Thursday, May 31, 2007

What if Dinosaurs Still Roamed the Earth?

Sarda Sahney posts at Scientific Blogging about the BBC Two program Horizon: My Pet Dinosaur. The show speculated on what the world would be like if dinosaurs had not gone extinct. They might be pets, they might be cattle, or, most fantastically, they might have evolved into something intelligent and humanoid. Sahney is skeptical of the idea of a Xindus-like Earth with co-existing "dinosauroids" and humans.

Dr Simon Conway Morris says: "The human is extraordinarily well designed," he says. The whole arrangement is actually designed for a particular mode of life, which, as you can see looking around us, is incredibly successful…If it's such a good solution for us, is it so difficult to imagine it could be a good solution for a dinosaur, therefore a 'dinosauroid'?"

The show even includes full-sized, bold constructions of ‘dinosauroids’. Ok so maybe I am being to harsh and this is just a little fun, but I like my popular science to at least have some element of science.

Watch a video of what BBC2 thinks 21st century dinosaurs might look like.

ETA: the Dinosauria web site has a pretty comprehensive list of dinosaurs in science fiction and fantasy (pdf), as does SciFan. The Internet Review of Science Fiction has an overview of which dinosaur stories can be considered "essential novels" and "essential short fiction" (free subscription required). Some of the recommended titles that include dinosaurs that survived to the present :
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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Nancy Kress and Hard Science Fiction

Beggar's in SpainSF Canada interviews Nancy Kress about her writing and her thoughts on science fiction. Kress often bases her stories on the biological sciences, most notably her Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novella, Beggars in Spain. In the interview, Kress explains that researching the science is part of her creative process:
I usually start with a character in my mind. But sometimes, if the story is a very “hard” science fiction story, I will do the research first, because I’m not trained as a scientist and so, with a topic such as mutated viruses, I have to work very hard to make the story seem credible—and I do work very hard to make it creditable.
I find Kress's stories particularly interesting because she not only describes plausible scientific and technological advances, but she also looks at the possible consequences of those advances. And that is her intent:
Genetic engineering and what is actually possible, physics and what is actually possible, interest me more and more. So much of my fiction these days has come to revolve around near-future scenarios and their possibilities. Except for a few scientists, we don’t really experience science directly until it affects our lives. Some of us are interested in the pure product, but unless we are scientists it doesn’t really change much about the way we think and behave. Einstein’s discoveries didn’t affect the lives of very many people until his theories were translated into nuclear power. But that has a great effect on our world. Most of us have to wait until pure science is translated into technology before it can have an effect on our lives. So yes, I still write SF from a sociological point of view, but I want to get the science right as well.
Kress has three books scheduled for release in 2008, including "an odd little book coming out from a very small press, that is sort of a medical thriller, although it still has a mutated plague in it." Read the whole interview for more (via SF Signal).

A taste of Kress's stories:
For more, check out the biology-themed science fiction by Nancy Kress @ Amazon.com.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wimpy Synthetic Organisms?

Synthetic biology is on the cutting edge of molecular genetic technology. The idea that a library of interchangeable biological parts - coded in DNA - can be used to create all kinds of different living machines. As a 2005 Wired article poinsts out, this is more engineering than biology.
If the notion of hacking DNA sounds like genetic engineering, think again. Genetic engineering generally involves moving a preexisting gene from one organism to another, an activity Endy calls DNA bashing. For all its impressive and profitable results, DNA bashing is hardly creative. Proper engineering, by contrast, means designing what you want to make, analyzing the design to be sure it will work, and then building it from the ground up. And that's what synthetic biology is about: specifying every bit of DNA that goes into an organism to determine its form and function in a controlled, predictable way, like etching a microprocessor or building a bridge. The goal, as Endy puts it, is nothing less than to "reimplement life in a manner of our choosing."
For an overview, check out the comic "Adventures in Synthetic Biology" and Discover's December interview with chemical engineer and synthetic biologist Jay Keasling.

When bioengineered microorganisms show up in science fiction, they often threaten to slip from our control and run amok - think of the noocytes in Greg Bear's Blood Music or the polluting bacteria in Neal Stephenson's Zodiac (among many examples). Computer science professor and science fiction writer Rudy Rucker doesn't think we should worry so much. in his essay in this week's issue of Newsweek, he argues that any organisms we build will have a hard time competing out in the wild.
One big worry is what nanotechnologists call the “gray-goo problem.” What’s to stop a particularly virulent SynBio organism from eating everything on earth? My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—and they’ve been practicing for a very long time.

The fact that the SynBio organisms are likely to have simplified Tinkertoy DNA doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be faster and better. It’s more likely that they’ll be dumber and less adaptable. I have a mental image of germ-size MIT nerds putting on gangsta clothes and venturing into alleys to try some rough stuff. And then they meet up with the homies who’ve been keeping it real for a billion years or so.

Rucker may be right that synthetic organisms would lose a fight with critters that evolved naturally, but they won't have any natural predators either. The fact that antibiotics are used fairy indiscriminately all over the world just might open up niches in which the simpler synthetics can thrive. To my mind it only makes sense to take precautions, in case our creations turn out to be tougher than expected.

Read Rucker's whole essay for more about the cool stuff synthetic biology could be used for.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

The Silver Surfer and the Sandman


The current Lab Notes column at SciFi.com talks about the science of the Silver Surfer. If you haven't seen the promos, the chrome-plated Silver Surfer hangs ten through the vacuum of space to appear in the new Fantastic Four movie. As fantastic as he might seem, Will McCarthy cobbles together a plausible explanation. SS taps into the zero point energy of the universe to power his board. He (if that's the right term) must be far from human:
Also, what if his skin isn't made of atoms and molecules at all, but is actually some sort of perfectly reflective spacetime barrier, akin to the edge of the screen in an old-fashioned game of Pong? If the Surfer's body is essentially a programming glitch in the information fabric of the universe, it might well be impossible to destroy, at least with the sorts of weapons human beings—and mutants—can bring to bear. Also, if it could reflect gravitational energy as well as photons, that would explain why he's so light on his feet, and it even suggests an explanation for his talent of sliding through buildings without damaging them. I.e., he isn't a solid object at all.
That sounds at least as plausible as a naked man surfing through space.

As a comic book-based movie bonus, check out Pharyngula commenter PaulC's speculation as to how the brain of Spiderman 3 villain the Sandman might work.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Rats of N.I.M.H.

A couple of my recent posts - on the value of storybooks and "uplift" of animals to sapience - got me thinking about one of the favorite books of my childhood, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

The stars of the book are the fantastic rats, who help save the widowed Mrs. Frisby and her children. Of course they aren't ordinary rats; they are escapees from a lab at the National Institute of Mental Health. Experimental treatments to boost their intelligence and life span were more successful than the scientists had planned. By the time the rats are clever enough to plan an escape, they are smart enough to realize they can't go back to their pre-laboratory lives.
We're something Dr. Schultz has made. Something new. Dr. Schultz says our intelligence has increased more than one thousand per cent. I suspect he's underestimated; I think we're probably as intelligent as he is - maybe more. We can read, and with a little practice, we'll be able to write, too. I mean to do both. I think we can learn to do anything we want. But where do we do it? Where does a group of civilized rats fit in?"
After their escape, the NIMH rats take up residence on the Fitzgibbon farm, stealing the farmer's electricity and supplies to build a home for themselves. Their ability to read and use technology is essential for the rescue of Mrs. Frisby's house from the farmer's plow.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a great example of a book that can be used to teach biology to kids. The San Diego County Office of Education has an activity guide that uses the book as the starting point for lessons on natural habitats, owls, rodents, and the use of animals in medical research.

There is something for grown-ups to think about too. If we are going to "uplift" animals by boosting their intelligence and self-awareness would they have a place in our society? or would they form a not-quite-human class like Cordwainer Smith's underpeople? Something to consider before we travel too far down that path.

Tags:, . Image of lab rat from the National Cancer Institute.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Genetics on the Big Screen

The Wellcome Trust human genome web site has an essay about the portrayal of genetics by Hollywood. The bottom line: most films get the technology, if not the biology, wrong.
Attention is normally focused on the modus operandi of genetic screening, genetic engineering or human cloning, rather than on the basic science of genetics, and the technologies described and portrayed often bear little or no resemblance to any known genetic technology. Thus the methods employed by the sinister Replacement Technologies Corporation to clone both animals and humans in The Sixth Day bear almost no resemblance to any actual or proposed cloning technologies, while almost the only point at which Gattaca descends into outright improbability is when we see the newly-born Vincent Freeman's entire medical future revealed within seconds of his birth, thanks to a heel-tap blood test. Cloning is frequently represented as being analogous to photocopying, and consequently as something that can be carried out very rapidly using mature adults as templates or 'originals', as in Multiplicity and The Sixth Day, while the exact duplication of thoughts, feelings and memories as well as physical characteristics seldom poses much of a problem.
The site includes a companion essay on the history of genetics in film, and detailed reviews of GATTACA and The Sixth Day. The essay concludes that movies have the power to influence the way the public perceives genetics.
Films with genetic themes represent the point where modern biomedical science meets subjective concerns and cultural anxieties about individual identity and freedom, and their implicit and explicit messages reach and influence millions of people in all walks of life who will probably never watch a BBC 'Horizon' documentary or read a popular science book on genetics. [. . .] For better or worse, then, feature films on genetic themes are forms of mass communication and cultural expression, which the scientific world cannot afford simply to ignore or deplore.
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Monday, May 21, 2007

Novel Reading and Science Education

I have a confession to make. I'm a read-a-holic. I read all kinds of things - science fiction novels (natch), murder mysteries, chick lit, biographies, science and history, newspapers, magazines, gardening guides, cereal boxes, et cetera, et cetera. Who is to blame for this addiction? My parents, of course. Regular trips to the library were a fixture of my childhood and I was given pretty free reign to read whatever interested me. There were also lots of books around the house that I gobbled up, sometimes in "secret" if I thought the folks wouldn't approve (it turns out The Naked Ape is not nearly as titillating as the title lead me to believe).

A lot of kids aren't as lucky as I was, though. Their parents might not be readers themselves or may not have the time or means to bring their kids to the public library. Many kids may not even be introduced to the wonderful world of reading until they enter school. That's why it's dismaying to read this opinion post by law professor Ann Althouse:
And why does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don't, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic -- something academic and substantive -- and leave the fictional material for after hours.
I'm going to speculate that Ms. Althouse's childhood was not too different than mine - she grew up in a household where her parents were readers and she was both encouraged to read and had access to books. She may find it hard to imagine that there are lots of folks out there that don't have that luxury.

As I commented on Dawno's blog:
I personally believe that it's important to do all we can to turn kids on to reading - any kind of reading. There are lots of kids who get to high school with poor reading skills and that not only hurts their ability to read novels for pleasure, but also for them to read and comprehend serious texts in history and science. Kids who don't have parents who read for pleasure may not be exposed to "fun" reading anywhere but the classroom. Reading exclusively from textbooks is likely to turn them off from reading for fun. I think that once kids catch the reading bug, education becomes a life-long experience, not just a bunch of facts that they memorize in the short term.
And that's what Althouse just doesn't get. Reading is an essential skill in and of itself - one that is necessary for all other subjects, including history, science and math - remember those word problems? Story books are great tools to both teach kids how to read and to get them critically think about their reading, as Dawno nicely explains.

Not surprisingly, I think science fiction is very useful in that regard. Embedded in the entertaining stories are juicy tidbits of science that can be used as jumping-off point for science education. And it's not just about learning science facts, it's about instilling an interest in and passion for science itself.

As NancyP, a commenter at Pandagon so nicely put it:
[snip]
Where does Althouse think all the science geeks come from? I guarantee you that if you ask scientists/ maths/ engineers of all ages, 95% or more will have read either science fiction or popular natural history narratives (Ring of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell, comes to mind; also Born Free, etc). The rest were too glued to the tinkertoys and build-your-own kits to read much - these are mostly the engineers.

Our GDP is tied to CREATIVITY. Not natural resources, not cheap labor. The Japanese have long ignored the creativity of children, and do an excellent job of producing high level technicians, but true scientific advances don’t come from Japan very often.
Science-filled fiction not only can inspire kids (and adults) to find out more about the science on their own, but also get them think about the possible effects, both positive and negative, of scientific discoveries on society. That's an important skill in a world in which the biological sciences - DNA testing, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning, to name a few* - are having an increasing impact on our daily lives. I would like my fellow citizens to be able to read about and understand these issues on their own and not rely on sound bites from pundits and politicians for their information. Reading - of any kind - is fundamental for the development of such critical thinking skills.

* Not to mention the modern-day snake oil salesmen who count on people's ignorance of science to make a quick buck.
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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Uplift?

She did not answer but moved further along the fence to where one old neo-chimp was pressed up against the wire, staring at them with soft, tragic eyes, like a child at a bakery window. He had taken no part in the jostling demand for tobacco and had been let alone by the strawboss. "Would you like a cigarette?" she asked him.

"Preese, Missy."

She struck one which he accepted with fumbling grace, took a long, lung-filling drag, let the smoke trickle out his nostrils, and said shyly, "Sankoo, Missy. Me Jerry."
- "Jerry Was a Man" by Robert Heinlein (1947)
As our closest biological cousins, chimpanzees seem to be a natural target for genetic engineering, whether the goal is a class of worker-slaves or human companions. The best example is David Brin's Uplift universe, in which humans have "uplifted" both chimpanzees and dolphins to sapiency.

In real life, however, we're still in the early stages of understanding why humans are more intelligent than chimps. Several years ago Chinese scientists discovered that humans make a unique variant of the neuropsin, a protein involved in learning and memory that is expressed in the brain's frontal lobe. It turns out that the variant form is due to the change of a single base in the human DNA code, a "T" replaced by an "A" . So far, the human variant neuropsin protein has only been studied in the test tube, so it's not clear whether it's responsible for all or even part of the difference between human and chimp intelligence (correlation is not causation, and all that). It's a tantalizing notion, though.

Peter Watts wonders "how many months away we are from building chimps with human-scale intelligence?" I don't think he should hold his breath. It's not just an issue of demonstrating that our unique neuropsin is the single source of our smarts (unlikely since whole networks of genes are uniquely expressed in human brains). There are both ethical and financial limitations on the use of chimps and other non-human primates as experimental animals. It's hard to imagine an ethical scientist performing such a long-shot experiment that is unlikely to have immediate implications for the understanding or treatment of human disease.

What is likely to happen is that transgenic mice expressing the human protein will be engineered and run through a battery of intelligence tests. We'll have to wait and see if they can match Clyven, the mouse with human intelligence*.

More :
*Yes, I know Clyven isn't real, but it's a nicely done hoax.

Tags:, , , . The chimp in the photo is Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, from Great Images in NASA.

Finding Vulcan?


NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's SIM PlanetQuest mission may be able to detect Earth-like planets around the triple star system 40 Eridani, the fictional location of the planet Vulcan in the Star Trek universe.
If Vulcan life were to exist on the planet, the orbit of the planet would have to lie in a sweet spot around the star where liquid water could be present on its surface. Water is an essential ingredient for any organism to live long and prosper. For 40 Eridani A, this spot, or "habitable zone," is 0.6 astronomical units from the star. That means Vulcans would get to celebrate a birthday about every six months.
And what would a Vulcan look like?
When asked what life would be like on Vulcan, [astronomer Dr. Angelle] Tanner speculated that the inhabitants might be pale. "A K dwarf star emits its light at wavelengths which are a bit redder compared to those from the sun, so I wonder whether it's harder to get a tan there," she said.
Be sure to check out the artist's conception video. (via Wired Science)

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Breathe dangit, breathe!

Lured by ads featuring Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff, I ended up wasting part of my Saturday night watching the awful SciFi movie, The Last Sentinel. It turns out that Sackhoff played a pretty minor role - it was really all about super engineered fighting man Tallis (Don "The Dragon" Wilson) and his wise-cracking AI gun. Long battle sequences in which everyone but Tallis dies, an excruciatingly long bit with a soldierless pontificating gun-AI, generally bad dialog and silly plot was about as entertaining as watching my husband play Halo. And yes, husband thought Last Sentinel was stupid too.

Anyway, there was an important biology lesson: if you plan to take over the world with computer-controlled genetically engineered cyborg drones, it's best to let the drones' medulla oblongata retain involuntary control over respiration so that they don't suffocate when the control computer is destroyed. And that's my mad scientist tip for the day. You're welcome.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Summer Movies

This year's Tribeca Film Festival had more than the average number of science nerds in attendance, largely due to the Science and Technology Series program, hosted by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Emma Marris reported on the event for news@nature.com:
My verdict? All in all, science on film still feels a bit awkward. The scale (two hours) and pace (fast) of the medium just don't quite match up with the realities of scientific endeavour. Many films — such as Nobel Son and Vitus — avoid the problem by concentrating on personalities instead of scientific ideas or work. Eye of the Dolphin fails pretty drastically on both realism and entertainment. But the mock horror Black Sheep (featuring killer GM animals) in some ways fares best by not even attempting to be realistic.
Marris reviews two new movies with explicitly biological themes:

Eye of the Dolphin is a "saccharine family film" in which a teenage girl is sent to live with her dolphin-researcher father. Marris gave it 2 points out of 10 for scientific realism.
The researcher believes that the cetaceans transmit to one another three-dimensional representations of objects via sonar, but the implications of this are left unexplored in favour of the importance of relating to the animals 'spiritually' in 'a connection that is deeper than science can measure'. The father's (no doubt sound) advice that sporting with wild dolphins is dangerous for humans and bad for dolphin socialization turns out to be wrong.
You gotta love the mystical healing power of dolphins! I can almost hear the ethereal wind chimes now.

Black Sheep is a genetic engineering horror-comedy that's about as far from Eye of the Dolphin as you can get and still be in the movie theater. Matter gave it a 0 for scientific realism, but a 10 for entertainment value.
Two brothers from a sheep-farming family in New Zealand are pitted against each other, one with a pathological fear of sheep and the other with an unhealthy interest in them. The villainous latter brother has been dabbling in genetic engineering with the help of a sexy but evil scientist in impeccable lab whites and blood-red lipstick. Meanwhile, green activists sporting ponytails, ethnic textiles and wide-eyed belief in chakras, feng shui and auras, skulk around the perimeter determined to expose the 'cowboy lab'. Naturally, the result of all this is not good, and before long innocent lives are being laid to waste by carnivorous monster sheep.
Now that sounds like fun summer entertainment.

A quick browse of the list of summer releases turns up few movies that I would consider to be science fiction. However, there are a few horror movies that look like they have biology-esque themes:
  • 28 Weeks Later (horror) returns to the epidemic-ravaged Britain of 28 Days Later. Refugees are finally allowed to return, but one family unwittingly carries back the devastating rage virus.
  • Fido (comedy-horror): "In the small town of Willard in the seemingly tranquil 1950s, where a corporation called ZomCon has domesticated the raging zombie population, a young boy discovers that all may not be well."
  • Skinwalkers (horror): "Rival factions compete for control of a half-breed boy whose powers control the destiny of a race bound by the blood of the wolf."
Single line descriptions aren't much to go on, so I'm looking forward to real reviews of these movies (Fido, especially) and the other summer movie offerings.

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Caught in the Organ Draft

What are they, eighty, ninety, a hundred years old? At this distance they seem much younger—they hold themselves upright, their backs are straight, they might pass for being only fifty or sixty. But I can tell. Their confidence, their poise, mark them for what they are. And when they were nearer I could see their withered cheeks, their sunken eyes. No cosmetics can hide that. These two are old enough to be our great-grandparents. They were well past sixty before we were even born, Kate. How superbly their bodies function! But why not? We can guess at their medical histories. She's had at least three hearts, he's working on his fourth set of lungs, they apply for new kidneys every five years, their brittle bones are reinforced with hundreds of skeletal snips from the arms and legs of hapless younger folk, their dimming sensory apparatus is aided by countless nerve-grafts obtained the same way, their ancient arteries are freshly sheathed with sleek teflon. Ambulatory assemblages of secondhand human parts, spliced here and there with synthetic or mechanical organ substitutes, that's all they are. And what am I, then, or you? Nineteen years old and vulnerable. In their eyes I'm nothing but a ready stockpile of healthy organs, waiting to serve their needs.
- From Robert Silverberg's "Caught in the Organ Draft"
Yesterday Wired published an in-depth report on the growing scandal around the illegal organ trade in India. Hundreds of poor Indian women have been convinced to illegally sell one of their kidneys. One such woman, named Rani, decided to sell a kidney to pay for medical treatment for her daughter. After receiving an initial upfront fee, it was made clear to her that if she tried to back out "thugs" would "sort out the situation with violence."
The surgery went according to plan, but the recovery was more difficult than she had expected. Her neighbor sat by her bedside day and night. But after three days -- with her wound still draining liquid -- the hospital sent her home. When she went back to the hospital a week later for a checkup, the doctors pretended not to recognize her.
The organ broker vanished before she received the remaining payment for her kidney. Rani is just one of hundreds of poor Indian women with similar stories.

Of course India isn't the only place you can buy a kidney. There are many countries, from Russia to South Africa, where the wealthy can purchase organs, and not just kidneys, but lungs, livers and hearts (which, for obvious reasons, come from cadavers rather than live donors). One of the biggest organ suppliers is China, where "donors" are often executed prisoners. The system is ripe for abuse even where it is well regulated - see, for example the recent case in San Luis Obispo (Southern California), in which a surgeon has been accused of hastening the death of a 26-year-old patient so as to harvest his organs more quickly. It's not so hard to imagine a scenario in which criminals kill to harvest organs which they then sell to the highest bidder.

The shadier side of organ transplantation has long been a staple of medical thrillers and the more horrifying tales of science fiction. A few of note:
  • One of the earliest stories I know of that involves involuntary organ donation is Larry Niven's "The Jigsaw Man" (1967). This Hugo-nominated short story takes place in Niven's Known Space and introduces the terms organlegging and organlegger. As in today's China, organs are harvested from executed criminals, but, at least in Niven's universe, as demand outstrips supply the powers-that-be keep expanding the list of capital crimes. Meanwhile, the organ bootleggers obtain black market organs by any means they can, knowing that if they are caught they will become "donors" themselves.

    The organlegger was officially dead.

    His heart went into storage immediately. His skin followed, most of it in one piece, all of it still living. The doctor took him apart with exquisite care, like disassembling a flexible, fragile, tremendously complex jigsaw puzzle. The brain was flashburned and the ashes saved for urn burial; but all the rest of the body, in slabs and small blobs and parchment-thin layers and lengths of tubing, went into storage in the hospital's organ banks. Any one of these units could be packed in a travel case at a moment's notice and flown to anywhere in the world in not much more than an hour. If the odds broke right, if the right people came down with the right diseases at the right time, the organlegger might save more lives than he had taken.

  • "Caught in the Organ Draft" by Robert Silverberg (1972) takes the premise of mandatory organ donation literally. I won't say any more, since it's free for the reading at SciFiction.
  • In Frederick Pohl's Hugo and Nebula-award winning novel, Gateway (1977), a terminally ill son sells off his organs to get his family out of debt. It's pretty chilling:
    "He didn't want us to spend the airbody money on Term Medical for him. It would have just about paid for the surgery, and then we would have been broke again. So what he did, he sold himself, Bob. He sold off all his parts. More than just a left testicle. All of him. They were fine, first-quality Nordic male twenty-towo-year-old parts, and they were worth a bundle. He signed himself over to the medics and the _ how do you say it? - put him to sleep. There must be pieces of Hat in a dozen different people now. They sold off everything for transplants, and they gave us the money. Close to a million dollars. Got us here, with some to spare. So that's where our luck came from, Bob."
    Meanwhile, the characters are risking it all trying to make their fortune, in part so that they can afford Full Medical, which includes "transplants to keep us young and healthy and beautiful and sexually strong."
  • Coma by Robin Cook (1977) is the classic of organ farm fiction. When I read it as a teenager it almost scared me away from hospitals permanently.
  • The X-Files episode "Hell Money" is set in the gambling dens of San Francisco's Chinatown and has the usual supernatural edge to it. It's certainly not the best X-Files episode, but I liked it for the creepy urban atmosphere (in contrast to the usual creepy forests, creepy farms and creepy suburbs).
  • I suppose I should include the Voyager episode "Phage, " in which disease-ravaged aliens steal Neelix's lungs. The biology of that episode is so ridiculous (organs being cross compatible between species with completely different anatomies, for example) it grates on me more than usual.
My hope is that, in the not too distant future, human organ transplants will be made obsolete by the development of artificial organs, organs grown in the lab, or animal-human xenotransplants. While the research is promising, Isaac Asimov's commentary on "Caught in the Organ Draft" (in the the eponymous anthology Caught in the Organ Draft) is a reminder, that at the present time transplanted organs were once part of another living human being.
There have been numerous cases of heart transplants, kidney transplants, liver transplants, and corneal transplants.

We can't help but look at that sort of thing with approval, for we tend to visualize ourselves as potential receivers of transplants and if we need something vital, we would want it available. For every receiver, however, there is a donor, and it is that point Silverberg takes up in "Caught in the Organ Draft".
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Niven's tales of known space, including Jigsaw ManGateway by PohlRobin Cook's Coma (novel)Robin Cook's Coma (DVD)X-Files Season 3

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Marching Morons and the Inheritance of Intelligence

In March of this year science fiction writer Ben Bova wrote an editorial about the prescience of science fiction, in which he invokes the classic short story "The Marching Morons":
The most prescient — and chilling — of all the science fiction stories ever written, though, is “The Marching Morons,” by Cyril M. Kornbluth, first published in 1951. It should be required reading in every school on Earth.

The point that Kornbluth makes is simple, and scary: dumbbells have more children than geniuses. In “The Marching Morons” he carries that idea to its extreme, but logical, conclusion.

Kornbluth tells of a future world that is overrun with dummies: men and women who don’t know anything beyond their own shallow personal interests. They don’t know how their society works, or who is running it. All they care about is their personal — and immediate — gratification.
It turns out to have been a poor choice of example on Bova's part, simply because the greatest differences between the teeming masses and the "bright men and women slaving to keep society from falling apart" are cultural and educational, and often based on class, not genetics. I would even argue that here in the U.S. there are actually fewer people in the "marching moron" category today than there were 100 years ago, because there are more opportunities today for a bright kids to get an education and for intelligent "lay people" to teach themselves about science, history and other subjects. I don't have any data for that though, so I can't really say that's more than a supposition.

P.Z. Myers (Pharyngula) has a great take-down of the genetic assumptions in Kornbluth's story (and Bova's op-ed).
There are no grounds to argue that there are distinct subpopulations of people with different potentials for intelligence. Genes flow fluidly — if you sneer at the underclass and think your line is superior, I suspect you won't have to go back very many generations to find your stock comes out of that same seething mob. Do you have any Irish, or Jewish, or Italian, or Native American, or Asian, or whatever (literally—it's hard to find any ethnic origin that wasn't despised at some time) in your ancestry? Go back a hundred years or so, and your great- or great-great-grandparents were regarded as apes or subhumans or mentally deficient lackeys suitable only for menial labor.
Myers points out that there is a solution:

That's where the Kornbluth story fails. It assumes the morons are unchangeably moronic, and treats the elite as unchangeably special. The only solution to their problem is to get rid of the morons, launching them into space to die. Bova's editorial, while not as cynically eliminationist, still pretends that the only answer is perpetuation of a distinction that doesn't exist biologically.

Here's the real solution to the "marching moron" problem: teach them. Give them fair opportunities. Open the door to education for all. They have just as much potential as you do. Bova complains that people aren't willing to work for change, but this is exactly where we can work to improve minds — but we won't if we assume the mob is hopeless.

As Matthew Cheney (The Mumpsimus) points out that Bova may have missed the point: Kornbluth was really more of a satirist than a predictor of the future.
There is a Straussian strain to science fiction, a desire for rule by an enlightened elite (of which, of course, the proponents inevitably consider themselves members), and Kornbluth's "Marching Morons", as entertaining as its vision of a future of idiots can be, offers grotesque flattery to its readers, saying: You who read this story are not morons, of course. You would be with the elite. The story asks us to laugh at the "moron" characters, it puts us in a position of superiority to them, it lets us feel the euphoria of power over them. By the end, it gives us a choice: disagree with its premises, or agree with them and side with the genocidal desires of the story's final pages.
We science fiction readers like assume that we are smarter and more aware of the future than the mob (that was, in fact, the point of Bova's editorial). For every science fiction story that made a prediction that has come to pass (and I wouldn't include "Marching Morons" on that list), there are many more that have turned out to be wide of the mark. We science fiction readers shouldn't be so smug.

For more discussion of genetics and intelligence, head over to the Pharyngula. For more on Kornbluth, science fiction and satire, head over to The Mumpsimus.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Spiderman vs. Spiders


LiveScience takes a look at How Spider-Man Compares to the Real Thing. It turns out that
Spider silk could stop a Boeing 747 in flight, is stronger than bullet-proof Kevlar and more elastic than nylon, biologists say.
There are also species of spiders that spin silk from their feet, rather than their abdomen.

No word on whether real spiders can woo attractive redheads, though.

Image: Garden Spider @ U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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M.D. Benoit's Synergy

I just stumbled across the promotional blog tour for M. D. Benoit's new science fiction thriller Synergy. It caught my eye because of the book's basis in biology. This being a 21st century book launch, of course there is a video promo :

In her interview on science fiction author Joshua Palmatier's blog, Benoit noted that part of her original inspiration was one of those credulous articles about human genetics that newspapers love to publish (my characterization, not hers) .
Next, I read an article about Israel doing intense research to find the Arab gene so they could fabricate gene-specific weapons. Although it now appears not to be a viable theory, it started the "what if" question all writers start with.
Benoit told SciFiChick that she taught herself about DNA and genetics, and followed the recent news on genetic engineering online:
Benoit: I was already following developments in genetic engineering: the mapping of the human genome, the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the controversy over genetically modified organisms, so I knew enough to know I knew very little. I began with basic books on DNA, then roamed the internet for more in-depth and up-to-date information on human genetic engineering. The field evolves so quickly it’s almost impossible to follow everything that’s happening, but several government sites have done a great job in bringing the knowledge to an understandable level.
According to Benoit, she tried to stick with real genetics in her plot, as long as it didn't affect her storytelling:
I didn't want it to be a class in genetics, but it was essential that there would be enough of it to make sense of the story. It wasn’t as much trying to vulgarize the science as much as make it flow within the story.
Synergy is the first of three novels by Benoit based on genetic engineering. Catalyst, due to be released in 2008, is about human cloning farms. She is currently working on the third book, Entropy, that "deals with genetically engineering food crops and the real dangers of monoculture."

I haven't actually read Synergy, so I can't comment directly on the science, but it sounds like it could be an interesting read.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Would extraterrestrial life use DNA?


An interesting article in the April 30th issue of the Boston Globe, "Not so alien after all?", profiles the Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes (SETG) project, lead by Harvard geneticist Gary Ruvkun and MIT geophysicist Maria Zuber. They have assembled a team that includes a number of prominent scientists as co-investigators, including Harvard geneticist George Church and cell biology professor emeritus Walter Gilbert, MIT physicist Claude Canizares, Associate Director of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) William F. Mayer, and Michael Finney, biotechnology investor and former Chief Scientific Officer of MJ Research.

The goal of SETG is to search for life on Mars that is ancestrally related to life on Earth. The team is developing a device that uses the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to search for Martian microbes that share DNA sequences with terrestrial microbes. Billions of years ago there was a heavy exchange of meteors between the bodies in our solar system. If Earth bacteria ended up on one of those meteors, survived the rigors of space, the entry of the meteor into the Martian atmosphere and were able to reproduce, the descendants of those microbes should have retained at least some of the DNA sequences of their Earthly ancestors. It's not as far-fetched as it sounds - the fossilized remains of archaebacteria, which live and thrive under extreme conditions here on Earth, have been discovered in 3.8 billion year old sediments. As to whether microbes could survive the trip, just consider the bacteria that hitched a ride on the Surveyor 3 probe that were able to survive the heat of the launch, the freezing vacuum of space, and three years on the Moon with no water or nutrients before being carried back to Earth by Apollo 12.

As the Globe article explains, Ruvkun not only believes that ancient life could have traveled from Earth to Mars, but speculates that the source of life on Earth was also extraterrestrial.
About 4 billion years ago the planets experienced a period of intense bombardment. Meteors came crashing down to the surface, ejecting more rocks into space, some of which came crashing down onto other planets. Life on Earth appeared very quickly after the bombardment -- too fast, Ruvkun believes, to have evolved on its own.The bombardment, Ruvkun believes, could have brought life to Earth from somewhere else. And if life on earth came from somewhere else, then perhaps it also came to Mars from "the same somewhere else," Ruvkun says. Martian rocks have been found on earth, and an analysis of one of them revealed that portions of its core never experienced superheating as it fell to earth, showing that meteors could be viable shuttles for life.
Finding Martian life with identifiable DNA sequences would be an extremely long shot, even more so than the more generic tests used by the Viking Mars landers, which may or may not have found signs of life. Even if the team succeeds in building a device that can operate reliably under the extreme conditions on the Martian surface, there is no guarantee that NASA will approve it's inclusion on a flight. Ruvkun is optimistic, however, that if the experiment goes ahead there will be something for it to find.
"Never bet against life," he said.
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