Saturday, August 16, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: August 16 Edition

Here are some biology in science fiction bits from the past couple of weeks.

Written Word

The Philadelphia Inquirer talks to Dorothy Hearst
about her new fantasy novel Promise of the Wolves:

Hearst is no scientist; she's a fiction writer. But her debut fantasy novel, Promise of the Wolves, draws on research that suggests humans and canines (first wolves, then dogs) have a long, shared history.

"The book is based quite a bit on the theory of co-evolution," Hearst said, "which is the idea that wolves and later dogs are what made us the dominant species on the planet - that we evolved because of them, and they evolved because of us."

Like much of science these days, that theory is contentious. But it's been widely reported and discussed in the last couple of years, with some researchers asserting that humans grew stronger by taming wolves, then hunting with them. In turn, wolves began to look less like themselves and more like dogs as selective breeding for certain characteristics also gave rise to changes in the animals' appearance. In short, Hearst said: "We made dogs and dogs made us. Some of the genetic [research] is fairly controversial, but there is some evidence that wolves and humans have been together for 150,000 years - and other evidence that suggests it could have happened before we were even fully human."

The Guardian profiled John Wyndham, author of Day of the Triffids.
Although Wyndham was writing at the height of the cold war, his anticipation of the rise of genetic engineering means that the story remains just as relevant - and terrifying - today. Wyndham was also redefining the science fiction genre. Up until the late 1940s, sci-fi was almost exclusively set in space and involved what Wyndham himself described as "the adventures of galactic gangsters". By choosing instead to write about situations that were rational extensions of the present day, Wyndham pioneered a form of sci-fi that he labelled "logical fantasy" but which is widely known now as "speculative fiction".
I'm not sure I agree with their definition of speculative fiction, which I think of as including space opera as well as mundane science fiction, high fantasy and lots in between.

Television

Paul Levinson's The Genesis Virus has been turned into a TV series pilot.

Primeval debuted on BBC-America last Saturday night in the US. I enjoyed it. So did Annalee Newitz at io9.

Movies

At SFGate Peter Hartlaub lists his "favorite science movies of all time" - and by "science movies" he means science fiction, comedy or drama that features science themes.

The "classic" B-movie The Wasp Woman is now available as a DVD download from EZTakes.com.
Janice Starlin, purveyor of her own line of cosmetics, finds herself nearing middle-age (in a time when 38 was the new 94). A stranger with an accent and an unnatural love of wasps enters her life and promises her the elixir that will prolong her youth forever - until the wasp becomes the wasped.

io9 reports on the so-bad-its-funny movie based on the novel The Possibility of an Island and made by its author Michel Houellebecq, which is "a sci-fi movie about cloning, weird religious sects and human life after the apocalypse" that apparently includes a slapstick bikini contest.

Weird and Cool Bioscience

At Wired Science Brendan Keim reports on "Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies", a report compiled for the Department of Defense which evaluates the military potential of "brain science", including mind reading, various forms of cognitive enhancement, mind control and brain-machine interfaces.

Greg Laden reports on recent experiments in which a "blog of rat brain cells" was used to steer a robot that navigates via sonar.

There is the strange story of Bernann McKinney who spent tens of thousands of dollars having her pitbull Booger cloned by Korean scientists. In a very bizarre twist, McKinney may actually be a fugitive from justice in the UK.

Kwabena Boahen gives a TED talk about "Making a computer that works like the brain"

Weird Universe points out a breakthrough in organ transplants from animals to humans: a new chemical treatment process that strips the organ down to its scaffolding, and allows the transplant patient's own cells to fill in the holes.

Parasitic Plants Steal RNA, Spy on Their Hosts

There are viral parasites that attack other viruses "hijacking its genetic machinery and making copies of its victim's DNA".

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker takes a look at a US News & World Report article about human evolution and genetic engineering.

Wired reports on "galactic panspermia", which suggests that space might be teeming with microbial life.

Metafilter discusses Mike the Headless Chicken
, who lived for 18 months after having most of it's head chopped off.

Neurophilosophy takes a look at kuru, the human prion disease that spread by ritual cannibalism.

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