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Artist, Heather Oliver             

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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


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.


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


World SF
Book Smugglers
Victoria Hooper

Round Tables

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


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?”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Jason Sizemore 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.

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)

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 ( 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:

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

(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!

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.

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

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

You were involved in nanotech research?

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).

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?


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


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.


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.


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

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.

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American. It got showcased in a few places. Not surprisingly, some were dissatisfied: those who think scientists (especially dark non-Anglo female ones) should be just technicians with no larger contextual views of their work; those who cling to old notions of DNA functions; those enamored of miracle “cures”; and, needless to say, creationists of all stripes.

A week ago, a huge, painstakingly orchestrated PR campaign was timed to coincide with multiple publications of a long-term study by the ENCODE consortium in top-ranking journals.  The ENCODE project (EP) is essentially the next stage after the Human Genome Project (HGP).  The HGP sequenced all our DNA (actually a mixture of individual genomes); the EP is an attempt to define what all our DNA does by several circumstantial-evidence gathering and analysis techniques.

The EP results purportedly revolutionize our understanding of the genome by “proving” that DNA hitherto labeled junk is in fact functional and this knowledge will enable us to “maintain individual wellbeing” but also miraculously cure intractable diseases like cancer and diabetes.

Unlike the “arsenic bacteria” fiasco, the EP experiments were done carefully and thoroughly.  The information unearthed and collated with this research is very useful, if only a foundation; as with the HGP, this cataloguing quest also contributed to development of techniques. What is way off are the claims, both proximal and distal.

A similar kind of “theory of everything” hype surrounded the HGP but in the case of the EP the hype has been ratcheted several fold, partly due to the increased capacity for rapid, saturating online dissemination.  And science journalists who should know better (in Science, BBC, NY Times, The Guardian, Discover Magazine) made things worse by conflating junk, non-protein-coding and regulatory DNA.

Biologists – particularly those of us involved in dissecting RNA regulation – have known since the eighties that much of “junk” DNA has functions (to paraphrase Sydney Brenner, junk is not garbage).  The EP results don’t alter the current view of the genome, they just provide a basis for further investigation; their definition of “functional” is “biochemically active” – two very different beasts; the functions (let alone any disease cures) will require exhaustive independent authentication of the EP batch results.

Additionally, the findings were embargoed for years to enable the PR blitz – at minimum unseemly when public funds are involved. On the larger canvas, EP signals the increased siphoning of ever-scarcer funds into mega-projects that preempt imaginative, risky work.  Last but not least, the PR phrasing choices put wind in the sails of creationists and intelligent design (ID) adherents, by implying that everything in the genome has “a purpose under heaven”.

What did the study actually do?  The EP consortium labs systematically catalogued such things as DNAase I hypersensitive and methylated sites, transcription factor (TF) binding sites and transcribed regions in many cell types.  Unmethylated nuclease-sensitive DNA is in the “open” configuration – aka euchromatin, a state in which DNA can discharge its various roles.  The TF sites mean little by themselves: to give you a sense of their predictive power, any synthetically made DNA stretch will contain several such sites.  Whether they have a function depends on a whole slew of prerequisites.  Ditto the transcripts, of which more anon.

Let’s tackle “junk” DNA first, a term I find as ugly and misleading as the word “slush” for responses to open submission calls. Semantic baggage aside, the label “junk” was traditionally given to DNA segments with no apparent function.  Back in the depths of time (well, circa 1970), all DNA that did not code for proteins or proximal regulatory elements (promoters and terminators) was tossed on the “junk” pile.

However, in the eighties the definition of functional DNA started shifting rapidly, though I suspect it will never reach the 80% used by the EP PR juggernaut.  To show you how the definition has drifted, expanded, and had its meaning muddied as a term of art that is useful for everyone besides the workaday splicers et al who are abreast of trendy interpretations that may elude the laity, let’s meander down the genome buffet table.

Protein-coding segments in the genome (called exons, which are interrupted by non-protein-coding segments called introns) account for about 2% of the total.  That percentage increases a bit if non-protein-coding but clearly functional RNAs are factored in (structural RNAs: the U family, r- and tRNAs; regulatory miRNAs and their cousins).

About 25 percent of our DNA is regulatory and includes signals for: un/packing DNA into in/active configurations; replication, recombination and meiosis, including telomeres and centromeres; transcription (production of heteronuclear RNAs, which contain both exons and introns); splicing (excision of the introns to turn hnRNAs into mature RNAs, mRNA among them); polyadenylation (adding a homopolymeric tail that can dictate RNA location), export of mature RNA into the cytoplasm; and translation (turning mRNA into protein).

All these processes are regulated in cis (by regulatory motifs in the DNA) and in trans (by RNAs and proteins), which gives you a sense of how complex and layered our peri-genomic functions are. DNA is like a single book that can be read in Russian, Mandarin, Quechua, Maori and Swahili.  Some biologists (fortunately, fewer and fewer) still place introns and regions beyond a few thousand nucleotides up/downstream of a gene in the “junk” category, but a good portion is anything but: such regions contain key elements (enhancers and silencers for transcription and splicing) that allow the cell to regulate when and where to express each protein and RNA; they’re also important for local folding that’s crucial for bringing relevant distant elements in correct proximity as well as for timing, since DNA-linked processes are locally processive.

But what of the 70% of the genome that’s left?  Well, that’s a bit like an attic that hasn’t been cleaned out since the mansion was built.  It contains things that once were useful – and may be useful again in old or new ways – plus gewgaws, broken and rusted items that can still influence the household’s finances and health… as well as mice, squirrels, bats and raccoons.  In bio-jargon, the genome is rife with duplicated genes that have mutated into temporary inactivity, pseudogenes, and the related tribe of transposons, repeat elements and integrated viruses. Most are transcribed and then rapidly degraded, processes that do commandeer cellular resources.  Some are or may be doing something specific; others act as non-specific factor sinks and probably also buffer the genome against mutational hits.  In humans, such elements collectively make up about half of the genome.

So even bona fide junk DNA is not neutral and is still subject to evolutionary scrutiny – but neither does every single element map to a specific function.  We know this partly because genome size varies very widely across species whereas the coding capacity is much less variable (the “C-value paradox”), partly because removal of some of these regions does not affect viability in several animal models, including mice. It’s this point that EP almost deliberately obfuscated by trumpeting (or letting be trumpeted) that “junk DNA has been debunked”, ushering in “a view at odds with what biologists have thought for the past three decades.”

Continuing down the litany of claims, will this knowledge help us cure cancer and diabetes?  Many diseases are caused not by mutations within the protein-coding regions but by mutations that affect regulation.  Unmutated (“wild-type”) proteins at the wrong time, place or amount can and do cause disease: the most obvious paradigm is trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) but cancer and dementia are also prominent members in this category, which includes most of the slow chronic diseases that have proved refractory to “magic bullet” treatments.  Techniques that allow identification of changes in regulatory elements obviously feed into this information channel. So a systematic catalogue of regulatory elements across cell types is a prerequisite to homing in on specific stretches known or predicted to have links to a disease or disease susceptibility.

A few potential problems lurk behind this promising front.  One is that the variety between normal individual genomes is great – far greater than expected.  There’s also the related ground-level question of what constitutes normal: each of us carries a good number of recessive-lethal alleles.  So unless we have a robust, multiply overlapping map of acceptable variability, we may end up with false positives – for example, classifying a normal but uncommon variation as harmful.  Efforts to create such maps are currently in progress, so this is a matter of time.

Two additional interconnected problems are assigning true biological relevance to a biochemically defined activity and disentangling cause and effect (this problem also bedevils other assays – the related SNP [single nucleotide polymorphism] technique in particular).  To say that a particular binding site is occupied in a particular circumstance does not show a way to either diagnostics or therapeutics.  “Common sense” deductions from incomplete basic knowledge or forced a priori conclusions have sometimes led to disasters at the stage of application (the amyloid story among them – in which useless vaccines were made based on the mistaken assumption that the plaques are the toxic entities).

The pervasive but clearly erroneous take-home message of “a function for everything” harms biology among laypeople by implying ubiquitous purpose.  It also feeds right into the perfectibility concept that fuels such dangerous nonsense as the Genetic Virtue Project.  Too, it will attract investors who will push sloppy work based on flimsy foundations.  Of course, it’s funny to see creationists fall all over themselves to endorse the EP results while denying the entire foundation that gives raison d’être and context to such projects.  As for ID adherents, they should spend some time datamining genome-encompassing results (microarray, SNP, genome-wide associated studies, deep sequencing and the like), to see how noisy and messy our genomes really are.  I’d be happy to take volunteers for my microarray results, might as well use the eagerness to do real science!

What the EP results show (though they’re not the first or only ones to do so) is how complex and multiply interlinked even our minutest processes are.  Everything discussed in the EP work and in this and many other articles takes place within the cell nucleus, yet the outcomes can make and unmake us.  The results also show how much we still need to learn before we can confidently make changes at this level without fear of unpredicted/unpredictable side effects.  That’s for the content part.  As for the style, it’s true that some level of flamboyance may be necessary to get across to a public increasingly jaded by non-stop eye- and mind-candy.

However, people are perfectly capable of understanding complex concepts and data even if they’re not insider initiates, provided they examine them without wishing to shoehorn them into prior agendas.  Accuracy does not equal dullness and eloquence does not equal hype.  The EP results are important and will be very useful – but they’re not paradigm shifters or miracle tablets and should not pretend to be.


Brenner S (1990).  The human genome: the nature of the enterprise (in: Human Genetic Information: Science, Law and Ethics – No. 149: Science, Law and Ethics – Symposium Proceedings (CIBA Foundation Symposia) John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

ENCODE Project Consortium, Bernstein BE, Birney E, Dunham I, Green ED, Gunter C, Snyder M (2012).  An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome. Nature 489:57-74. doi: 10.1038/nature11247.

Stamatoyannopoulos JA (2012). What does our genome encode?  Genome Res. 22:1602-11.

Useful Analyses and Critiques:

Birney, E.  Response on ENCODE reaction.  (Bioinformatician at Large, Sept. 9, 2012).

Note: Ewan Birney is one of the major participants in the ENCODE project.

Eddy, S.  Encode says what? (Cryptogenomicon, Sept. 8, 2012).

Eisen M. This 100,000 word post on the ENCODE media bonanza will cure cancer (Michael Eisen’s blog, Sept. 6, 2012).

Timmer, J.  Most of what you read was wrong: how press releases rewrote scientific history (Ars Technica, Sept. 10, 2012).

Two More Borders Crossed

Monday, September 17th, 2012

My article on junk DNA and the recent huge PR noise associated with it just appeared in Scientific American as a guest post.  I will reprint it here toward the end of the week, to give SciAm its time lead.

This has also occasioned the opening of (groan) a Twitter account that will be essentially an adjunct to the blog, as are my FB and LJ accounts.  The handles are Helivoy (LJ) and AthenaHelivoy (TW) — but if you’re tracking the blog, all else is redundant.

Cool Cat by Ali Spagnola

The Psychology of Space Exploration: A Review — Part 2

Monday, September 17th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.

Note: this is a companion piece to Those Who Never Got to Fly.

Part 1

To give some examples of what I feel is missing and limited in representation in Psychology of Space Exploration, there is but a brief mention of what author Frank White has labeled the “Overview Effect”. As the book states, this is the result of “truly transformative experiences [from flying in space] including sense of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence, and universal brotherhood.”

Clearly this is a very positive reaction to being in space, one which could have quite helpful benefits for those who are exploring the Universe. The Overview Effect might also have an ironic down side, one where a working astronaut might become so caught up in the “wonder and awe” of the surrounding Cosmos away from Earth that he or she could miss a critical mission operation or even forget what they were originally meant to do. Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter may have been one of the earliest “victims” of the Overview Effect during his Aurora 7 mission in 1962. Apparently his very human reaction to being immersed in the Final Frontier in part caused Carpenter to miss some key objectives during his mission in Earth orbit and even overshoot his landing zone by some 250 miles. Carpenter never flew in space again, despite being one of the top astronauts among the Mercury Seven. It would seem that in those early days of the Space Race, having the Right Stuff did not include getting caught up with the view outside one’s spacecraft window, at least so overtly.

Image: Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NASA

Another item largely missing from Psychology of Space Exploration is the effects on space personnel after they come home from a mission. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong became the first two humans to walk on the surface of the Moon with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, is one of the earliest examples of publicly displaying the truly human side of being an astronaut.

Although not revealed publicly until 2001 by former NASA flight official Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., in his autobiography Flight: My Life in Mission Control, the real reason Aldrin was not selected to be the first one to step out of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle onto the Moon was due to the space agency’s personal preference for Armstrong, who Kraft called “reticent, soft-spoken, and heroic.” Aldrin, on the other hand, “was overtly opinionated and ambitious, making it clear within NASA why he thought he should be first [to walk on the Moon].”

Even though Aldrin was a fighter pilot during the Korean War, earned a doctorate in astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and played an important role in solving the EVA issues that had plagued most of the Gemini missions and was critical to the success of Apollo and beyond, his lack of following the unspoken code of the Right Stuff kept him from making that historic achievement.

Aldrin would later throw the accepted version of the Right Stuff for astronauts right out the proverbial window when he penned a very candid book titled Return to Earth (Random House, 1973). The first of two autobiographies, the book revealed personal details as had no space explorer before and few since, including the severe depression and alcoholism Aldrin went through after the Apollo 11 mission and his departure from NASA altogether several years later, never to reach the literal heights he accomplished in 1969 or even to fly in space again. Although Aldrin would later recover and become a major advocate of space exploration, he is not even given a mention in Psychology of Space Exploration. In light of what later happened with Nowak and several other astronauts in their post-career lives, I think this is a serious omission from a book that is all about the mental states of space explorers.

The other glaring omission from this work is any discussion of the human reproductive process in space. NASA has been especially squeamish about this particular behavior in the Final Frontier. There is no official report from any space agency with a manned program on the various aspects of reproduction among any of its space explorers, only some rumors and anecdotes of questionable authenticity.

As with so much else regarding the early days of the Space Age, that may not have been an issue with the relatively few (primarily male) astronauts and cosmonauts confined to cramped spacecraft for a matter of days and weeks, but this will certainly change once we have truly long duration missions, space tourism, and non-professionals living permanently off Earth. As with daily life on this planet, there will be situations and issues long before and after the one aspect of human reproduction that is so often focused upon. Unfortunately, outside of some experiments with lower animals, real data on this activity vital to a permanent human presence in the Sol system and beyond is absent.

I recognize that Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a historical perspective on human behavior and interaction in space. As there have been no human births yet in either microgravity conditions or on another world and the other behaviors associated with reproduction are publicly unknown, this work cannot really be faulted for lacking any serious information on the subject. What this does display, however, is how far behind NASA and all other space agencies are in an area which will likely be the determining factor in whether humans expand into the Cosmos or remain confined to Earth.

So Far Along, So Far to Go

What the Psychology of Space Exploration ultimately demonstrates is that despite real and important improvements in how astronauts deal with being in space and the way NASA views and treats them since the days of Project Mercury, we are not fully ready for a manned scientific expedition to Mars, let alone colonizing other worlds.

Staying in low Earth orbit for six months at a stint aboard the ISS as a standard space mission these days gives an incomplete picture of what those who will be spending several years traveling to and from the Red Planet across many millions of miles of space will have to endure and experience. If an emergency arises that requires more than what the mission crew can handle, Earth will likely be a distant blue star for them rather than the friendly globe occupying most of their view which all but the Apollo astronauts have experienced since 1961.

Image: Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule. Although she never flew in space, Cobb, along with twenty-four other women, underwent physical tests similar to those taken by the Mercury astronauts with the belief that she might become an astronaut trainee. All the women who participated in the program, known as First Lady Astronaut Trainees, were skilled pilots. Dr. Randy Lovelace, a NASA scientist who had conducted the official Mercury program physicals, administered the tests at his private clinic without official NASA sanction. Cobb passed all the training exercises, ranking in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates of both genders. Credit: NASA.

Regarding this view of the shrinking Earth from deep space, the multiple authors of Chapter 4 noted that ISS astronauts took 84.5 percent of the photographs during the mission inspired by their motivation and choices. Most of these images were of our planet moving over 200 miles below their feet. The authors noted how much of an emotional uplift it was for the astronauts to image Earth in their own time and in their own way.

The chapter authors also had this to say about what an expedition to Mars might encounter:

As we begin to plan for interplanetary missions, it is important to consider what types of activities could be substituted. Perhaps the crewmembers best suited to a Mars transit are those individuals who can get a boost to psychological well-being from scientific observations and astronomical imaging. Replacements for the challenge of mastering 800-millimeter photography could also be identified. As humans head beyond low-Earth orbit, crewmembers looking at Earth will only see a pale-blue dot, and then, someday in the far future, they will be too far away to view Earth at all.

Now of course we could prepare and send a crewed spaceship to Mars and back with a fair guarantee of success, both in terms of collecting scientific information on that planet and in the survival of the human explorers, starting today if we so chose to follow that path. The issue, though, is whether we would have a mission of high or low quality (or outright disaster) and if the results of that initial effort of human extension to an alien world would translate into our species moving beyond Earth indefinitely to make the rest of the Cosmos a true home.

The data recorded throughout Psychology of Space Exploration clearly indicate that despite over five decades of direct human expeditions by many hundreds of people, we need much more than just six months to one year at most in a collection of confined spaces repeatedly circling Earth. This will affect not only our journeys and colonization efforts throughout the Sol system but certainly should we go with the concept of a Worldship and its multigenerational crew as a means for our descendants to voyage to other suns and their planets.

This book is an excellent reflection of NASA in its current state and human space exploration in general. As with the agency’s manned space program since the days when the Mercury Seven were first introduced to the world in 1959, we have indeed come a long way in terms of direct space experience, mission durations, gender and ethnic diversity, and understanding and admitting the physiological needs of those men and women who are brave and capable enough to deliberately venture into a realm they and their ancestors did not evolve in and which could destroy them in mere seconds.

Having said all this, what I hope is apparent is that we now need a new book – perhaps one written outside the confines of NASA – which will address in rigorous detail the missing issues I have brought to light in this piece. This request and the subsequent next steps in our species’ expansion into space – which will also eventually take place beyond the organizational borders of NASA – cannot but help to improve our chances of becoming a truly enduring and universal society in a Cosmos where certainty and safety are eventually not guaranteed to beings who remain confined physically and mentally to but one world.

The Psychology of Space Exploration: A Review — Part 1

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.

Note: this is a companion piece to Those Who Never Got to Fly.

Early on the morning of February 5, 2007, several officers from the Orlando Police Department in Florida were summoned to the Orlando International Airport, where they arrested a female suspect. This woman was alleged to have attacked another woman she had been stalking while the latter sat in her car in the airport parking lot. Judging by the various items later found in the vehicle the suspect had used as transportation to the Sunshine State all the way from her home in Houston, Texas, her ultimate intent was to kidnap and possibly conduct even worse actions upon her victim.

While such a criminal incident is sadly not uncommon in modern society, what surprised and even shocked the public upon learning what happened was the occupation of the perpetrator: She was a veteran NASA astronaut, a flight engineer named Lisa Nowak who had flown on the Space Shuttle Discovery in July of 2006. As a member of the STS-121 mission, Nowak spent almost two weeks in Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS), performing among other duties the operation of the winged spacecraft’s robotic arm.

It seems that the woman who Nowak went after, a U.S. Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman, was in a relationship with a male astronaut named William Oefelein. Nowak had also been romantically involved with Oefelein earlier, but he had gradually broken off their relationship and started a new one with Shipman. Oefelein would later state that he thought Nowak seemed fine about his ending their affair and moving on to another woman. However, by then it was painfully and very publicly obvious that Oefelein had not thoroughly consulted enough with his former companion on this matter.

NASA would eventually dismiss Nowak and Oefelein from their astronaut corps, the first American space explorers ever formally forced to leave the agency. NASA also created an official Code of Conduct for their employees in the wake of this publicity nightmare.

Now I have no documented proof of this, but I strongly suspect that the Nowak incident played a large but officially unacknowledged role in the creation of the recent offering by the NASA History Program Office book titled Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective (NASA SP-2011-4411), edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies, as well as the director of Interstellar Message Composition at The SETI Institute.

Quoting from a NASA press release (11-223), which appeared about the same time as the book:

Psychology of Space Exploration is a collection of essays from leading space psychologists. They place their recent research in historical context by looking at changes in space missions and psychosocial science over the past 50 years. What makes up the “right stuff” for astronauts has changed as the early space race gave way to international cooperation.

The book itself is available online in several formats.

From the Right Stuff to All Kinds of Stuff

It may seem obvious to say that astronauts are as human as the rest of us, but in fact our culture has long viewed those who boldly go into the Final Frontier atop a controlled series of explosions otherwise known as a rocket in a much different and higher regard than most mere mortals. Even before the first person donned a silvery spacesuit and stepped inside a cramped and conical Mercury spacecraft mated to a former ICBM for a brief arcing flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1961, NASA’s first group of human space explorers – known collectively as the Mercury Seven – were being presented from their very first press briefing in 1959 as virtual demigods who had the right skills and mental attitude to brave the unknown perils of the Universe.

Image: The Mercury Seven stand in front of a F-106 Delta Dart. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Mercury Seven astronauts were not just men: They were an elite breed of space warriors ready to conquer the Cosmos who also represented the best that the United States of America had to offer when it came to their citizens, their technology, and their science. The nation’s first space explorers may have been ultimately human and limited in various ways, even flawed, but the agency’s goal was to keep any issues in check through their missions at the least and preferably during their full tenure with NASA.

By the time of Nowak’s incident, astronauts may not have been the demigods of the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but they were still looked upon as highly capable people who ventured to places few others have gone and who did not give into human passions beyond a few moments of wonder at the Universe, realistic or not. This is why Nowak and Oefelein’s behaviors were so shocking to the public even four decades after the first generations of space explorers.

There are two reasons why I brought up the dramatic events of 2007 with Lisa Nowak: The first is my aforementioned hypothesis that what took place between the former astronaut and her perceived romantic rival led to NASA feeling the need to examine their policies regarding the human beings they send into space and formally documenting the resulting studies.

The second reason is that Psychology of Space Exploration needed more of these personal stories about the astronauts and cosmonauts. Now certainly there were some of these throughout the book: The Introduction to Chapter 1 relays a tale about a test pilot who was applying to be an astronaut who told an evaluating psychiatrist about the time the experimental aircraft he was flying started spinning out of control. The pilot responded to this emergency by calmly leafing through the vehicle’s operating manual to solve the immediate problem, which he obviously did.

Nevertheless, more of these kinds of stories would have not only made the book a bit less dry as it was in places, but they would have added immeasurably to the information content of this work.

As just one example, in Chapter 2 on page 26, the author mentions (from another source) that the Soviet space missions “Soyuz 21 (1976), Soyuz T-14 (1985), and Soyuz TM-2 (1987) were shortened because of mood, performance, and interpersonal issues. Brian Harvey wrote that psychological factors contributed to the early evacuation of a Salyut 7 [space station] crew.”

The problem here is that the book then moves on without going into any details about exactly what happened to curtail these missions. Knowing what took place would certainly be useful in making sure that future space ventures, especially the really long duration ones that will be of necessity as we move past our Moon, could be the difference between a secure and functioning crew and a disaster.

Incidentally, the author noted that the Soviets, who were usually reticent about giving out many technical details or goals on most space missions manned and robotic, were more open when it came to the experiences of their cosmonauts and showed more interest in their physiological situations in confined microgravity situations than NASA often did with their astronauts.

The Soviet space program also had a longer period of actual experience with humans living aboard space stations starting in 1971 with Salyut 1 (or Soyuz 9 in 1970 if you want to count that early space endurance record-holding jaunt) which NASA did not share between their three Skylab missions in 1973-1974 until their joint involvement with the Soviet Mir station in the 1990s. Having the details from that era would be of obvious benefit and interest.

Image: The MIR station hovering over Earth. It deorbited in March 21, 2001.The station was serviced by the Soyuz spacecraft, Progress spacecraft and U.S. space shuttles, and was visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 12 different nations. It endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. Credit: NASA.

Granted, as with a collection of research papers such as this, there are plenty of references. Finding the stories this way is not a problem if you are doing your own research and using Psychology of Space Exploration as a reference source, but for the more casual reader it could be a bit of a disappointment when these items are not readily available.

While I think most people who want to learn more about how our space explorers are affected by and respond to and during their missions into the Final Frontier will find something of interest and value throughout this book, Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a reference work that goes into levels of certain details as befitting literature of its type while missing a number of others which I think are just as important for a comprehensive view of human expansion into space, both in the past, the present, and most vitally the future.

The ultimate goal of putting people into space is eventually to create a permanent presence of our species beyond Earth. That is the grand aim even if their initial underlying purposes were more geared towards engineering and geopolitical goals. This is similar to the history of the early navigators who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the New World, for they too had other plans initially in mind, although the ultimate result was the founding of the many nations that exist in the Western Hemisphere today.

Part 2

The Charlatan-Haunted World

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

In the larger context of how sciency blather shapes culture, including speculative literature, it’s interesting to juxtapose two movement gurus, Ray Kurzweil and Deepak Chopra. Many consider them very different but in fact they’re extremely similar. Essentially, both are prophet-wannabes who are attempting to gain legitimacy by distorting science to fit a cynically self-aggrandizing agenda.

Chopra goes the faux grand unification route; Kurzweil belongs to the millenarian camp, including his habit of setting goals that ever recede: the year we become optimized by nanobots… the year we upload our minds to silicon frames… the year we welcome our AI overlords. The Singularity and the complete reverse-engineering of the human brain were slated for 2010; now the magic year is 2045. Sound familiar?

Both men are embodiments of Maslow’s dictum that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Chopra’s hammer is power of mind over matter; Kurzweil’s, Moore’s Law with “exponential” as its abracadabra. It’s easy to laugh at Chopra’s blatant misuse of quantum mechanics and his idea that we can destroy tumors with sheer thought power. Most of the biocentrist vaporings of Chopra, Lanza et al can be dealt with by one word: decoherence. Conversely, Kurzweil’s ignorance of basics is so obvious to a biologist that seeing him being taken seriously makes you feel you’re in a parallel universe. For the rest of this article, I will focus on transhumanism (TH) and just briefly linger on salient points many of which I’ve covered before in detail.

I’ve often said that cyberpunk is the fiction arm of TH, but upon reflection I think it would be more accurate to say TH is a branch of cyberpunk SF if not fantasy – and not a particularly original one, at that. At the same time, even its own adherents are starting to publicly admit that TH is a religion. After all, its wish list consists of the same things humans have wanted since time immemorial: immortality and eternal youth. Eternally perky breasts and even perkier penises. Those lucky enough to attain these attributes will frolic in Elysium Fields of silicon or in gated communities like today’s Dubai or tomorrow’s seasteads. Followers of other religions have to wait patiently for paradise; transhumanists can gain instant bliss by thronging to Second Life. Or as that famous Sad Children cartoon says, “In the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome.”

Transhumanists posit several items as articles of faith. All these items require technology indistinguishable from magic – and in some cases, technology that will never come to pass because of intrinsic limitations. Transhumanists call unbelievers Luddites — funny, given that many who object to the cult approach are working scientists or engineers. Among the TH tenets:

1. Perfectibility: “optimization” of humans is not only possible but also desirable.

1a. Genes determine high-order behavior: intelligence, musical talent, niceness. This has gone so far that there is a formal TH proposal by Mark Walker to implement a Genetic Virtue Program; in cyberpunk SF you see it in such laughable items as Emiko having “dog loyalty genes” in the inexplicably lauded Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Basing a genetic program on the concept that genes determine high-order behavior is like planning an expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic system. Genomes act as highly networked ensembles and organisms are jury-rigged. Furthermore, optimization for one function in biological systems (across scales) makes for suboptimality at all else.

1b. There’s one-to-one mapping between hormones or evolutionary specifics and behavior. Most of these generalizations  come from research on non-humans (mice for hormones; various primates for evolution) and lead to conclusions like: people can become lovesome by judicious applications of oxytocin or murderous by extra helpings of testosterone; and to the evopsycho nonsense of “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. This is equally endemic in what I call grittygrotty fantasy, but it seems to be at odds with TH’s willingness to entertain the concepts of gender fluidity and sculpting-at-will.

1c. Designer genetic engineering will come to pass, including nanotech that will patrol us internally. Genetic engineering is already with us, but it will take time to fine-tune it for routine “vanity” use. Of course, we already have nanites – they’re called enzymes. However, cells are not this amorphous soup into which nanoships can sail at whim. They’re highly organized semi-solid assemblages with very specific compartments and boundaries.  The danger for cell and organ damage shown in the cheesy but oddly prescient Fantastic Voyage is in fact quite real.

2. Dualism: biological processes can be uncoupled from their physical substrates.

2a. Emotions are distinct from thoughts (and the former are often equated with the non-cortical Four Fs). This aligns with such items as the TH obsession with sexbots and proxy relationships through various avatars — and the movement’s general fear and dislike of the body. Of course, our bodies are not passive appendages but an integral part of our sensor feedback network and our sense of identity.

2b. It is possible to achieve immortality and continuity of consciousness by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. It should go without saying that uploading, even if a non-destructive implementation ever became possible, would create an autonomous copy.  I still boggle at Stross’ pronouncement that “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. // Uploading refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.”

3. Dogma: invalid equivalences and models for complexity.

3a. The brain is a computer. This leads to fantasies that “expansion of capabilities” (however defined) and such things as uploading or “stigmata” (that is, leakage between VR and reality) are possible. The fundamental point is that the brain is not a computer in any way that is useful to either biology or computer science, starting with the fact that a brain is never a blank chassis that passively accepts software. Also, it’s one thing to observe that the cerebellum contains four types of neurons, another to talk of stacks. The black noise on this has reached such a level that I cringe whenever I hear people discuss the brain using terms like “Kolmogorov complexity”.

3b. Sentient AI and animal uplift will not only come to pass, but will also produce entities that are remarkably similar to us. Connected to this are the messianic ravings of the extropians, who envision themselves as essentially overseers in plantations, as well as David Pearce’s “imperative” that any issues will be ironed out with such things as contraceptives for sentient rabbits and aversion therapy for sentient cats that will turn them into happy vegans. However, cat intestines are formed in such a way that they need meat to survive. If they must be medicated non-stop (let alone mangy from malnutrition), much better to design a species de novo. Crowley’s Leos and Linebarger’s Underpeople were both more realistic and more humane than the equivalent TH constructs.

Like all religions, TH has its sects and rifts, its evangelicals and reformists. Overall, however, the shiny if mostly pie-in-the-sky tech covers a regressive interior: TH hews to triumphalism, determinism and hierarchies. Interestingly, several SF authors (most notably Iain Banks) see TH applications as positive feedback loops for a terminal era of plenty: infinite resources courtesy of nanites, infinite flexibility in identities and lifestyles. However, I think that we’re likelier to see some of this technology become real in two contexts: an earth running out of resources… and people in long-generation starships and quasi-terrestrial exoplanets.

In both cases, we may have to implement radical changes not for some nebulous arbitrary perfection, or as a game of trust/hedge fund playboys, but when we’re in extremis and/or for a specific context. For example, the need to hibernate on an ice-bound planet or survive on toxic foodstuffs. Because TH is essentially a futuristic version of Manifest Destiny, it’s an unsuitable framework for exploring low-key sustainability alternatives. But TH does itself even fewer favors by harnessing stale pseudoscience to its chariots of the gods.  People like Kurzweil have the education and intelligence to know better, which makes them far more culpable than brain-dead ignorant haters like Akin.

Note: This article is an adaptation of the talk I gave to Readercon 2012 this July.  A panel discussion followed the talk; the other participants were John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid and Alison Sinclair.

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Images: 1st, Mike Myers as Maurice Pitka in The Love Guru; 2nd, flowchart from The Talking Squid, who adapted an original by Wellington Grey; 3rd, The Transhumanist by movement member Sandberg — appropriately enough, part of a Tarot card set.

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

As I get older, it’s harder to find books or films that surprise me – pleasantly, that is. I went to see The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) and The Bourne Legacy (TBL) more as a means to avoid the New England summer humidity and give my cortex a chance to cool down between edits of my SF anthology. Both films had the expected scads of sound and fury, yet one of them managed to surprise me. To be clear, I’ve read neither the Miller comics nor the Ludlum or Lustbader books; so those who plan to use arguments of the type “But this is explained on page 4 of issue 13!” can save their breath.

I detest Christopher Nolan’s ponderous dourness. The only film of his I found remotely intriguing was The Prestige. Auteur pretensions aside, the closest relatives of Nolan’s Batman opus are the abysmal Star Wars prequels. The two trilogies share pretty much everything: the wooden dialogue, the cardboard characters, the manipulative sentimentality, the leaden exposition, the cultural parochialism, the nonsensical plot, the worshipping of messiahs and unaccountable privileged elites, the contempt for “mundanes” and democratic structures, the dislike of women and non-hierarchical relationships. To be sure, Nolan’s second Batman film boasted the unforgettable performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker. But TDKR should have been called Bat Guano or Darth Vader Meets the Transformers.

The reactionary politics (Billionaires and police know best! People left unherded devolve instantly to mob rampaging and kangaroo courts!) are bad enough. So are the obvious telegraphings and pious ersatz-mythic strains (“Rise! Rise! Rise!” — and of course, sob, the orphan boys). But the film is dull, unfocused, lumbering and messy even within its own frame: why the elaborate (and totally fallow) Wall Street takeover if Bane intends to blow the city up anyway? The protracted mano-a-mano between Batman and Bane is frankly dumb. All Batman has to do is rip out Bane’s breathing muzzle – incidentally, a lousy way to deliver pain meds. The reversals of the two women (antagonist becomes ally and vice versa… and the villain, naturally, is the one who removes her clothes) are so much by the numbers that I felt literally itchy. The hero rejoins the living twice, once as Bruce, once as Batman, for zero reasons of either plot or emotional logic.

The two male protagonists are boring one-note ciphers. Batman doesn’t earn his increasingly stale angst; even less so the unquestioning loyalty of his long-suffering allies (as laid bare in a great analysis of Gary Stuism). Christian Bale isn’t capable of more than one facial expression anyway – in Terminator Salvation he was more wooden than Sam Worthington, which is a real achievement. Needless to add, he has zero chemistry with either of the romantic interests put on Bruce Wayne’s silver spoon. Nolan criminally wastes Tom Hardy, who can really act: he made a feral, magnetic Ricki Tarr in the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the one glimpse of his face when he’s about to be swallowed by the raging crowd in TDKR shows what he’s capable of. The Bane/Vader parallel is obvious: the raging slave of great ability who dares to love above his station and heroically serves a cause intrinsically hostile to him – yet is demonized because he doesn’t fit the Messiah profile, first due to his “wrong” pedigree, later due to severe mutilations that limit his potential. The equivalence is made plain by several touches beyond the breathing mask, including the camera lingering on the frantically kicking feet of someone in his grip.

Oddly enough, both principal women fare fractionally better as characters, despite (or because of?) Nolan’s palpable disinterest in them. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle owes more to Charlise Theron’s slinky yet formidable Aeon Flux than to past Catwomen, which is to the good. On the other hand, the obsessive zooming on her ass while she’s maneuvering the Batbike is emetic (when Batman does it, his nether cheeks are decorously covered by his cape — which finally gives a reason for its existence). There is also a hint that she’s bisexual, which makes her truly intriguing. But for my money, Marion Cotillard’s Talia al Ghul is hands down the most arresting presence in the entire Batman film parade. I’d be happy to see a whole film with her as the protagonist. Hell, a trilogy. Although I’d have preferred that she had gone after her mother’s killers rather than her father’s – especially taking into account her father’s shabby treatment of her savior, to say nothing of his daffy agenda (“cleansing the earth of humanity” using nuclear weapons: unassailable logic, if you’re five years old).

Despite its superficial similarity to TDKR, TBL is a very different beast; I agree with MaryAnn Johanson that it’s high-quality fanfic – specifically, AU fanfic with OCs (in English: alternative universe with original characters). Don’t misunderstand me, it’s far from perfect. It’s uneven, lumpy and ends on a blatant “To Be Continued” note. Nevertheless, it has four great assets besides its intricate interweaving of the Bourne prequel threads: the two principals, Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross and Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing, come across as complex persons – even setting aside the lagniappe of Oscar Isaac as Aaron’s fellow enhanced killing machine; Aaron’s plight is more relevant, interesting and wrenching than that of Jason Bourne; the dialogue is snappy, non-generic, character-specific; and it gets its science as right as Hollywood possibly can. As is often the case with me, I’m in the minority. TBL’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is significantly lower than TDKR’s, in part because many reviewers (like orthodox fanfic readers) want canon, not AU; some have also opined that Jeremy Renner lacks Matt Damon’s charisma.

To each his own. To me at least, Damon has the charisma of a particle board plank. Renner, on the other hand, with his lived-in pug/cherub face, comes across as truly dangerous: you’re never sure if he will kiss or kick, yet you trust him when his smile reaches his eyes – a volatility he engaged to stunning effect in The Hurt Locker and to single-handedly elevate The Town into something eminently watchable. Weisz, on her part, radiates intelligence and competence in whatever role she appears, from The Mummy to Agora to The Constant Gardener. She is one of the very few actors who’s entirely believable as a working scientist.

What makes Aaron’s plight closer to my heart and to real life is that he’s in a Flowers for Algernon situation: he got brain damage during his tour of duty, which made him ripe for the poisoned apple of the top secret augmentation program; for him, stopping the medications that leash him to his handlers is equivalent to a sentence of living death. This pegs the jeopardy meter far harder than Jason Bourne’s thriller-cliché amnesia. When Aaron decides to renounce his newly won freedom for the sake of keeping Marta safe, we feel that real stakes are involved. Aaron and Marta are true partners with equally instrumental overlapping skills. Marta does not spend any length of time impersonating quivering jello, nor does she get relegated to the helpmate slot – though knowing Hollywood’s stance on fully human women, I tremble for her fate in the inevitable sequel.

The science is stunningly accurate for a Hollywood film. That’s a real lab in the chilling massacre scene; when Marta injects Aaron with the viral stock that might cut his indenture bonds, she withdraws it from a real cryovial. When she described the delivery problems of viral vectors, I didn’t wince once and the enhancement route she outlined (mitochondrial ratcheting) is in the domain of the possible. She made one error when she segued into brain function: it’s plasticity, not elasticity… but I’ll take it over ANY other Hollywood science in my memory banks. Nor are the slippery slopes ignored: Marta knows that she let her fervent wish to do cutting-edge science override her moral judgment, choosing to close her eyes to the applications of her work.

In the end, Aaron is kin not to Jason Bourne but to the fascinating loners that we glimpse all too briefly in the Bourne franchise: the Professor (Clive Owen), Jarda (Marton Csokas), Outcome 5 (Oscar Isaac). It occurs to me, of course, that these guys fall in my snacho category… which may be one more reason why I liked TBL far more than TDKR.

Images: Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf (La Vie en Rose); Jeremy Renner as William James (The Hurt Locker); Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovaç (The Whistleblower).

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Sally Kristen Ride, one of the iconic First Others in space flight, recently died at the relatively young age of 61: she was the first American woman to participate in missions. Her obituary revealed that she was also the first lesbian to do so. Like other iconic First Others (Mae Jemison comes to mind), Sally Ride was way overqualified – multiple degrees, better than her male peers along several axes – and she also left the astronaut program way before she needed to (more about this anon). Even so, Ride remained within the orbit of space exploration activities, including founding NASA’s Exploration Office. She was also part of the board that investigated the crashes of Challenger and Columbia; Ride was the only public figure to side with the whistleblowing engineer of Morton-Thiokol when he warned about the problems that would eventually destroy Challenger.

When Sally Ride was chosen for her first mission – by an openly sexist commander who still had to admit she was by far the most qualified for the outlined duties – the press asked her questions like “Do you weep when something goes wrong on the job?” This was 1983, mind you, not the fifties. The reporters noted that she amazed her teachers and professors by pulling effortless straight As in science and – absolutely relevant to an astronaut’s abilities – she was an “indifferent housekeeper” whose husband tolerated it (she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time). Johny Carson joked that the shuttle launch got postponed until Ride could find a purse that matched her shoes.

Ride and Jemison had to function in this climate but at least they went to space, low-orbit though it had become by then. There were forerunners who never got to do so, even though they were also overqualified. I am referring, of course, to the Mercury 13.

This was the moniker of the early core of women astronauts who trained in parallel with the Mercury 7 and outperformed them – except, as is often the case, they did so in makeshift facilities without official support. Here’s the honor roll call of these pioneers whose wings were permanently clipped (the last names are before marriages changed them): Jane Briggs, Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Mary Wallace Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jerrie Hamilton, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrie, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Bernice Trimble.

The Thirteen, never officially part of NASA (they were selected by William Lovelace, who designed the NASA astronaut tests, and the initiative was supported by private donations), had to have at least 1000 hours of flying experience. They underwent the same physical and psychological tests as the men and did as well or better at them: all passed phase I, several went on to phase II, and two completed the final phase III. This was not because any failed II or III, but because they didn’t have the resources to attempt them.

When the Thirteen gathered at Pensacola to show their abilities, the Navy instantly halted the demonstration, using the excuse that it was not an official NASA program. The women, some of whom had abandoned jobs and marriages for this, took their case to Congress. Several people – among them “hero” John Glenn – testified that women were not eligible to fly in space because 1) they didn’t have the exact advanced degrees specified by NASA (neither did Glenn, but he got in without a whisper) and the agency would not accept equivalents and 2) they were prohibited from flying military jets (yet women flew such jets from factories to airfields in WWII; when some of the Mercury 13 flew military jets to qualify, NASA simply ratcheted up that rule).

Space aficionados may recall that the Mercury program’s nickname was “man in a can” – the astronauts had so little control that engineers had to manufacture buttons and levers to give them the illusion of it. Nevertheless, NASA made military jet piloting experience a rule because such men, notorious cockerels, were considered to have The Right Stuff – and Congress used this crutch to summarily scuttle the Mercury 13 initiative, although there was brief consideration of adding women to space missions to “improve crew morale” (broadly interpreted).

It took twenty years for NASA to decide to accept women as astronauts. Just before it did so, hack-turned-fanboi-prophet Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Time crowing that he had “predicted” the “problem” brought up by astronaut Mike Collins, who opined that women could never be in the space program, because the bouncing of their breasts in zero G would distract the men. When taken to task, Clarke responded that 1) some of his best friends were women, 2) didn’t women want alpha-male astronauts to find them attractive?? and 3) libbers’ tone did nothing to help their cause. Sound familiar?

Women have become “common” in space flight – except that the total number of spacenauts who are women is still 11% of the total. Furthermore, given that the major part of today’s space effort is not going to Mars or even the Moon but scraping fungus off surfaces of the ISS or equivalent, being an astronaut now is closer to being a housecleaner than an hero. We haven’t come so far after all, and we’re not going much further.

I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked. As I wrote elsewhere:

“I personally believe that our societal 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. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle against reflexive institutionalized misogyny. 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.”

This holds doubly for space exploration – for the goals we set for it, the methods we employ to achieve it and the way we act if/when we reach our destinations.

Addendum: I did not discuss Valentina Tereshkova, who was both the first woman cosmonaut and the first civilian to fly into space. because I wanted to keep the focus of this article on NASA.  Nevertheless, I should mention her as well as Sveltana Savitskaya, the first woman to do a space walk, whose first mission preceded that of Sally Ride.

Sources and further reading

Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (one source of the Clarke “distracting breasts” incident and also excellent in its own right)

Site dedicated to the Mercury 13:

2nd Image: some of the Mercury 13, gathered to watch the launch in which Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission. Left to right: Gene Nora Stumbough, Mary Wallace Funk, Geraldyn Cobb, Jerri Hamilton, Sarah Gorelick, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice Trimble.