Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Rest
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for the 'Science' Category

Parallel Universes

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

What Are They? Do They Exist? How Do We Find Out?

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado. The article first appeared at Science That.

Multiverse

Two physicists decide to visit Las Vegas to try their luck at gambling. One of the pair plays craps, where he proceeds to rapidly lose their limited funds as he continually throws one poor roll of the dice after another. His companion, none too pleased at watching their money disappear, demands to know from his friend why he keeps playing this game despite losing every time.

“I may be losing at craps in this universe,” replies the first physicist, “but in an alternate reality, my duplicate is making a fortune!”

Among the biggest mysteries of modern cosmology is the question of whether other universes beyond our own exist in the Cosmos, or Multiverse, as it would be called should they prove to be real.

The general public is aware of the concept of parallel or alternate universes largely through popular science fiction, where they have been a plot device for a long time. Perhaps the best known of those imagined alternate existences is the Mirror Universe of the Star Trek series, where we meet the “bad” versions of the main characters from our universe – or their own fictional “reality” parallel to our real reality.

But do parallel universes truly exist? Are they composed largely of varying degrees of the people and places we know from this reality? Or could they be something far more complex and vast than most science fiction has ever attempted to portray?

If certain physicists who study this concept are correct, then parallel universes exist on a number of “flavors” or levels. Max Tegmark, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says there are four levels of parallel universes. They range from the first level, where alternate realities exist at distances well beyond the observable Universe we live in, to the fourth, where all mathematically possible universes can and do exist. Many if not most of those universes would not resemble ours at all, obeying entirely different laws of physics. The universes envisioned by Tegmark would be virtually impossible to visit, barring some breakthrough in physics and technology.

Another type of alternate universe is known as the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI). This theory was first proposed by Hugh Everett III in 1957 and later became the Level Three type of alternate universe in Tegmark’s catalog of parallel existences. Utilizing quantum physics, MWI claims that every action by every person and object creates an infinite number of alternative actions that branch off into their own universe. In this scenario, every possible history and future becomes reality in its own existence separate from our own. This idea was the plot device for the science fiction television series Sliders, which had a group of people travel to alternate Earths every week from 1995 to 2000 via a machine that generated a wormhole.

Could we ever detect or visit these parallel universes? If the theories of current physics are proven true, then the answer would be not any time soon in most cases. However, there has been speculation that four “cold spots” or “bruises” in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation – the surviving remnant of the Big Bang which began our universe some 13.8 billion years ago – are alternate universes which either once quantum entangled with or “bumped” into our reality at some point in the distant past.

If there were parallel universes which collided with our own Universe, one has to ask why they did not create a new Big Bang as predicted by the ekyprotic cosmological model: In this scenario, a physical property in string theory called branes has the branes of several universes collide perhaps once every one trillion years or so. Their collision releases huge amounts of energy to create a new universe. This is what some scientists say is what brought about our Universe in contrast to the current Big Bang model of creation.

There are those who disavow the idea of other universe beyond our own. They correctly state that there is no scientifically empirical evidence for their existence, only theories and mathematical models. While these skeptics are correct in their reasoning, one also has to ask if they need to take another look at our perspectives on the Cosmos over the centuries. Not too many centuries ago, only a few people dared to speculate there were any worlds beyond our Earth or that the Sun was just a very close member of those myriads of twinkling stars in the night sky.

As late as 1920, astronomers were still debating whether the Milky Way galaxy was the ultimate cosmic structure or just one of many billions of stellar islands in the Universe. We now know the latter to be true, adding to our list of cosmic “demotions” from thinking we were the literal focus of existence to just being residents of a rather small world circling a typical star in a galaxy of hundreds of billions of suns, all of which is part of an immense and ancient Universe with at least one hundred billion galaxies if not more.

So are we part of a vast, singular Universe, or is our reality just one of an infinity of alternate existences on a scale far beyond what even our current knowledge can determine? Just as with the possibility of there being extraterrestrial life now that we know many billions of worlds exist in our Milky Way alone, or the historical precedent of Copernicus and others claiming that Earth is just one planet orbiting its sun and not the other way around, it is very tempting to conclude that even something as massive as the Universe might not be the only one in reality. However, we must temper our conclusions on this exciting possibility until the day science determines their existence – or lack thereof.

Evil Spock

On Being a Ghost

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

“Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Herbsttag

Wanderer and shadow, BobCatD

I’ve spent my life being a feral orphan – an outsider in my adopted culture and in both my beloved vocations. I suspect the attitude formed and hardened early, a result of being a bright loner and part of a politically persecuted family. In school I always sat in the very back, against the wall, able to see everyone and be seen by none. In science I consciously chose to explore paths rarely traveled – which set a feedback loop of invisibility even when the results of my research carved new paths. By deciding to write fiction and poetry in English but with content (and, in part, a mindset) rooted in my natal culture, I ensured invisibility in that domain as well.

At the same time, by becoming a bench scientist, I tethered myself to equipment, to the need for lab personnel. Being a hostage, a captive chained to oars, went against my grain. Sometimes I felt like Anakin immured inside his prison shell. Whenever I contemplated my precious unique reagents, I always thought of my great-grandparents, forced to abandon their home in Constantinople. Such an uprooting happened to me, too, though I kept control of the ensuing Viking funeral. I disassembled my lab with my own hands, walked away from my academic title with its ambiguous perks and prestige. Now I’m free again, a leaf on the wind, a nomad with few possessions except what’s between my ears.

As I write this, I am attending a two-day conference focused on RNA metabolism and its effects on brain function. I watch well-known names jockeying for dominance and more fame, newcomers fighting to establish territories and alliances, the stomping-till-churned-to-mud over this year’s “hot topics” and I find myself hard-pressed not to smile. Science and writing can no longer scrape my heart, even though I still love them passionately. Pain goes through me like neutrinos through matter. I wonder if that’s what Virginia Woolf meant when she spoke of the Olympian detachment she deemed the highest attainment for a creator – though I suspect she knew, as do I, that passion is the last thing to die in us.

Moon-Owl“They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south //. I’ll have no call now to be going down // in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.”
– Maurya, in Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge

Images: The Wanderer and Her Shadow, by BobCatD; Moon-Tree-Owl (detail)

Floating Brains and Invasive Minds

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American with only the top accompanying image.

ghost shell MRecently, two studies surfaced almost simultaneously that led to exclamations of “Vulcan mind meld!”, “Zombie armies!” and “Brains in jars!” One is the announcement by Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco of Washington U. that they “achieved the first human-to-human brain interface”. The other is the Nature paper by Madeline Lancaster et al about stem-cell-derived “organoids” that mimic early developmental aspects of the human cortex. My condensed evaluation: the latter is far more interesting and promising than the former, which doesn’t quite do what people (want to) think it’s doing.

The purported result of brain interfacing hit many hot buttons that have been staples of science fiction and Stephen King novels: primarily telepathy, with its fictional potential for non-consensual control. Essentially, the sender’s EEG (electroencephalogram) output was linked to the receiver’s TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) input. What the experiment actually did is not send a thought but induce a muscle twitch; nothing novel, given the known properties of the two technologies. The conditions were severely constrained to produce the desired result and I suspect the outcome was independent of the stimulus details: the EEG simply recorded that a signal had been produced and the TMS apparatus was positioned so that a signal would elicit a movement of the right hand. Since both sender and receiver were poised over a keyboard operating a video game, the twitch was sufficient to press the space bar, programmed by the game to fire a cannon.

Here’s a partial list of problems with the wide-bore conclusion of “Mind meld!”: 1) The space bar is by far the largest keyboard item, as well as the one closest to the user’s fingers. I bet that if the desired move had been programmed by, say, one of the tiny F keys, the results would be negative. 2) It’s unclear that input specifics mattered. The obvious control is to see if any EEG signal (or a computer simulation of an EEG signal without a human at its end) gives the same result with an identical TMS setup. If yes, we’re back to square zero. If no, further experiments would be interesting and useful, though still extremely limited for applications. 3) The response was a reflex action, not a thought-induced one. This makes the setup an inefficient and Pentagon-expensive on/off switch, not a method to elicit fine-tuned actions.

The overall result, complicated input/output paraphernalia notwithstanding, is par with having frog legs twitch when they receive an electric current, or with people’s legs jerking when hit at the knee with a doctor’s hammer. To his credit, Rao pointed out that this is not a technique for thought transfer. Such technology may well end up enabling people who are paralyzed by either accident or disease to exert some control over basic commands, if the setup can be made less cumbersome. Most certainly it’s not a preamble to “passengers landing planes when the pilot is incapacitated”, as touted by Stocco. Passengers in such jeopardy would do better to stick with the traditional frantically shouted instructions shown in all those Airport movies. And the zombie army plans will have to be put on hold.

So what about disembodied masterminds that could control these zombie armies? Lancaster et al developed experimental conditions under which either embryonic (ESC) or induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells differentiate into small balls that exhibit several of the properties of embryonic cortex. These include migration of the proto-neuronal cells to form laminar structures (which in real brains go on to become such compartments as the hippocampus) and bursts of electrical activity that are sensitive to cognate neurotoxins. The organoid attributes resemble those of a bona fide brain but aren’t the same. Additionally, they are limited in size and further development/self-organization by the intrinsic absence of the micro- and macro-contexts of native brains during their formation.

The fundamental premise of this research is not novel: it extends the trial-and-error attempts of cell biology to induce desired cellular properties and structures in culture. It is an interesting stroke of random luck that ESCs and iPSs are (relatively!) easy to turn into proto-neurons. Given the experimental parameters, such structures will almost certainly never recapitulate a full-size, fully functional brain even if they’re given 3-D scaffolds and circulating nutrients that mimic blood supplies. However, brain organoids derived from iPS cells of humans suffering from brain disorders are tremendous assets for figuring out what goes awry in specific contexts. Lancaster et al already did a neat (and directly relevant) proof of principle: they demonstrated phenotype-congruent differences in organoids cultivated from the skin of a microcephaly case caused by a mutation in CDK5RAP2. Among its functions, this protein regulates the mitotic spindle and hence the crucial balance between cell proliferation and differentiation – vital not only for cancer, but also for correct brain development.

This new tool in our kit promises to bypass two major bottlenecks in basic and applied biomedical research: work with “equivalence” models in non-humans is strewn with species-specific artifacts and limitations, whereas research on humans is fraught with moral dilemmas. In other words, it will allow us to identify human-specific details that make the difference in truly understanding and eventually short-circuiting diseases that are unique and critical to us – brain malformation and deterioration most prominently among them. Furthermore, it will do so without destroying embryos, making its funding less of a political football than usual.

So the outcome of this type of research will not be masterminds in silicon jars, but better maintained brains in carbon bodies. This is modest, prosaic – but real and concrete, unlike the overhyped “mind melds” which will have a hard time catching up with (let alone overtaking) our fine-tuned, sophisticated tool for such endeavors: language.

Meld

Sources and further explanations:

Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans: A Pilot Study

Lancaster MA, Renner M, Martin C-A, Wenzel D, Bicknell LS, Hurles ME, Homfray T, Penninger JM, Jackson AP, Knoblich JA (2013). Cerebral organoids model human brain development and microcephaly. Nature doi:10.1038/nature12517.

Cloning Brains with Science. PZ Myers, Pharyngula, Aug. 29, 2013

Images: Top, Ghost in the Shell showcases both “brains in jars” and “mind melds”; bottom, Spock mind-rapes Valeris in The Undiscovered Country.

The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American.

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) in HaywireI reluctantly acquired a Twitter account as a necessary accoutrement to my Scientific American posts.  The people I track there fall mostly into two streams: scientists and SFF writers.  This week, the two intersected, resulting in a minor epiphany.  The tributaries were Upsides of Women in Science? by neuroscientist SciTriGrrl at Tenure, She Wrote; and I Hate Strong Female Characters by author Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman.

For those eager to rejoin Twitter lest they miss a hot link, here’s the kernel: the characteristics that McDougall deplores are requirements for the survival of women in science (actually in all endeavors that aren’t explicitly coded “feminine”).  And the permission – nay, requirement – to be a strong silent kick-ass may be one of the few upsides of being a non(whiteAnglo)male in a STEM field, though it comes with a heavy load of baggage.

McDougall follows in the steps of several forerunners (she mis/names Carina Chocano, but these debates have been going on for a while) and hews to a meaning of the term “strong female character” as narrow as Margaret Atwood’s definition of science fiction.  Within her defined parameters, McDougall argues eloquently that “strong” female characters in books, movies and comics are pernicious because they devalue all non-heroic behavior (which of course depends on one’s definition of heroism) and limit the range of attributes, actions and interactions available to the character herself.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most SFF works contain a single woman bereft of female kin and friends.  To retain her trap-strewn status, such a construct is obliged to be a perfect kick-ass while remaining “womanly” and focused on the men and their needs: not for her the quirks and angst of a Sherlock Holmes or an Edward Rochester; not for her the loyalty and unquestioned support of sworn brothers.  There are the inevitable partial exceptions, the most prominent one being Lara Croft before she got stuffed into normalization corsets.

By consensus of both supporters and detractors, the standard kick-ass heroine is an extreme manifestation of the strong silent type: Shane with breasts – and, furthermore, breasts that please and/or nourish without any demand for a quid pro quo.  I call such characters Iron Madonnas: a ratcheted-up variation of the Iron Maiden that requires women to be maternal while remaining asexual and literally selfless, like the Christian prototype.  To give just a few highly visible SFF examples, Arwen, Cordelia Vorkosigan, Sarah Connor, the reboot Uhura and Padmé Amidala (until she turns into a floor puddle) are obvious Iron Madonnas; so are most of Miyazaki’s heroines, which is why Mononoke Hime is such a landmark work: just the centrality of more than one woman (Mononoke and Eboshi) breaks the mold – to say nothing of their attributes.

SciTriGrrl’s article posits that, customary gloom to the contrary, there ARE some upsides to being a woman in STEM.  However, most of the pluses she and her commenters list are non-specific to either gender or discipline: following a consuming vocation; flexible if long hours; lack of a dress code.   The rest, frankly, are a wishlist.  Worse yet, they arise from tokenism (“As the single woman in X you stand out!” – which means you get to serve and be ignored in tons more committees than a male counterpart, to say nothing of the micro- to mega-aggressions that rain on you as a stand-in for all non-men) or from gender-coded behavior along the lines of “Women have more personal/ized interactions and less horn locking!” (as in: being warm and understanding and reaping benefits therefrom).

To which my retort is, if only.  Contrary to SciTriGrrl’s hopeful assertions, women in STEM, regardless of where they are in their career path, have a narrower permitted response spectrum than men.  Not only is weeping instant career demolition; so is anger, sarcasm, moodiness, flamboyance, charisma.  All, incidentally, are deemed leadership attributes in men and add depth and piquancy to male heroes – and are also reflected on what’s acceptable in corresponding outerwear.  A male mentor is never expected to waste valuable time and gray matter to even hear, let alone tolerate, tales of personal woe.  A male faculty member can show up in sweatpants or with hair combed by touching an electric socket, no problemo; and unless he’s non-white or has “odd vowels” in his name, he’s never chosen for draining service duties with the reasoning “We need ‘diversity’ so we can check off that box in our reports to funding agencies.”  Women are called to lead a department or company only when it’s in deep doodoo: not only are their careers deemed more disposable but “as women” they’re considered magically (or genetically) equipped to clean up messes while the men forge ahead with advantageous exit strategies.

What I just described is the narrowly defined kick-ass heroine excoriated by McDougall et al.  The Iron Madonna has been, and remains, the sole viable behavior mode for women in STEM – in part because we’re still asked to prove non-stop that “We’re as good as boys.”  The stance does not guarantee success or happiness, far from it; it only gives people who do science while non-male the chance to pursue their vocation without handicaps of Harrison Bergeron size.  It’s a persona, an armored exoskeleton that must be worn on a planet where toxic molecules are inhaled with each and every breath.

Which is where the tiny sliver of “advantage” comes in, if it can be called that: women in this configuration can sometimes dodge the automatic expectation of standard “feminine” responses.  They will never achieve a fraction of the fame, success and authority of male counterparts with a fraction of their dedication and talent; but they may be left alone to dream and shape the dark in small, meagerly funded labs without demands to be den mothers, wear floppy bow ties or make soothing noises (though they still get summarily slapped down if they deviate from the spacetime local academic norms).  The real solution, of course, is to make others more multifaceted and human(e) rather than women less so.  But that’s still “a consummation devoutly to be wished” even in first-world academia.

Related articles:

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears
A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise
The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets
So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Image: Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in Haywire (Photo: Associated Press)

Women’s Bodies, Women’s Powers

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Note: this is a variant of the talk I delivered as the opening of the Readercon panel of the same title in July. The other participants were Alex Dally MacFarlane, Kate Nepveu, Vandana Singh and Sabrina Vourvoulias.

The issues contained in the title of this panel are many and complex; we’ll only scratch the surface today but I hope they may lead to further thinking. One large context is the perceived need to categorize everything, including gender signs/signals, and assign relative value to the resulting categories, which in SFF can be posited as “objective reality” (see Scott Bakker’s work for a textbook example). Another large context is that SFF still follows the long-outmoded concept that genes/chromosomes/specific body functions completely dictate higher order behavior. The third major issue is to whom non-male bodies belong. Anyone following global politics (or even Texan ones… or Twitter, for that matter) will know the answer remains surprisingly non-obvious.

Biologically, we are a feedback loop between our brains/bodies and the external world. There are real limitations dictated, for example, by the fact that we’re mammals with everything the term implies, from metabolism to reproductive investment at the biological level. At the same time, human brains are plastic and remarkably capable of bypassing default settings, biological as well as cultural.

To some extent, much of what I want to discuss today is contained in The Scorpion King, a pulp fantasy movie that adheres to traditional binary gender assumptions while slyly subverting them. In it, Mathayus (the protagonist) learns that Memnon, his adversary, enjoys the services of a powerful sorcerer. Mathayus duly sets out to assassinate the sorcerer, only to discover that the sorcerer is a woman, Cassandra, whose magical powers will reportedly evaporate if her hymen is ruptured –- specifically by a man; not, say, by a woman or from riding horses. Memnon plans to deflower Cassandra once he’s in power, lest she turn against him. Instead, she chooses Mathayus as a lover, then returns to distract Memnon while Mathayus gathers the rebel groups. Memnon tells Cassandra, “I sense a change in you. You seem, somehow, (significant pause) diminished.” She replies, “I assure you, I am myself.” – and proceeds to prove it by her subsequent actions (it is also indicative of the movie’s subversive streak that the visions of this Cassandra, unlike those of her Homeric namesake, compel instant belief).

So: women’s bodies and their powers. We have two paths here, in the real world as well as in SFF. One is the “separate but equal” route which has been taken too easily and too often; the other argues that human bodies and powers cover all the letters of the magical alphabet (not just the alpha and the omega, with the usual culprits assuming the alpha position), and that most magic need not depend on functions traditionally assigned to gender.

What is often overlooked is how similar humans are across scales. We are, however, mammals; that means that there are a few functions that are specific to biological women: namely, ovulation/menstruation, pregnancy and lactation. Interestingly, until the development of pastoralism and agriculture beyond the subsistence level, which eventually led women to accumulate body fat past a critical threshold, periods and pregnancies were infrequent events that occupied a very small portion of women’s lives – although lengthy lactation was used as a fertility regulator.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the taboos surrounding these functions have placed major restrictions on women’s status as full humans, while simultaneously often being their sole path to any semblance of social power. They have also given rise to the concept that these functions define what a woman is while simultaneously deeming such a construct intrinsically inferior – from the concept of menstrual blood as a potent pollutant to the idea that estrogen and progesterone fluctuations make people unstable to the penalties levied to women who are inconveniently in/fertile or produce daughters. Of course, this is ironic given several facts: spermatogonia are as fragile as ova, biological gender is defined by the paternal chromosomal contribution and the number of hormones and their targets vastly exceeds the two glorified in pop sci and pulp lit.

In other eras, these views and their resulting binary splits were enforced by religious dictates: laws that equated cross-dressing with abomination (that’s how Jeanne d’ Arc ended at the stake); menstruation huts and iron beds; after-birth churching and mikvehs; forbidding women to touch weapons or enter the sanctum sanctorums of various faiths; nowadays, we can count on evolutionary psychology, that hasn’t encountered a parochial separate-and-unequal assumption it didn’t like and wouldn’t like to turn into a primary and universal human attribute. Here the irony is that each culture has had very different concepts of what is “properly” male and female; the overriding commonality is that whatever is defined as non-male along any axis is automatically of lesser value.

This outlook has migrated pretty much wholesale into speculative literature. It’s still standard fare in fantasy to postulate male and female magic, with men usually having the fun or heroic bits while women are given the equivalent of housecleaning (that is, preservation). It’s equally standard for women to lose (or be thought to lose) any extranormal powers they possess when they have penetrative sex, menstruate or become pregnant – from André Norton’s Witch World adepts to the shapeshifter Zamia in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Men in fantasy, whether in heterosexual or homosexual sex, whether casual or committed, never lose any powers they have, though celibacy is considered a good way not to waste one’s “juice” in several religions and fantasy cycles – including the male wizards in Le Guin’s Earthsea, who undergo formal training denied to women. There are of course the rare inevitable exceptions: Samson, whose power resides in his hair; Angel reverting to full bore vampire when Buffy finally beds him; the Celtic sacred kings, who had to be intact to rule (hence Llew Llaw Gyffes’ golden arm).

Magic is also gendered in SF: empaths are almost always women, again in line with the essentialist binary split, whereas telepathy as forcible mental penetration is employed often, even by those quintessences of probity, Spock of Star Trek and Professor Xavier of X-Men. The other perennial surprise is how prevalent traditional pregnancy is in SF, even when advanced technology is clearly present otherwise – almost like a filter for the moral fiber of female characters, from Padmé Amidala to Cordelia Vorkosigan (née Naismith). Of course, the question of what might happen to women if artificial wombs became common and reliable is a major question in itself.

Now, mind you, if separate were truly equal, we should have stories in which some of these parlous female functions give rise to a whirlwind or firestorm of power. I mean, if a spike of estrogen supposedly can drive a woman insane it could equally well pack a psychic wallop as powerful as the shattering rages of Achilles or CúChulainn. I can think of a sole case where this happens: in The Dark Crystal, when Kira unfurls a pair of wings Jen complains, “I don’t have wings!” To which Kira replies, “Of course not. You’re a boy.”

I could provide many more genre examples, but we all have our long lists. What real life and speculative literature need to come in terms with and incorporate is that humans occupy several continuous spectrums and that the traditional attributes of binary gender are a very small part of what defines a person — and that women are far more than their menstrual cycles. In fact, if the grandomother theory proves correct, it’s post-menopausal women (who in wicca are said to possess “wise blood” stored within) who made humans who we are.

Related entries:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Witchworld

Images: Cassandra (Kelly Hu) and Mathayus (Dwayne Johnson) in The Scorpion King; covers for André Norton’s Witch World novels, some good (Dan Dos Santos, left) some less so (Jeff Jones, right) [click on the image to see larger version]

The Warrior’s Rest

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Dying Gaul 3

Dying Gaul (Roman copy of Hellenistic original commissioned by Attalus I of Pergamon; Capitoline Museum, Rome)

“She had no regrets for her life. Many cold nights had she spent on hard ground, with weapons as a pillow, but the stars had been beautiful beyond compare for a blanket.” — From “Endgame”

Song: from “This War is Over” by Melissa Etheridge, end-theme of The Devil’s Own (1997)

Gender’s Giving Sci-Fi and Fantasy the COOTIES!

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

by Kay Holt

Athena’s note: This entry first appeared at Science in My Fiction (SiMF). Like its author, it wears many hats. Kay Holt is the co-founder and editor of Crossed Genres and the founder of SiMF; neither venue needs lengthy introductions.  She was also my co-editor for The First Half of the Sky (a collaboration I intend to renew whenever the opportunity arises), so the article is part of the ongoing series in which I showcase the contributors to the anthology.  It’s also one more reaction to recent SFWA events that I, among many others, discussed in my previous entry — and equally so to the persistent stone-age level of gender discussions in self-labeled progressive/visionary communities.

Kay Holt

When I was a kid, dresses weren’t the problem. I was. Of all the sticks and stones lobbed in my direction, ‘tomboy’ was one of the kindest. I didn’t help my circumstances by refusing to wear pink or pigtails or shoes that went ‘click’ on the sidewalk.

I wasn’t just a no-frills kind of girl. On school picture day, I rocked a pair of  boys’ Transformers sandals. There was more to me than met the eye. True, I was born with certain genitals and I wore my hair very, very long until I was an adult. But no matter how hard people tried – and sometimes they tried with fists and guns – nobody was able to convince me that my crotch defined my self.

Girl or boy, gender was an imposition as far as I was concerned. I took to it like I took to a beating: With my guard up and my head down. That is, until I grew up enough to ‘fight like a man’. After that, I started hearing a lot of, “Babe, you have to let the boys win.” Why? “Because if you don’t, some guy’s gonna kill you.”

Those were the stakes. Be a proper girly-girl. Accept your role. Take it. Or else.

Pardon me while I carry on answering that threat of violence with a rude gesture of my own.

Ordinary people say a lot of daft things:

  • Gender and sex are the same thing.
  • Gender is innate and never changes (or should never change).
  • Gender determines sexuality (and it should).
  • I’m/she’s a girl, so I/she naturally [fills in the blank like a girl].
  • I’m/he’s a boy, so I/he naturally [fills in the blank like a boy].

When called out for telling lies and otherwise embarrassing themselves, they raise the usual defenses:

  • I can’t help it; I was brought up this way.
  • God says [whatever I say].
  • Science says—

GOTCHA! Science says that all humans are far more alike than we are different from each other, regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, race, or [you-name-it]. In unbiased experiments, the binary sexes (female/male) are effectively indistinguishable from each other. There isn’t a lot of research done which includes the entire plurality of gender (or the many sexes), but given that most people fail to even recognize more than two genders, my educated guess is that science wouldn’t be able to find a significant difference between straight, white, cis-gendered men and asexual, multi-racial, intersex androgynous people. Because there is nothing to find except IDIC.

Writers are human, though, so they sometimes make this noise:

  • My story’s not about that.
  • My characters just formed [white/straight/]cis-gendered.
  • I write for kids, and this ‘subject matter’ is too mature.
  • This is historical fiction, and gender wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the past.

To which I must answer:

  • Maybe not, but while opportunity is leaning on the doorbell, you’re hiding under the bed.
  • Who’s in charge, here? You, or the figments of your imagination?
  • Bullshit. Kids are swimming in this ‘subject matter’ while you’re refusing to write them something potentially life-saving.
  • BWAHAHAHAHA! (Do better research.)

These are usually met with hand-wringing and sham-sincerity: “I’m afraid of screwing it up. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Tough luck, Pinocchio, because, first of all, there is such a thing as offense by omission. Secondly, you’re better off telling the truth: You can’t handle critique, and you don’t want to learn. Finally, if your writing never challenges convention or tradition, it’s probably not important. Deal with that.

This sort of careless writing and non-thinking is why science fiction and fantasy fans can’t have nice things, like a woman Doctor Who. And why the first book in a certain bestselling series wasn’t a stand-alone titled Hermione Granger Kills The Dark Lord With Her Brain. And why writers are still falling over themselves trying to write the next Twilight, of all crap.

Because when we reach for a hero, we keep reaching until we find a dude, and when we need a victim or a dummy, we grab a chick (and put her in the fridge). Those characters who don’t fit the cis-gender binary are ignored completely… Until somebody needs a truly sinister villain. Or a corpse. Then it’s like a pride parade breaks out on the page.

Fortunately, there are some quick and easy shortcuts to avoid being a gender jerk in fiction:

I lied; there are no shortcuts. Educate yourself. Read stories you’re too timid to write. Read blog posts and articles by people whose very identities challenge your notions about what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’. Get uncomfortable. Spend some quality time with a mirror and a microscope. If you examine yourself honestly and find nothing about who you are that’s unconventional, please cast your likeness as the villain in your next story.

You might win an award for giving everybody the creeps.

Recommended reading:

Baggage Check” by Shay Darrach
FINE a comic by Rhea Ewing
Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency

The Other Half of the Sky contributor series:

The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized
Shimmering Kaleidoscopes: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far [reprinted in SF Signal]
Ancestors Watch Over Her: Aliette de Bodard’s Space Operas [reprinted in World SF]
Bloodchildren, an Anthology of the Octavia Butler Scholars, edited by Nisi Shawl

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Virginia Woolf

When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, she extolled the virtues of the androgynous mind: the mind that sails on serenely, undistracted by circumstances, like Shakespeare, Emily Brontë and Jane Austen (of whom more anon). As an example to avoid, she chose Charlotte Brontë, who “had more genius in her than Jane Austen,” but whose rage makes her books “deformed and twisted.” Woolf continued:

“She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance.  She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience. // One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism. // She was thinking of something other than the thing itself.”

About twenty years later, Virginia Woolf dared to express direct gender anger herself in her Three Guineas, her last non-fiction work before she committed suicide and her most political one.  In it, she systematically deconstructs the patriarchal system one of whose apexes at that time was the Nazi regime.  That book is universally deemed by male Woolf aficionados as “her sole major failure” because, well, it’s not up to the standards of detached “reason” they expect.

Women have only recently (and only in small pockets of the world) managed to attain quasi-human status.  They managed to excel before that in dire contexts, even with Harrison Bergeron ankle weights and brain-noisemakers piled on them, if they had a modicum of free time, money or other niche privileges.  So it’s really silly at best (and usually malicious) to ask “So, where are the outstanding women in X?” where X is any sphere that seems threatened by major girl cooties, from paradigm-shifting science to politics to “hard” SF.  For one, there are always outstanding women in every X.  For another, every X is mostly inhabited by mediocre and below-average men with nary an outcry.

Those who deem themselves extra clever in the Gotcha! department say that, according to statistics, women try less or get more easily discouraged, hence their lower status, fewer awards and thinner wallets.  However, there is one aspect of this that’s valid, and related to Woolf’s observation.  Women indeed have fewer chances to do earthshaking “olympian” stuff for three reasons, even in places where they don’t have acid thrown in their faces for daring to attend school: they often need to defend their legitimacy before they can proceed to primary non-reactive creative work; they are invariably asked to clean up the literal and metaphorical messes of their male relatives, whether blood or chosen; and to show that they’re worthy citizens of X (and of the human species) they do so routinely as unpaid labor, with zero acknowledgment or support, in the vain hope of not being called by their body parts.

stylish-hatA textbook example of this were the last four issues of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) Bulletin, the organization’s official publication.  The content of these issues included a pornokitsch cover showing a barely clad woman “warrior” with the standard spine-shattering pose required to push breasts and genitals simultaneously forward; an article advising women to emulate Barbie’s “quiet dignity”; and two lengthy dialogues that, inter alia, called objections to blatantly sexist remarks “censorship” and Stalinist “thought policing”.  As the saying goes, Feminazis: because asking to be treated as a human being is the same as destroying most of Europe.  If race had been treated the same way as gender was in these four issues, the “controversial” items would never have landed on the editor’s desk, let alone cleared it.  Yet in today’s self-labeled “progressive” circles, which include SFF, blatant –isms are generally not permitted (or have consequences) except one: unapologetic misogyny.  We still have gender discussions that should have ended in 1973, at the latest.

For those like me who are in the last third of their lives and lived in real dictatorships bolstered by fundamentalisms, this is being bitten to death by ducks.  The same whiny infantilism, the same smug lip-smacking prurience, the same blathering of long-discredited pseudoscience.  After a while it becomes boring, even as it remains debilitating.  And, of course, the reflex reaction I described earlier recurred in the SFWA incident like clockwork: women dropped whatever they were doing and rushed into the breach to once again explain 101 concepts and to clean up (for free) the PR mess for which the perpetrators got paid pro rates; and the advocates for “reasoned discourse” who eventually condescended to behave like proto-humans were showered with flowers, kisses and bravery medals for essentially not (or no longer) slapping women in the face – while the volunteers are expected to clean up these Augean stables with zero kudos, infrastructural support or funding.

So here are stories that won’t get written or, if written, will carry the same dislocations that Woolf discerned in Brontë.  Here are stories that won’t get awards or pro rates because they were sandwiched between stints of soul-withering labor that nurtures the infantilism it tries to cure – because we share this world and cannot afford to have it turned to shit, and because, unlike other marginalized groups, we cannot sequester ourselves or stop loving our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons.  Here are hours, days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes that could have been spent, if not in creative fever, at least in pleasure rather than bitterness and fatigue.  There is no way to win this, as activists learn.  It’s a Sisyphean labor.  If we do nothing, we lose; if we do something, we still lose – blood and bone marrow, time robbed and effort wasted, the luxury (yes, for us a luxury) of considering ourselves, for fleeting moments, human beings rather than battered furniture.

Even the olympian composure of Jane Austen cracked at the end of her short life.  In her last novel, Persuasion, her stand-in, Anne Elliott, finally cries out in anguish and protest.  But Jane Austen still had to put her work aside to attend to the needs of her male relatives, as did the three Brontë sisters.  Women who are geniuses or charismatic and insist on showing it get treated like Camille Claudel or Rosalind Franklin, or… the litany is endless.

I’ve said this before, and will repeat it now: I personally believe that our intractable problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human.  Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled.  If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far.  However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.

Related articles:

Is it Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Steering the Craft – Reprise

anti-feminist-bingo

Images: 1st, Virginia Woolf late in life; 2nd: Aubrey Beardsley, drawing for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors, detail); 3rd, a hefty subcategory of the responses (many verbatim) that greeted women’s protests at the SFWA.

The Other Half of the Sky Is Casting a Shadow

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

other half  web“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of the Reckless (“Planetfall”).

Cover art and design: Eleni Tsami

The Other Half of the Sky is leaving a small but steady wake. Below are some of the ripples it created. I will post these periodically; they are also being updated both at the book site and on a sidebar page on this blog.

Reviews

Founding Fields
Publishers Weekly
Geek Exchange (preview)
Victoria Hooper
Library Journal (behind paywall; transcript here)
Geek Exchange
The F Word

Interviews

World SF
Book Smugglers
Victoria Hooper

Round Tables

The Book Smugglers, Part 1
The Book Smugglers, Part 2

Musings

Sue Lange at Book View Café
Athena Andreadis at Bull Spec

Civilizations Beyond Earth: A Different Angle – Part 2

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado. The article first appeared at Centauri Dreams.

Part 1

Public Perceptions of ETI

Professional SETI researchers and other scientists tend to avoid the public perceptions about aliens, which they find to be full of undisciplined ideas and a tendency to buy into stories and reports about sightings of alien spaceships and their occupants. A fear of being lumped into the fringe realm of pseudoscience is among the top reasons why SETI has stuck with remote searches of distant star systems. However, there is a slowly opening acceptance that some ETI might send probes to our Sol system to observe us discreetly, perhaps in the Main Planetoid Belt or using nanotech devices or even smaller observing and data collecting technology scattered across Earth.

Several chapters of the book are devoted to polling the general public on the subject of alien life. Unrestrained by scientific parameters and paradigms, their theories and beliefs range from having aliens be the saviors of humanity to our destroyers. They also tend to be much more accepting of the idea that many ETI may already be here monitoring us.

In an ironic twist, the public often thinks of the physical appearance of alien beings as essentially humanoids with a large head and eyes, no visible ears, and slim bodies. On the other hand, scientists who focus on exobiology see life taking on many different forms on different worlds due to evolution. Nevertheless, because we know so little about life beyond Earth, a wide variety of viewpoints can be a welcome thing, as there are times when a different perspective on such a subject could be the key to discovery.

Among the most interesting papers in this collection were the ones where different human cultures interact with each other in space and time. In “Encountering Alternative Intelligences: Cognitive Archaeology and SETI”, Paul K. Wason looks at one of the fifteen humanoid species which have shared this planet with us, namely the Neanderthals. Although they existed in Europe around the same time with modern humans and even interbred with each other, their branch of the family tree died out roughly thirty thousand years ago. Clues from the archaeological record indicate that Neanderthals were quite different in many fundamental ways from current humanity despite being hominids which evolved on Earth. Even though their brains were a bit larger than ours, Neanderthal was not as sophisticated in many ways if we go by the evidence that has survived the ages. Regarding how scientists have learned as much as they do know about Neanderthals, Wason said: “Could it be also that one of the best ways of preparing for interstellar communication with other intelligences would be to engage in more study of how human intelligence works?”

jesuits_canada

Several centuries ago, there were two genetically related but otherwise very different human cultures which did interact with each other and for which we have extensive records of those encounters. In “The Inscrutable Names of God: The Jesuit Missions of New France as a Model for SETI-Related Spiritual Questions,” Jason T. Kuznicki, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, describes what happened when a group of Roman Catholic Jesuits sailed to North America starting in the Seventeenth Century to convert the native tribes living around the Canadian side of the Great Lakes region.

Armed with the tools of their religion, which included the presumptions of French philosopher Rene Descartes and Saint Thomas Aquinas that reason would inevitably bring everyone to the conclusion that the Christian God and souls exist, the Jesuit missionaries soon discovered that the Native Americans they met did not share these views or come to any of the same conclusions as the Jesuits thought would happen in matters of deities and the afterlife.

Here were fellow humans separated by a few thousand miles of ocean and yet the two cultures not only had wildly different views on many things, they also lacked the words of their languages to clearly get across their ideas on spiritual and religious matters. Now imagine what might take place between two entirely different species from separate worlds light years apart. Would an alien species even have a religion?

One aspect of Kuznicki’s paper which was not touched upon were the underlying motives for the Jesuits being in North America and attempting to convert the natives there: The French wanted to secure the New World for themselves from the competing British and Spanish powers. Having the Native Americans as allies would certainly help their cause, either through assimilation or coercion. Should an ETI contact us via interstellar transmissions or arrive in person at our world, this is one aspect of such an encounter that requires the study of historical precedents from our species. The scientists would assume the alien visitors are just explorers, but the historian might think otherwise. Even an ETI that came here with the purpose of doing what it thinks is good for us might have unexpected consequences for humanity.

The Question of Artificial Intelligence

Civilizations Beyond Earth does have its limitations. The focus is mainly on biological entities, which makes sense considering the authors. However, to not offer at least a few papers by some computer experts on artificial intellects, or Artilects as coined by Hugo de Garis, is hardly advancing our knowledge base of all scientific aspects of ETI. In this respect it is no better than focusing on radio as a means of interstellar detection and communication while ignoring Optical SETI and searching for Dyson Shells and alien probes in our Sol system.

matrix.three.agents

Granted, there is a paper by William Sims Bainbridge titled “Direct Contact with Extraterrestrials via Computer Emulation”, which proposes the idea that a person could have themselves downloaded into a computer simulation as an avatar, or at least a psychological reproduction of themselves. Bainbridge envisions the avatars being beamed into space via radio waves to do the exploring and contacting with ETI.

Presumably this would have to be an enhanced version of the humans who choose to go this route, otherwise we encounter the limits of understanding an alien mind that would be little different than if we tried to comprehend an ETI with our own selves. Other chapters do deal with the complexities and difficulties in trying to communicate even basic concepts to an alien species, especially if we have few frames of reference. Would an Artilect with its faster computing speeds and much larger data storage do this better? Would sentience be required for this task or just a highly sophisticated simulation resembling awareness? Perhaps a revised edition of this book will add papers devoted to these questions concerning Artilects.

As Seth Shostak says in his article “Are We Alone?” regarding the Drake Equation, but which could also mirror what is missing and incomplete from this book:

“In other respects, [the Drake] equation might be too cautious. It assumes that all transmitting cultures are still located in the solar system of their birth. This ignores the possibility of colonization of other star systems (difficult, but not forbidden by physics), or the possible deployment of transmitting facilities far from home. In addition, it does not deal with the development of synthetic intelligence – thinking machines that would not be constrained to watery worlds orbiting long-lasting stars. In short, it makes the assumption that “they” are much like “us.”

For those who might argue that we may be unable to deduce the thought processes and motives of artificial minds far larger and faster than our own, the same could be said for any kind of biological alien species: Such beings could take on many forms and be just as inscrutable as an Artilect, yet that has not stopped many humans of all stripes on this planet from offering their views on organic ETI. One advantage with Artilects is that we can work towards actually creating or simulating them and thus have direct access to another intelligent mind.

Unfortunately, many people fear that Artilects could use their superior intellects to dominate or destroy humanity, just as they also expect advanced ETI to arrive in starships with similar goals. Whether that may ultimately happen or not, this general fear combined with a limited education on and cultural ridicule about the subjects relevant to SETI/METI have made their “contributions” to the reality that over half a century after the first serious SETI program, traditional searches continue in a largely sporadic fashion with limited funds, seldom expand beyond the radio and optical realms, and remain dominated by astronomers and engineers.

Human Expansion into the Galaxy

These views and paradigms also extrapolate to interstellar efforts such as Worldships, self-contained vessels carrying thousands of people on multigenerational journeys to other star systems. The goal of these Worldships is to colonize suitable planets and moons in the target system or at least collect resources from them before moving on to other galactic destinations.

How those who will remain onboard for perhaps many centuries will survive and adapt has been studied far more in the pages of science fiction than anywhere else, for obvious reasons. Will those who arrive at their intended worlds be radically different from their ancestors back on Earth? Will their interaction with any ETI they encounter diverge from the initial intentions of those who sent them off into the galaxy? As said earlier regarding Artilects, perhaps a revised edition of this work or a new book altogether devoted to very long term exploration and its consequences on those who make the voyage both aboard the Worldship and upon the places they settle will make inroads to answering these questions.

There is a strong desire or perhaps even a natural reaction to colonize any Earthlike exoworlds as part of some cosmic manifest destiny. Unless we terraform some barren rock, a planet similar to our own will be so not only in terms of size and environment, but also due to having life upon it. Even if none of the organisms on this alien world are sentient (and how exactly will we define that?), do we have the right to introduce terrestrial species there? If the situation was reversed and an ETI arrived at Earth to set up a new home, even if they desired a peaceful coexistence, imagine the reaction from humanity.

Even a robotic mission could cause unforeseen issues in the future. Already at this early stage in our expansion into space we have five probes and most of their final rocket stages heading beyond the boundaries of the Sol system into the wider Milky Way galaxy. Although none of them will be functioning by the time they could ever reach another star system, their very existence drifting and tumbling uncontrolled and aimless through deep space might one day become a problem for beings of which we are completely unaware at present.

We can declare that the galaxy is much too vast and these probes far too small to ever gain notice by any intelligences out there. We can say that any beings who could find these emissaries from Earth would have to be quite sophisticated and savvy with the ways of the interstellar realm and thus capable of dealing with a comparatively primitive, ancient, and inactive derelict from a species such as us.

In the end, however, the truth is that we do not yet know who or what is occupying the galaxy with humanity. We cannot say with certainty how an alien species might react and respond to an unexpected visitor from another world – though we can make some pretty good guesses as to how our civilization would behave in a similar scenario.

M31Final

As we have already discussed with regards to SETI and METI, again the astronomical scientists and space engineering and technical fields often differ in their views on these matters compared to the anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, and historians. At least some of the gaps between the disciplines were bridged by the incorporation of messages and information packages on the Pioneer, Voyager, and New Horizons space probes. Whether these “gifts” will be recognized and understood by the recipients is yet another unknown factor, but they are a step in the right direction.

The issue of our physical intrusion into the Milky Way will become even more prominent and serious as we develop and launch probes – operated by Artilects most likely – designed to reach and explore other solar systems. In this case, humanity may receive responses from other intelligent beings in a matter of years or decades as opposed to millennia. What may happen and how our descendants might handle an ETI reaction will depend on how far our culture has come in terms of being more wide ranging and inclusive in our understanding of the Cosmos.

Civilizations Beyond Earth may be a slim book, but it is a good introduction to fields that need to be vital parts of any serious discussion of the scientific activities regarding extraterrestrial intelligences. If SETI and METI remain lopsided in their thinking, methods, and executions, the stars will likely continue to remain silent for the human species for a long time to come.

Not to know if we are either alone or one of many living beings in the Universe when we finally have the awareness and ability to answer this very important question would be a tragic shame, an affront to the very reason we have science and a civilized society in the first place. Let us not answer the L portion of the Drake Equation too soon from a lack of wonder, education, and funds.

Civilizations Beyond Earth: A Different Angle – Part 1

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.  The article first appeared at Centauri Dreams.

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has traditionally operated on the premise that there may be beings in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond who are smart, aware, and interested enough to deliberately attempt to contact other similarly advanced societies in the Universe.

The primary purpose for such an effort would be to alert any potential celestial neighbors to their presence for the exchange of information and ideas about themselves, their home world, and their take on existence. Their methods of transmission would include certain forms of electromagnetic radiation which the various parties should have in common, such as radio and light waves. This Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligences, or METI, is considered to be not only less complex and faster than sending a robotic or crewed vessel from one star system to another – barring the discovery of a way to move faster than light (FTL) – but also far less expensive and much safer for both sides.

The alien version of METI is presumed to be conducted by scientists using not their native language but rather some form of basic mathematics for the initial efforts at getting our attention and conducting basic conversations. This remedial arithmetic would serve as the assumed common key to eventually allow both species to use their own conventional languages to exchange more detailed information.

imgcarl sagan1

This thinking is strongly reflected in the 1985 novel Contact (and the 1997 film version), the only major work of science fiction produced by astronomer, science popularizer, and SETI/METI pioneer Carl Sagan. In his story, Sagan envisioned a highly advanced, vast, and ancient alien technological civilization which transmits an initial message via radio waves to species they deem potentially worthy of dealing with. One day humanity receives this opening greeting from them in the form of the first one hundred prime numbers, which are digits divisible only by themselves and one. Prime numbers are a pattern produced by no known natural phenomenon.

On SETI Assumptions

If the bipedal residents of the planet Earth can detect and recognize the artificial nature of the primes being sent (“mathematics [is] the only truly universal language” declares the main character Ellie Arroway at one point in response to a visiting senator who wanted to know why the aliens didn’t just speak English) along with the subsequently more complex information which then follows, then one day we might be able join an entire galactic community of civilizations. This society would be similar to the United Nations, only on a celestial scale and with members of many different species from a diversity of alien worlds across space and time, yet somehow all managing to work together for the common cosmic good.

These assumptions, while not implausible, do reflect a particular scientific take regarding SETI, METI, and the nature and behavior of technological alien beings. The question is, does the fact that we have yet to confirm a recognizably artificial signal of extraterrestrial origin after six decades of modern SETI (and a handful of METI) activities mean that our scientific assumptions about intelligent aliens need to be revised, or have we just not been searching long and hard enough? Or perhaps both?

Since astronomer Frank Drake performed the first modern extraterrestrial hunt program in 1960 with a radio telescope search he called Ozma, SETI has traditionally been dominated by radio (and later optical) astronomers, as they are the ones who have conducted the majority of the searches for alien signals to the present era. Their parameters were and are still dictated by the contemporary limitations of what humanity can accomplish when it comes to interstellar distances and the paradigms of their fields and views on intelligent life elsewhere.

As for relevant disciplines outside of astronomy involved in SETI, there have been token representatives present going back to the first modern era SETI conferences, thanks in large part to Sagan. But usually the conferences and the projects were dominated by astronomers, who focused heavily on radio SETI and the technical details of such interstellar communications. Often they would use the famous Drake Equation (N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L) as their template but tend to gloss over the parts of that linear equation which were hard to quantify, which included most of it. This was especially done with fc and L, the fraction of civilizations that develop the means to let others in the galaxy know they exist and the overall lifetime of such technological societies, respectively.

Like most scientists, they felt comfortable with numbers, tangible facts, and mechanics. Why would an alien signal us? Well, because they could, so they would. They wanted to exchange knowledge because the operators had to be fellow scientists, which meant that even though they were alien, they had to think similarly to us, otherwise they would not be conducting METI/SETI. We were looking for versions of us, very specific versions if truth be told.

vla006_nrao_big

The accuracy of the statements is attested by Mark A. Sheriden’s excellent and insightful work titled SETI: A Critical History. From Chapter 10, Sheriden gives this quote from Dr. Jill C. Tarter, the recently retired director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California:

Not long after the [1979 NASA Life in the Universe] conference Jill Tarter, a key member of SETI’s second-generation leadership team, acknowledged that SETI was, indeed, “tuned” to find humanoids. “Those forms that we do find in this manner [i.e., a SETI-style search] will be more similar to life as we understand it than other forms that may exist. We put a filter on the problem.”

When asked what she would do differently if starting over again to study ETIs, Tarter responded with an echo of Shklovskii’s complaint prior to Byurakan-II, that the American SETI scientists failed to acknowledge the “complexity” of the problem they faced and, in particular, were ignoring the “humanities and biological aspects.” Tarter said, “I neglected biology, and civilizations, and paleontology.” In other words, she would have paid more attention to the “nature” aspects of the opportunity SETI represented.

Puzzling Out Alien Motivations

Why would an alien intelligence want to contact the stars? The possible motivations for such actions – or lack thereof – are just as important for the success of SETI and METI as figuring out how beings from another world (assuming the majority live on a planet or moon in the first place; another paradigm, perhaps?) might go about sending out signals into the galaxy.

Anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, and historians might have a clue in this area. At present they may have the native dwellers of only one planet to base their research and ideas upon, but at least it is a world with a very wide variety of life and an ancestry dating back at least 3.8 billion years.

cbe_cover

These fields and their practitioners are given their due in the book Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society, edited by Douglas A. Vakoch and Albert A. Harrison and published by Berghahn Books (New York, 2011). Vakoch, who also edited the book Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SUNY Press, New York, 2011) is the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Harrison is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis.

Reading through the collected papers in Civilizations Beyond Earth reminded me of one of the first works I came across that was directly critical of the parameters modern SETI had laid down in its milestone years of 1959 and 1960, The Inner Limits of Outer Space by Dartmouth professor John C. Baird (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1987). The author of the first major book on SETI by a professional psychologist, Baird was also part of Project Oasis, a NASA plan in 1979 to help design the multi-channel spectrum analyzer to be used in the space agency’s own burgeoning SETI project.

Baird pointed out how those involved in searching for extraterrestrial intelligences were spending a great deal of their time and resources in designing and building the instruments they planned to use, but not nearly as much in turn when it came to really thinking about what kind of beings might be out there and why they might want to conduct METI at all. Baird’s words and thoughts throughout The Inner Limits of Outer Space mirror what one finds twenty-four years later in Civilizations Beyond Earth. Neither work wants to do away with SETI so much as redefine it to improve the chances for success based on a more realistic or at least more open approach to alien life. The similarities also include the conclusion that even though current SETI is problematical in terms of detecting an actual extraterrestrial signal, it cannot hurt to keep trying for, to quote the current advertising motto of the New York State Lottery: “You never know.”

Among the highlights of Civilizations Beyond Earth which take it beyond the usual examinations of SETI and its related fields is the focus on what the general public, or laypersons, think and say about extraterrestrial life, in particular the intelligent kind.

Part 2

Steering the Craft – Reprise

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Preamble: In October of 2010, I wrote an essay for the blog of Apex Magazine in response to a then-regular columnist’s whinings about  “quality compromised by diversity and PC zombies” in life as well as speculative literature.  Later on the Apex site was hacked, and its owner decided not to go through the laborious work of restoring its archive.  In view of the recent discussions about women in SF (again… still…) and as a coda to The Other Half of the Sky, I’m reprinting the essay here, slightly modified.

varo-birds.jpg
Remedios Varo, The Creation of the Birds (1957)

In honor of:
the Mercury 13 astronauts, who never got past the gravity well;
Rosalind Franklin, who never got her Nobel;
Shamsia and Atifa Husseini, who still go to school after the Taliban threw acid on their faces.

Cultural standards of politeness vary widely.  In the societies I’m familiar with, it’s considered polite (indeed, humane) to avert one’s eyes from someone who has pissed himself in public, especially if he persists in collaring everyone within reach to point out the interesting shape of the stain on his trousers.  At the same time, if he also splattered on my great-grandmother’s hand-embroidered jacket to demonstrate how he – alone among humans – can direct his stream, I’m likely to ensure that he never comes near me and mine again in any guise.

Yet I must still put time and effort into removing the stain from that jacket, which I spent long hours restoring and further embroidering myself.  It’s not the only stain the garment carries.  Nor are all of them effluents from those who used it and its wearers as vessels into which to pour their insecurity, their frantic need to show themselves echt members of the master caste du jour.

The jacket also carries blood and sweat from those who made it and wore it to feasts and battles long before I was born.  Unless it’s charred to ashes in a time of savagery, probably with me in it, many will wear it after me or carry its pieces.  Whenever they add their own embroidery to cover the stains, the gashes, the burns, they won’t remember the names of the despoilers.  And when my great-grandniece takes that jacket with her on the starship heading to Gliese 581, her crewmates will admire the creativity and skill that went into its making.

So gather round, friends who can hoist a goblet of Romulan ale or Elvish mead without losing control of your sphincter muscles, and let’s talk a bit more about this jacket and its wearers.

If you insist that only sackcloth is proper attire or that embroidery should be reserved only for those with, say, large thumbs, we don’t have a common basis for a discussion.  But I’ll let you in on a couple of secrets.  I’ve glimpsed my nephews wearing that jacket, sometimes furtively, often openly.  They even add embroidery patches themselves.  And strangely enough, after a few cyclings I cannot guess the location of past embroiderers’ body bulges from the style of the patches or the quality of the stitches.  I like some much more than others.  Even so, I don’t mind the mixing and matching, as long as I can tell (and I can very easily tell) that they had passion and flair for the craft.

In one of the jacket’s deep pockets lies my great-grandmother’s equally carefully repaired handmade dagger, with its enamel-inlaid handle and its blade of much-folded steel.  When I see someone practicing with it, on closer inspection it often turns out to be a girl or a woman whose hair is as grey as the dagger’s steel.  They weave patterns with that dagger, on stone threshing floors or under skeins of faraway moons.  Because daggers are used in dance – and in planting and harvesting as well, not just in slaughter.  And they are beautiful no matter what color of light glints off them.

But before we dance under strange skies, we must first get there.  Starships require a lot of work to build, launch and keep going.  None of that is heroic, especially the journey.  Almost all of it is the grinding toil of preservation: scrubbing fungus off surfaces; keeping engines and hydroponic tanks functional; plugging meteor holes; healing radiation sickness and ensuring the atmosphere stays breathable; raising the children who will make it to planetfall; preserving knowledge, experience, memory while the ship rides the wind between the stars; and making the starship lovely – because it’s our home and people may need bread, but they also need roses.

As astrogators scan starmaps and engineers unfurl light sails while rocking children on their knees, the stories that keep us going will start to blend and form new patterns, like the embroidery patches on my great-grandmother’s jacket. Was it Lilith, Lakshmi Bai or Anzha lyu Mitethe who defied the ruler of a powerful empire?  Amaterasu, Raven or Barohna Khira who brought back sunlight to the people after the long winter sleep?  Was it to Pireus or Pell that Signy Mallory brought her ship loaded with desperate refugees?  Who crossed the great glacier harnessed to a sled, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, or Genly Ai and Therem harth rem ir Estraven?

Our curiosity and inventiveness are endless and our enlarged frontal cortex allows dizzying permutations.  We shape the dark by dreaming it, in science as much as in art; at the same time, we constantly peer outside our portholes to see how close the constructs in our heads come to reflecting the real world.  Sometimes, our approximations are good enough to carry us along; sometimes, it becomes obvious we need to “dream other dreams, and better.”  In storytelling we imagine, remember, invent and reinvent, and each story is an echo-filled song faceted by the kaleidoscope of our context.  To confine ourselves to single notes is to condemn ourselves to prison, to sensory and mental deprivation.  Endless looping of a single tune is not pleasure but a recognized method of torture.  It’s certainly not a viable way to keep up the morale of people sharing a fragile starship.

In the long vigils between launch and planetfall, people have to spell each other, stand back to back in times of peril.  They have to watch out for the dangerous fatigue, the apathy that signals the onset of despair, the unfocused anger that can result in the smashing of the delicate machinery that maintains the ship’s structure and ecosphere.  People who piss wantonly inside that starship could short a fuel line or poison cultivars of essential plants.  The worst damage they can inflict, however, is to stop people from telling stories.  If that happens, the starship won’t make it far past the launchpad.  And if by some miracle it does make planetfall, those who emerge from it will have lost the capacity that enabled them to embroider jackets – and build starships.

We cannot weave stories worth remembering if we willingly give ourselves tunnel vision, if we devalue awareness and empathy, if we’re content with what is.  Without the desire to explore that enables us to put ourselves in other frames, other contexts, the urge to decipher the universe’s intricate patterns atrophies.  Once that gets combined with the wish to stop others from dreaming, imagining, exploring, we become hobnail-booted destroyers that piss on everything, not just on my great-grandmother’s laboriously, lovingly embroidered jacket.

The mindset that sighs nostalgically for “simpler times” (when were those, incidentally, ever since we acquired a corpus collosum?), that glibly erases women who come up with radical scientific concepts or write rousing space operas is qualitatively the same mindset that goes along with stonings and burnings.  And whereas it takes many people’s lifetimes to build a starship, it takes just one person with a match and a can of gasoline to destroy it.

It’s customary to wish feisty daughters on people who still believe that half of humanity is not fully human.  I, however, wish upon them sons who will be so different from their sires that they’ll be eager to dream and shape the dark with me.

…like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

Olga Broumas, “Artemis” (from Beginning with O)

SusanSeddonBouletSpiderWoman
Susan Seddon Boulet, Shaman Spider Woman (1986)

Related blog posts:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art
Standing at Thermopylae
To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club
The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

My Fictional To-Do List

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Whistling Wind

A while ago I saw this question: “What’s on your fictional To Do list?” Here’s a partial list of what I’d pursue if I had a semi-infinite lifespan and equivalent resources. The list doesn’t include real-life wishes, like learning a dozen languages and to play the bagpipes or refurbishing my advanced physics knowledge and small airplane pilot skills.

1. Become the astrogator of the first ship to Alpha Centauri;
2. Decipher the Minoan language and its script, Linear A;
3. Comprehend and translate cetacean songs;
4. Engineer biological nanobots that we can truly trust;
5. Identify the woman who wrote The Song of Songs.

Those of you who have read my fiction (whose published portion is the tip of the iceberg) know that in fact I pursue this list in it. In Planetfall we catch brief glimpses of how starship Reckless arrived at Koredhán (Glorious Maiden) under the leadership of Captain Semíra Ouranákis (Skystrider), how the travelers modified themselves genetically to fit the planet and how this choice eventually made them able to communicate with the mershadows, the native aquatic sentients.

What few have seen is the driven, haunted, blade-sharp loner who started the work that resulted in the genmods of the Koredháni, launched the Reckless, and decreed that Minoan (deciphered by her family, who are also part of this large universe) would be the ship’s lingua franca.

So here’s a tiny bribe: to those who read The Other Half of the Sky I will send Under Siege, a short screenplay that features the first captain of the Reckless. As proof, email me (helivoy@gmail.com) one of the unabbreviated names of the protagonist in Christine Lucas’s story. The screenplay file contains another reward layer: a link to my earliest published stories. Of course, reading the anthology should be its own reward… but consider this a coda, given the parameters I specified for the collection.

To whet appetites, here’s a passage from Under Siege:

CHRIS
Let’s try it on Loki.
(A few beats later)
It works!  I can’t believe he used a single encryption system.

JONATHAN
(skimming the file, aghast)
I can’t believe what I’m reading either. Somehow they attached thruster engines to the space station without anyone noticing. Armed it with nukes, too!

CHRIS
Subtle. Anyone adopts an agenda the Agency disagrees with, death rains from the skies. Or a solar flare hits the station’s gyrostabilizers, same result.

JONATHAN
They also sequestered all the first and second generation biological nanotech reagents up there.

CHRIS
(softly)
Ah. That might explain why I suddenly couldn’t renew any of my grants.

JONATHAN
You were involved in nanotech research?

CHRIS
Involved? I was the first one to use biobots to successfully regenerate brain neurons. Turns out they also augment brain function… not something the brass was happy with.
(Jonathan looks at her, stunned for once. She smiles tiredly, points at her head)
What did you think this was for, decoration?

Music: The Time Machine, Eloi by Klaus Badelt

Interview with a Saber Tooth Tiger

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American.

Lions, Chauvet
Cave lion(esse)s, Aurignacian era, Chauvet cave, France

From our science correspondent AA.

AA: We’re in a cave at an undisclosed location on the Himalayas, interviewing Ms. Lilypad, a saber tooth tiger. Ms. Lilypad, what made you agree to this interview after your species has lived incognito for literally millennia?

LP: I got tired listening to the TED goombahs going on and on about de-extinction. So I decided to write my memoirs. Why should everyone get rich and famous but us?

AA: Were you able to find agent representation?

LP: (Extends a claw towards an avalanche of printouts). They’re falling all over themselves, but most are suggesting chewtoys as royalties. What do they take us for, wolves?

AA: Everyone thought you’d gone extinct. How did you manage to survive?

LP: We had to leave yaks alone, couldn’t afford to arouse suspicions. We scraped along by carefully harvesting yetis — and the occasional climbing expedition when things got really lean. Though humans are more trouble than they’re worth, with all that extra stuff to remove. Do you know how bad GoreTex tastes? Plus it wreaks havoc with our digestion.

AA: How did you manage to escape detection, especially after the advent of sophisticated surveillance technologies?

LP: Whenever we crossed in front of one of those silly hidden cameras, we clapped a paw over our fangs. The National Geographic doofuses thought we were Siberian tigers (snickers and grooms her whiskers).

AA: Are the others in your group on board with breaking cover after all this time?

LP: Most are. The warmup made the yeti population plummet. Also made them tougher to chew. We’re all looking forward to real food, like mammoth steaks (starts opening a jar of horseradish sauce).

AA: But if you eat mammoths, you’ll drive them back into extinction!

LP: Do you want to have an unregulated mammoth population explosion? If we don’t do our part, they’ll trample everything into mud! (Sniffs the horseradish sauce, wrinkles her nose). Besides, you’re a fine one to talk. Rapacious bipeds.

AA: Point taken. Where would you prefer to live, given a choice?

LP: The Siberian cousins tell us things look pretty grim up there. Similar reports from the Polar Bear Bureau on Greenland and Nunavut. Antarctica has a good food supply, though the habitat… We considered zoos but the photos look awful. I mean, aluminum bathtubs? Circuses are better – at least you get to do something. So we got proactive, put together a proposal for cleanup services. Sent it to big-city mayors.

AA: What was the response?

LP: Guarded. On the other hand, we got eager queries from cartels and military leaders.

AA: How much territory would you require?

LP: Something the size of Rhode Island. (Pause). Per tiger.

AA: Would you consent to being part of scientific investigations? Experimentations?

LP: We’re flexible. But after watching a few episodes of Nova, we’re really wary. Some things are off the list for sure. Ixnay to tranquilizer darts and forced mating. (Eyes correspondent’s arm) Mind if I test the horseradish sauce on you?

AA: Bad idea.

LP: Ok. (Grumbles under her breath).

AA: What do you think of the transhumanists’ ideas about uplift?

LP: We saber tooth tigers are already as uplifted as we want and need to be.

AA: What about their concept of turning predators into loving vegetarians?

LP: Send them over, we can discuss this face to face (starts opening a jar of wasabi). Send over the guys who think that tiger parts cure impotence, while you’re at it.

AA: Speaking of that, have you had cubs of your own?

LP: A few. Hard to find nice males with a decent genetic pedigree. Plus they try to expand into your territory afterwards, as if one mating gives them lifelong rights (growls). Also hard to teach the cubs good hunting habits, with all the skulking and hiding we’ve had to do.

AA: Are you looking forward to becoming part of the world?

LP: We do the live-and-let-live thing, everyone’s happy.

AA: By the way, isn’t Lilypad an odd name for a top-of-the-chain predator?

Pad 2SLP: My mom named me after the tiger in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Animal Wife, whose pawprints looked like water lily leaves. (Purrs). She read a lot – winters here are long!

On the right: Lilypad stealthily concealing her giveaway fangs (photo: Peter Cassidy, staff photographer).

Related: Interview with a Yeti

The “Language” Gene and Women’s Wagging Tongues

Monday, February 25th, 2013

 Aka, How to Twist Science to Reinforce Gender Stereotypes

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American. Not surprisingly, some were dissatisfied: primarily, those who still like to think that genes determine higher-order behavior and that “gender” differences are hardwired and extensive. Excerpt of an interminable pseudo-learned comment at the SciAm blog: “In fact, it can be argued that the differences between genders is far more distinct and pervasive than the differences between species.”  Satoshi Kanazawa, is that you?

FOXP2 on DNA

Stylized rendering of FOXP2 attached to DNA (Wikipedia, CCL)

Genes are subject to multiple layers of regulation.  An early regulatory point is transcription.  During this process, regulatory proteins bind to DNA regions (promoters and enhancers) that direct gene expression.  These DNA/protein complexes attract the transcription apparatus, which docks next to the complex and proceeds linearly downstream, producing the heteronuclear (hn) RNA that is encoded by the gene linked to the promoter.  The hnRNA is then spliced and either becomes structural/regulatory RNA or is translated into protein.

Transcription factors are members of large clans that arose from ancestral genes that went through successive duplications and then diverged to fit specific niches.  One such family of about fifty members is called FOX.  Their DNA binding portion is shaped like a butterfly, which has given this particular motif the monikers of forkhead box or winged helix.  The activities of the FOX proteins extend widely in time and region.  One of the FOX family members is FOXP2, as notorious as Fox News – except for different reasons: FOXP2 has become entrenched in popular consciousness as “the language gene”.  As is the case with all such folklore, there is some truth in this; but as is the case with everything in biology, reality is far more complex.

FOXP2, the first gene found to “affect language” (more on this anon), was discovered in 2001 by several converging observations and techniques.  The clincher was a large family (code name KE), some of whose members had severe articulation and grammatical deficits with no accompanying sensory or cognitive impairment.  The inheritance is autosomal dominant: one copy of the mutated gene is sufficient to confer the trait.  When the researchers definitively identified the FOXP2 gene, they found that the version of FOXP2 carried by the KE affected members has a single point mutation that alters an invariant residue in its forkhead domain, thereby influencing the protein’s binding to its DNA targets.

Like all transcription factors, FOXP2 regulates many promoters.  The primary domains of FOXP2 influence are brain and lung development.  Some of its downstream targets are themselves regulators of brain function (most prominently neurexin CNTNAP2).  Not surprisingly, deleting or mutating both FOXP2 copies in mice results in early death, whereas doing so to one copy leads to decreased vocalization and slightly impaired motor learning.  FOXP2 is broadly conserved across vertebrates, but its critical functional regions have tiny but telling differences even between humans and their closest ape relatives.  Like other genes that influence human-specific attributes, human FOXP2 seems to have undergone positive selection during the broad intervals of crucial speciation events.  Along related lines, Neanderthals and Denisovans apparently had the same FOXP2 allele as contemporary humans, and by this criterion were fully capable of the articulation that makes language possible.

Which brings us to the nub of the issue.  What does FOXP2 do in brain?  Genes don’t encode higher-order functions, let alone behavior.  Also recall that the KE family members have a very circumscribed defect, despite its dramatic manifestation.  Finally, keep firmly in mind that language in humans includes a complex genetic component that involves many loci and just as many environmental interactions.  FOXP2 does not encode inherent language ability.  Instead, the time and place of its expression as well as studies in cell systems and other organisms (zebra finches, rodents) indicate that FOXP2 may be involved in neuronal plasticity, which in turn modulates capacity for learning by forming new synaptic connections.  FOXP2 may also be involved in regulation of motor neuron control in certain brain regions (cortical motor areas, cerebellum, striatum) that affect the ability to vocalize, sing and, in humans, form the complex sounds of language.

Given its connection, however over-interpreted, to “what makes a human” as well as its chromosomal location (in 7q31, which also harbors candidates for autism and dementia), it’s not surprising that FOXP2 has acquired quasi-mythic dimensions in the lay imagination.  However, careful studies have shown that the genes on 7q31 responsible for autism and dementia are distinct from FOXP2.  Also, as I said earlier, FOXP2 does not code for language ability – and even less for its culturally determined manifestations (many of which are a minefield of confirmation biases, unquestioned assumptions and simply sloppy work).

Gender WordsThe latest round in the misrepresentation of FOXP2 is the gone-viral variation of “there’s more of this ‘language protein’ in the left hemisphere of 4-year girls and that’s why women are three times as talkative as men”.  This came from the PR pitch of a research team who did a study primarily on rats (which confirmed the link between FOXP2 levels and vocalization) and then, perhaps attempting to latch onto a catchy soundbite, extended the gender link to humans based on… a single PCR amplification of ten Broca’s area cortices (from postmortem brains of 4-year olds, five from each sex; Broca’s area is involved in language processing).

To begin with, all studies conducted so far definitively show that women and men utter the same number of words by any metric chosen – and that in fact men talk more than women in mixed-gender conversations (to say nothing of the gender-linked ratio of interruptions).  And whereas it’s true that girls develop vocal competence slightly earlier than boys and show higher linguistic skills during the early acquisition window, this difference is transient.  Furthermore, the FOXP1 control that the authors of the study argue does not show a gender-correlated change (unlike FOXP2) in fact is on the verge of doing so, and the relative statistical significances might well change if a larger number of samples were tested.  Finally, whereas decrease of FOXP2 reduces vocalization and increases pitch in male rat pups, it has the opposite effect in female rat pups.  In other words, the correlation between FOXP2 levels and vocalization/pitch is not straightforward even in rats.

In the larger context of expression and reception of vocalizations, the difference is not how much women talk, but how welcome and/or valued their input is.  Even trivial zomboid blathering is given higher value if it’s culturally coded as masculine (examples: sport newscasters; most congressmen).  In fairness to the researchers of the study that caused all this rehashing of kneejerk stereotypes and evopsycho Tarzanism, here is the concluding paragraph of their paper.  It states something both measured and, frankly, obvious:

“Gender is a purely human construct consisting of both self and others’ perception of one’s sex and is arguably the first and most salient of all phenotypic variables. Sex differences in how language is received and processed and how speech is produced has the potential to influence gender both within and external to an individual. Whether human sex differences in FOXP2, and possibly FOXP1 as well, contribute to gender variation in language is a question for future research.”

Relevant publications and links:

Lai CS, Fisher SE, Hurst JA, Vargha-Khadem F, Monaco AP (2001).  A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder.  Nature 413(6855):519-23.

White SA, Fisher SE, Geschwind DH, Scharff C, Holy TE (2006).  Singing mice, songbirds, and more: models for FOXP2 function and dysfunction in human speech and language.  J. Neurosci. 26(41):10376-9.

Bowers JM, Perez-Pouchoulen M, Edwards NS, McCarthy MM (2013).  FOXP2 mediates sex differences in ultrasonic vocalization by rat pups and directs order of maternal retrieval.  J. Neurosci. 33(8):3276-83.

Mark Liberman.  Gabby Guys: The Effect size (Language Log, Sept. 23, 2006)

Mark Liberman.  An Invented Statistic Returns (Language Log, Feb. 22, 2013)

Athena Andreadis.  Eldorado Desperadoes: Of Mice and Men (Starship Reckless, July 18, 2009)

Athena Andreadis.  Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome (Starship Reckless, June 10, 2011)

Damp Squibs: Non-News in Space Exploration

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

LaLaLa

Biologists interested in space exploration are consistently delegated to the back of the stellar tour bus, if we’re allowed on at all. We’re Luddites who harsh everyone else’s squee, you see. We keep pointing out that radiation is not kind to living tissue, whether gametes or neurons; that uploading to silicon chassis is not possible as an alternative to carbon bodies; that human babies cannot be hatched and reared by robots at planetfall; that living on extrasolar planets poses huge problems and dilemmas even if they’re quasi-compatible. And that since FTL and warp drive are and will always remain science fiction, we need to at least tackle, if not solve, some of these issues before we launch crewed starships for long exploratory or migratory journeys. This year, there were two non-news items in the domain that brought these matters once again to the fore.

The earlier of the two was the disclosure that “NASA scientists might achieve warp drive” based on Alcubierre’s theoretical concept (by using a Jovian weight’s worth of exotic matter as likely to exist as stable wormholes). Beyond its terminally wobbly foundation, the concept also doesn’t take into account that such folding of space would destroy nearby star systems (and almost certainly also the starship) via distortion of the local spacetime and/or massive amounts of radiation. It’s also unclear how the starship could be steered from within the “negative energy” or “tachyonic matter” bubble. This means that even if fast space travel were possible using this method, it would still take lifetimes to safely reach a planet within a system because local travel would by necessity be at sublight speed.

More recently came the non-news that radiation causes… brain malfunction, as if the term “free radicals” and “radiation damage” were not in the biomedical vocabulary since before I entered the discipline in the mid-seventies (let alone the in-your-face evidence of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki holocausts or the Chernobyl meltdown). Radiation, especially the high-energy portion of the spectrum, breaks atomic bonds directly and indirectly by producing free radicals. Free radicals start chain reactions: lines of descendants, each of which can damage a biomolecule. Radiation causes mutations in the DNA, which is bad enough, but it can also result in other errors: protein misfolding, holes in cell membranes, neuron misfiring. And although cells have several repair mechanisms to counter these insults, they have evolved for the radiation burdens of earth.

All these effects at the molecular/cellular level converge into two large rivers: for dividing cells, cancer; for non-dividing cells (most prominently gametes and brain neurons), death. Kill enough cells, past the brain’s ability to rewire and reroute, and you get neurodegeneration: if the most affected region is the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s; if the cerebellum, ataxia; if the hippocampus and parts of the cortex, Alzheimer’s; if the frontal lobe, frontotemporal dementia; if the Schwann cells of the myelin sheath, multiple sclerosis. Incidentally, radiation also affects electronic devices – something to keep in mind for even short interstellar journeys.

Stating-the-obvious-7

On earth, we are subject to a good deal of radiation from natural causes (radon, solar flares) as well as human-made ones (industrial, occupational, medical, airport X-ray machines). Cosmic radiation constitutes about 5-10% of our total exposure. That will be very different in space, where bombardment by galactic cosmic rays will be both chronic and acute. And whereas cosmic radiation on earth is moderated by the solar wind, the earth’s magnetic field and the layers of atmosphere, none of these protections will be present on a starship. Shielding options are inadequate or, like warp drive, sheer fantasy – which makes this risk one of the major showstoppers to star travel. The best candidate is the most low-tech: water.

Scientific papers that discuss these outcomes, from both inside and outside NASA, have been around since at least the early nineties. So what exactly is new in this study that is making the customary rounds in various space enthusiast sites and blogs? In a word, nothing. In fact it’s a bits-and-pieces study that reaches miniscule, non-surprising conclusions. The adage “labored as if for an elephant and brought forth a mouse” is particularly apt here. As for the originality of its discoveries/conclusions, it’s like hitting someone’s head repeatedly against a cement wall and concluding that such blows eventually cause, um, skull fractures.

At the same time, the authors of the study decided to gild their tinfoil lilies. They used a double transgenic mouse strain engineered to develop amyloid plaques of the Alzheimer’s-associated variety. Despite this loading of the dice, they saw changes in plaque size and numbers and in amyloid processing only in the male irradiated mice. Even the small shifts they saw are far less important than laypeople think: for a while now, the consensus in the field is that plaques may be neutral warehouses. In particular, plaques seem to be a sidebar for sporadic Alzheimer’s which is 90-95% of the disease cases. Many people have heavy amyloid plaque loads with zero cognitive impairment. As is often the case with mice studies, they subjected them to overwhelming amounts of the perturbing parameter (in this case, iron nuclei) that nevertheless represents a simplified subset of what they’d encounter in a real journey. Finally, they saw neither inflammatory microglial activation nor changes in amyloid clearance. They did see changes in a couple of behavioral tests, although in most of them the error bars overlap, which means “not statistically significant”.

The obvious experiment that might give remotely useful results would be to do such studies with a mouse strain that is not merely wild-type but aggressively outbred. However, that would still be superfluous, even if we set aside the limited usefulness of mouse models for human brain function. We already know what would happen during long interstellar journeys, and more or less why. I propose that we use the time and funds spent on irradiating guaranteed-to-develop-disease mice to develop effective, and preferably low-key, shielding. Radical-clearing drugs are also an option, although the favorite defaults bristle with their own host of problems (teratogenicity for retinoids, tumorigenesis for mitochondrial boosting). Like most complex problems, there are no silver bullets to counteract the iron-nuclei ones of galactic radiation. It will have to be done the hard, slow way – or not at all.

harsh-my-mellow

Relevant papers:

H White (2012). Warp Field Mechanics 101.

JD Cherry, B Liu, JL Frost, CA Lemere, JP Williams, JA Olschowka, MK O’Banion (2012). Galactic Cosmic Radiation Leads to Cognitive Impairment and Increased A? Plaque Accumulation in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. PLoS One 7(12):e53275

The Solstice after the Supposed End of Days

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Chichen Itza Orion sm

For aeons it took us sailing, we never sank,
a thousand times we changed captains.

We never paid account to cataclysms,
we went full ahead, through everything.

And on our mast as eternal lookout
we have the Great Chief, the Sun.

From “The Crazy Ship” by Odysséas Elytis

Image: Sunrise and Orion over the temple of Kukulkan; Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico (from the NASA APOD; credit and copyright: Stéphane Guisard and UNAM/INAH)

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Several attributes of human women are routinely posited as evolutionary enigmas because they tend to be placed in the “not really necessary” and/or “inconvenient” bins: hidden ovulation (How’s a guy to know a kid is his?? Ergo, chastity belts and purdahs!); orgasms (Who cares, as long as the kids come out?); and living past menopause (Done with heir production and no longer eye candy — discard!).

However, it turns out these attributes are not that enigmatic unless you believe that teleology drives evolution. It looks increasingly like the bright red buttocks of our primate relatives are actually a recent acquisition, and hidden ovulation is the earlier default. Some cultures have solved the kinship problem: brothers act as fathers to their sisters’ children, to whom they are unequivocally related. Orgasms are equally explicable once you accept the simple fact that the clitoris is the equivalent of the penis, including the associated excitability and sensitivity (which is why female genital mutilation is identical to a penectomy, not to foreskin circumcision). As for living longer than the contents of one’s ovaries, which is a third of women’s lifespan once they’re past the risky childbirth years, it may have to do with what made us human in the first place. So says the grandmother hypothesis, first intimated by George C. Williams of antagonistic pleiotropy fame and later elaborated by Kristen Hawkes and her colleagues in the late nineties, after observations of the Hadza people in Tanzania.

Back in the fifties and in today’s evo-psycho groves, the fashion has been to posit the nuclear family as the kernel unit of primordial humanity. If you take the crucial details of humans into account (unique birth risks, extended neoteny, unusual nutritional requirements, necessity for higher-order skill acquisition), you realize that the possibility of such a unit seeing offspring reach adulthood is close to nil. Not surprisingly, when anthropologists look carefully and past their own cultural blinders at less technologically endowed human groups, the scaffolding they see is always communal. As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy said, it really does take a village to raise a child.

Such a configuration is not problem-free: it’s vulnerable to tyranny of conformity as well as the devastation that can be wrought by charismatic sociopaths. Nevertheless, it allows distribution of infant care, overlap of skills, quasi-fair apportioning of resources and monitoring of emerging imbalances. And grandmothers, maternal ones in particular, play a crucial role in all of these.

The grandmother hypothesis postulates that the presence of grandmothers allowed more children to reach adulthood, because grandmothers not only foraged for their daughters’ older offspring but also socialized them, taught them important skills and transmitted knowledge and experience. It also postulates that older children had to develop ways to compel caretaker attention, giving rise to the enlarged frontal lobe unique to humans. So the hypothesis argues that female longevity is essentially a “quality over quantity” fitness adaptation that in turn favored descendants of women who fit this profile.

There is, of course, a competing hypothesis far more beloved of Tarzanists. The hunting hypothesis, demolished by Sally Slocum, postulates that hunting became better than foraging as a means of sustenance when resources became scarcer in Africa; and that coordinating the hunt (versus, say, figuring out which berries weren’t poisonous) led to natural selection for bigger brains as well as ushering in the female adoration of “alpha males” who brought home the only protein that supposedly counts.

Kristen Hawkes recently published the results of a mathematical simulation of the grandmother hypothesis. The algorithms did not include brain size, hunting or pair bonding. The model showed that grandmother effects alone are sufficient to double life spans in less than sixty thousand years. Not surprisingly, one requirement is natal homing: living close enough to the maternal grandparents that grandmothers can exert their humanizing effects. This fits with the observation that rigidly patrilocal and patrilineal societies which completely obliterate female kinship networks have often gone for quantity over quality, essentially reducing women to incubators that can always be exchanged for newer models – and that some of these societies used to discard infant girls and older women literally like garbage. Other societies went the opposite route, treating older women like honorary almost-men (allowing them to keep sacred objects, for example, though few were made council heads) once they were no longer “tainted” by menstruation.

Those who had grandmothers almost certainly remember the stories they told and the moderating influence they exerted on the family. I never met either of mine. Both died young; tuberculosis hollowed one, fire consumed the other. I did get to know my father’s stepmother, a gentle too-religious soul who was one of the first Greek women to become a teacher. She tried her best, but was not strong enough to counteract my mother’s fierceness, which I have internalized by now. I wonder if I would have been more adjusted to social expectations had my other grandmothers been around, wielding the authority of blood kinship. Given my other non-adaptive core attributes, I suspect the answer is no.

Selected papers:

Slocum, Sally. (1975, reissued 2012). Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology. In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, eds. Pp. 399-407. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hawkes, Kristen. (2003). Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity. American Journal of Human Biology 15 (3): 380–400.

Images: 1st, Grandmother Storyteller by Ada Suina (Wheelright Museum, Santa Fe, NM); 2nd, Pakistani grandmother with her three-day-old grandchild (credit: Adek Berry, AFP).

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

(sung to the glam tune of The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Last week, astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, because the Alpha Centauri triplet (a close binary, Alpha A and Alpha B, circled by Proxima) is the closest star system to ours at a distance of 4.3 light years. The possible existence of such a planet buttresses the increasing evidence that planetary systems form around every possible configuration: in particular, binary systems had been traditionally discounted as too unstable to maintain planets. Terms like “in our back yard” and “stone’s throw” were used liberally and many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.

As with many such discoveries, the caveats extend from here to Proxima. The planet’s existence has been inferred by the primary’s wobble, rather than from direct observation. This means that independent confirmation will be required to pronounce it definitively real. The lifespan of such a planetary system remains an open question. The specifics of the system (including the reason that a wobble was detectable) suggest that the planet, if present, is closer to Alpha B than Mercury is to the sun – which in turn means that it would be tidally locked, awash with the primary’s radiation and too hot for liquid water. Last but decidedly not least, it would take us about eighty thousand years to get there with our current propulsion systems. Depending on one’s definition, eighty thousand years exceed the entire length of human civilization by a factor of two to ten.

So besides the fully justified calls for an immediate robotic probe mission, cue the “solutions” of FTL, warp drive and uploading in addition to those within the realm of the possible (nuclear fusion, light sails, long generation ships… I’m even willing to put Bussard ramjets in this bin). Lest you think such suggestions pop up only on places like io9 or singularitarian lists, I assure you that talk tracks examining such scenarios with totally straight faces were entertained at both last year’s and this year’s Starship Symposium. The warp drive scenario got a boost when a NASA-linked lab announced that they thought they could sorta kinda fold space… if they could get enough strange matter (as in: a few stellar masses’ worth) and manage to stabilize it beyond the usual nanosecond life length. Then again, a NASA-linked lab gave us the “arsenic bacteria” cowpat, so nothing of this kind surprises me any longer.

Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of SF makes people dream – and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy. When that happens, our chances of ever reaching Alpha Centauri decrease steeply, for at least two reasons: the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology; and when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters. The recent sentencing of six Italian geoscientists to years in jail for “failing to predict” an earthquake with casualties speaks to both these points. So does the story of the Haida community that allowed a “businessman” to dump tons of iron into its coastal waters, based on his assurance it would improve conditions for its salmon fisheries. The resulting potentially lethal algal bloom has become visible from space.

Propulsion systems are an obvious domain where fiction (and the understandable fond wish) is still stronger than fact, but there are others. One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. (“Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?”) Another is using cyberpunk novels to argue for economic solutions – think of Greenspan’s belief in Rand’s Übermenschen fantasies. More recently, Damien Walter, a Guardian columnist, earnestly urged the head of the British Labour party to bypass austerity and resource limitations by… implementing ideas from Banks, Stross and Doctorow (Walter also wrote a column about women writing hard SF and used a man as his star example; between him and Coren, it looks like elementary reasoning is not a particularly strong suit at the Guardian). Commenters added Herbert’s Dune to the list, using swooning terms about the politics and policies it portrays. (“Banks’ Culture does it, why not us?”) Just intone “3-D printing!” or “Me Messiah!” over a rock pile, with or without Harry Potter’s wand, and hey-presto: post-scarcity achieved, back to toy universes and customized sexbots! I won’t go over the semi-infinite transhumanist list (uploading, genengineering for “virtue” etc), having done so before.

A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that SF has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because… reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction. Much of this is justification after the fact, of course – writers “must focus on maintaining their online presence” so who has time for background research? – but the basal argument itself is invalid. There’s exactly one domain that’s moving fast: technology that depends on computing speed, although it, too, is approaching a plateau due to intrinsics. To give you an example from my own field, I’ve worked on dementia for more than twenty years. During this time, although we have learned a good deal (and some of it goes against earlier “common sense” assumptions, such as the real role and toxicity of tangles and plaques) we have not made any progress towards reliable non-invasive early diagnosis of dementia, let alone preventing or curing it. The point here is not that we never will, but that doing so will require a lot more than the mouth farts of stage wizards, snake-oil salesmen or pseudo-mavens.

When faced with these facts, many people fall back to the Kennedy myth: that we went to the moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality. Ergo, the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin’ Luddites who persist on harshing squees (file this under “unclear on concepts” and “perpetual juvenility”). Messianic strains aside, there were very specific reasons that made the Apollo mission a success: it was tightly focused; it had no terrestrial repercussions; it was the equivalent of gorilla chest-beating, another way of establishing dominance vis-à-vis the USSR; and it was done in an era when US was flush with power and confidence – the sole actor involved in WWII not to have suffered enormous devastation of its home ground. The outcomes of “war on cancer”, “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism” (to just name three of many) illustrate how quickly or well such an approach works when applied to complex long-range problems with constellations of consequences.

Mind you, as a writer of space opera I’m incorrigibly partial to psionic powers and stable wormholes (in part because they’re integral to mythic SF). And the possible existence of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is indeed a genuine cause for excitement. But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they’re linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person, rather than by proxy.


Selected related articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

“Arsenic” Life, or: There is TOO a Dragon in my Garage!
The Charlatan-Haunted World

Images:
1st, Alpha Centauri A and B seen over the limb of Saturn (JPL/NASA); 2nd, the algal bloom in the NW Pacific after the iron dump (NASA/Wikimedia Commons); 3rd, real science: The Curiosity Mars rover (Maas Digital LLC/National Geographic)

Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

My readers know by now that I’m not “feminine” as defined by western mainstream culture. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part. I was instinctively allergic to being girly. I didn’t like the brittle plastic feel of dolls (though woolly bears and tigers crowd my bed even now), I detest all pink except the salmon-nectarine hues of dusk and dawn, I took to formal math like a goose (not a gander) to water – the silly stories made up to “soften it” gave me hives – and I’ve always loved and excelled in structural toys and puzzles, including those that supposedly derange female brains: namely, mentally rotating objects.

A question that comes up constantly in the circles I frequent is “Why aren’t more girls following STEM paths?” (STEM=Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). In many ways it reminds me of that other vexed question: “Why are First Worlders getting more obese?” In both cases, the question foci (girls/overweight people) are caught in severe double binds: the desired goal (becoming a woman who enters a STEM domain/having a healthy weight – which is not the same as a “socially desirable” weight) is strewn with obstacles that are almost entirely external and so systemic as to constitute the equivalent of the atmosphere; and both success and failure at following each path carry heavy personal costs [before anyone starts shrieking about “fatphobia”, read You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality where I discuss the grave dangers of excessive thinness. I intend to write a counterpoint follow-up to that at some point; this time we’ll focus on girls and STEM.]

To put it bluntly, a girl/young woman who wishes to follow a STEM vocation sets herself up for a lifelong drizzle of frustration, belittlement and harassment. At all points she will be reminded she’s unnatural, like a dog prancing on its hind legs; that women cannot achieve “true greatness” (however defined) in STEM. She may be actively attacked, from verbal insults to outright physical assaults. She will be given less mentoring, less salary, fewer plum positions and first-ranking journal publications, even fewer awards, promotions and perks – and she will be expected to be the default parent, if she wants a family. Her credentials and credibility will always be questioned, even if she gets a Nobel. This holds for the so-called First World as well and in fact it’s getting worse rather than better (economic downturns and fundie religiosity tend to do that). Given all this, the fact that women do make up a significant proportion of STEM is actually a near-miracle.

I was reminded of this issue recently when I had reason to look into games aimed at familiarizing very young girls with STEM before the age they start get turned off science or risk being labeled unfeminine. A preliminary point is that such efforts may be “making holes in the water” because the sad fact is that when enough women enter a discipline, it gets automatically re-classified as “female” and its perceived value and social/financial rewards plummet. This is true regardless of content: from doctors in the former Soviet Union to personal assistants to writers of what is arbitrarily labeled “soft” SF (which, ironically, includes almost all biologically-focused work because, you know, only pointed and exploding objects are hard SF).

That aside, the attempts to create STEM-relevant toys that are “girl-friendly” show the desire to counteract gender targeting, which starts in the cradle and never subsides, as well as the unavoidable pitfalls of such coding. Unquestionably, narrowing the STEM gender gap is more than worthwhile. At the same time, the guiding principles of this concept give me serious pause.

Pitches of such products are abrim with bluntly essentialist statements like “Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters.” and “The set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls.” As a corollary, such toys/games are aggressively girly (bubble-gum pink features prominently) and their characters are usually so whitebread that they could cause snow blindness. This is nothing new, of course – just read Tom Englehardt’s trenchant and still sadly relevant 1986 essay about gender coding in children’s TV programs. This domain hasn’t moved an inch since the fifties. Given how formative early socializing is, the rarity of women engineers, in particular, should not really be so surprising.

Had I seen such games when I was their target age, I’d have walked right past them (and I threw them summarily away when I received them as gifts). For one, I used Erector sets and suchlike as enthusiastically as I read stories; for another, the bland blondness endemic in such toys codes for “daffy airhead” in my culture. These products are explicitly geared to appeal to parents anxious to “correctly” socialize their children. And despite their excellent intentions, they reinforce the incredibly problematic “separate but equal” status quo even as they try to combat it.

In some ways, these games are younger-cohort variations of the concept that it’s a good idea to have sex-segregated schools if they enable girls to gain a foothold in areas traditionally closed/hostile to them. Of course, this approach worked if you went to the Ivy League Seven Sisters before they went co-educational – or to my competition-entry elite high school, whose explicit mission was to create future nation leaders. On the other hand, my sister went to a public school whose math teacher decided not to teach the girls – because “housewives don’t need algebra.” So sex-segregated education works, kinda, but only if you’re a princess or, at minimum, a mandarin-to-be.

Proponents of this approach argue that “girly” identity is often established by age 5 and therefore girls need to be coaxed back to problem-solving (as if traditionally “feminine” occupations like cooking and doing laundry are not problem-solving and don’t require spatial and suchlike skills… but we’ll put that aside). As far as I know, Tarzanist bleatings excepted, no correlation has been established between early girliness and later inclination to science, nor are the two mutually exclusive at any age (this also depends on how “girliness” is defined). On the other hand, if your parents, teachers and peers punish you in a myriad small or large ways if you don’t behave “as you should” gender-wise, it’s a foregone conclusion you will tack your lifeboat accordingly. Unless you’re like me, in which case you’ll get even more stubborn – and pay the price.

I think the only real solution to this problem is to tone down the gender essentialism of both “halves” and see to it that girls (and, more importantly, their parents) receive the message that it’s okay to browse the “blue aisles”, where STEM-relevant games are not an explicit insult to basic intelligence. Of course, the ideal would be to tone down (better yet, erase) gender essentialism at all times and places and deem “non-masculine” things of equal value, but I recognize that for the pipe dream it is.