Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Invasion and Parasites that Change Behavior


If you've watched TV or opened the entertainment section of your newspaper recently, you've seen ads for The Invasion, staring Nicole Kidman, and recognized it as a fancy remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I don't think that I'm spoiling the plot by saying that the involves alien spores that take over humans as they sleep. Infected people are spotted by the heroine by their unusual behavior.

Dr. Marc Siegel uses The Invasion as a jumping off point to write about the "truth about behavioral changes" caused by viruses and parasites in his Unreal World column for the LA Times (login with bugmenot). His plot summary emphasizes some of the silly bioscience used to explain how people are "snatched."
This time, instead of plant-like pods, it's an alien virus-like particle attached to the wreckage of the NASA Shuttle Patriot, and it begins to spread rapidly through the human population. The virus (in the jargon of the movie) interferes with sweat, causes a "cellular condensation," a "metabolic reaction" and alters the body's "genetic expression" by the "integration of alien DNA" -- while turning everyone into emotionless robots.
While the premise of The Invasion may be pseudoscience, Siegel does discuss several viruses that do indeed affect human behavior, including virus-like prions, viral encephalitis, and Borna disease virus. The real world is often more bizarre than what imaginative Hollywood screenwriters can imagine.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Prehistoric Pulp

The Prehistoric Pulp blog focuses on dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters in novels, comics, and the occasional game and television show. There have been a couple of recent posts of particular interest to paleo-SF fans:
Image: Ornithopods, by John Conway for Wikipedia.
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Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: August 20 Edition

Here are some Biology in Science Fiction bits from the past week:

At Shakespeare's Sister quixote writes about one of her/his pet peeves: "fostering day-to-day ignorance" by making science stupid in the movies because of laziness, rather than any special story-telling requirement.
Take an example from an epidsode of Star Trek- The Next Generation. There's a big disaster as everyone evolves backward into insects (small problem right there...) and Beverly Crusher is saying, "The DNA! It's degrading into amino acids!"

There's two problems with that. One, any kids who are smart enough to learn will learn drivel. It's much harder to unlearn stuff than to learn it in the first place. Two, exactly how would it interfere with the story to have Crusher shout, "It's degrading into nucleic acids!"
Ouch, that's an especially bad episode, bioscience-wise. There's no excuse for getting the basics wrong (and don't even get me started on the "de-evolution" into animals and bugs plot line).

Peter Watts links to the transcript of a live chat he did on Xfire with fellow Hugo-nominees Charles Stross and Verner Vinge where he talked a bit about why he is no longer a marine biologist (among other interesting topics). He adds a couple of questions that didn't make the transcript on his blog. (That was part of a week of chats with different science fiction authors.)

Paul Di Filippo reviews Phyllis Gotlieb's new novel, Birthstones for SciFi.com.
There is a planet named Shar, inhabited by a race who call themselves by the same name. Shar is not a pleasant place, and its natives—who resemble bipedal wolves in size, fangs and furriness—are suffering. The Shar themselves, over the course of a long history, have rendered their world polluted and diseased. The main consequence has been something horrific: Every Shar female—not that there are many left at all—is born as a bloated, brainless womb, fit only for reproducing. As a consequence, the emotional life of the Shar males revolves around fatherhood and male pair-bonding. Homosexuality, if you must define it in human terms.
[big snip . . . ]
The "thick description" frequently associated with anthropological SF, which LeGuin pioneered, is here in full. The Shar culture assumes a rich palpability that the reader will savor.

Read the full review for Di Filippo's verdict on the story.

SciFi Wire talks to Jeff Carlson about his nanotech thriller Plague Year. In it a cancer-treatment goes haywire, destroying all life below the elevation of 10,000 feet.
Meanwhile, the changes to the environment are accelerating, Carlson said. "Beneath the death line, there are only insects, amphibians and reptiles," he said. "Some have become their own kinds of plagues. The ants especially are taking over, and beetles and locusts and what's left of the ecological balance is rapidly crumbling."
Carlson was inspired by real developments in nanotech and cutting edge military research - and his own imagination, of course.

On the SF Site, Steven H. Silver reviews the final installment of Masters of Science Fiction, "The Discarded." Based on Harlan Ellison's story "The Abnormals," the TV-version was written by Ellison and Josh Olson and directed by Jonathan Frakes.
Starring John Hurt and Brian Dennehy, "The Discarded" focuses on a spaceship full of mutants who have been exiled from Earth and live a nomadic life going from planet to planet, none of which will accept them.
The story takes off when an envoy from Earth arrives telling them they are needed. Should they stay or should they go? Silver thinks it is the best installment of the series. It is scheduled to be shown on Saturday August 25 on ABC.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Happy Sesquicentennial!

Wired Magazine has found an illustration of what granddad's 150th birthday will look like, some time in the future . . .

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bioscience News Roundup: 08-13-07

Here are a few interesting bioscience bits from the past week:

First off, start with the blog carnivals:
Wired Science is reporting from the 3rd International Conference on Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the Biopolis research park in Singapore.

Universe Today reports that Professor John Parnell at the University of Aberdeen has devised an experiment to examine what happens to microbes in a rock that's bolted to a spacecraft. Will they survive liftoff, 12 days of microgravity and vacuum and return to the earth? Survival would give support to the plausibility of the Panspermia hypothesis: that life on Earth was seeded from space. (via Posthuman Blues)

Michael Feld and colleagues at the MIT George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory have created the first 3D images of a living cell. Check out the rotating 3D image of a cancer cell (link in the upper right corner).

Deep Sea News looks at "lighted whoopie in the sea" - sex and bioluminescence.

Nina Munteanu takes a look at the science of real-life neural implants. She also has an interesting post about "cooperation & aggressive symbiosis." Read it to find out what acacia trees, squirrel monkeys and Europeans have in common.

Science Daily reports on research by Markus Grompe and colleagues at the Oregon Health & Science University that figured out how to get mice to grow human liver cells.
In fact, the human liver cells from the repopulated mouse livers are indistinguishable from normal human liver cells, according to the study. "The healthy human liver cells take over and replace the sick mouse liver cells," Grompe said. "You end up with a healthy mouse that makes human blood clotting factors, all the proteins the liver makes, human bile, everything."
Human liver cells are used by pharmaceutical companies to test the metabolism and toxicity of drugs.

Finally, registration is open for Singularity Summit 2007, " a major two-day event bringing together 17 outstanding thinkers to examine a historical moment in humanity's history – a window of opportunity to shape how we develop advanced artificial intelligence." It will be held September 8-9 in San Francisco. If you are at all interested check out their web site for speaker interviews and videos.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Center for Ethical Bionics

The fall television season is rapidly approaching and the web sites for the new shows are starting to appear. SciFi Chick links to a tie-in to NBC's Bionic Woman: the web site for the Center for Ethical Bionics. The Center's mission:
Founded in 1992 in San Francisco, California, The Center for Ethical Bionics was created in response to unrestrained, unchecked growth reported within the rapidly expanding field of bionics. Deeply concerned about the possibility of biomechanical clones, DNA alteration, and the creation of biomechanical humans, many in the scientific community feared these experiments could result in irrevocable damage to humankind. Rumors of the creation of a top-secret, biomachine only heightened the need for immediate action.
There are four Founders:

Dr. Steven Caldwell, Chairman and "prodigy in the field of molecular biology," who has a M.D. and Ph.D. in computer science.

Dr. Michelle Scanlon, who has a Ph.D. in genetics in Duke is the Senior Geneticist.
Dr. Scanlon currently spends her time in the research and development lab at The Center's San Francisco headquarters. She has recently begun focusing her talents on bionic gene therapy, a process where Computerized Nucleic Acid (or CNA) is inserted into an abnormal, disease-causing gene. The CNA then acts as a carrier, genetically altering the diseased cells and delivering therapeutic materials to healthy ones.
Taryn McCarthy, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy is the Chief Ethicist.
Upon graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard with a degree in philosophy, Dr. McCarthy became interested in the impact of science fiction television on human acceptance of bionics. She resumed her studies at the renowned Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, where she received her doctorate and went on to shape genetic policy decisions through her work at the Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
She is also the inventor of the phrase "bio-morals."

Finally Dr. Samuel Baker, the Senior Bionic Researcher, has a background in mathematics and computer science and worked for military intelligence.

Take a closer look at the case study in bionics and sign up for their mailing list for more information. I suspect there will be additional web sites as we get closer to air time.

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Mundane Bioscience

There has been a bit of blog discussion this past week about Mundane Science Fiction, a SF sub-genre described by Geoff Ryman, Julian Todd and others. As Wikipedia puts it: "[Mundane Science Fiction] focuses on stories set on or near the Earth, with a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written." That means no faster-than-light travel, no aliens, and no alternative universes, among other science fiction staples.

Now you may be asking yourself, "What's the big deal about some SF writers wanting to focus on more realistic science in their fiction?" That's a good question. As far as I can tell, what irritates people a bit is that some of the Mundane proponents seem to think that that is the only way science fiction should be written. For example, here's Geoff Ryman in a 2004 interview with Infinity Plus:
"I hope the Mundane rules force Hard SF writers to focus on life on Earth lived by people and force humanists to get their facts right and to do some original SF speculation. The rules, not the group does the forcing, like a corset can feel great, liberating as well as confining, as it's more fun to play tennis by the rules."
The recent conversation started with a blog post by Rudy Rucker about recent article by Ryman in the New York Review of Science Fiction.
Mundane SF is to be about picturing possible futures, drawing on such sober-sided Sunday magazine think-piece topics as “Disaster, innovation, climate change, virtual reality, understanding of our DNA, and biocomputers that evolve.”
(Read the post for discussion of possible realities with FTL travel and aliens)

There's nothing wrong with those topics as the basis of science fiction. But what strikes me is that genetic engineering and "biocomputers" would have fantastically speculative topics 50 years ago. Perhaps brain downloading and human immortality or near-immortality* will be more scientifically realistic a few decades from now. And that is where I think some proponents of the mundane miss the point. For example, Mundane-SF blogger "goatchurch" writes about a recent interview with William Gibson:
There are some good quotes, which can be read with a Mundane-SF interpretation -- that the SF genre is being left behind by events and circumstances of the present day.

That's the diagnosis. The treatment is to either abandon the genre somewhat and simply report things as they are happening, because they are so ridiculous you cannot make them up. Or you can hypothesize that the problem is due to the pernicious weeds that have grown up within the genre, such as faster than light travel, aliens, brain downloads, etc. which strangle all other development. Gibson, below, mentions that he dropped the space travel and aliens in order to make his seminal book, Neuromancer. Mundane-SF suggests getting rid of the rest of the non-existent clutter and seeing how that works.
His solution is getting rid of the "non-mundane," but perhaps the fact that SF seems to be "falling behind" science is because today's authors don't think big enough. Biotechnology is moving very rapidly and keeping to "mundane" topics means that the science will be rapidly out of date.

But really what bothers me is the idea that it's the quality of the science that determines the quality of science fiction. A good author can use intelligent aliens, distant planets and fantastic science to provide insight into the human condition and present-day Earth. An example is Huxley's Brave New World, which had many non-mundane elements when published in 193 such as human cloning and genetic engineering. Today is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century.

While there is a place for the mundane in SF, I think it would be a less interesting genre without at least a touch of science fantasy.

* Interzone Magazine is looking for story submissions for a Mundane SF issue. Prohibited topics include : Faster than light travel, Psi power, Nanobot technology, Extraterrestrial life, Computer consciousness, Materially profitable space travel, Human immortality,Brain downloading, Teleportation, Time travel, Faster than light travel, Psi power, Nanobot technology, Extraterrestrial life, Computer consciousness, Materially profitable space travel, Human immortality, Brain downloading, Teleportation, and Time travel

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: August 13 Edition

There doesn't seem to have been much biology-related SF news from the post week. Maybe I'm not reading enough blogs? Or maybe it's because the only SF TV show premiering was the disappointing (and non-biological) Flash Gordon on SciFi. Anyway, here are a few tidbits:

SciFi Weekly reviews the Cartoon Network movie Ben 10: Secret of the Omnitrix, which has the same characters as the Ben 10 series.
It's business as usual when the dastardly Dr. Animo is attempting to turn a nuclear reactor into a DNA bomb that will de-evolutionize the world. Gwen, who'd really rather be shopping at the mall, and her grandfather, Max, are literally all tied up in the midst of Animo's evil plan. Luckily, it's 10-year-old Ben Tennyson to the rescue in the form of Heatblast, one of the 10 alien creatures he can change into thanks to the alien device known as the Omnitrix.
It premiered last Friday night, but probably will be shown again. Check our local listings!

Discover Magazine tells us "What You Can Learn from Zombie Moves": science, consumerism and the soul.

USA Today talks to physics professor Paul Halpern
about science on the Simpsons, and his new book "What's Science Ever Done For Us: What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe." Despite the title, he tails a fair bit about biology:

In one episode, Homer makes a tomato-tobacco hybrid plant by putting plutonium in the soil. Plutonium in the soil would not produce a hybrid "tomacco" plant, Halpern says. But there have been documented cases of grafting together tobacco and tomato plants to produce a tomato plant with traces of nicotine.

In another episode, Bart and Lisa find a strange three-eyed fish in a river near Mr. Burns' power plant. To counter the idea that nuclear power produced the mutation, Mr. Burns launches an ad campaign portraying Blinky the fish as the next step in evolution through natural selection — a "superfish."

But natural selection takes generations, Halpern says, and successful varieties must maintain a survival advantage over others. To prove his assertion, Mr. Burns would have to track three-eyed fish over time to see whether the extra eye allows them to spot food more quickly or elude predators.
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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Biology in SF a kid thing?

Last week Jannie Lee Simner posted to the SFWA LiveJournal community about the difference she sees between what "older" science fiction fans and young adult science fiction fans are reading.
But it's become standard wisdom that the science fiction readership is aging, and I'm not convinced this is true.

What is happening, I think, is that the sort of science fiction young people are reading is changing. I see SF in the YA section of the bookstore all the time. But it doesn't look anything like the SF older generations of fans read; even the packaging is very, very different. On last weekend's panel, we concluded the content is different, too, with much more of a bent toward the sociological and biological, and less of a bent toward space travel.

I think that because the kid and teen SF out there looks nothing like the SF we're used to reading, and because kids and teens aren't crossing over to read the stuff that's packaged for adults, many folks assume that kids and teens aren't reading SF at all.

Now this argument puzzles me a bit. Now, I'm not at all surprised that science fiction in the young adult section of the bookstore frequently has a biological bent. As a commenter on that thread, demonicfangirl, points out:
I think that the reason why young adult SF has changed more towards sociological and biological is because right now, technology is here. Most everything that used to just be in the realm of science fiction is now reality. Kids these days are learning how to type before they learn how to write with a pencil. So, that leaves us younger readers - and writers - with the society-side of the future, asking the questions about how Humans would interact with Aliens, and what really constitutes AS an alien.
That sounds right to me. What I don't agree with is the implicit assumption in Simner's post that most science fiction for adults is about "space travel."

I honestly haven't had any trouble finding adult SF with biological (and sociological) themes and nary a spaceship in sight. And the number of such books seems to have increased over the last couple of decades, at least. In fact, much of the cyberpunk of the 80s (when I made the transition from "young adult" to adult), while not being biology-based is very much earth bound, and the subsequent "biopunk" of the 90s is both biological and earthly. I see the treatment of similar themes in current young adult titles as the logical development of the genre.

Here are the books specifically mentioned in Simner's post with their Amazon.com descriptions:

  • Feed by M.T. Anderson
    "This brilliantly ironic satire is set in a future world where television and computers are connected directly into people's brains when they are babies. The result is a chillingly recognizable consumer society where empty-headed kids are driven by fashion and shopping and the avid pursuit of silly entertainment--even on trips to Mars and the moon--and by constant customized murmurs in their brains of encouragement to buy, buy, buy."
  • Spacer and Rat, by Margaret Bechard
    "Those Earthies. First they ruin their own planet, and now they are going to ruin the rest of the solar system! No wonder Jack and the other Spacers on Freedom Station call them "rats." Then Jack meets Kit, a rat, and her sentient Bot, Waldo, and against his better judgment finds himself drawn into their--well, orbit--and fleeing for his life."
  • The City of Ember (The First Book of Ember) and The People of Sparks (Books of Ember), by Jeanne DuPrau
    City of Ember: "It is always night in the city of Ember. But there is no moon, no stars. The only light during the regular twelve hours of "day" comes from floodlamps that cast a yellowish glow over the streets of the city. Beyond are the pitch-black Unknown Regions, which no one has ever explored because an understanding of fire and electricity has been lost, and with it the idea of a Moveable Light. "Besides," they tell each other, "there is nowhere but here" Among the many other things the people of Ember have forgotten is their past and a direction for their future. For 250 years they have lived pleasantly, because there has been plenty of everything in the vast storerooms. But now there are more and more empty shelves--and more and more times when the lights flicker and go out, leaving them in terrifying blackness for long minutes. What will happen when the generator finally fails?"
  • Siberia, by Ann Halam
    "In a dystopian (though vaguely familiar) wilderness called Siberia, young Rosita and her mother live in a camp as political prisoners. By day, Rosita's mother makes nails, but secretly at night, she performs her "magic" of creating and harvesting animal life with a Lindquist kit. When Rosita excels at the prison school, she is sent away to board at New Dawn School. She is quickly disenchanted, tricked into betraying her mother and sending her to die, and becomes "Sloe," helping to run a stolen-goods ring in the school. When Sloe is expelled, she returns home long enough to steal the Lindquist kit and then makes a break for the enlightened city several hundred miles to the north where her mother told her she would find safety. Halam intertwines issues of ecology, climate change, and nature conservancy with more personal themes of loneliness, identity, and trust."
  • Taylor Five, by Ann Halam
    "Taylor Walker seems like any ordinary 14-year-old. Ordinary—if you overlook the fact that she lives on the island of Borneo, on a primate reserve run by her parents, and knows how to survive in the jungle. Obviously, Tay isn’t just like everyone else. But she is like one other person. She’s exactly like one other person. Tay is a clone, one of only five in the world, and her clone mother is Pam Taylor, a brilliant scientist."
  • Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
    "It's almost the end of Miranda's sophomore year in high school, and her journal reflects the busy life of a typical teenager: conversations with friends, fights with mom, and fervent hopes for a driver's license. When Miranda first begins hearing the reports of a meteor on a collision course with the moon, it hardly seems worth a mention in her diary. But after the meteor hits, pushing the moon off its axis and causing worldwide earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, all the things Miranda used to take for granted begin to disappear. Food and gas shortages, along with extreme weather changes, come to her small Pennsylvania town; and Miranda's voice is by turns petulant, angry, and finally resigned, as her family is forced to make tough choices while they consider their increasingly limited options. Yet even as suspicious neighbors stockpile food in anticipation of a looming winter without heat or electricity, Miranda knows that that her future is still hers to decide even if life as she knew it is over."
  • Peeps and The Last Days, by Scott Westerfeld
    Peeps: "Nineteen-year-old Cal, a Texas transplant, lost his virginity–and a lot more–when he first arrived in New York City. He became a parasite-positive, or peep–he prefers not to use the v-word. Now he works for the Night Watch, a secret branch of city government dedicated to tracking others of his kind. Unlike the rare natural carriers like Cal, who has acquired night vision, superhuman strength, and a craving for lots of protein, most peeps are insane cannibals lurking in darkness. But now the teen has found the young woman who infected him–and learns that something worse than peeps is threatening the city, and he is on the front lines."

    The Last Days: "Something horrifying is bubbling up from the earth, and vampires stalk the streets of New York--but in this electric sequel to Peeps (2005), Moz and his buddy Zahler think only of forming a band. One night Moz, with the help of passerby Pearl, rescues a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Like Moz, Pearl is a musician, and a band is born. Soon the band recruits a singer, a Peep with her parasite mostly under control, and a drummer who literally sees the music and the terrifying things it attracts. Eventually it becomes clear that the new band will play a key role in the coming struggle against the powerful evil."

  • Uglies (Uglies Trilogy, Book 1), Pretties (Uglies Trilogy, Book 2), and Specials (Uglies Trilogy, Book 3) by Scott Westerfeld
    "Set some time in the future, after a human-made bacteria destroyed the modern world, the trilogy tells of new cities established and tightly controlled through brainwashing and a series of operations leading to a compliant society. Tally Youngblood, the 16-year-old protagonist, learns in the first two books that free will and truth are more important than a false sense of security. In Specials, she has become an elite fighting machine, fully enhanced with nanotechnology and super-fast reflexes, and made to work as a Special Circumstances agent for the nameless city that she fled
Take away the teen protagonists, and I don't think these would be out of place thematically with "adult" science fiction - at least the kind I enjoy reading. So my question is this: if you exclude all the Star Wars and Star Trek tie-in novels, is the majority of current science fiction about space travel and not biology or sociology? Or are my own personal preferences blinding me to the continuing dominance of space opera?

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Friday, August 10, 2007

TransVision 2007

In the last week of July the TransVision 2007 conference was held in Chicago. The theme was "Transhumanity Saving Humanity" and the speaker list included longevity scientist Aubrey deGrey, futurist Raymond Kurzweil, a number of scientists and even William Shatner. The list of topics was broad too:
  • Day One: Inner space: Transforming Ourselves
    Longevity, Life Extension, Nanotech, Nanomedicine, Bionics, Biotech, SENS, Cryonics

  • Day Two: Meta space: Transforming Humanity
    Environment, Global Warming, Sustainable Housing, Alternative Energy, AI, Robotics, Virtual Reality

  • Day Three: Outer space: Beyond the Planet
    Future Humans, Colonizing Outer space, Space Tourism, Future Civilizations

If you didn't have a chance to attend, you can get a flavor of the presentations from the attendees.

Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's science correspondent and author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific And Moral Case For The Biotech Revolution, has several posts covering the conference:
George Dvorsky, who also spoke at the conference, wonders why many of the issues and thinkers in the transhumanist movement are generally ignored by the public.
Watching Aubrey de Grey explain to a small audience how he’s going to conquer death created no small amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain; the room should have been packed. Hell, the room should have had people lined-up out front pounding at the door demanding to be let in.

But that's just me. And all the other attendees of TV07 and other supportive transhumanists who from some strange reason seem to be the only ones who "get it."

I’ve struggled to figure out why this is the case. Undoubtedly, a large part of it has to do with the fact that most people today are incredulous and suspicious to the seemingly radical claims made by the transhumanists.

They don’t buy the time-lines. They apologize for death. They detest the libertarian strain that runs rampant in the movement. They think it’s dangerous, reckless and hubristic.
I can't speak for the "general public," but what makes me wary is that many of the proponents seem to have bit ideas but little knowledge of biology. I've read some discussions online in which transhumanism's advocates seem to think that 1000-year life spans and uploaded personalities are imminent and seem not to realize the very difficult biotechnical issues involved. There also seems to be the assumption that no matter how the technology develops, this will be a positive change for humanity, even though history has shown us that power-hungry and selfish individuals have frequently used technological developments for less than humanitarian ends (conquering the country next door, keeping down the peasants, etc.). Added to the mix are proponents of New Age woo, whose presence helps give transhumanism a bit of a crackpot aura. Less talk about the future transhumanist utopia and more acknowledgment of the biological and ethical issues involved would make it more appealing to me. And to be fair, some of those issues were apparently addressed at the conference.

There's another reason that I'm wary. Transhumanism seems popular among a certain type of geek: often in computer science, almost always white and male, and frequently "libertarian" - and sexist of the "chicks are poorly represented in math/science/computers because their brains aren't wired that way and I've never seen any sexism in my profession" variety. It's a kind of obliviousness to the fact that social forces might affect a person's life trajectory along with a hearty belief in some of the stupidest assertions of popular evolutionary psychology. I suppose it's not fair to judge a movement by it's advocates, but, alas, I am only human. If these guys are getting their brains uploaded, I don't want to share cyberspace with them.

Anyway, back to TransVision 2007. George Dvorsky has several posts adapted from his TransVision presentation "Whither ET? What the failing search for extraterrestrial intelligence tells us about humanity's future."
Since Fermi's Paradox (Give the age of the universe and the vast number of stars, there should be intelligent life on many planets, so "Where is everybody?" ) is built on a number of large assumptions about how and under what circumstances intelligent life can arise there is interesting discussion to be had in the comments (including "What paradox? I've seen aliens.). And it is important to discuss because if there is some unknown that has destroyed other intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, it would be nice to know what that is to help ensure our own survival.

Whether you think the singularity is right around the corner or far in the future, it sounds like many interesting issues were raised at the conference. For more, check out Nanotechnology Now's list of Extropian & Transhumanist Books, which includes both science books and a list "science futurism and speculative fiction." Their list is certainly not complete (how could they leave off Charlie Stross's Accelerando?), but you gotta start somewhere!

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Genetic Engineering Mumbo Jumbo


In the Futurama episode "Mechanical House" Fry shares his dorm room at Mars University with a talking monkey named Guenther, the result of one of the Professor's experiments. Fry is curious how Guenther can talk.
Fry: "Is he genetically engineered?"

Professor: "Oh please, that's preposterous science fiction mumbo jumbo. Guenther's intelligence actually lies in his electronium hat, which harnesses the power of sunspots to produce cognitive radiation."
All disguised as an adorable miniature bowler. Now that's hard science fiction!

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bioscience News Roundup: 08-08-07

Here are some interesting bioscience stories from the past couple of weeks. Note that I'm not really rounding up the most important stories or the stories with the most buzz - I'm linking to what I think is interesting and might be inspiration for science fiction bioscience.

You can get a sense of what topics are hot right now by reading the latest blog carnivals:
Other suggestions for staying current:
Alien Life
Other Bioscience Links

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Read Science Fiction and Help Fight Diabetes

Voices For the Cure is an anthology of science fiction short stories published to benefit the American Diabetes Association.
Some of the greatest voices in speculative fiction join forces in this one-of-a-kind anthology to benefit the American Diabetes Association. Join Robert J. Sawyer, Mike Resnick, Cory Doctorow, and others as a cop-for-hire solves a murder aboard a space station…a Chicano science fiction writer takes mind-blowing (literally!) ride through the Singularity…a third-rate superhero with useless powers finds a place to belong…an antique collector learns that one alien’s junk is mankind’s treasure…a geologist discovers that pretending to be a god isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…a journalist learns how to fend off zombies using Linux and a dead badger… All this and more await you in… Voices for the Cure: A Speculative Fiction Anthology to Benefit the American Diabetes Association.
Here's the lineup:
  • "The Hand You're Dealt" by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Free Space, 1997.
  • "The God Biz: A Miracle Brigade Story" by Mike Resnick. 2007.
  • "Craphound" by Cory Doctorow. Originally published in Science Fiction Age, 1998.
  • "Human Sacrifice for Fun and Profit" by Ernest Hogan. Previously unpublished.
  • "The Great VÜDÜ Linux Teen Zombie Massacree" by Lucy A. Snyder.
  • "B.L.A.N.K.I.E." by James Palmer. Previously unpublished.
  • "Kite People" by Gary A. Braunbeck. Previously unpublished.
  • "An Interesting Week for Emmy" by Eugie Foster. First published in Colin Harvey's Another Showcase, 2004.
  • "Bary Kolman, Hero" by Mur Lafferty. Previously unpublished.
  • "Mister Adventure and the Race Against Time" by Davey Beauchamp. Previously unpublished.
It doesn't sound like there's much biology there, but it looks like there are some entertaining stories. Voices For the Cure is available from Lulu.com: $9.05 for a paperback or $3.00 to download a pdf. It's not clear how much of that goes to the the ADA. (via BoingBoing)

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Creative Biotechnology

According to Alex Palazzo, one of the big ideas from this year's ScienceFOO "Camp"* was
biohacking - garage molecular biology is the future. Modularizing DNA functional components will help promote this technology. (Drew Endy) Will molecular biology be so simple that someday a disgruntled kid will construct some sort of lethal biological agent? (Greg Bear) Perhaps the shared knowledge between individuals will help prevent such a scenario? (Drew Endy) The greatest risk is not the biological agent, but the public's over-reaction. (many) [. . .]
Certainly Freeman Dyson (who was also at Science FOO - who wasn't there?) would agree.

While genetic-engineering-at-home kits aren't available at present, you might want to check out biotech artist Natalie Jeremijenko's Creative Biology: A User's Manual. Wired Science points out that Jeremijenko uses biotechnology to look at the world from a slightly different angle.

In the fifth chapter of Creative Biology: A User's Manual, Jeremijenko proposes a series of home mouse experiments that -- as is her specialty -- mix humor, cleverness, and a do-it-yourself ethos into a recipe for asking unexpectedly profound questions.

One experiment involves a musical composition that is played by mice snatching food from floor-mounted spoons and evolves as their tastes change. In another, people are encouraged to ask, "Will mice in Manhattan deliver (or take) food from a trapped mouse? That is to say, how different are mice geographically?" More recreationally-minded home labs can observe whether mice prefer water to vodka, gin & tonics, or antidepressant-laced beverages.

Or maybe Chapter 2 - culturing your own skin cells - is more your style. Just remember that it's not yet hobbies-as-usual to have petri dishes and tissue incubators in your home. As Jeremijenko discusses in the introduction, the projects are as much politics as it is science and art:
In the kits and explorations we have discussed, the one thing thatais absolutely unequivocally clear is that biotechnology is not something confined to well funded academic and corporate labs. The ideas and technologies of biotech effect us all. Biotechnology has far reaching effects on our health, on our environment and on our politics and many effects we cannot yet know or specify. It even effects our own sense of political agency in the world: are we predetermined by genetic predispositions, or by the environments in which we live. Biotech hobbyist emphasizes the later; this is where we can act, change and improve things.
It's interesting to speculate about a future in which we can change our own genes on whim and genetics is never destiny.

* Science FOO was an unstructured conference hosted by Google, O'Reilly and Nature that brought together scientists, science fiction writers and thinkers (not to mention Martha Stewart).

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Women, biology, and hard science fiction

Spec fic author Eleanor Arnason blogs for The Twin Cities Daily Planet about women getting less respect for their novels then male writers. She asks whether the fact that many biology-based science fiction novels are written by women might be a reason why the sub-genre gets less respect than fiction based on the physical sciences.
The same thing happens in discussions of hard science fiction. Women never make the list of hard SF writers. I think there is a double prejudice operating here. One is a prejudice against the life sciences as opposed to physics and engineering.Women tend to write about biology. If you don't think biology is a real science (in this era of biotechnology and genetic engineering) then books by Joan Slonczewski don't make the list. However, there are women who write about machinery. C. J. Cherryh and Melissa Scott come to mind at once. If they don't make lists of hard SF writers, then I think we are looking at the idea that hard SF -- real SF, serious SF -- is and has to be male.

There certainly does seem to be a higher concentration of women who base their fiction on biology than on physics or write militaristic space operas. I always assumed that's because there are more women who study the biological sciences than the physical sciences or engineering. And there is the bias that biology just isn't as "hard" a science as physics. But does biology-based SF get doubly neglected because many of the authors are women? I've certainly run across some male readers who claim they only read SF by men (but sometimes don't realize that C.J. Cherryh is a woman). It's certainly possible that bias against SF written by women, conscious or unconscious, creeps in when lists are compiled.

What do you think?

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: August 6 Edition

Some of the biology in science fiction news stories from the past couple of weeks:

ABC TV's Masters of Science Fiction episode on August 18th will be "Jerry Was a Man." The StarTrek.com review gives it a thumbs up.
Out of six episodes produced by Starz, ABC would only air four, so this was chosen as one of the four because it is tonally the most unique and lighthearted. It stars Malcolm McDowell ("Dr. Soran" in "Star Trek Generations") as the head of Controlled Genetics, a firm that specializes in construction of "anthropoids" (limited-intelligence androids) and "plasto-biological hybrids" such as a tiny elephant who can read and write. Anne Heche co-stars as a filthy rich, supercilious heiress who decides to take up the noble cause of fighting for the rights of a particular anthropoid named Jerry (her motivation is disputable, and you can't help but think: Hmm, first she's straight, then she's gay, then she's straight again ... now she's robosexual?). The dialog by writer/director Michael Tolkin is quickly paced and finds most of its humor in social commentary, some of which can escape you if you're not listening carefully.
I'm not sure why the reviewer brought up Anne Heche's sexuality - I suppose s/he thinks that's important to Star Trek fans (???).

Hsien-Hsien Lei at Eye on DNA found a Gattaca music video that explores all the DNA motifs in the movie.

The Boston Globe interviewed Doris Lessing about her new novel, The Cleft.
"The Cleft" takes up the idea that eons ago the human race consisted entirely of women ("Clefts"), who, for unknown reasons, suddenly started giving birth to boys (first called "Monsters," later "Squirts"). The advent of boys was, for the immemorial Old Shes, calamitous, and a catalyst for rapid social transformation. The ancient annals of this transformation were brought, during the reign of Nero, to a Roman senator who edited them, sometimes adding Squirt-centric commentary.
Chris Talbot writes about author Kevin J. Anderson's latest project: completing the unfinished last novel of A.E. van Vogt, a sequel to Slan, which originally published in 1946. It sounds like very pulpy fiction:
Cross, who was orphaned as a boy after the evil leader of Earth's secret police murdered his parents, attempts to unite slans, humans and a third species -- the mysterious tendrilless slans, whose evil nature is eventually revealed. The book examines race, genetics, war and humanity's flaws. Slans, victims of intense government propaganda, are persecuted by humans who don't trust these mutant creatures.
Elizabeth Bear reviews Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's Zahrah the Windseeker.
The world that the story takes place in is unrelentingly neat, with vegetative computers grown from CPU pods and bizarre organopunk technology. I suspect kids will like it for that alone: it's the kind of world you will want to go visit, hang out, and play make-believe in.
SF Site reviews Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan.
While Thirteen is cinematic and action-driven in terms of style and plotting, on another level this is a novel about a very believable future.

That is, if you accept the scientific premises about genetics. The book implies some strong claims in the classical nature/nurture debate, slanting towards the nature-pole. While this is slightly disagreeable to me, Morgan is smart enough to present all anthropological statements as positions of characters from the novel and not as absolute truths. However, the notion of genetic "wiring" that determines social behaviour is certainly a dominant topic of the book, especially in regards to gender roles. I'm really not sure if Thirteen is a highly sexist book, a book about sexism, or both. A part of this specific gender-politics is certainly inherited from the whole hard-boiled tradition Morgan picks up on and therefore has a certain self-referential quality.

SciFiChick points out that you can catch up on Kyle XY on the ABC Family web site.
Just go to ABCFamily.com/watch and click on one of the several shows or “Get Started.”
Sara at HealthBolt makes some predictions about what the world would be like if people lived to be 1,000: how does Highlander: The Reality Show sound? (via Cranky Fitness)

Andrew Wheeler reviews the fake non-fiction guide How to Keep Dinosaurs. His verdict? "Quite simply, anyone who hopes to raise or keep a dinosaur needs this book."

Caribbean-born speculative fiction author Tobias Buckell was named EcoGeek of the Week and interviewed by the EcoGeek blog about the environment and the future. He talked a little bit about biofuels and other alternative energy sources. (via SF Signal)
Right now ethanol and biodiesel has a big buzz, but the issue there is that in order to harvest the amount of ethanol needed to run our country, we'd have to plant just absolutely enormous amounts of crops, it would have a tremendous effect on us to attempt this. Even our attempts to slightly up our ethanol usage are having impacts on the global crop market right now. I've seen some research about algae for biodiesel that looks promising, algae fields are more doable than soybeans and corn, one can grow that stuff in a wide range of locations.
Finally, The Onion reports that "DNA Evidence Frees Man From Zoo."
Years of controversy were finally settled Monday after DNA tests conclusively proved that Duane Panovich, an attraction at the Phoenix Zoo for the past 11 years, was indeed a human being, and not a reticulated giraffe from southwestern Kenya.
Yes, I know it's fictional science and not "science fiction", but it seems like it could be the basis of a very funny story . . .

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Dalek Evolution and What It Means to Be Human

Well, my vacation-at-home-with-out-of-town-family is over, and I'm back to blogging. It's nice to have a week off to step back and rejuvenate and reflect a little. One thing I realized is that I probably give the impression that I require scientific authenticity (at least in the biosciences) to enjoy a science fiction story. That couldn't be further from the truth. I do get irritated when a TV show or novel makes the pretense of using "real science" that has no basis in reality, but usually the characters and plot are what determine whether I like a story a not. And I really do enjoy sci-fi that joyfully just makes stuff up.

A good example is Friday's episode of Doctor Who, Evolution of the Daleks. The Daleks are in depression-era Manhattan and are making an army of humans with Dalek DNA. Their genetic engineering laboratory is fantastic, with flasks of brightly-colored liquids, bubbling beakers and all the bunsen burners. The genetic engineering is accomplished by infusing the humans with a blue liquid. It has no basis in real science at all, but it's great fun.
"Trouble's brewing in the Transgenics Lab."
Listen to Martha exclaim "Humans with Dalek DNA?"

But just because the science is silly doesn't mean that the episode can't be used as a springboard for discussing serious biological issues. For example, Bioethics Bytes has used the episode to discus what it means to be "human."
Essentially, The Evolution of the Daleks attempts to establish relations of similarity and difference between humans and Daleks, though also between humans, Daleks, and the pig/human hybrid army that had been created in the preceding show The Daleks in Manhattan. Humanity is depicted as thinking and feeling, where the Daleks are single-minded and emotionless. Humans have the ability to appreciate music and feel compassion for others; they possess courage, determination and ambition; though also experience pain and fear. It is the lack of these characteristics that makes the Daleks “less than their enemies”. The pig/human army, on the other hand are referred to as “simple beasts”.
They've also compiled a list of clips from the episode (pdf) that touch on the boundary between "human" and "non-human". Even Doctor Who can be the basis of serious scientific and philosophical discussion.

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