Saturday, June 30, 2007

Biology in SF Bits

PZ Myers linked to yesterday's post about respect for biology, and there is an interesting discussion about biology vs. physics in science fiction going on in the comments. Welcome Pharyngulites!

John Scalzi interviews Robert J. Sawyer on the Ficlets Blog. They talk about the moral issues around new biotechnologies, and science fiction writing in Canada, among other things.

Sandra Kiume at Omni Brian reviews Chuck Palahniuk's latest novel, Rant While Palahniuk.
Just how much is society a construction of neurobiology? The novel teases with descriptions of plagues and viruses affecting the brain before asking that question. With Rant's departure and an unusual method of screwing with genetics, it seems possible to escape both the past and the future.
Vaughan at Mind Hacks links to the 60s B-Movie The Brain that Wouldn't Die, which has fallen into the public domain.
It's another classic story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl in terrible car crash, boy keeps girl's head alive in neuroscience lab while looking for attractive new body.
Matt Cordes and Kevan Davis have created a cool Zombie Infection Simulator (via SF Signal).

Pink Ray Gun has a review of science fiction teen drama Kyle XY.
There’s something I don’t get about Jessie XX. She wakes up and knows how to kill a guy and do paintings in pointillism, but she doesn’t know how to use soap? What were they teaching her in the goo filled tank of hers for seventeen years? Were they teaching her to spell?
SciFi Chick has a nice pencil drawing of Kyle XY star Matt Dallas too. Does anyone else find it a bit disturbing when attractive 25-year-olds play 16-year-olds on TV?

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Friday, June 29, 2007

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, biology don't get no respect.

Case in point: Christopher O'Brien at Northstate Science expressed dismay that creationists assume a engineers can comment on biology with the same expertise that biologists can comment on biology. In response, a commenter responded that "admission scores for doctors and engineers were far in excess of biologists." As Christopher points out
. . . the sentence nonetheless reflects an commonly arrogant attitude on the part of engineers and many doctors - that those fields somehow require greater intellectual capacity than biology or anthropology. It also implies that their viewpoints should carry more weight.
He argues, that while it might seem simple on the surface, biology is much more complex than physics or engineering:
The point, I tell my students, is that we often think it is easy to grasp biology (and make substantial claims about it) because it does not appear on the surface to be as difficult a subject as physics. But biology deals with systems infinitely more complicated than those in physics (or engineering) and the ability to study and explain those systems requires grasping a body of knowledge inconceivable to most lay people and to many others in different disciplines.
Reproductive biologist and alien-design consultant Jack Cohen made a similar point in a 2002 essay:

In summer 2002, I was at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Lots of biologists presenting, for sure. But… one very popular event was a presentation by three famous astronomers: ‘Is There Life Out There?’ I prefaced my first question to them by a little imaginative scenario: three biologists discussing the properties of the black hole in the middle of our galaxy. It was very clear that the astronomers really believed that they could discuss ‘life’ professionally, whereas everyone saw biologists talking about black holes as absurd.

At the same Festival, a ‘Making Science Available’ discussion produced a chain of cliches, where several science journalists explained how they knew all about genetic modification - when it was transparently clear to a few of us that they would score less than zero in a first-year university biology exam. Conservation, artificial reproductive techniques, these were "simple in substance"(but biochemistry was "complex").
That arrogance affects the way the biological sciences are portrayed in science fiction.
Authors, film producers and directors, special-effects teams go to physicists, especially astrophysicists, to check that their worlds are workable, credible; they go to astronomers to check how far from their sun a planet should be, and so on. They even go to chemists to check atmospheres, rocket fuels, pheromones (apparently theyre not biology….), even the materials that future everyday clothes (not only spacesuits) will be made of. They do go to self-styled "astrobiologists", who are usually astronomers or astrophysicists who remember some Biology 1.01 (or think they could if pressed). Between them they invent reptiloid "aliens" (who are cold-blooded enough to do all those dastardly things no warm-blooded American male could do…), feline aliens (who have the psychology of the household cat writ large, especially by more mature female authors…), dinosaur "aliens"…. Or giant ants. Or were they mut-ants, I don’t remember (but how many screen mutations have you seen that change the recipient, not its progeny?). [ . . . ] Biology questions don’t seem professional to the people who design these scenarios; it’s like folk psychology or philosophy – everyone has "a right to" an opinion.
The solution seems clear to me: science fiction writers* should realize that realistic (or at least consistent) biology is just as important to a science fiction story as the physics. In the age of the internet, there's really no excuse for not getting expert advice on the science in your stories. Here are just a few places to start:
And heck, there are lots of us out here in blogland that love to talk about this stuff . . .

Anyway, be sure to read Cohen's whole rant. For more on his views of alien life - real and fictional, check out his Astrobiology interview. He particularly likes the aliens in Brin's uplift books. There are also collected notes on Cohen's SF convention talks.

* and policy makers and politicians should get expert advice before making pronouncements or passing laws on scientific issues .

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Science Mag's Summer Reading List

Science senior editor Barbara Jasney and book review editor Sherman Suter asked their "advisers, reviewers, and colleagues" for summer book recommendations (subscription required). The list is heavy on the non-fiction, but a few science fiction novels made the cut. Here are the suggested books with a bioscience base:

Fiction
FrameshiftNever Let Me GoIntuition
ArrowsmithBrazzaville Beach
  • Brian Davison, chief scientist for Systems Biology and Biotechnology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, recommends Robert J. Sawyer's Frameshift.
    This medical thriller includes genetic disorders, in vitro fertilization, health insurance, Neandertal genomics, Nazi war criminals, and a love story between researchers occurring in the near future at UC Berkeley. Perhaps not the author's best, but an exciting read that could be a movie with Adrien Brody and Sandra Bullock
  • Science news editor Colin Norman recommends Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.
    Science fiction set in current times, the novel explores a morally repugnant use of science and the society that condones it. In his understated but beautiful prose, Ishiguro imbues this ultimately chilling tale with warmth and understanding.
If you prefer "Lab Lit" to science fiction there are selections for you too:
  • Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy recommends Allegra Goodman's Intuition. Kennedy notes that there are "certain characters who are modeled closely enough on players in widely known cases to encourage identification [...]".
  • U.C. Berkeley molecular and cell biology professor of Daniel Koshland recommends the old classic Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis.
  • Colin Norman recommends William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach. It's not set in a lab, but the characters are involved in primate research in Africa.
Other novels that were recommended are David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, Ian McEwan's Saturday, China MiƩville's Perdido Street Station, and Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.

Non-Fiction
Guinea Pig's History of BiologyBotany of DesireThe Ancestor's Tale
Microbe HuntersWhy We Get Sick

Plenty to keep even the most voracious reader entertained for most of the summer. If not check out the full article for the entire list of recommendations.

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The Giving Plague

Yeah, you viruses need vectors, don’t you. I mean, if you kill a guy, you’ve got to have a life raft, so you can desert the ship you’ve sunk, so you can cross over to some new hapless victim. Same applies if the host proves tough, and fights you off — gotta move on. Always movin’ on.

Hell, even if you’ve made peace with a human body, like Les suggested, you still want to spread, don’t you? Big-time colonizers, you tiny beasties.

Oh, I know. It’s just natural selection. Those bugs that accidentally find a good vector spread. Those that don’t, don’t. But it’s so eerie. Sometimes it sure feels purposeful….
The latest Escape Pod podcast is a reading of David Brin's "The Giving Plague", an excellent take of one man's battle against the viruses that plague us. If you'd rather read than listen, David Brin has the story up on his web site too.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Made in EUReKA

If you've ever wanted nanobot-based shampoo or a contact lens video camera, check out the Made in Eureka web site. They've even got infomercials just like you see on late night TV, with the oohing and ahing audience and perky hosts. My favorite is the CryoKennel (only three easy payments of $49.99!) which freezes your dog for easy transport too and from home. Easy!

If you haven't guessed already, this is a promotional site for the SciFi series EUReKA, which has it's second season premier on July 10.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Black Sheep

SciFi Weekly has posted a review of the new comedy-horror movie out of New Zealand, Black Sheep. Farmer Angus Oldfield has turned to genetic engineering to create bigger and fluffier sheep. Then, as you might expect, it all goes horribly wrong.
It turns out that [peacenik environmentalist] Experience and her bumbling eco-terrorist boyfriend (Driver) have accidentally released a mutant lamb into the sheep populace and turned them all into bloodthirsty carnivores. A single bite from an infected sheep could turn a human into a gooey gigantic were-sheep, but mostly the rampaging herd just overruns its victims, goring the entrails out of their bodies and chewing the eyeballs out of their heads.
The verdict: ". . . it looks like everyone was having a sheepishly good time putting together this funny little B movie that's deserving of an A grade." Black Sheep sounds like the perfect summer horror flick.

You can see the trailer on the official movies site.

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Reading Memories

In the trade, the legitimate trade - I've never done porno - we call the raw product dry dreams. Dry dreams are neural output from levels of consciousness that most people can only access in sleep. But artists, the kind I work with at the Autonomic Pilot, are able to break the surface tension, dive down deep, down and out, out into Jung's sea, and bring back - well, dreams. Keep it simple. I guess some artists have always done that, in whatever medium, but neuroelectronics lets us access the experience, and the net gets it all out on the wire, so we can package it, sell it, watch how it moves in the market.
- William Gibson "The Winter Market" (1986)
In science fiction it's not uncommon for memories to be uploaded into computers, either to create a facsimile of a living person, or to create marketable "experience" downloads. Gibson wasn't the first - Dick's "We can remember it for you wholesale" (the inspiration for Total Recall) described implanted memories for sale back in 1966. While it's a seemingly easy process in fiction, the fact is that we are only just starting to understand how the brain organizes and stores memories.

The July issue of Scientific American (available as a free pdf) takes a look at the how memories are stored in mice. The article is written by Boston University professor Joe Tsien, whose claim to fame is the generation of a mouse strain that could learn faster and remember longer, which he aptly named Doogie*. His recent research has been to understand how memories form in mice. It appears that memories are stored in groups of neurons that relate to different aspects of the recorded event:
The brain relies on memory-coding cliques [of neurons] to record and extract different features of the same event, and it essentially arranges the information relating to a given event into a pyramid whose levels are arranged hierarchically, from the most general, abstract features to the most specific aspects. We believe, as well, that each such pyramid can be thought of as a component of a polyhedron that represents all events falling into a shared category, such as "all startling events."
Each specific memory involves a unique set of these "neuronal cliques," which makes up what Tsien calls the "memory code." A stored memory could be read, at least in theory, by determining which of the groups of neurons are associated with it. Such information could be uploaded into computers that are designed along the same hierarchical principals, although Tsien doesn't anticipate us having that ability any time soon.
If all our memories, emotions, knowledge and imagination can be translated into 1s and 0s, who knows what that would mean for who we are and how well we will operate in the future. Could it be that 5,0000 years from now, we will be able to download our minds onto computers, travel to distant worlds and live forever in the network?
For more on the current state of the art in brain scanning, check out the ABC (Australian, not American) radio called "All in the Mind" that looks at the use brain scans in the courtroom (via Mind Hacks).

If you are interested in offloading some your own memories, the Braintec web site claims to have developed a way to perform "human uploads." You can even donate your extra computer processing cycles to their distributed analysis system (a la SETI@Home) to process the uploaded memories. Install the .exe file at your own risk**.

* For young readers (or those who didn't watch TV in the late 80s), "Doogie" is a reference to Doogie Howser, M.D.

** Just to be clear, SETI@Home is a legitimate project which you can install on your home computer to help the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Similarly Folding@Home uses your computer to work on protein folding problems. In contrast, the Braintec program is an unknown quantity.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Unnaturalness and Genetic Engineering in Science Fiction

As an addendum to her review of Women in Science: Meeting Career Challenges, Zuska points out an interesting-looking article by Laura Briggs and Jodi I. Kelber-Kaye, "There is no Unauthorized Breeding in Jurassic Park": Gender and the Uses of Genetics," published in the Fall 2000 issue of NWSA Journal. According to the abstract the article looks at the genetic engineering in Jurassic Park and Gattaca from a feminist perspective.

The abstract:
This article relies on close readings of Jurassic Park (the book and the film) and(film) to argue that a great deal of the opposition to new genetic technologies expressed in contemporary popular culture is grounded in a profound anti-feminism. Both of these science fiction stories suggest that genetic manipulation is “unnatural,” and call for a return to a romanticized “natural” motherhood. In Jurassic Park, genetic science is figured as a threat to the white nuclear family, producing “Third World” female dinosaurs whose reproduction cannot be stopped, whose existence threatens white American children. Gattaca aligns the “unnaturalness” of genetically modified offspring with homosexuality and communism, and calls for the return of democracy, individual striving, and motherhood. Together, the article argues, these two texts suggest some of the pitfalls for feminism in contemporary discussions of reproductive technology and genetic determinism.
The full article is available on-line to subscription-holders.

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Paul Levinson's Conversation with Robert J. Sawyer

Paul Levinson has a podcast interview with Robert J. Sawyer. As Levinson describes it:
Rob is winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and more awards, almost as numerous as stars in the universe ... he's Canada's premier science fiction writer ... We talk not only about Rob's novels - including his latest, rollback - but about the true value of science fiction to humanity, a trip to Mars that almost happened in the 1960s, the Pope's Astronomer, and much more ... a no-holds-barred, unedited 20-minute conversation...
Sawyer's Rollback is "a novel of human rejuvenation and alien communication." Listen to the interview to find out why it's a "scientific romance."

If you want more from Levinson, you can listen to a free podcast of Levinson's novel The Silk Code (also available from Podiobooks), a Phil D'Amato mystery with biotechnology, genetics and possible present-day Neanderthals.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cool Bioscience Weekly Roundup

A few of the bioscience stories from the past week that I found interesting:

Astrobiology Magazine takes a look at recent speculation that plant life on Earth-like planets outside our solar system might be black.

Scienceroll has an interview with "Max Chatnoir" about his creation of Genomic Island and the genetic revolution in Second Life.

Matt Castle at Damn Interesting looks at the original "cryobiology" experiments that started in the 1950s by bringing frozen hamsters back to life.
The potential demonstrated by frozen-hamster research has yet to be fully realised, but perhaps one day Dr. Audrey Smith's groundbreaking efforts will lay the foundation for powerful new medical procedures. Indeed, a hot over-sized spoon might one day miraculously transform frozen human cadavers back into living, breathing, productive zombies to slave away in the mechanized underworld of the future. Until that long-hoped-for day arrives, perhaps– like James Lovelock– we can console ourselves with the idea that this pioneering work has helped broaden the meaning of life.
Reporter David Ewing Duncan gives a first-hand report to MIT Technology Review about chemicals and other treatments that claim to give your brain a boost. His conclusion:
Before long we might be drinking beverages laced with modafinil and other mild stimulants that have fewer side effects than coffee. It's likely that we'll also be slipping zappers onto the brims of our hats and flipping them on when we get spacey. But neither of these brain boosters is close to helping me, say, understand advanced quantum mechanics or write a symphony like Mozart. I'll have to muddle along being me for a bit longer.
Also in Technology Review, Emily Singer describes how scientists hope to use DNA sequencing and genetic engineering on variety of plants such as button mushrooms and eucalyptus trees to improve production of biofuels.

Wired talks about the genetic engineering of mushrooms for the production of pharmaceuticals.

New Scientist reports that biologist Keller Autumn and his colleagues at Lewis & Clark University have figured out how geckos stick to walls. What works for geckos hasn't worked for heavier machines.

"Scaling things up creates big problems," said Autumn. "We know it's a challenge none of the virtual gecko adhesives are capable of doing."

Nevertheless, he believes that with the development of strong carbon nanotubes and silicon nanowires that could used instead of gecko hairs, a comparable adhesive could become a viable option within the next 10 years.

In other nanotechnology news, bacteria have been harnessed as microscopic propellers.

Science Daily looks at the the "electric duets" used in the aquatic courtship of electric fish.

David Kerns, guest poster at Cognitive Daily, takes a look at what makes a movement seem "artificial." He looks at it from the movie special effects CGI angle, but the same issue arises when you think about human-alien interaction. How much of our perception would be governed by our unconscious expectations?
Body language is a critical form of communication for human beings. We can pick up a lot of meaning from physical movements, even when we only see a very limited amount of information about that movement. For example, most special effects animation is created by putting sensors on several parts of the human body to determine how body parts interact when the body is in motion. A human figure made up of just ten dots located in the different major body regions is enough to convey a wide range of emotions and complex physical movements. How does this work?
Did you know that 90% of the cells within us are microbes? Discover Magazine takes a look at the marvelous ecosystem that is the human body. In the same vein, MIT Technology Review takes a more in-depth look at "our microbial menagerie" and how they are important to our health.

Vaughan at Mind Hacks writes about the use of genetics to determine which psychiatric drugs "will be the most effective and least problematic."

Sandra Porter of Discovering Biology in a Digital World guides you through an animation of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).

R. Ford Denison writes about a recent publication that looks at whether plants can recognize "kin".

At the Loom, Carl Zimmer explains how the resistance our ancestors evolved to a virus in the Pleistocene might make us susceptible to HIV today.

Finally, Philip Ball at nature.com reports on "open source" vs. patented parts in synthetic biology.

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Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Janet Stemwedel has posted an interesting review of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go. The novel was published in 2005 to wide critical acclaim, making runner-up for the prestigious Booker Prize and named one of the top 100 English-language books by Time Magazine. As you might expect from the author of Remains of the Day, the novel focuses on the English upper class. As the original review in Time puts it:
Never Let Me Go is the story of three people--Kathy, Tommy and Ruth--who at first appear to be ordinary children attending an exclusive and indefinably creepy but otherwise ordinary English boarding school. The only other thing you need to know is that the book is a page turner and a heartbreaker, a tour de force of knotted tension and buried anguish.
But, as you've probably already guessed, there is more to it than that - the story's protagonists are actually clones raised for their organs.

Janet notes that Never Let Me Go raises a number of questions in biomedical ethics. Based on a discussion that started in the comments to that post, she follows up with a look at the scientific plausibility of the biomedical technology.

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Greg Bear on the Daily Show

Greg Bear talks to Jon Stewart about working with Homeland Security and future bioterrorism.

Note: the video expires July 21, so watch while you can. If the video won't play for you try this link.

(via mom - thanks, mom!)

ETA: and thanks to mom again for pointing out that I originally embedded the wrong video and that it's "Jon," not "John." Good grief, I need an editor.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

The Alien Next Door: An Interview with Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian science fiction writer, reviewer and ecologist. Her first novel, the science fiction-romance Collision with Paradise, was published by Liquid Silver Books in 2005. Her latest novel, Darwin's Paradox, is a science fiction thriller with biological elements:
When an intelligent virus and an intelligent machine community conspire to threaten the world with destruction and chaos, the only person who can save humanity is the woman who caused the cataclysm in the first place. Compelled by the virus awoken inside her, Julie Crane returns to the city from which she fled--accused of atrocity--in an attempt to redeem herself and fulfill her final destiny as Darwin's Paradox, the key to the evolution of an entire civilization.
On her blog, The Alien Next Door, Munteanu regularly writes about ecology and science fiction (and, in the spirit of disclosure, gave my other blog a nice plug). She recently posted one of her short stories, "Julia's Gift," which is based on "endosymbiosis, autopoiesis and other wonderful biological words."

Nina kindly agreed to let me interview her about her writing, science fiction and science.
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According to the biography on your website you started reading science fiction as a girl, and you specifically mention Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg and John Wyndham. Were there any stories or novels in particular that inspired your early love of science fiction?

John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids lingered with me for a long time. But I think it was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 that really started my love affair with science fiction and sparked a dream to write in this genre. It was actually classic writer, Thomas Hardy (e.g., Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles) who’s intricate and sensual writing inspired me to write. I was also deeply affected by Bradbury’s collection of short stories in Martian Chronicles. I also remember a short story by Isaac Asimov—can’t remember the title-- about a boy who decides to go outside in a world no longer interested in the outdoors.

What are some of your favorite recent science fiction novels (other than your own, of course)?

I love most of Kay Kenyon’s stuff (Maximum Ice, Braided World) and Greg Bear (Queen of Angels, Slant) and fellow Canadian SF writer, Robert J. Sawyer (Neanderthal Parallax and his newest, Rollback). They all write what I would call idea-based but socially-affecting, strong character-based SF with fantastic world building and grounded to today’s world. I also read fantasy, but not epic fantasy, mostly the grittier darker stuff that’s like alternate history (e.g., Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy, Philip Pullmans’ His Dark Materials).

You have written science articles for Beyond Centauri, a science and science fiction magazine for kids. Do you think that science fiction is a good way to introduce kids (and adults) to science?

Yes, I do. I think it’s a terrific way to get them to assimilate and explore the bigger questions that drive scientists today. It helps them see what issues interest the world in science and can offer some incredibly imaginative solutions to problems, and technological possibilities for the future. Science fiction writers, some of whom are scientists themselves, have often demonstrated incredible prescience in their writings. Recognized as futurists, creative problem solvers and thinkers who ponder outside the box, SF writers have been consulted often in think tank groups. But to go back to the kids, what better place to introduce them to some of the more complicated issues facing science and society than in an entertaining book about aliens, robots and gizmos?

When you are wearing your scientist hat, you are a limnologist, which (according to Wikipedia) is the study of fresh water systems, such as lakes and rivers, and involves a combination of biology, chemistry and geology. Did your youthful love of science fiction influence you to study science?

It might have subconsciously, but my decision to study science actually came from a compelling need to help make this planet a better place. I was quite an outspoken and active environmentalist in school (did the sit-ins and marches and letters to the Prime Minister, etc. [grins with slight embarrassment]); I initially thought of becoming an environmental lawyer. I really wanted to make a difference, to educate people about the environment and provide workable solutions. I taught for a while at college and university. Well, ironically, and to no surprise, my SF writing often centers on some environmental theme. So, I guess I’m still educating people about the environment in my fiction writing.

How has your science background influenced your fiction? Has your work as a scientist inspired any of your stories?

Oh, yes! Being a practicing scientist is a wonderful way to get ideas. As a limnologist, I work for an environmental consulting firm, where most of what we do is study environmental problems and provide recommendations for solutions. It’s an area close to my heart and there isn’t a book or short story that I’ve written that doesn’t reflect that interest. As for actual plot or thematic ideas, those usually spring to mind from moments of lucid dreaming, thoughtful ponderings of a mixture of social and environmental conflicts, which come from a diversity of sources. I’ve even gotten some very cool ideas from dreams. My latest book (the one I’m currently writing) is an example of that.

Your first novel, Collision with Paradise, is a science fiction romance. Of course sex is one aspect of biology, but, aside from that, did you include other aspects of biological science in your novel? Dare I ask if it could be considered "hard" science fiction romance?

[LOL] It actually is! Hard science fiction romance is pretty rare and a weird combination, I think. By tradition, hard SF has been the purview of male authors and (soft) SF romance the bailiwick of female authors. What I write combines the two, something I haven’t seen done a great deal. I found, however, that it was highly appreciated by a growing readership, both men and woman. So, obviously, I was filling in a niche.

Your latest novel is titled "Darwin's Paradox". Where does it fall in the spectrum between science fiction and romance?

It’s definitely science fiction. Although it has romance in it, the romance aspect isn’t the main thing driving the story (like in romances). Even “Collision with Paradise” isn’t a romance in that sense. Its main theme centers on healing and self-forgiveness (though love was a major aspect of that). I’d describe “Darwin’s Paradox” as social science fiction that explores the aspects of being human through our relationships with things other than human. Several hard science concepts are explored and used in the book like chaos theory, spontaneous organization, autopoiesis, co-evolution and quantum mechanics. But these don’t drive the story as much as provide vehicles for exploring the human heart.

Darwin's Paradox You explain on your blog that "Darwin's Paradox" refers to the puzzle of coral reefs that thrive as rich ecosystems in nutrient-poor water. How do you use that concept in your novel?

I don’t [LOL]. It just happens to describe the “real” Darwin’s paradox that scientists today have been trying to answer for decades. The title of my book doesn’t refer to this paradox, but to a fictional Darwin’s Paradox, whose paradox is something entirely different…You’ll have to read the book to find out [wide grin].

According to the description of "Darwin's Paradox" it involves a conspiracy between an "intelligent virus" and an "intelligent machine community". How did you get an organism as simple as a virus to communicate with artificial intelligences?

Well, you haven't been to parties with adolescents then, as Dr. Lynn Margulis would say. [LOL] Ah…at the root of this premise lie some fantastical reflections in the area of autopoiesis, spontaneous order, and chaos theory. Without giving some of the book’s plot away (there’s a major plot item that explains why this virus can do what it does) I proposed that a kind of spontaneous order arose within this particular viral community through its association with artificial intelligence (embedded within a human’s brain or in the case of the protagonist through non-local phenomena). As a result, the virus, acting as an autopoietic entity (self-organized), could tap into the higher cognitive intelligence of the machine world like a parasite and eventually communicate. I like what Dr. Margulis says about bacterial intelligence: that consciousness is awareness of the world around you and we’ve proven that bacteria are conscious; they orient themselves, work together to make structures. It’s still wild, unproven edgy kind of stuff. But it’s fun to contemplate the possibility.

How do you see the evolution of humanity? Do you think that the future of humanity (and AI) involves human-computer hybrids?

I think it’s inevitable that we will “join” in some way with machine AI. We’re already using many forms of AI to enhance our health, memory, physical abilities, appearance, etc. Think of neural implants, cell phones and plug-in phones, wearable AI, smart shoes and clothes, RDI, embedded IDs. What may seem outlandish, imposing or intrusive today will be seamless and normal tomorrow.

Is there any recent research in the biological sciences that you find particularly interesting or exciting?

I find the whole area of neurobiology incredibly fascinating. How the brain works, along with the other systems of the body, like a community in a symbiotic sort of relationship. Investigations into consciousness. As an ecologist, who studies larger systems like ecosystems, I find the whole Lovelock/Margulis argument for the Gaia Hypothesis (now Theory) wonderful to follow. The study of autopoietic systems, synchrony and fractals within chaos theory is something I’ve been studying with utter fascination. It even touches upon my work as an ecologist: how every living and non-living thing is connected—as if within a huge, multi-level, breathing and changing network—interacting and affecting everything around it like a self-organized system. I think that the defined fields of science will begin to blur as we find more and more that every system is related, linked and influences other levels of organization, from the smallest molecule through to a cell and up to ecosystems and biomes of a planet. I think that “intelligence” will find new and exciting definitions as a result of the evolution of both our biological and our artificial systems.

Are you working on a new novel?

Yes…always [slanted grin]. I never stop writing. I’m currently shopping a trilogy to a publisher while I finish the book I’m currently writing. And I’m so excited by it! Briefly, it’s a historical SF (alternate history/world) that begins in Medieval Prussia with a girl who is about to realize, of course, that she is no ordinary girl…but a being of light. One who can alter history. The story has been so fun to research and write, I sometimes feel guilty that I’m having so much fun.

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Darwin's Paradox is scheduled to be released by Dragon Moon Press in November. Nina plans to make a pdf version available on her blog before then, so keep an eye out for it. If you prefer to read physical books, you can pre-order Darwin's Paradox from Amazon.com (or Amazon.ca).

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How to Become a Real Cyborg

In case you were looking for a fun weekend project, Free Geekery has written up a DIY Guide to Becoming a (Real) Cyborg. You just need to get your own RFID chip, put on your wearable computer monitor and data glove, and sign up for neuro-surgical implantation . . .

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Science Fiction Writers (and Readers) are Schizo?

I've been browsing the Time Magazine archives and ran across the following gem from 1954:
Argues [psychiatric social worker Robert] Plank (in International Record of Medicine and General Practice Clinics): many science-fiction plots betray "schizophrenic manifestations" in the minds of their authors, who work out their fantasies by literary catharsis. Similarly, he concludes, readers release the steam from their own unconscious by reading the fantasies.
Plank actually stops short of calling science fiction writers "crazy," instead claiming "these signs are becoming more conspicuous in a mechanized civilization." So the I guess it's just the times that are crazy.

(The article also taught me the term "wig-picker" as a synonym for "psychiatrist." Learn something new every day!)

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Science Writing, 826 Valencia Style

At the World's Fair, David Ng (Director of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory at the University of British Columbia and editor of the Science Creative Quarterly) proposes a science outreach project for elementary-school kids that would involve a combination of a lab tour or hands-on lab experience with creative science writing. His inspiration was a visit to 826 Valencia in San Francisco*, which runs fun writing "field trips" for kids (not to mention a pirate supply store).

Personally, I think that's a fantastic idea. Having the kids write about their experience can help them think about the science. According to my brother, who volunteers at 826 Valencia, kids have a great time collaborating to create their own "book." Maybe this could be the start of the next generation of hard (bio)science fiction writers!

* 826 Valencia was created by McSweeney's and is "dedicated to supporting students aged 6 to 18 with their writing skills, and helping teachers get their students excited about the literary arts." There are branches in cities across the United States, including Brooklyn (storefront: Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.), Los Angeles (Storefront: Echo Park Time Travel Mart), Chicago (Storefront: The Boring Store), Seattle (Storefront: Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co.), Ann Arbor (Storefront: Monsters Union Local 826), and soon-to-open-in Boston.
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Tiny Assassins

In this month's issue of Baen's Universe, Mike Resnick has a column about humanity's tiniest assassins. He argues that we will probably destroy any alien invaders long before they arrive on Earth. How, you ask? By inadvertently shipping out our microbes on space ships and probes, of course.

A subscription to Baen's Universe is required to access the full article.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The World Without Us

The World Without UsThe latest issue of Scientific American interviews science writer and journalism professor Alan Weisman, author of a new book, The World Without Us. The title pretty much sums up the premise: what would happen if all humans vanished tomorrow? Weisman looks at the subsequent fall of New York City and the regrowth of wilderness.

"To see how the world would look if humans were gone, I began going to abandoned places, places that people had left for different reasons. One of them is the last fragment of primeval forest in Europe. It's like what you see in your mind's eye when you're a kid and someone is reading Grimm's fairy tales to you: a dark, brooding forest with wolves howling and tons of moss hanging off the trees. And there is such a place. It still exists on the border between Poland and Belarus*. It was a game reserve that was set aside in the 1300s by a Lithuanian duke who later became king of Poland. A series of Polish kings and then Russian czars kept it as their own private hunting ground. There was very little human impact. After World War II it became a national park. You go in there and you see these enormous trees. It doesn't feel strange. It almost feels right. Like something feels complete in there. You see oaks and ashes nearly 150 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, with bark furrows so deep that woodpeckers stuff pinecones in them. Besides wolves and elk, the forest is home to the last remaining wild herd of Bison bonasus, the native European buffalo.

Of course our remaining wilderness doesn't tell the whole story, since even the wild corners of the globe are affected by pollution and climate change. And there would be an open niche for the rise of another intelligent species. Weisman's vision would fit right into the Planet of the Apes.

According to Alan Weisman, baboons might have a reasonable shot. They have the largest brains of any primate besides Homo sapiens, and like us they adapted to living in savannas as forest habitats in Africa shrank. Writes Weisman in The World without Us: "If the dominant ungulates of the savanna —cattle—disappear, wildebeest will expand to take their place. If humans vanish, will baboons move into ours? Has their cranial capacity lain suppressed during the Holocene because we got the jump on them, being first out of the trees? With us no longer in their way, will their mental potential surge to the occasion and push them into a sudden, punctuated evolutionary scramble into every cranny of our vacant niche?"

Of course we'll never know if it happens, but it's kind of fun to think about.

* The place Weisman refers to is Bialowieza National Park. There are some great photos of the forest's mighty oaks.
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