Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for January, 2013

Sympathetic Magic

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

SingerWe get attached to places and things. They define us as much as what’s inside our heads. We take handfuls of earth or tile fragments from our homes when we emigrate. We hold on to items of clothing that have become part of our bodies. We keep heirlooms, with their long stories of how they got made and handed down the generations. This knowledge is a major thread in the tapestry of civilization and in the definition of one’s self in a larger context. I had reason to think of this recently, when I lost something I loved.

As long as my memory remains intact, I will remember the stories associated with objects that I’m attached to, including my artwork and jewelry: where, how and why I got a piece, who was with me at the time, the history behind each work. Like the time an artist wordlessly handed me a stunning mixed-media sculpture marked “Not for Sale” (and refused to take money for it until I grew forceful) because I uttered words that echoed her own deepest sense of the work.

The first year I became faculty, I attended a conference in San Diego. In a La Jolla gallery, I saw two lovely pieces of art that I felt were linked. One was a palm-sized wooden mask called Singer. The other was a silver/copper brooch the size of my thumb joint, called Spirit of the Seaweed. I put one on my bedroom wall, the other on my favorite black coat. At night I sometimes fancied I could hear soft harmonizing.

The coat went around the world with me, got taken off countless times for airport security, got hung up in homes, restaurants and hotels. The two singers kept murmuring in my dreams. And then, one evening this November, I looked at the lapel of my coat and found it empty.

I knew it was hopeless, but I kept my eyes on the ground whenever I re-crossed a path. The loss left an aching spot in my ribcage. I didn’t mind if someone had found the brooch and was wearing it with as much pleasure as I had. My fear was that it had been swept up as trash and destroyed – or that it was even now lying abandoned somewhere. And I felt bereft, too, at the thought that Singer was now lonely.

SingersI decided to use sympathetic magic. After a search, I found a very different brooch, an antique Zuñi sunface made of silver, turquoise, coral, abalone and onyx. I put it on and willed someone to find mine, so that they would wear it as I wore this one, with its own long history and legacy of loving care.

Last week, I was leaving work late. For some reason, my gaze veered to the cash register of a small food kiosk in the lobby, on which someone had placed two rubber action figures. One was a wizard, a biotech company mascot. I thought to myself: “Why does his wand look so odd?” I went up to it, peered closely. Pressed into his palm was my lost brooch.

I took it home and put it near the mask. I don’t believe in gods or demons. But I like to think that the Wizard summoned me and Spirit to the same place; that Singer joined forces with Sunface and sang its little companion home.

The Hugo Awards: Tweeter Expands My Horizons

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Hugo Deb KosibaThrough the recent spike in the volume of tweets, I became aware of two things: 1) there is a Hugo award category called “Best Fan Writer” and 2) according to the rules, I’ve been eligible for it since 2008. At least in principle, because the real universe is significantly different.

The Hugos are essentially a popularity contest, which means you need to self-promote relentlessly to get nominated (being connected to insiders and gatekeepers doesn’t hurt either). These days, this means that people with the loudest blogs and most adoring acolytes are the likeliest to show up on the ballots. The configuration has also resulted in the seasonal listing of qualifying works – a litany as interesting as “the best/worst X of last year”, “my new year’s resolutions” and “what I did during my summer vacation.”

“Fan Writer” seems to have been established as a sop to people whose lives revolve around SF/F cons and to writers in the genre who want extra nominations beyond fiction writing. And whereas the criteria for some categories are almost absurdly high (particularly the two for Best Editor), those for Best Fan Writer merely require writing about the genre in a non-professional venue that, per the Hugo site, “includes publications in semiprozines, and even on mailing lists, blogs, BBSs, and similar electronic fora”.

By my count, of the 50 awards in this category given so far, 20 have been won by David Langford and 7 by Richard Geis, both whiteAnglomen. More recently, however, runaway diversity became fashionable: since 2008, winners in this group continue to be whiteAnglo, but a mere 60% (three of the five) have been whiteAnglomen! And this year there has been a spate of suggestions for nominations of non-whiteAnglomen (in several permutations), after which we will undoubtedly return to our regular programming.

In this climate of wild radicalism, my name finally came up: as a footnote in the relevant entry of the World SF blog by Lavie Tidhar; and more prominently in the livejournal of Nick Mamatas (thanks, guys!).  Given my habits, I will not list the blog posts that qualify for the Hugo. Those who read my blog saw these articles when they appeared. Those who don’t will not rush to read them. I do realize that being a practicing scientist and a voracious reader beyond the SF/F enclosure handicap me considerably: I was recently chastised for “not reading the classics” by someone whose concept of “classics” is AsimovClarkeHeinlein; someone else objected to my using (avaunt!) scientific terms in an article about “hard” SF.

In the extremely unlikely event that I should win, I may do something extravagant to celebrate. Maybe I’ll publish a passage of “positively portrayed” sex (yet another topic of recent conversations in SF/F) to give people a glimpse of what lovemaking in a polyandrous society of telepaths might be like. Since my view is that such descriptions need to use precise terms if they’re to be potent, don’t expect to see manual-reeking couch-fainting terms like “sensual”, “reponse”, “aftermath” and their ilk. But do expect to see focus on the woman’s pleasure.

Image: the 2012 Hugo trophy, designed by Deb Kosiba.

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

A Micro-Triplet to Usher in 2013

Friday, January 4th, 2013

catsaxTo increase my already wild popularity, I penned two bookend articles that gore sacred oxen. A contribution to a Mind Meld at SF Signal about “Books we were told we’d love but didn’t” appeared two days ago. “Invisible Ink”, a response to Mike Brotherton’s olden mouldies (aka whiteanglomen) “hard” SF list, just appeared in SFWA.

Also, the republication of “Planetfall” at the World SF site caught the eye of Nowa Fantastyka, a prominent, long-lived Polish SF/F magazine. They want to republish the story in Polish. This would be the second translation of my work — To Seek Out New Life came out in Japanese — but the first one of my fiction.