Friday, March 30, 2007

Cylon Origins?

If you haven't seen the third season finale of Battlestar Galactica, you might want to skip this post.
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In his SyFriday column at the SyFy Portal, Michael Hinman speculates about the biological origins of the four newly revealed "Final Five" Cylons:
Just because they know they are special, they believe they are Cylons, doesn't mean they are part of the overall plan. It doesn't even mean there is anything mechanical about them. They could have been programmed, but genetically programmed. And it might not be that they are ageless machines, either. They could be part of a manipulated DNA sequence that is passed down through the generations, similar to what "Stargate: Atlantis" does with the ancient gene from the lost city that helps power the outpost. That these four (and soon-to-be five, relatively speaking) are actually descendants of who the Colonials when living on Kobol referred to as gods.
I think that's a pretty good hypothesis. We know that these newly revealed Cylons are fundamentally different from the "skin jobs" - they have lived normal lives (the "skin jobs" all appeared relatively recently, while Tigh fought in two wars) and have had children with regular humans (while Hera Agathon is a rare "skin job"-human hybrid).

Executive producer Ron Moore says the back story will be explored next season. Until then, it's fun to speculate!

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Beasts into Men


She was a girlygirl and they were true men, the lords of creation, but she pitted her wits against them and she won. It had never happened before, and it is sure never to happen again, but she did win. She was not even of human extraction. She was cat-derived, though human in outward shape, which explains the C in front of her name. Her father's name was C'mackintosh and her name C'mell. She won her tricks against he lawful and assembled lords of the Instrumentality.
- From "The Ballad of Lost C'mell" by Cordwainer Smith (1962)
Animals shaped into the likeness of men have been a staple of science fiction for more than a century. The classic of the genre, of course, is H.G. Well's 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau in which a mad scientist uses vivisection to create beast-humans. His creatures are ultimately unable to overcome their innate animal nature. I much prefer the human-like animals created by Cordwainer Smith in the 1960s. In his universe, the governing Instrumentality of Mankind maintains an enslaved class of animal-derived underpeople. Unlike the creatures of Dr. Moreau, however, Smith's underpeople eventually rise up and gain their rights within human society.

While talking human-like cats may not ever become a reality, experiments in "humanizing" sheep have recently made the science news. Professor Esmail Zanjani at the University of Nevada, Reno has created sheep in which up to 15% of the cells are of human origin. Zanjani and his colleagues inject adult human bone marrow stem cells into the sheep fetus, and those cells are incorporated into the developing liver, heart, lungs, brain and other organs. The ultimate goal is to grow custom organs for human transplant. For those of you in the UK, there will be a segment on Zanjani's research in the TV series "Animal Farm"*. While Zanjani's sheep are human on the inside rather than the outside, they raise similar ethical questions as to how human an animal must be to be considered one of us.

I recommend reading Smith's short story, The Dead Lady of Clown Town, which features a dog-girl, D'joan, in a Joan of Arc-like role (free from Baen). If that whets your appetite for more about the Instrumentality, Smith's stories have been collected in We The Underpeople (amazon.com) and The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (amazon.com).

You can read H.G. Well's The Island of Doctor Moreau for free at Project Gutenburg.

ETA: On the Posthuman Blues blog Mac Tonnies recommends Paul DiFilippo's short story collection Ribofunk if you are interested in biotech-based science fictional look at man-human fusions.

*For a technical report see Narayan et al. "Human embryonic stem cell–derived hematopoietic cells are capable of engrafting primary as well as secondary fetal sheep recipients." Blood 107: 2180-2183 (2006).

The image is the cover of the October 1962 Issue of Galaxy Magazine, illustrating "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (from the Pulps & Magazines Americains web site).

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Oh Mimzy, DNA has saved the day!

The MSN Movies article "Sci-Fi From Page to Screen" points out that the recently released The Last Mimzy has significantly changed the classic short story it is based on to give it a warm fuzzy ending. In the original short story, "Mimsy were the Borogoves,*" the parents ultimately lose their children, because their adult brains aren't plastic enough to unlearn Euclidean Geometry. In the new movie version, the family not only stays together, but one of the children's DNA is used to save the future.
"Mimzy" takes the haunting original story — about two children who evolve quickly beyond their parents' understanding, with the help of toys from the future — into a heavy-handed and often insipid plea for understanding and family interaction. The story posited the ultimate parents' nightmare, in which they are no longer capable of communicating with or comprehending their kids, partly through their own lack of participation. The movie keeps the family united and also argues that "innocence" is a genetic trait that, hundreds of years from now, has been shut down — all we need to save the future Earth is a little girl's teardrop containing the crucial DNA.
The notion that the DNA from an "innocent" can save a technologically advanced, but genetically deteriorated, humanity sounds ridiculous. If they know their genes are a problem, and they have the technical skills to manipulate their genome, why don't they just fix their genetic issues directly?** Based on the reviews***, it sounds like The Last Mimzy simply uses DNA as a technical stand-in for the "love of an innocent child that saves the world". Perhaps children will like it, but it sounds that the message is a bit heavy-handed for my taste.

Maybe there is still room for an adaptation of "Mimsy were the Borogoves" that addresses the issues of brain plasticity, learning and children who can out-think their parents. Now that would be a story!

* The original 1943 short story is not available online, but it has been widely anthologized.


** Perhaps what the future men really want is an easy source of DNA to grow primitive human slaves. Bwa ha ha! OK, maybe not.


*** I haven't see the movie yet (it might happen, since I am a Rainn Wilson fan), so if I've misunderstood based on the reviews, I'll update the post.


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Vonda McIntyre and "Of Mist and Grass and Sand"

The child watched with eyes so dark the pupils were not visible, so dull that Snake herself feared for his life. She stroked his hair. It was long and very pale, a striking color against his dark skin, dry and irregular for several inches near the scalp. Had Snake been with these people months ago, she would have known the child was growing ill.
Vonda McIntyre's Nebula award winning short story, "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," was published in Analog in 1973. It was one of the first biology-based science fiction stories I ever read, and it's stuck with me since I first read it in my teens.

According to the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database at NYU the story is notable for its approach to medicine:
Although the setting is startlingly different, and the care provided is through highly unorthodox means, the healer in this science fiction story experiences in remarkably similar ways the everyday wear and tear of modern medical practice. Snake, a young female itinerant healer, has been asked to save the life of a young boy. Her attempts to do so, and her interactions with the boy, his family and community, and the tools of her trade (the snakes-mist, sand and grass) are detailed in the story. "Professional development" issues that this strong and complex character has to deal with include truth-telling, interfering and ignorant family members, self-sacrifice, and possible reprobation by her peers and teachers.
"Of Mist and Grass and Sand" was incorporated into a novel, Dreamsnake , that won both the Nebula and Hugo in 1974.

In Ben Bova's introduction to the story in his anthology, The Best of the Nebulas (1989), he notes that McIntyre actually started writings with the intention of incorporating the biological sciences in her fiction:
I first met Vonda McIntyre at a science fiction convention when I was the editor of Analog magazine, and she a recent science graduate from the University of Washington who wanted to write science fiction. With great earnestness, she asked me if I thought that "hard" science fiction had to be based on the physical sciences. Couldn't good stories be based on biology, instead? I encouraged her to try.
Luckily for fans like me, McIntyre has made a career of it. She offers two other biology-related stories on her web site:
  • The short story "A Modest Proposal For the Perfection of Nature" was published in the journal Nature in 2005 as part of the Futures series. It describes a future world where man has engineered all life to his needs.
  • McIntyre's novelette, "Little Faces," is set in a future where humans travel through space in symbiosis with their living space ships. It has been nominated for a 2006 Nebula.
Good reading!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Marvel Super Heroes Science Exhibition

The Marvel Super Heroes Science Exhibition is a traveling exhibit that uses the world of Marvel comics to teach science to kids. In the biosciences, for example, the X-Men are used to introduce DNA and mutations, Spiderman is used to demonstrate the strength of spider web silk, and the Hulk helps explain the origin of emotional outbursts. In all, 78 Marvel characters appear in the exhibit.

Until March 25, the exhibit is at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, then it's on to the St. Louis Science Center, where the exhibit will run April 28-September 7. To help keep the focus on science, you can download the free Marvel Companion Guide (pdf) with related lessons and activities for kids from Kindergarten through 12th Grade.

(found via easternblot, who links to several other online sources for using comics to teach science)
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Monday, March 19, 2007

Chromatophores and Blending In


Discover Magazine has opened its archives for free. That's great news for people interested in popular science and science-based fiction. I've been browsing around and found some neat science-fiction related articles.

For example, in April 2006 Discover published an article, "What cephalopods can teach us about language" about special chromatophores, or pigment-containing cells, which are found in octopuses (octopi?), squid and other cephalopods. Muscles change the shape of the chromatophores, which causes the cells to change color.

Morphing in cephalopods works somewhat similarly to how it works in computer graphics. Two components are involved: a change in the image or texture visible on a shape's surface and a change in the underlying shape itself. The "pixels" in the skin of a cephalopod are organs called chromatophores. These can expand and contract quickly, and each is filled with a pigment of a particular color. When a nerve signal causes a red chromatophore to expand, the "pixel" turns red. A pattern of nerve firings causes a shifting image—an animation—to appear on the cephalopod's skin. As for shapes, an octopus can quickly arrange its arms to form a wide variety of them, like a fish or a piece of coral, and can even raise welts on its skin to add texture.

To see what that looks like, watch this great National Geographic video of an octopus changing colors. The color change appears to be under visual control, but the exact mechanism is a bit of a mystery, because cephalopods do not appear to have color vision.

In the interactive companion to the article, "Why Not Morph?", Discover issues a challenge to write a story using the science of chromatophores:
Suppose humans had chromatophores that could alter body appearance allowing it to blend perfectly with the background. Think about it. Then, write a science fiction story about a genetically modified individual who has been given this camouflage ability. Remember that good science fiction is based upon science fact.
I'm not aware of any stories in which humans have color-changing skin. However a example of color-changing humanoids are the genetically-enhanced Suliban of the Enterprise universe, who can blend into their surroundings using subcutaneously-implanted pigment sacs. According to creator Brannon Braga the modification was indeed inspired by octopus skin.

If you know of any other examples, please share them in the comments!

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Image from the Ocean Planet Exhibition at the Smithsonian.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Second Person, Present Tense" and the Zombie Within

“Flick your eyes to the left,” he told me one afternoon. “Now glance to the right. Did you see the room blur as your eyes moved?” He waited until I did it again. “No blur. No one sees it.”

This is the kind of thing that gets brain doctors hot and bothered. Not only could no one see the blur, their brains edited it out completely. Skipped over it—left view, then right view, with nothing between—then fiddled with the person’s time sense so that it didn’t even seem missing.

The scientists figured out that the brain was editing out shit all the time. They wired up patients and told them to lift one of their fingers, move it any time they wanted. Each time, the brain started the signal traveling toward the finger up to 120 milliseconds before the patient consciously decided to move it. Dr. S said you could see the brain warming up right before the patient consciously thought, now.

This is weird, but it gets weirder the longer you think about it. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
Daryl Gregory's short story "Second Person, Present Tense" takes a look at the relationship between consciousness and self perception. In his notes on the story, Gregory discusses the science that inspired him:

So, if consciousness is an add-on, what would a brain and body look like without consciousness? (This is a thought experiment that philosophy of consciousness guys call The Zombie problem—what, exactly, do we need consciousness for?)

A lot of the recent neurological research suggests that consciousness is exactly this kind of bottom-up process: there is no little man at the controls inside your head, only a little man being told what to think. Some folks, like Roger Penrose, argue that even if sometimes conscious awareness occurs after the action, perhaps this is only for actions that require quick reactions, and that there must still be a role for a consciousness (and free will) in more contemplative modes, when deeper thought is required and the "I" has to choose what to think about, choose what to do.

The concept of consciousness really straddles the divide between philosophy and biology. From what I've read, Francis Crick, along with CalTech biology and engineering professor Christof Koch, played a major role in bringing the study of consciousness into mainstream neuroscience. LA Weekly's profile of Koch and his research, "The Zombie Within", gives a non-technical overview:
So much of our human fluidity results from automatic processes buried deep in the mind far below perception, what Koch refers to in his forthcoming book, The Quest for Consciousness, as “an army of unconscious sensory-motor agents” or “zombie agents.” He insists that for much of our lives we are in effect zombies. “You drive to work on autopilot, move your eyes, brush your teeth, tie your shoelaces, talk, and all the other myriad chores that constitute daily life.” Indeed, he says, “Any sufficiently well-rehearsed activity is best performed without conscious, deliberate thought. Reflecting too much about any one action is likely to interfere with its seamless execution.”
However, consciousness is necessary for flexibility in response to changing situations and environment.

In principle, Koch says, there is no reason why consciousness is necessary to life. With enough “input sensors and output effectors,” it is conceivable that “A zombie could pretty much do anything.” But since every zombie behavior must be hard-wired, the more situations it must respond to, the more complex its internal mechanism must become. Instead, “Evolution has chosen a different path, synthesizing a much more powerful and flexible system” that we call “consciousness.” The main function of this innovation, he and Crick propose, is to enable organisms to deal rapidly with unexpected events and to plan for the future. As Koch likes to say, consciousness puts us “online,” allowing us to override our instinctual “offline” programming.

(For a technical discussion see Crick & Koch, "A Framework for Consciousness", Nature Neuroscience 6:119-126 (2003) (pdf))

Koch's lab is currently attempting to find and understand the "neuronal correlates of consciousness" - the regions of the brain where consciousness resides. If you are interested in more details, check out Koch's popular science book, The Quest For Conciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (website, Amazon.com), or watch the videos from his CalTech course on the neurological basis of consciousness.

"Second Person, Present Tense" takes a look at what might happen when consciousness becomes completely divorced from action. It was nominated for a Nebula Award (but failed to make the final ballot), so can read it for free at Asimovs.com, at least for the time being.

(Thanks to Michael Kingsley for the story suggestion and link to Gregory's web site!)

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Transcendance and Living Forever

Too many blog posts, and too little time. That's my only excuse for my poor posting regularity.

A 2005 issue of MIT's Technology Review had an interesting op-ed piece by editor-in-chief Jason Pontin about the elevation of technology into a "pseudoreligion" in many science fiction narratives.
When the science fiction writer and journalist Bruce Sterling was asked why so many science fiction novels ended with their heroes transcending their circumstances, abilities, or bodies, he was dismissive. “It’s just a riff,” Sterling answered. “The element of transcendence is just a feature of the SF genre, like feedback in rock music. People who take that stuff seriously end up turning into trolls....H. P. Lovecraft was a big fan of that cosmic-type stuff. That may be okay for him, but from the outside what you see is this pasty-faced guy eating canned hash in the dim corner of a restaurant, hands trembly, and a gray film over his eyes.
The article points that there are people that do take the possibility of science allowing us to transcend our biological limitations very seriously. One example is the University of Cambridge's Aubrey de Grey, who is either a "troll" as Sterling describes, or a "technological messiah". To Pontin de Grey is a troll, both in personal attributes and in his scientific outlook.
His ideas are trollish, too. For even if it were possible to “perturb” human biology in the way de Grey wishes, we shouldn’t do it. Immortality might be okay for de Grey, but an entire world of the same superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever would be terrible.
The fact is that de Grey'sideas about increasing human longevity are likely extraordinarily over optimistic (he has claimed that the first people to live 1000 years were born in 1945), and fall outside the current understanding of how the body ages.
Most responsible biogerontologists are more cautious about the applications of antiaging science. They hope that when we understand why and how human tissues age, we will be able to better treat some of the chronic diseases of old age, like dementia, senile diabetes, or heart disease. [. . .] This would, in the jargon of geriatricians, “compress the morbidity” of the elderly: the debili­ties of old age might be restricted to a rela­tively short period of time before we die. Because some of these chronic diseases are eventually fatal, or have fatal complications, some of us would live longer, too—at least a little bit. But very few who have studied biogerontology think we’ll ever transcend our mortality. As Nuland remarked to me, “Aging is not a disease. Aging is the condition on which we are given life.”
Because the article and op-ed sparked an interesting discussion, Technology Review ran a contest offering a $20,000 prize to any biology who could disprove de Grey's "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" (SENS). In the end there was no outright winner, not because SENS necessarily has scientific merit, but because de Grey's hypotheses are largely untested.

Craig Venter most succinctly expressed the prevailing opinion. He wrote, "Estep et al. in my view have not demonstrated that SENS is unworthy of discussion, but the proponents of SENS have not made a compelling case for it."

In short, SENS is highly speculative. Many of its proposals have not been reproduced, nor could they be reproduced with today's scientific knowledge and technology. Echoing [contest judge] Myhrvold, we might charitably say that de Grey's proposals exist in a kind of antechamber of science, where they wait (possibly in vain) for independent verification. SENS does not compel the assent of many knowledgeable scientists; but neither is it demonstrably wrong.

Estep and colleagues, who wrote the most persuasive argument against SENS, respectfully disagreed, and wrote a rebuttal to the judges' decision. (Note that there is a lively discussion in the articles' comments, so if you are interested in the topic be head over there and read the whole thing, including de Grey's rebuttals).

That's not to say that de Grey and his supporters aren't trying to gather scientific support for SENS. The Methuselah Foundation (co-founded by de Grey) offers the Methuselah mouse "M prize" for research resulting the extension of the life span of the common lab mouse. The current record holder has mice lacking the growth hormone receptor gene that live for an average of about 5 years, outliving typical 3 year lifespan of inbred lab mice, and even the normal 4 year lifespan for wild mice. Their blog has more up to date information.

Based on my own reading, I believe that SENS still falls well within the realm of science fiction rather than science. Perhaps the human lifespan will eventually span centuries rather than decades, but I doubt that a real-life Lazarus Long has yet been born.

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