacing the bustle of the city at their backs.

Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn

It has been more than a decade since I first set foot in Anketil’s tower, and three years since she gave me its key. It lies warm in my hand, a clear glass ovoid not much larger than my thumb, a triple twist of iridescence at its heart: that knot is made from the trace certain plasmas leave in a bed of metal salts, fragile as the fused track of lightning in sand. Anketil makes the shapes for lovers and the occasional friend when work is slow at the tokamak, preserving an instant in threads of glittering color sealed in crystal, each one unique and beautiful, though lacking innate function. It’s only the design that matters. I hold it where the sensors can recognize it, and in the back of my mind Sister stirs.

Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan

“Thermoplastic,” said Kavi, working her mouth as she considered our architectural model, “is not sand.”

I relaxed. If that was her biggest grief, then we were in good shape for tomorrow. It was almost one-thirty in the morning, which meant that only eight hours remained before our final projects were due.

Knock on the door. Then Zeenat popped her head in, her round sleepy face indicating what she was about to ask. “Chai, guys?”

“Yes,” said Kavi.

“I’d like to look over the drawings one more time,” I said. “Make sure it’s habitable. The design is only—”

“She’s trying to say no,” Kavi explained to Zeenat. “You go ahead.”

“So let Velli look over whatever needs to be looked over, we can go have chai.” And then Zeenat added, “My treat.”

C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery

It was a milestone, no matter what, and so the lab celebrated. Roberto looked abashed as they toasted him. “Hey, guys,” he said, fidgeting, “I should get back to work.” Everyone laughed. Their supervisor Ms. Thalivar called out, “How fast can you do the next thousand?” and Roberto said, “Well, now that I’ve finally got the hang of it…”

Luo Xiaoxing, the publicist sent over from Shanghai, went around taking images and videos. She squeezed past a couple of technicians and stopped at Edith’s station with her all-in-one raised. “Do you mind?”

Edith shrugged. “The company sent you. But shouldn’t you…?” She pointed with her chin to Roberto.

Terry Boren – Recursive Ice

1. Heuristic

The afternoon wind, cool and rain scented, lifted Bret’s hair away from her neck as she gazed down at the Isar where it slid green and quick beneath the bridge. Her vision was blurred and distorted one moment, absolutely clear the next. Her palms rested gently on the pitted granite of the railing. It was familiar, safe. But though she had done her graduate work at the Planck Institute in Germany, years before, she still could not remembered what she was doing in Old Munich. Something to do with her work? She touched her face, probing gently at the swollen cheek. The eye itself seemed undamaged, though the area around the left socket and the left side of her face were bruised. The cheekbone probably had been cracked. Her cheek was wet, and pain made the eye tear again, distorting the green park along the green river. The wind was picking up. Hoping to reach shelter before the storm broke, she continued across the bridge toward Mariahilfplatz and the frozen spire of its church.

Susan Lanigan – Ward 7

The man from HR was speaking. She could not recall his name, even though it glinted from the bronze-coloured badge he wore below his left lapel. That was because the badge always seemed to catch the intense sunlight coming in through the south-facing glass wall, to which the HR man himself seemed immune, even though it was hitting the back of Vera’s neck so precisely that she felt as if the rays were burning a line on her skin above her collar. Both room and man were unfamiliar to her. Employees from the medicinal chemistry division of Gleich Enterprises rarely got summoned here. But her presence was “imperative”, she had been told, her offence too severe to be overlooked this time.

Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One

Aversion:

Meherenmet glared across the room as she watched an attendant feed Amagasat dates and tiny sips of beer from a serving tray. Disgust spiked through her body. She looks like an aging child, Meherenmet thought.

Morning light filtered into the eye-shaped antechamber, bathing Amagasat in a soft glow. She shimmered in her iridescent blue robe and golden collar and wrist cuffs—all intentionally worn, Meherenmet thought, to boast of her success. But Amagasat’s tremors—that fierce trembling of her hands—overshadowed her finery. Meherenmet doubted that Amagasat could still dress herself, or even attend to her own elimination.

Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project

I was sitting on the porch of the End Times Hotel with Abe Willis when the message from Harlow came in: Ronda, we might have aliens. Seriously. We picked up a radio transmission yesterday from the Sigmund Cluster. It tracks to ISKR221/722. A yellow dwarf, 7,000 light-years out. We haven’t been able to break it down, but it’s clearly artificial. You’re closer to the Cluster than anybody else by a considerable distance. Please take a look. If it turns out to be what we’re hoping, try not to let them know you’re there. Good luck. And by the way, keep this to yourself.

“What is it?” asked Abe.

“Aliens.”

Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

The Anthropologist Returns To Eden

She introduced herself by firelight, while the calm breakers on the shore kept up a background music – like the purring breath of a great sleepy animal. It was warm, the air felt damp; the night sky was thick with cloud. The group inspected her silently. Seven pairs of eyes, gleaming out of shadowed faces. Seven adult strangers, armed and dangerous; to whom she appeared a helpless, ignorant infant. Chloe tried not to look at the belongings that had been taken from her, and now lay at the feet of a woman with long black hair, who was dressed in an oiled leather tunic and tight, broken-kneed jeans; a state-of-the-art crossbow slung at her back, a long knife in a sheath at her belt.

Image: Comet Hale-Bopp (NASA, JPL).

To Shape the Dark, Protagonist Vocations

Monday, May 18th, 2015

As people know, I’ve been working on the successor of The Other Half of the Sky.  It focuses on women scientists doing science not-as-usual and is titled To Shape the Dark — because that’s what scientists (should) do.

I spent this past weekend doing final passes on about half the stories that will appear on the anthology.  If things continue at this rate we’ll have a finalized TOC by the first week of June.  Until then, here are the occupations of the stories’ protagonists, to whet people’s appetites. People took my injunction not to flood me with computer programmers and psychologists seriously!

Other Half 160

Molecular biologist/virologist
Plant biochemists/engineers
Biochemist/magician
Protein chemist
Tissue/neural engineer
Brain scientist/engineer
Exo-botanist
Exo-ecologist
Cultural anthropologist
Materials scientist/architect
Geologist/volcanologist
Proto-physicist/engineer
Planetary physicist
Quantum physicist
Hyperspatial mathematician and plasma smith

Scalpel versus Hammer

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

“…sleazy rancid twat…” – Tom Kratman about someone daring to dissect his, um, “fiction”; at File770 on May 12, 2015. The comment has since been deleted by site moderators but Internet Rangers never sleep.

Haddock

Profanity has been with humans ever since we developed language past grunts. Research indicates that it emanates from different centers than those for main language: the limbic syste in charge of the “Four Fs” rather than the cerebral cortex [Tourette syndrome, whose symptoms include out-of-context swearing, has both limbic and cortical components]. This provenance makes swearing the direct descendant of involuntary animal stress vocalizations for anger, fear and pain. It explains why otherwise aphasic stroke victims can still swear and why stutterers nevertheless swear fluently (showcased in The King’s Speech). It also jibes with the fact that swearing can alleviate pain, though only short-term – and only acute pain, not its intractable chronic counterpart.

Swearing is routinely divided into blasphemy (religion) and obscenity (body parts). Steve Pinker has fussily classified swearing into abusive, dysphemistic, idiomatic, emphatic and cathartic – but the significant category overlaps are clearly visible.

Non-reflexive swearing is word magic akin to cursing and as such registers viscerally, but only in one’s natal tongue. Swearing in languages acquired later in life doesn’t deliver this solar-plexus punch, hence the common spectacle of normally restrained or prudish people swearing freely in their non-primary tongues. As with all language, some words may be deemed insults in some contexts but not others, although the basis for the assignment is always obvious (a prime example is “cunt”, convoluted exegeses about its gender – and value – neutrality notwithstanding; even its apologists concede in private that it’s a nuclear-option term).

In most societies, constant swearing is taken as evidence of a limited vocabulary and hence a signifier of low educational and social status. Conversely, uttering obscenities without consequences is the prerogative of those dominant in their local power structures and/or beneficiaries of exceptionalism. Spontaneous swearing is always a physical reaction; on the other hand, calculated swearing is often a way to establish a persona, overcome feelings of inadequacy or claim instant–insider membership in a group. Many in/famous standup comedians are textbook examples of all three. So are rage bloggers and frothing trolls who seem to operate on the assumption that four-letter words (especially about women, especially about older and non-pretty ones) are toughness bona fides.

chaplin203Deliberate excessive swearing reminds me of an anecdote about Richard the Lionheart and Salah ad-Din (the story is apocryphal: the two never met face-to-face). Richard, to show his might, whacked a table with his two-handed sword, reducing it to splinters. Saladin removed a silk scarf from around his throat, tossed it in the air and twirled his damascene blade below it. Richard picked up the scarf, only to find out it had been neatly cut in two.

Likewise, routine heavy use of expletives in conversations obscures the points in an argument, focusing instead on the swearer’s intent to shock… though they rarely awe. A swearer’s goal is often to show “righteous” wrath; but they mostly come across as people who, to use Saxon, can’t hold their shit – or who are using a blunderbuss to obscure the weakness of their position. The polyglot occupancy of the internet (even while English remains its lingua franca) blunts the impact of such words anyway, leaving only the categorization of their user.

Bone-breaking maces have their uses but even the brawniest berserker can be brought low by a well-aimed arrow. Of course, wit can get its wielders beaten, imprisoned or killed, because its targets (usually) recognize it for the subversive instrument it is – and people pricked by sarcasm often fancy themselves alphas in one or more ways. Using a scalpel rather than a hammer in discourse doesn’t necessarily imply a winning position. Nor does it automatically signify ethical or logical superiority. But it evens the playing field, just as the bows and slingshots of Welsh and Cretan commoners obliterated the advantages of patrician heavy armor and just as guerilla warfare has always finessed brute-force frontal battles.

As someone whom many consider an annoyance or obstacle (though they’ve used different terms) I find it amusing, during breaks from important tasks, to poke pinholes in helium or lead balloons of wannabee godlings, rambots and tai tai. That said, my sense of fair play (and, to be frank, my self esteem) prohibits me from tackling the unarmed even with ping pong balls, let alone with Stinger missiles.

[Billy Bragg and Wilco, with Natalie Merchant harmonizing, perform Woody Guthrie’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key]

Related articles:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewe

The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Hergé’s Captain Haddock, who at least was inventive and articulate with his cursing; 2nd, Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp, who knew how to prick balloons.

Up the Walls of the Worlds

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

(after James Tiptree’s novel)

JPL life-on-europa

[Click to embiggen image]

The flood of data from the solar system probes has led to tectonic shifts in our understanding of our neighbors. High on that list has been the discovery of liquid water in the large moons of the gas giants: Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede, Saturn’s Enceladus. By many strands of evidence – which include geysers – all three have large subsurface salt-water seas below their icy surfaces (Saturn’s Titan has surface oceans but they’re made of methane and ethane, liquid at Titan’s ambient temperature). In Europa and Enceladus this water may be in contact with a complex silicate core that could supply both directional scaffolding and building blocks; and the orbital friction between the moons and their primaries generates heat dynamos that could give rise to deep hydrothermal vents.

Salt water with a steady supply of dissolved nutrients; an energy source; complex silicates that – according to Cairns-Smith’s clay hypothesis – could act as anchors and template propagators for chiral organic molecules. The simultaneous presence of all these components is a recipe for the development of life.

Life as we know it is based on carbon and uses water as its solvent. Both are unique within their respective categories. Carbon is the best foundational element for complex chemistry by several orders of magnitude: the number and variety of organic compounds exceeds that of all the rest combined. Like its fellow occupants of the fourth column of the periodic table, carbon has an outermost electron orbital that is exactly half-occupied. So the fourth column elements are equally good as electron donors or acceptors, and as a result they can form compounds with just about every other element.

Carbon has an additional almost-unique characteristic: its unoccupied orbital is at such a distance from the nucleus that it can form bonds of the exactly correct strength to create very large and complex compounds. In particular, carbon bonds with itself more or less with the same proclivity that it bonds with anything else. Whatever can be imagined, of any size, shape, taste or smell, can be found among organic compounds, from diamonds to nucleic acids, from limonenes to fullerenes. If a carbon atom’s four available positions have distinct occupants, the resulting compounds are chiral (“handed”), another apparent prerequisite for biomolecules – certainly a decisive attribute of all terrestrial ones.

Silicon, the next foundational candidate after carbon, is a distinctly inferior also-ran. The radius of its outer electron shell is larger, which means that it forms weaker bonds, especially with itself. Generally compounds with more than three silicon atoms in a row are very unstable, unless they are forced into a crystal lattice. And if oxygen is anywhere near it, all available silicon funnels itself into silicates, precluding all other combinations.

Water

In turn, water has several properties that make it the most potent and versatile solvent. This includes its tetrahedral structure (due to its two free electron pairs, which make it a polar compound), phenomenal heat capacity (which makes it a stabilizer), high heat conductivity and surface tension (vital for many cellular structures and processes), transparency to visible light (crucial for photosynthesis) and the anomalous property of becoming less dense when it solidifies into ice (hence a reservoir and refuge). The runner-up, ammonia, shares some of these attributes (including the tetrahedral structure) and might be the solvent of choice at the lower temperatures of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas. Such a configuration is fully deployed in Joan Vinge’s justly famous Eyes of Amber.

If we encounter life elsewhere, it’s a foregone conclusion that its details will differ significantly from ours – and that its differences will dwarf what SF has come up with. Non-terrestrial life may not use DNA or RNA as its basis of genetic transmission; it may use a different kit of starting blocks for energy, scaffolding and catalysis. It will have a totally different repertoire of body plans, sensoria, mental processes, reproductive modes, ecosystems. But it will be based on carbon and will almost certainly use water as its solvent. And just from current percentages, it’s possible that most planetary life may have developed in “roofed ocean” worlds like Europa, instead of the open atmosphere of Earth.

Walking rightward (as is customary) in the Drake equation, the question is: if they emerge, would roofed-ocean lifeforms evolve to complexity? To sentience? To use of technology, whereby they might send the unambiguously civilizational signals still eagerly awaited by SETI? Of course, our horizons are limited by our own intrinsic parochialisms. We cannot easily visualize technology that’s not based on metals and fire. We cannot easily imagine how sentients that never see the stars might nevertheless deduce their existence.

Many of these perceived hurdles are in fact easily overcome. In Forerunner Foray, André Norton postulated a species that directed the building activity of coral polyps. The solution of water-dwelling lifeforms would be direct-to-biotech, bypassing metal forges. Terrestrial cephalopods are remarkably intelligent and are known to use technology (cetaceans are revenants to water, so their intelligence springs from the same foundation as ours). As for guessing the existence of the stars, a species with sensors in the right bracket of the EM spectrum would rapidly become aware of the overwhelming nearby presence of Jupiter or Saturn. Such species might eventually build starships from tissue, like Farscape’s Moya. Beyond that, the specifics of such species might go a long way towards explaining the over-invoked Fermi Paradox: if they sent signals, they would automatically choose their own waterhole frequency.

So far, we’ve seen the exteriors of roofed-ocean worlds. Missions have been planned for investigations of interiors, though their launch dates keep slipping further into the future. In the end, our own vaunted ability to see the stars may not avail us if we choose to turn inward, eventually running out of the metals and fuels that keep our window to the universe open. If we do send out exploratory vessels, we have to be extra careful not to mar the worlds we touch, that may harbor their own tinkerers and dreamers. But it’s my fond fantasy that, before my own life sets, we get to hear of filigree manta rays swirling under Europa’s ice to the radio pulse beats of the giant overhead.

Giant Manta Getty

Images: Top, the Europa system (NASA/JPL); middle, water, the marvelous solvent; bottom, a manta ray pirouetting in its element (Getty Images).

Genome Editing: Slippery Slope or Humane Choice?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

gattaca09

Science fiction is awash with engineered humans, from the now-classic GATTACA to the demi-gods of Banks’ Culture; the concept is linked to that of cloning and carries similar strains of hubris and double-edged consequences. As with cloning, gene engineering is no longer science fiction. Protein and Cell just published the results of a Chinese research team that used a DNA editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to alter early trinuclear (triploid) IVF embryos.  This technique has been used in many organisms, including mice, to successfully change specific genes. It’s a variation of gene therapy; the major difference is that in this study the repair was done at the low-number cell stage instead of postnatally.

[Parenthesis for the detail-oriented: CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat, a common configuration in gene editing methods derived from bacterial defense systems. Cas stands for CRISPR-associated system – a CRISPR and its associated nuclease, which recognizes and clips the palindrome. The technique puts a target sequence with a desired nucleotide change in the CRISPR construct and introduces it plus a modified Cas enzyme into a cell or organism; the introduced system replaces the endogenous target sequence with the engineered one].

Triploid embryos, ova fertilized by two sperm, are mostly miscarried during the first trimester. The extremely few fully triploid infants that survive till birth have severe defects and without exception die a few days after delivery. The experimental triploid embryos additionally carried a thalassemia mutation in the HBB (beta-hemoglobin) gene. Thalassemic heterozygotes can lead a quasi-normal life with occasional blood transfusions, provided they are monitored. Homozygotes live a life of gruesome suffering and die before age 20 unless they undergo bone marrow transplantation.

The study documented several serious stumbling blocks, though none were unexpected: primarily low efficiency and low fidelity. Dependable introduction into cells is not trivial and the difficulty increases the more specialized the cells are, which is one reason why germline or embyronic editing is easier than its adult counterpart. Also, techniques of this type, which include RNAi, are prone to off-target effects (changes of quasi-homologous non-target sequences) and mosaicism due to expression variation – particularly with gene families, of which hemoglobins are one. As the study’s authors explicitly state, the technical issues must be competely resolved before such methods can go into clinical mode. Which leaves us with the other part: the eternal battleground between “can” and “should”.

Given the embryos’ triploidy and homozygous thalassemia, the primary ethical dilemma of tinkering with potentially viable entities did not arise in this study. Even so, Science and Nature rejected the paper summarily citing ethics concerns, and the usual people were interviewed saying the same things they said about IVF and cloning (briefly: unnatural hence unethical, slippery slopes, designer babies). Beyond the original furor over IVF babies, recall that a few months ago the UK allowed the generation of triparental embryos for people who carry mitochondrial mutations that would result in disease. And although many diseases are multigenic, others, equally devastating, would yield to such therapy.

Not surprisingly, many scientists and ethicists have called for a temporary moratorium on such experiments until consensus guidelines are developed. This happened at least once before, with recombinant DNA (the famous Asilomar conference of 1975). The original fears around gene splicing proved baseless, the grandstanding of Cambridge mayor Alfred Vellucci notwithstanding. The same is true of IVF, which has resulted in millions of perfectly normal humans, though the wars around gene therapy and GMOs are still raging, partly driven by issues other than feasibility or outcomes.

In my opinion, the meaninful dividing line is not between humans and all other animals. The real dividing line is between repair and enhancement (and what the latter really means). It’s almost certain that such methods will be tried on the less privileged first and, once perfected, will be preferentially accessible to the well-off – possibly indefinitely, if the current re-stratification of humanity by wealth persists. At the same time, it’s equally clear that the CRISPR technique has passed the proof of concept test and will eventually be used. I, for one, cannot imagine many future parents who will opt for no intervention if they are told that their child will develop Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia or Huntington’s disease.

The burning question, of course, is if attributes deemed socially desirable will also be on the table with CRISPR. Thankfully, almost all suchlike attributes are polygenic and/or strongly susceptible to environmental input. Closer to the bone, a condition like monogenic deafness carries the dilemmas now associated with cochlear implants (I will not discuss “IQ” or autism, since these are not defined by single genes or, in some aspects, at the gene level and therefore don’t fall into this conversation). There is also the issue of consent, which means that adults are likelier to be eventually allowed to try exotic changes – with far greater risks attached, because of the intrinsic difficulties I discussed earlier.

At one end of this lurk the specters of eugenics and coercion – and, if financial and power stratifications escalate, the fear that humans may eventually split into Eloi and Morlocks. However, speciation requires total isolation of founder populations… and masters rarely withstand the temptation to mate with their slaves and servants, whether it’s an act of love or lust. Another fear is that the editing of an “undesirable” gene variant into extinction will have unforeseen consequences, since germline or embryonic editing is heritable. Many disease alleles have persisted because they confer advantages to heterozygotes: sickle cell to malaria, cystic fibrosis to cholera. As I never tire of repeating, “optimal” status is context-dependent. But if we fine-tune the editing techniques to the point that they become safe for routine use, re-introducing known alleles will be equally easy (creating new ones is definitely terra incognita, though these could, and should, be pre-tested in non-human systems).

On this, as with recombinant DNA, I’m a cautious optimist and venture to hope that the perfected CRISPR technique will be used with awareness and care for good – to ensure that monogenic diseases don’t lead to shortened or stunted lives. We may end up with a mosaic of guidelines, but eventually familiarity will dispel our wired fear of the new. We’ll still have to struggle with diseases that are less tractable, like dementia. And if CRISPR gives rise to a few more blue-eyed babies, I think we can live with that.

Blue Eyes

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Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

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The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Friday, March 13th, 2015

“… Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight, God shall win.”
— from The Four Ages of Man, W. B. Yeats

Pier and Sea

It’s hard, even for those who believe in afterlives, to contemplate that individual organisms become biologically irrelevant in this life once they’ve succeeded in shepherding the next generation to autonomy. It insults our deep sense of teleology, of being here for a purpose beyond just reproduction and ecosystem balancing interactions.

Luckily, humans undergo a very long period of neoteny: they need to acquire the specialized physical and mental skills required for dealing with technology and social groups, including language. So in humans (and a few other species that include orcas and elephants) experienced elders remain relevant – indeed, crucial – for a long time past peak reproduction. Even so, the average human lifespan hovered around the mid-thirties (with exceptions so rare that they were noted in myths and chronicles) until clean water and antibiotics extended it to almost three times its unaided length.

But this longevity came with a price attached. Our scaffolding was not made to last that long, no matter how precious its cargo. So anyone who goes past thirty will get acquainted with at least one of the degenerative age-linked diseases; primarily cancer and dementia. It’s also true that such diseases can strike young(er) people, but that happens to those who carry gene alleles (variants) that make them susceptible to the respective dysfunctions.

Cancer and dementia are broad umbrella terms for aggregate final-outcome phenomenology. Cancer means that specialized organ-specific cells that should have stopped dividing resume the process, spawning a mound of descendants (“tumor”) that often are semi-immortal. In contrast, normal cells die and are replaced in a set timetable for each organ, except for neurons, glia, ova and testicular Sertoli cells (it’s not just eggs that get old: sperm quality also declines with age because Sertoli cells are its maintenance crew). Incorrect resumption of propagation is usually the result of mutations, genetic or sporadic (for example, induced by radiation) that jangle the carefully calibrated choreography of the activators and inhibitors that regulate gene expression. When the inappropriately dividing cells become so de-differentiated that they no longer adhere to their relatives (aka contact inhibition), they detach and start creating colonies elsewhere in the body (metastasis). There are environmental and hormonal triggers for each organ (asbestos and cigarette tar for lungs, UV light for skin, lactation status for breast) but age is the cross-sectional risk factor.

If cancer is too many cells, dementia is too few. Many people use dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) as synonyms but, in reality, dementia is a much larger and more heterogeneous category – so much so that non-AD dementias often get misdiagnosed. This conflation is plainly visible in the statements that attribute the recent, too-early death of SF author Terry Pratchett to early-onset AD; in fact, Sir Terry suffered from Posterior Cortical Atrophy, a rare non-AD type of dementia that starts out by affecting visual perception.

Who we are as persons largely resides in our brains and the human brain is amazingly plastic. That attribute is what allows us to acquire unique skills as a species and new skills as individuals. Our brain will also reroute and rewire at moments of crisis (this capacity, incidentally, is the likely root cause of fibromyalgia), though it loses plasticity with age and adult neurogenesis is negligible, limiting regeneration abilities. If, for whatever reason – from a mutation to lack of oxygen to a blow on the head – an extended portion of brain tissue dies past the brain’s capacity to effect repairs, the eventual outcome is dementia: literally, loss of mind. If the hippocampus is affected, the result is inability to form and retain memories. If the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s Disease. If the blood vessels, impaired judgment and organizational skills. If the frontal lobe, disinhibition (inappropriate behavior), aphasia (problems with speaking) and extreme mood swings. Overall, dementia means that the invisible, seamless mental coordination upon which we utterly rely stutters: brain compartments are reduced to the mere sum of their parts and eventually even localized functions fail.

A few non-brain complications can also affect cognitive function – vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism – but these are reversible. On the other hand, brain-based dementia, once it starts, is progressive and irreversible. And although we know and continue to learn a lot about the neurodegeneration process at several scales, we have made zero headway in preventing, arresting or reversing it. We don’t even know what to look for as an early warning sign; not that it would avail us much if we did. Whereas cancer treatment has made enormous strides in terms of both effectiveness and fine-tuning, whatever medications are given to dementia sufferers are really attempts to ameliorate side symptoms – the horrific anxiety of early stages, the crippling discombobulation of later ones. In fact, currently most dementia sufferers will remain lucid and functional the longest if they’re given nothing at all.

Countless theories have been proposed about how dementia starts and spreads; although several are not mutually exclusive, many events/structures that initially seemed obvious pathogenic culprits (and hence potentially fruitful targets for therapy) have now been proved to be effects rather than causes. The most prominent casualty is the amyloid hypothesis, which posits that amyloid plaques act as poison or as dominoes that nudge neighboring neurons into the downward spiral. However, it turns out that amyloid plaques are in fact neutral depositories; the truly toxic entities are soluble oligomers – and vaccines that dissolved plaques would accelerate the progression of the disease. Furthermore, several types of dementia have no plaques (the tangle-only dementias, in which fibrillar deposits of the scaffolding protein tau are the diagnostic and causative entities). This does not mean that amyloid is not involved, since several types of early-onset AD are caused by mutations in enzymes that process the amyloid precursor. What it means is that there are many tributaries that funnel into the dementia main pipe, and a change in any of them may suffice to tilt the system into initiating the degeneration loop.

People fear suffering; but even more they fear loss of self. Dementia is the ultimate specter and its shadow is lengthening in step with our lifespan. So are its burdens on individuals and groups: half of the population older than 85 develops the disease. Also, younger people who would once have died from brain injuries sustained in explosions now survive them, only to become strangers to themselves and those who love them.

We will all face the journey into the dark. But the same sense of wonder and purpose that has made us explore beyond what we can instantly grasp – from galaxies to brains to quarks – also makes us want to meet the unknown (or the end) as ourselves.

Image: Pier and Sea, by A68Stock

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?

Blastocysts Feel No Pain

The Quantum Choice: You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Interview with a Yeti

Friday, February 20th, 2015

A while ago, our intrepid science correspondent AA ventured into the dangers of the Himalayas, where she was able to coax an exclusive interview out of Lilypad, a saber tooth tiger in hiding. When that interview appeared, she got a request through intermediary Marie E. to present a balancing view from a different local cryptid.

AA did not have the wherewithal for a second trip to the Himalayas and internet connections in that region are notoriously spotty. However, as luck would have it, the recent heavy snowstorms of the Northeastern US made an incognito visit possible for Smoofey, the self-appointed Ambassador-at-Large of Extra-Himalayan Yeti Affairs.

Without further ado, here is that interview.

Smoofster_with_Ikebana
Smoofey proudly displaying his ikebana skills
(photo: Peter Cassidy, staff photographer and resident yeti)

AA: Mr. Smoofey, what prompted you to break your deep cover? Some might call it riding on others’ (coat)tails…

SY: I had to correct some misconceptions propagated from Ms. Lilypad’s interview.

AA: Such as?

SY: Her contention that tigers essentially harvest yetis for food, for one!

AA: It sounded a bit like the Iroquois rotation system with denned bears… (Smoofey shudders, then wrathfully shakes his fist) I take your point! But I think we might want to clear a larger misconception. Most people think yetis don’t exist.

SY: Well, you’re talking to me, aren’t you?

AA: Can I feel your arm?

SY: (Suspiciously) Why?

AA: To prove to our viewers that the fur is real, not a costume. I don’t mean to insult you, but we have a steep uphill slog with burden of proof here.

SY: Oh, ok… Hey, that tickles!

AA: Definitely genuine. Can I take a closeup photo? The skeptics will swallow their tongues! But why is your hairdo so spiky?

SY: It’s hard to comb my fuzz, with all the burrs and ice crystals stuck in it. I can’t spend too much time on grooming, I have to use every possible weather window to forage! At the same time, I have to look good for – well, you know, we’re an endangered species! So I just put a small firecracker up there each morning. (Pats his head) Stylish, no?

AA: Devastating! But have you considered it might contribute to, er, your moniker?

SY: We yetis are tragically misunderstood. All we want are hugs! But when we try to approach humans they run away shrieking… (Sniffs quietly)

AA: That must make you sad.

SY: It does! We end up crying, and that causes avalanches.

AA: That explains a lot about the Himalayas… So, do you consider yourselves Tibetan… Kashmiri… Nepalese…?

SY: Hmph! We were fully civilized before humans showed up dressed in hides! We were philosophers, visionaries, healers – we taught humans how to meditate, to say nothing of ways to avoid frostbite and snow blindness. Ingrates! (Grumbles under his breath) Gautama Siddhartha, indeed!

AA: Somehow, the concept of rough cave-dwelling yetis as civilization beacons…

SY: We’re are epitomes of style! We get regular photo-ops in Better Caves and Logs! We’re famous for our duvet innovations and we love to arrange flowers, though we end up eating some in the process. We invented all kinds of other things, too: beer, dumplings, plaid weave, sunglasses…

AA: Plaid, eh? That explains the clothing of the Ürümchi mummies. Not the most sophisticated fashion statement, you must admit.

SY: We were aiming for arresting color.

AA: Getting back to foraging for a moment, what’s your staple?

SY: We have a nice balanced diet in the summer. In the winter, well… we snooze for much of the duration, but we still have to keep our weight up. Just hot cocoa won’t cut it. Sometimes we must resort to enticing a yak away from a settlement. (Shuffles guiltily) Some of us finally gave up, migrated to less demanding climates.

AA: Bigfoot, you mean?

SY: Yes, the cousins! We still exchange news and care packages. We used to exchange more, but now with those complicated visa requirements for future family members…

AA: Which brings us to reproduction. With your group so dispersed and isolated, how do you manage to find mates?

SY: I keep a careful registry for purposes of hybrid vigor!

AA: How many on that registry?

SY: Two. And neither is a girl. (Starts crying)

AA: Maybe I can get in touch with the Bigfoot delegation on your behalf? Unless you plan to continue westward on this trip.

SY: Would you? I don’t know if I can go over open ground without danger of being pounced on by conspiracy nuts. And it’s hard to raise the cousins. Skype let us down badly – they wanted a prepaid subscription and wouldn’t accept goats, even pashmina ones. We will make you an honorary yeti in gratitude if you succeed! And can you ask them to send me a new copy of Tintin au Tibet? I wore out my old one.

AA: Consider it done, snuggzilla! How about a hug to charge your batteries?

SY: (Hugging AA) No avalanches in Cambridge today!

Tintin au Tibet

Related: Interview with a Saber Tooth Tiger

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

“Being nice to the harmful is equivalent of being harmful to the nice.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan

Karyatidhes

The Karyátidhes, Erechtheíon, Akrópolis, Athens

———-

In the wake of Laura Mixon’s November 2014 report on Winterfox/Requires Hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew/etc (RH/BS), the SFF community had discussion marathons about forgiveness and healing, diversity and inclusion, speaking up and being heard. The predations of RH/BS and her lieutenants, horrific in themselves, are nevertheless a symptom of larger systemic problems. It is becoming increasingly pressing for the inhabitants of SFF, fan and pro, to go past talking and take actions that could eventually move the domain out of perpetual parochialism and childishness. Below are some of my thoughts on the larger context; at the end of the post are links to thoughts of other RH/BS targets. As in my previous contribution to the dissection of this pathology, comments to this post are disabled.

———-

Idealistic members of the SFF community envision the genre as tolerant and genuinely inclusive. I find this vision a worthwhile one to aspire to, even though it’s mostly honored in the breach. Being human, we will never really bridge the fault lines that divide the SFF community. What we can do is try to be constructive and productive despite them, and treat each other as professionals, adults and fellow humans.

That said, I will not ask RH/BS, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Tori Truslow or anyone else in RH’s orbit to promise me anything for the simplest of reasons: their behavior after RH/BS issued disjunct “apologies” when she ran out of dodges make it crystal clear they have no intent to change. Their attempts to discredit and silence critics continue unabated (once again, I refer everyone to the fable of the scorpion and the frog). They’ve also redoubled their efforts to reconstitute the BS construct as a talented ingénue beset by jealous rivals and to deep-six the fact that they’ve systematically engaged in trade suppression, blackmail and intimidation.

RH/BS and her acolytes have set back true progressives in SFF by at least a decade and have turned “social justice” into a term of derision even among supporters of change and an apotropaic invocation for those agog to have SFF revert to the circa-fifties Leaden Era. However, of greater concern are those who are so eager to exhibit ideological purity or (belated) art-for-art’s-sake “objectivity” that they’re effectively contributing to the relentless onslaught on real diversity in SFF. Their actions have helped turn the SFF ecosphere into rigid, brittle monocultures clustered at extreme end-nodes of the political/identitarian spectrum.

I continue to see disingenuous arguments that “talent” (however it’s defined in today’s tinsel-grabbing market) trumps blatant professional misconduct and utter lack of ethics; that spouting pseudo-edgy fashionable jargon excuses sustained, de facto criminal attempts to blight lives and demolish careers and reputations. I see no real move to give voices to those who have been silenced by malice, no matter how vital their voices are pronounced to be or how talented they are (and many are visibly more talented than BS). Instead, I see cynical promotion of gaudy baubles, lip service to quality notwithstanding; self-satisfied endorsement of tokens and Pathetic Puppies, the more “provocative” boxes they tick, the better; annoyance at targets of smearing and bullying campaigns who will not obligingly remain mute or leave the arena – and who will never recover the time, energy, income and professional ground they lost; and continued erasure of mavericks who don’t fit the agendas of self-appointed correct thought supervisors or of instant-cred seekers from SFF publications and conventions.

I once said I would not take the Joanna Russ pledge because I had been at the barricades all my life. Likewise, once again I won’t utter sonorous noises about showcasing the loners and outliers, the neglected and forgotten, because I’ve been doing it all along and will continue to do it as long as I can. Whether I and other memory keepers remain cymbals echoing in the wilderness or end up with acid thrown at our writings and faces is up to the SFF community.

 

Recent thoughts from other targets of RH/BS and her acolytes

Jean Bergmann, Statement Regarding Alex Dally MacFarlane

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Writer’s Journey: Doing the Work

Rachel Manija Brown, Requires Hate/Requires Love

Liz Williams, Requires Comment

 

Selected related articles

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

A Plague on Both Your Houses

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Caesars and Caesar Salads

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

“My God, it’s Full of Physics!*” The Sciency Science of Interstellar

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The People in the Trees.

*apologies to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Captain-NemoLet’s get something out there right away: most science in science fiction is wrong. That’s okay, because most science fiction isn’t actually about science, anyway, but about our relationship with science, exploring how science and technology intersects with our lives.   Frankenstein is about the quest for knowledge, no matter the cost. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea chronicles how one man’s rejection of the violent machinery of war and power leads him to be the ultimate, terrible instrument of that same violence. The movie Gattaca warns us of the dangers of using a single technological lens for measuring humanity.

Interstellar had Kip Thorne, a prominent Caltech theorist and expert in gravity, as a scientific advisor. But in the end it was the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Pan: if you clap your hands and believe, everything will turn out all right.

As I’ve written elsewhere, a good narrative should be much a good joke: surprising yet ultimately logical. In the original version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus is trapped in a mighty maelstrom; in the movie version the crew are ambushed by a naval blockade. Both outcomes arise naturally from a central character’s underestimate of the forces arrayed against them: in the book, Nemo underestimates the power of nature; in the movie, Ned Land underestimates the cold brutality and hatred of the military. Both are surprising, but make sense in the context of the story-so-far.

By contrast, the plot of Interstellar basically boils down to this: a magical plague nearly extinguishes humanity. Then more magic saves it.

A blight which wipes out an entire food crop is completely believable, especially given our increasing tendency to monoculture. We’ve even seen that in bananas: most bananas in US stores are the Cavendish variety, cultivated by clonal cuttings. Sixty years ago you would have found the Gros Michel variety, but it was all but obliterated by Panama disease, and it is not impossible that the Cavendish may suffer a similar fate.

A single blight which annihilates crop after crop after crop is less believable, if only because: if it hasn’t happened in half a billion years of terrestrial plants, why suddenly now? Worse Michael Caine mumbles something about nitrogen, and people suffocating, which I could not follow; did the blight fix nitrogen, or oxygen? How could it possibly fix enough of either one to shift the atmospheric composition by more than a percent or two–especially given it would have to also draw upon the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is only a fraction of a percent.

This by itself is not an unforgivable scientific (or I should say sciencey) sin. I’m willing to accept a monstrous if highly unlikely plague in order to set the plot in motion.

After some more improbabilities, the accidental heroes launch into space. I’m glad Kip Thorne was able to talk Nolan out of his desire for faster-than-light drive, and the journey to Saturn takes a long time. Limitations, when consistent, provide a good verisimilitude of actual technology. I’m not sure why no one explained to Coop, the talented pilot, what a wormhole was until they were ten minutes from entering it, but, again, for the sake of the narrative I gritted my teeth and accepted it. They were surely some pretty CG effects.

But then we get to the planets. Including a planet orbiting a massive black hole.

Actually, even this I could accept. It is science fiction, after all, and I myself wrote and sold a story (“Icarus Beach”) involving characters surfing the neutrino burst from a supernova. I’m sure Kip Thorne patiently explained that to have a planet deep enough inside a gravity well for a time dilation ratio of 7 years to 1 hour but not be torn apart from tidal forces, it would have to be a really really massive black hole. Hence the name Gargantua. Thorne may have even explained to Nolan that such black holes are only found in the centers of galaxies, which are full of stars and radiation and really not that hospitable to life.

But even that I would accept–part of the joy of science fiction is the sense of wonder and the awe of extreme environments and situations. And the gravitational time dilation, although unrealistically large, fits well into the theme of constrained situations.

I never did get a good sense of the system. Are there twelve planets (like twelve disciples, get it, get it?) and a sun orbiting a sun, or what? The planet of ice clouds seemed, again, unlikely but cool.

But then we get to the mind-numbingly stupid stuff.

Chastain & Thorne

Not the falling into a black hole; I rather liked that bit. But Coop communicates with his daughter in the past, and eventually gets to meet her in the future, and it’s apparently all to do with five dimensions. Five dimensions, in Nolan-world, is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It’s not so much bad science, because the science in the movie is, beyond phrases like “five-dimensional beings,” nonexistent. It’s bad plotting because Nolan is saying And then a miracle occurs. A miracle we expect the audience to swallow, because, science!

Let me remind you: a good narrative should be like a good joke: surprising, but logical.

It’s not logical if you invoke incomprehensible magic. If the audience doesn’t have a fair chance of understanding it, it’s poor narrative.

Even the one part that, superficially, sounded believable doesn’t make much sense if you understand the deep workings of physics. Michael Caine’s character desperately wants to crack the riddle of quantum gravity in order to, I guess, make antigravity and thus easy mass space travel. Another miracle. But they need data, ideally from passing through the event horizon of a black hole, to get it to work.

Physics is fundamentally an experimental science, so superficially this is good. But I could not figure out what kind of data would make a difference. Presumably Caine has narrowed down the range of models–what sort of gauge groups or diffeomorphisms may be involved. But if there is a possibility that a working theory of quantum gravity could lead to antigravity, you could just build the damn things–here’s one device assuming SU(10) supergravity, here’s another assuming conformally invariant diffeomorphisms, here’s another assuming Lorentz-violation at ultraviolet scales (and, for you readers out there, those are all real phrases, not shit I just made up)–and see which one produces antigravity and allows you to build colonies around Saturn. After all, Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different substances for the filament of an electric light bulb before finding one that worked. No need for a suicide mission down a black hole.*

Let me emphasize that the problem is not the bad science–it is that the narrative leans heavily upon incomprehensible science. That’s bad storytelling. And in the end, that’s the worst sin possible in a movie.

 

*I actually liked the trip down the black hole. And if the movie had ended, right there, I would have liked it a lot more, since up to that point the movie was pretty convincing about how dangerous and indifferent the universe is.

Thomas-Edison-Quotes

Images: 1st, James Mason as Captain Nemo; 2nd, Jessica Chastain with Kip Thorne; 3rd, the relevant Thomas Edison quote.