Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

My Cup Runneth Slightly Over

Lest anyone is worried that I’m slacking off, the reason for the (comparative) silence is that I’ve been toiling on three almost simultaneous articles.

— An expanded version of You Only Find What You’re Looking For appeared in Science in My Fiction. Opening paragraph:

“Extraterrestrial life is a staple of SF and the focus of astrobiology and SETI. Yet whereas SF has populated countless worlds with varying success, from Tiptree’s haunting Flenni (Your Haploid Heart) to Lucas’ annoying Ewoks, real ETs remain stubbornly elusive: nobody has received a transmission demanding more Chuck Berry, and the planetary probe data are maddeningly inconclusive. Equally controversial are the shadowy forms on Martian asteroid ALH84001, though the pendulum has swung toward wary favoring of the biological possibility after scientists discovered nanobacteria on earth and water on Mars.”

— I was invited to be part of a Mind Meld at SF Signal. The question was “What are some of the coolest robots in science fiction? Why?” I won’t put excerpts of this here, to avoid spoilers! Here’s a hint, though: my answer partly aligns with what I said in The Souls in Our Machines.

— My article Miranda Wrongs: Reading too Much into the Genome, which discusses naive views of genetic engineering, appeared on H+ Magazine. Opening paragraph:

“When the sequence of the human genome was declared essentially complete in 2003, all biologists (except perhaps Craig Venter) heaved a sigh of gladness that the data were all on one website, publicly available, well-annotated and carefully cross-linked. Some may have hoisted a glass of champagne. Then they went back to their benches. They knew, if nobody else did, that the work was just beginning. Having the sequence was the equivalent of sounding out the text of an alphabet whose meaning was still undeciphered. For the linguistically inclined, think of Etruscan.”

Revel in the bounty while it lasts! May will be grant-writing time again.  After that, I’ll concentrate on fewer, larger writing chunks.  In particular, my stories are banging urgently within my head.

Images:  top, T’uupieh of Titan, assassin, singer (Joan Vinge, Eyes of Amber); bottom, cartoon by Polyp.

16 Responses to “My Cup Runneth Slightly Over”

  1. ZarPaulus says:

    About Miranda Wrongs, you state that you can’t treat the brain as a computer because unlike a digital computer hardware and software are essentially the same. That’s a bit of a misnomer as in a computer the software is at some level a physical structure (tapes and most hard drives arrange magnetic particles in specific patterns, CDs and DVDs have pits that are decoded by a laser, solid state drives encode memory in the arrangement of their electrons). The only difference is that we designed digital systems from scratch and therefore know how it works (more or less, as anyone who has crashed after installing a new update can attest to).

  2. Athena says:

    You’re right about the software part. However, if we equate the physical part of software with neurons (a valid analogy, I think), we can still swap drives in a computer chassis. We can’t swap brains in bodies, nor build bodies without concurrently building brains.

  3. ZarPaulus says:

    Yeah, I can’t really understand why we can never swap out brains like we can almost everything else. Couldn’t stem cells or neural implants be used to connect the brain with its new body like they could be used to cure para- or quadriplegia?

  4. Athena says:

    Theoretically, the physical act of swapping might become possible with advanced enough technology. But it would take a very, very long time and during that time the person undergoing the process would be in a coma. Plus we would have to kill and excise the brain from the old body — and there are some problems with this beyond the moral; most notably the reconstitution of the spinal cord, whose cell bodies are all within the brain. Also, since the new body and the brain rewiring would be different, so would be the “swapped” person’s specifics, including personality and memories.

  5. Neo says:

    I’m not from biology/ neuroscience background, which gives me freedom to ask a question in relation to this assertion-
    “There are no genes for virtue, intelligence, happiness or any complex behavioral trait”.

    How do we explain, many physical characteristics of a particular race- Color, or average height? for example. Do we lack presence of specific genes that manifest as these characteristics? If it is not the case, how come we have genes only for physical characteristics of a group/ individuals?

    I don’t know how valid this question is, but I hope you understand my point and the curiosity behind.


  6. Sue Lange says:

    Re: Chuck Berry. Maybe no one is requesting more because they’ve heard it but don’t want to hear more. Don’t get me wrong. I loves my Berry as much as the next guy; I covered Maybelline in countless performances across the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, but I’m just sayin’ maybe “they” are more into say Brenda Lee. Or Peggy Lee for that matter.

    Thanks for the news about your new post up at h+. I smell a commentary at Singularity Watch coming up.

  7. Athena says:

    It’s actually a great question which, as is almost always the case with biology, has no quick answers. If you’re really curious, I recommend checking out the Wikipedia entry on melanin. The soundbite answer is GxE — that is, genes interacting with environment.

    Race is a very unhelpful concept, because there’s more variation within each “race” (no matter how you define it) than between races. Skin color depends on the expression of several melanin genes, varies significantly within each group and changes by exposure to sunlight to protect us from UV light — aka tanning. So people who live on high plateaus (Peruvians, Tibetans) can be as dark-skinned as Africans. Parenthetically, we need sufficient sunlight to be able to metabolize vitamin D (dark skinned people that migrate to less-sunlit environments sometimes suffer from vitamin D deficiency) but excessive exposure causes basal skin cancer because UV light damages DNA. The various melanins also modulate hair and eye color, and even influence brain function (the substantia nigra, for example, whose deterioration causes Parkinson’s).

    Height is similar: there are several genes that bestow tendencies to reach a certain height, all in different chromosomes. So already you have huge combinatiorial variation. On top of that, nutrition (both in utero and after birth, especially during infancy and adolescence) also affects height decisively — as can physical traumas, combined with other genetic conditions; a good example of this is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who would have attained normal height but for a confluence of genetic disposition and getting his legs broken at 13.

  8. Athena says:

    What?! But… but… liking Chuck Berry is THE definition of being civilized! *trembling lip* Actually, I used the Chuck Berry joke because I started doing so in my Biology of Star Trek, and liked it enough to employ it again in similar circumstances, like a small signature.

    A commentary, eh? I look forward to it!

  9. intrigued_scribe says:

    Good, interesting posts, all; thanks for sharing the links, Athena. 🙂

    The question above regarding why brains can’t be swapped is a good one, and its answer brings to mind intriguing issues to think on. (It also strikes me as reminiscent of the various executions of the “body-swapping” trope seen in sci-fi from time to time, but that’s another subject.)

  10. Athena says:

    Happy you liked them, Heather! Yes, body/mind swapping is endemic in SF/F, from uploading in cyberpunk to various possessions in paranormal. It’s too tempting as an exploration tool to be abandoned altogether.

  11. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > I was invited to be part of a Mind Meld at SF Signal. . .
    > > I’ve always been haunted by. . .
    > >
    > > “. . . All those moments will be lost in time. . .
    > > like tears in rain.”

    I have seen it claimed (and it’s listed under Item 12 “Trivia”
    in this faq: )
    that those lines (and they are among the most memorable in the film,
    next to “Do you like our owl?”) were not part of the shooting
    script — they were entirely ad-libbed by actor Rutger Hauer.

  12. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > . . .cartoon by Polyp. . .

    Darkly humorous. Biotech in the service of narcissistic
    parents — ugh.

    It reminds me of a book I read a few years ago — not an
    SF novel, but a “thriller” with SF overtones. It had
    some chillingly memorable vignettes.

    Here’s one of them:

  13. Athena says:

    That’s an interesting nugget about Hauer, Jim — and it fits with his persona, he’s sui generis as well as something of a lifelong rebel. I really like his potent yet soft-spoken presence. As for narcissistic parents… well, children are bids for immortality as well as second chances. In the end, we don’t become truly adult till our parents die.

  14. Walden2 says:

    According to Ann Druyan, Chuck Berry was going through a rough time in his life when she and Sagan and the rest of the Voyager Interstellar Record team chose “Johnny B. Goode” as their one representative rock song to be sent into space for eons. This apparently did a lot to boost his morale and help turn his life around.

    Here is the song along with all the other ones that left Earth in 1977 aboard Voyager 1 and 2:

  15. Athena says:

    A wonderful story, Larry. I didn’t know this when Chuck Berry went into my book as the criterion for ET intelligence (at Peter’s suggestion — he’s the jazz enthusiast in the family!)

  16. Walden2 says:

    Biophoton Communication: Can Cells Talk Using Light?

    A growing body of evidence suggests that the molecular machinery of life emits and absorbs photons. Now one biologist has evidence that this light is a new form of cellular communication.

    kfc 05/22/2012

    One of the more curious backwaters of biology is the study of biophotons: optical or ultraviolet photons emitted by living cells in a way that is distinct from conventional bioluminescence.

    Nobody is quite sure how cells produce biophotons but the latest thinking is that various molecular processes can emit photons and that these are transported to the cell surface by energy carying excitons. A similar process carries the energy from photons across giant protein matrices during photosynthesis.

    Whatever the mechanism, a growing number of biologists are convinced that when you switch off the lights, cells are bathed in the pale fireworks of a biophoton display.

    This is not a bright phenomenon. Biophotons are usually produced at the rate of dozens per second per square centimetre of cell culture.

    That’s not many. And it’s why the notion that biophoton activity is actually a form of cellular communication is somewhat controversial.

    Today, Sergey Mayburov at the Lebedev Institute of Physics in Moscow adds some extra evidence to the debate.

    Mayburov has spent many hours in the dark watching fish eggs and recording the patterns of biophotons that these cells emit.

    The question he aims to answer is whether the stream of photons has any discernible structure that would qualify it as a form of communication.

    The answer is that is does, he says. Biophoton streams consist of short quasiperiodic bursts, which he says are remarkably similar to those used to send binary data over a noisy channel. That might help explain how cells can detect such low levels of radiation in a noisy environment.

    If he’s right, then this could help to explain a number of interesting phenomenon that some biologists attribute to biophoton communication.

    In several experiments, biophotons from a growing plant seem to increase the rate of cell division in other plants by 30 per cent. That’s a growth rate that is significantly higher than is possible with ordinary light that is several orders of magnitude more intense.

    Other experiments have shown that the biophotons from growing eggs can encourage the growth of other eggs of a similar age. However, the biophotons from mature eggs can hinder and disrupt the growth of younger eggs at a different stage of development. In some cases, biophotons from older eggs seem to stop the growth of immature eggs entirely.

    Mayburov’s work won’t end the controversy; not by any means. There are still many outstanding questions. One important problem is to better understand the cellular mechanisms at work–how the molecular machinery inside cells produces photons and how it might be influenced by them. Another is to understand the kind of evolutionary pressures that are at work here–how has this ability come about?

    Clearly, there’s more work to be done here.

    Ref: Photonic Communications and Information Encoding in Biological Systems