Thursday, July 31, 2008

Science and Science Fiction Panel at ComicCon

At last week's ComicCon Discover Magazine sponsored a panel discussion on the Science of Science fiction, featuring Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist and TV show (Battlestar Galactica, Eureka) science adviser Kevin Grazier , and Eureka producer and writer Jaime Paglia.

Annalee Newitz reports on io9 about some of their discussion about the science in Battlestar Galactica. One of the bits they tried to get right was the effect of space on the human body.
In season three, in the episode "Day in the Life," where Callie and Tyrol are blasted out of the airlock, through vacuum, and into a waiting Raptor. While a lot of fans complained that BSG's depiction of the event was incorrect, Grazier said in fact many scifi fans' minds had been poisoned by watching Outland and other crappy science in movies. "They wouldn't have exploded or been frozen," he said. "Yes, they would have frozen eventually, but not in the few seconds they were in vacuum." He also noted that they did show Tyrol getting the bends, which was realistic, and Callie had to be in a hyperbaric chamber. "I was proud that we got that right," he added. And fixed a lot of people's misconceptions about vacuum in the process.

Read the whole post for more bits (and there is some discussion of Cylon physiology in the comments). It does seem telling to me that the science consultants seem to be predominantly astronomers and physicists, without a bioscientist in the bunch. Biology just doesn't get the respect that physics does.

Of course you can watch a video of the full panel discussion for more.

Also, check out David Moldawer's report at Tor.com about the Science Fiction authors panel at ComicCon, which included Robert J. Sawyer, Ann Aguirre, Tobias S. Buckell, William C. Dietz, Alan Dean Foster, Charles Stross, and John Zakour.


(Note: this is supposed to be a post on the panel at the official Eureka blog, but I can't get anything other than the title to display)

Top Ten Scientifically Inaccurate Movies

Yahoo Movies has a slide show of the top 10 scientifically inaccurate movies. Not surprisingly, they point out some bad bioscience:
  • Starship Troopers: "Could a band of cave-dwelling, preverbal giant insects really have the sophisticated mathematics and technology to hurl a rock millions of miles through space to crash into Earth?"
  • The Matrix: "Humans are a remarkably inefficient energy source. Instead of turning the human race into Duracells, the machines would probably get more energy just setting those goopy people pods on fire."
  • Jurassic Park: "The problem is that it would be almost impossible to clone the dinosaurs based on DNA pulled from the guts of a 25 million-year-old mosquito. The dinosaur DNA's double helix most certainly would have been broken down into individual chunks, mixing together with whatever else the mosquitoes might have eaten along with some of the insect's own genetic material."
  • Outbreak: "The trouble with a disease that virulent is it kills the host too fast to spread. Otherwise, we would be dead from the Ebola virus. Also, it generally takes longer to make a cure from monkey serum than it does to make a latte."
Yup, pretty darn bad science - but fun to talk about.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Could We Evolve Into The Culture?

Scottish science fiction writer Iain M. Banks has set a number of his stories in a pan-galactic civilization known as "The Culture". The culture of The Culture is shaped by the unique requirements of a space-faring civilization, which is necessarily self-sufficient. In The Culture universe humans and artificial intelligences cooperate so that neither is exploited, "labor" is closer to what we would consider a hobby, and education is a lifelong process. On top of that, advances in genetic engineering allow everyone to be healthy. Banks gave an overview of the Culture back in 1994:

Thanks to that genetic manipulation, the average Culture human will be born whole and healthy and of significantly (though not immensely) greater intelligence than their basic human genetic inheritance might imply. There are thousands of alterations to that human-basic inheritance - blister-free callusing and a clot-filter protecting the brain are two of the less important ones mentioned in the stories - but the major changes the standard Culture person would expect to be born with would include an optimized immune system and enhanced senses, freedom from inheritable diseases or defects, the ability to control their autonomic processes and nervous system (pain can, in effect, be switched off), and to survive and fully recover from wounds which would either kill or permanently mutilate without such genetic tinkering.

And the biological alterations go beyond basic protection from disease and disability. Culture humans can modify their own physiology for the purpose of pleasure.
The vast majority of people are also born with greatly altered glands housed within their central nervous systems, usually referred to as 'drug glands'. These secrete - on command - mood- and sensory-appreciation-altering compounds into the person's bloodstream. A similar preponderance of Culture inhabitants have subtly altered reproductive organs - and control over the associated nerves - to enhance sexual pleasure. Ovulation is at will in the female, and a fetus up to a certain stage may be re-absorbed, aborted, or held at a static point in its development; again, as willed. An elaborate thought-code, self-administered in a trance-like state (or simply a consistent desire, even if not conscious) will lead, over the course of about a year, to what amounts to a viral change from one sex into the other. The convention - tradition, even - in the Culture during the time of the stories written so far is that each person should give birth to one child in their lives. [. . .]

And the genetic alterations to humans can also allow them to breed with other species, helping integrate humanity into the Culture, which involves a number of alien civilizations.

Last week Banks invited readers to submit questions, from which he picked the most interesting to answer. One reader asked what the most important development would be for humanity to evolve into a Culture-like civilization. He thinks that it's an unlikely genetic alterations that would allow it to happen:
Genetically modifying ourselves, I suspect. Finding the set of genes that code for xenophobia in general - these days usually expressed though sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Romaphobia and so on (and on, and on) - and knocking them out. Possibly then we'll be nice enough for the Culture or something like it. Of course maybe inventing true AIs will be enough, always assuming that they're as benign - and yet sympathetically interested in us - as they are taken to be in the Culture.
Certainly fear and loathing of "the other" is detrimental to the development of the kind of healthy and scarcity-free civilization like The Culture. However, it's likely that prejudice is largely based on environment and experience rather than our genes, so there won't be any easy genetic engineering fix. I'm hoping there will be a steady change in humanity towards less prejudice, but I suspect it will be a painfully slow process.

Related links:

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Freeman Dyson on Do-It-Yourself Biotech and Extraterrestrial Life

Physicist Freeman Dyson gave a TED talk where he suggests that in the future there will be do-it-yourself biotechnology kits for the home geneticist, and that this is a necessary for the future acceptance of biotech by the general population.
“We should follow the model that has been so successful with the electronic industry.” Dyson said. “What really turned computers into a great success in the world as a whole was toys. As soon as computers became toys, when the kids could come home and play with them, then the industry took off. That has to happen with biotech.”
He does acknowledge that he doesn't really know that much about biotechnology, and so it's understandable that he misses an important point: biotech "toys" involve the manipulation of living and (often) breathing life forms. Accidentally creating an genetically engineered dog that is in constant pain is fundamentally different than mis-soldering a capacitor to a motherboard. And the release of genetically engineered animals, plants and microbes has the potential to cause significant environmental damage. Messing with biology just isn't the same as toying with electronics.

The rest of Dyson's talk mostly focuses about the search for extraterrestrial life on Europa by shining a bright light on the surface, which is kind of a nifty if unlikely to be successful idea. "Look for what is detectable, not for what is probable" is his philosophy.
Hopefully, if we do end up finding life on Europa it goes a bit better than Clarke predicted in 2010: Odyssey Two, where humans are ordered to stay away from that moon so as not to disturb the life there.

The last bit of Dyson's talk is about possible life in the Kuiper belt, which - if it exists at all - he believes will be quite widespread. Such life would be adapted to living in the extremely cold vacuum of space. This is not a new idea from him. In a talk he gave in 2000, he not only talked about the possibility that life that already exists among the asteroids, but that Earth life might be adapted to live under those conditions too:
The jump from breathing air to living in a vacuum is no greater than the jump from breathing water to breathing air. Plants and animals will need some genetic engineering to be at home in a vacuum. Plants will need new organs of photosynthesis that produce liquid or solid peroxides instead of oxygen gas. Animals will need new organs of respiration to take in oxygen in the form of peroxides instead of from air. Instead of lungs, animals would have an organ like a liver that dissociates peroxides slowly into molecular oxygen and feeds the oxygen into the blood.
Both plants and animals will need stronger skin to hold internal pressure and prevent their blood from boiling. The vapor pressure of water at blood temperature is quite small, so the skin will not need to be thick to hold it. In cold places far from the sun, animals will need thicker layers of fur and plants will need thicker layers of bark to provide thermal insulation. This will be a challenge for plant and animal breeders, but with a mastery of the techniques of genetic engineering they should be able to do it.
While that sounds fairly far-fetched, perhaps children that grow up playing with bioengineering kits will be able to solve any technical problems for developing life adapted to space.

(Dyson lecture via Tomorrow's Table)
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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Gareth Owens: A New Note for Nat

Headphones
"Being a hypersonic rock star is great... until you get too old."

Concatenation has posted a new short "Futures" story by linguist Gareth Owens: "A New Note for Nat" (pdf), which was originally published in the 30 August 2007 issue of the journal Nature. The story is the tale of a washed-up hypersonic rock star.

The secret to hypersonic rock is that human hearing deteriorates with age, with the loss of ability to hear the highest frequency sounds - about 16 kHz or higher - by age 18. That means there are a range of tones that only teenagers can hear. Perfect for music you don't want to share with your parents or other oldsters. And it's not completely science fiction; a song with a both "normal" and hypersonic tracks was released in 2006 (click the "Listen" button on the upper right side of the page to hear a clip).

And if you are in the under-18 audience for "hypersonic rock", you might be interested in the "Teen Buzz" Mosquito ringtone. I'm way too old for it to be useful on my cell phone . . .

Image: "Headphones" by flattop341 on flickr
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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Biology in the Top 10 Science Fiction Stories by Women

In 2003 Gwyneth Jones wrote a column for the Guardian listing her top 10 science fiction picks by women writers. Many of her choices have strong biology themes:

• Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on the planet Gethen, where the inhabitants are androgynes who can become either male or female during their fertile period.

• In Kate Wilhelm's Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel cloning is developed to save the human race after the environment has been destroyed.

• CJ Cherryh's Cyteen is "about domination and slavery, the monsters power makes and the twisted lives of the children born to perpetuate the dynasties" with genetic engineering and cloning central to the story.

• Kathleen Ann Goonan's Light Music is "a tour of the consequences of Lynn Margulis's radical thinking on evolution. This is how we could see ourselves if we weren't Darwin's slaves: every self a community, every human being a symbiote city, a node in the richly permeable network of life on Earth."

Read Jones' entire list
.

(via io9)
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Sex in Space: How to do it right

As humans spend more time in space, low gravity sex is inevitable.

As Wired's Regina Lynn has pointed out:

We need to acknowledge that humans will bring our sexuality with us into space and that includes all the complexities of relationships as well as the relatively simple matter of bodies. NASA cannot avoid confronting those complexities, especially now that the public knows even astronauts sometimes confuse obsession with love.

"How long can humans go without sex?" is not the right question.

I don't care if you have a same-sex crew of great-grandparents who have never had a flicker of sexual desire in their entire lives. Lock a group of humans into a ship, sail them through space and time, and it won't take long for that deep, ancient need for touch and intimacy to surface.

As a recent article at Space.com points out, that's certainly the case at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica, which received a delivery of 16,500 condoms shortly before their six month winter set in. NASA, on the other hand, seems to be uncomfortable with the whole idea of sex.
"We don't study sexuality in space, and we don't have any studies ongoing with that," said NASA spokesman Bill Jeffs of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "If that's your specific topic, there's nothing to discuss," he added, referring to "sex in space."
It seems short-sighted for NASA to assume that astronauts will be too "mission-oriented" for sex to be an issue. On a three-year mission to Mars it doesn't seem likely that astronauts will be working all that time. The Space.com article also appears to assume that any such relationships will be between men and women, and while it's probably safe to assume that most astronauts are heterosexual, it's also likely that some are not. It seems like it is important to work out all the potential issues before a sending a group of astronauts off for several years in a small spacecraft.


And then there's the actual mechanics of sex in space. Early 21st century astronauts don't have the luxury of comfortable quarters with full gravity like the crew of the Enterprise. Instead they'll have to contend with cramped spaces and maneuvering in microgravity. Laura Woodmansee, author of Sex in Space, has suggested possible sexual positions that would work "from the modified missionary position to seated with 'interlocking Y legs'. Sounds like it could be tricky, but I'm sure with a little experimentation and practice all the kinks will be worked out. If you really want to bone up a bit more on the topic, you might want to read Violet Blue's howto:sex in space at her open source sex blog (NSFW).

[note: all puns intended]

Image: 2suit designed by writer and space enthusiast Vanna Bonta, as published on MSNBC.com
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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: July 19 Edition

Here are a few of the biology and/or SF links I've been reading the past couple of weeks. Note that blogging will be light the next couple of weeks due to tag team house guests.

Written Word

In the Amazon.com blog Omnivoracious guest blogger Richard K. Morgan writes about the prejudice against genre fiction in mainstream literary criticism:
There has to be a reason why books like DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi walk off with the Booker prize, while Geoff Ryman’s Air isn’t even short-listed (and it sure as shit ain’t about how good they are, because Ryman’s book pisses all over the other two in every meaningful measure there is of literary quality). There has to be a reason why David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood can all try their hand (rather clunkily) at visions of a genetically modified future and be reviewed at length for it in the mainstream press on three continents, while a whole host of SF genre writers (of varying but by no means uniformly poor stylistic merit) have been writing confidently and compellingly about exactly the same thing for a couple of decades now at least, and are all summarily ignored (and yes, I am including myself in there, and yes, I am sulking). There has to be a reason why Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 are by-words in the English Literary Canon and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is unheard of outside of genre circles. There has to be a reason why- Ah, fuck it, why go on? Sure, there’s a reason, and that reason is blind prejudice.
Mike Brotherton talks about Michael Crichton and anti-science from outside the science fiction "ghetto" .

Television

io9 has a glimpse of the new British sitcom Clone.
The show's main character will be a wimpish clone soldier created by a mad scientist, played by Jonathan Pryce. And the story will be "extremely violent," but super-low-budget [...]

Movies

You can get a "first look" at Repo! The Genetic Opera! movie on July 24th at Comic-Con.
Check out the phenomenon that is this Goth Rock musical with sneak peeks and the new trailer plus stories from Darren and the actors themselves, including Alexa Vega (Spy Kids), Bill Moseley ("The Devil's Rejects"), and Ogre (the band Skinny Puppy), among others. Room 6B
Also, new stills from the movie have been released.

Scott Sigler tells us all about the patriotism of Monster-Americans.

Slice of SciFi has a trailer for "Mutant Chronicles", that premieres in Greece on July 24.

Cool Science

io9 asked SFF authors about the sometimes blurry line between magic and science. I like Ted Chiang's take on it:
Roughly speaking, if you can mass-produce it, it's science, and if you can't, it's magic. As an example, suppose someone says she can transform lead into gold. If we can use her technique to build factories that turn lead into gold by the ton, then she's made an incredible scientific discovery. If on the other hand it's something that only she can do, and only under special conditions, then she's a magician. And I don't mean that she's a charlatan; she might actually be able to transform lead into gold. But scientific phenomena are reproducible by other investigators; they aren't dependent on a specific person.
Torsten Reil gave a TED talk on using biology to make better animation

Inky Circus reports on the winner of the BioArt contest "Best Friends Again" - the 9/11 rescue dog Trakr - who has "won" the chance to be cloned for free

Japanese chemists have created the first DNA molecule "made almost entirely out of artificial parts." LiveScience speculates that the artificial DNA could power future computers.''

National Geographic has a photoessay about beautiful and alien-looking translucent creatures of the sea (via Metafilter).

Jennifer Ouellette writes about hyena communication, both giggles and meaningful groans.

UC Berkeley bioengineering grad student James Su is working on a biodegradable "functionalized biomimetic hydrogel", which can be injected in the eye to correct and prevent myopia (via Mom).

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Fantastic Contraption: The Interface Between Man and Machine

Device, an art gallery in La Jolla, opens a new show tomorrow: the Fantastic Contraption Group Exhibition, which explores the interface between animals and machines.

The exhibited artists include Ashley Wood, Christopher Conte, D. Hwang, Eduard Anikonov, Eric Joyner, Greg Brotherton, HR Giger, Joey Vaiasuso, John U Abrahamson, Kazuhiko Nakamura, Mike Libby, Nemo Gould, Stephane Halleux, Theo Kamecke, Viktor Koen, Wayne Martin Belger, William B Hand and Zoran Milivojevic. Even if you won't be able to visit the exhibition, it's worth spending some time browsing through the artists' web sites for some truly beautiful - and sometimes disturbing - works. I especially like Mike Libby's "Insect Lab", in which he combines gears and other machine parts with insects.

There's also a companion book (shown at right).

The opening reception is Saturday, July 19 from 6-9pm and the show runs through September 2.

(via Make)

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

4 Minutes Above 10,000 Feet

A lot of survivors called it Plague Year, or Year One, but it wasn't only human history that had crashed in the long fourteen months since the machine plague. The invisible nanotech devoured all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet elevation. What remained of the ecosystem was badly out of whack, with only fish, frogs, and reptiles left to whittle down the exploding insect populations—and the land suffered for it. Entire forests had been chewed apart by locusts and termites.
[. . .]
Scientists everywhere had made huge strides during the past year, especially in the consolidated labs in Leadville, using the plague itself to learn and experiment. The archos tech was a versatile prototype, meant to target and destroy cancerous cells. It could have been a godsend. Instead it had killed all of its design team except one when it broke loose in the San Francisco Bay Area—a small tragedy inside the global extinction. No one knew where to find their lab. When they died, their computers and their secrets vanished with them. The one man who escaped had been caught on a high island of rock in the California Sierra until just twenty-nine days ago, when he dared to run for another peak with a ski patrolman named Cam Najarro.

He was dead now, but first he'd devised a cure.
~ Plague War, Jeff Carlson
Jeff Carlson has released a trailer for his new novel, Plague War, sequel to last year's Plague Year. It's really nicely done for a book trailer. SF Signal says:
"Shot in the Sierra mountains, this short film can only be described as Alive meets The Blair Witch Project meets the new Andromeda Strain. Scary!"



Plague War
will be released on July 29.


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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Primeval: Dinosaur Fact and Fiction

I just read the news that in August BBC America will begin broadcasting the science fiction series Primeval. According to previews, it's a mixture of science fiction with a healthy dose of science fact:
The series stars Douglas Henshall as "Professor Nick Cutter," an "evolutionary zoologist" who leads a team attempting to control prehistoric creatures that come through a rift in time and space. Cutter is also searching for his wife, who he believed was dead but actually may have traveled through a time and space "anomaly." But don't expect the off the wall sci fi of Davies' Doctor Who. Haines says that the rifts in space and time are really the only element of the series that is science fiction. The science in the rest of the show is quite real, whether it's the biology of the creatures themselves, or the absence of any "all purpose fix-it" devices like The Doctor's sonic screwdriver.
If you don't mind spoilers (the series is already entering its third season in the UK), check out the official Primeval web site for information about the real life dinosaurs the show's creatures were based on. It looks like the BBC America site will have the same information once the series starts showing.

I'm definitely going to watch it when it premiers here on August 9.

Image: Coelurosauravus (aka Rex) "based on a smaller reptile (about half Rex’s size) called Coelurosaravus jaeckeil found in Germany. His wings were formed by extensions of his ribs but he could not fly only glide. He is, however, the first known vertebrate flyer because he predates the pterosaurs."

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

WALL-E and Plants in Space

At the Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists blog, fantasy writer S.C. Butler writes about the scene in the Pixar's WALL-E that just about ruined the movie for him:
It’s a short scene. Wall-e and Eva are zooming around outside the spaceship trying to rescue the plant from earth. (SPOILER ALERT!) And they do rescue it. But then Wall-e takes it out to show Eva while they’re both still outside the ship.

That’s right. In a movie that’s basically about the ecological consequences of our failure to properly manage our planet, the heroes wave a plant around in space. And the plant’s none the worse for it.
So what's the problem with that? The problem is that space is very cold (-270°C), and dry, and a vacuum. Would that kill a plant? That probably depends on how long the exposure is for. I haven't actually seen WALL-E yet, so I don't know how long the plant is exposed to space, but it probably would actually survive if the exposure was short enough. Heck, even humans could likely survive space exposure for 30 seconds or so, and plants have the advantage of being able to grow back from

There's more discussion on whether the little plant would survive at Ask Metafilter.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

SF Stories that Inspire and Hinder Real Science

Many kids who read science fiction in their youth and teen years were inspired to pursue a career in science. But apparently some SF can have the opposite effect, scaring people away from the sciences. For example, MIT synthetic biologist Drew Endy told io9's Annalee Newitz that "his area of research has also suffered because so much science fiction portrays bio-hacking as horrific (think Frankenstein) or silly (think South Park's "four-assed monkey")." Newitz has rounded up a list of SF stories that either are "inspiring" or "hindering" science.

The inspiring stories show science as part of the progress of human society. Her list includes Ian M. Banks' Look to Windward ("synthetic biology is simply a logical way that humans extend their capabilities, but it does not turn them into monsters or make them authoritarian overlords"), China Mieville's The Scar ("human-animal hybrids are often less disturbing than so-called normal humans.") and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time ("potential world of eco-friendly, multicultural feminists is founded on many complex technologies including artificial wombs, green mass transit, a rapid internet-like communications system, and complicated bio-engineering and waste-recycling tech").

The hindering stories, on the other hand are tales of science run amok, with serious negative impact on society. She includes the movie Gattaca, Greg Bear's Blood Music, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

I'd add to her list of hinderers most of Michael Crichton's science fiction output, which usually features scientists who cause great destruction by a combination of their arrogance and ignorance. That would include The Andromeda Strain (lethal strain of bacteria is brought to earth by a satellite trying to find microbes to create bioweapons), Jurassic Park and its sequels (scientists recreate lethal and clever dinosaurs that are unexpectedly able to reproduce), Prey (swarms of bacterially-produced predatory nanobots that escape the lab and run amok), and Next (unethical genetic engineering of humans and animals). It's harder to come up with stories that portray biotechnology positively. Brin's stories that take place in his Uplift universe (genetic engineering is used for the "uplift" of dolphins and chimpanzees) could be on that list.

I wonder, though how much of an effect the "hindering" stories really have on the study of science. Sure, they negatively portray science and scientists, but from Newitz's list it's pretty clear that that kind of mad science story isn't anything new. In fact, Frankenstein was published almost 200 years ago. It seems to me that while SF certainly can affect the perception of science by the general public, I'm not sure that it has that much of an effect on those who are interested in the science enough to read up on the facts behind the fiction. Or maybe it's because readers with a science bent tend to read widely, becoming exposed to stories that both "hinder" and "inspire".

In any case, the issue of public perception of science and scientists is an important one, if only because that public perception influences politics and funding. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the anti-science stories actually ring true to many people who have a deep distrust (and dislike) of corporations, the government, and anyone who is an "expert". It can be satisfying to see arrogant establishment types who believe themselves to be very clever shown up as bumbling and foolish, even if it does mean death and disaster as a result. Hell, I often enjoy those kind of stories, and I like science.

So what's the solution? More positive SF? That certainly couldn't hurt. But there's no guarantee that any particular novel or movie will become popular enough to really make a difference in public perception. I suspect that education is really the key. Part of what feeds people's fear of scientific progress is that they don't understand it. I'm not sure how we can go about that, though, beyond ensuring kids get a thorough science education in school. Public lectures are a possibility, as are entertaining exhibitions at science museums, and maybe blogs too. I'd like to think that anyway.


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Thursday, July 10, 2008

io9 Contest: Build a Lifeform, Win a Trip to Hong Kong

io9 is running a contest for mad scientists, particularly mad synthetic biologists:
That's because synthetic biologists are the people who are going to build new life forms, like ligers and unicorns and people with claws and glowing eyes. OK, they might build bacteria that can clean up oil spills and repair damaged kidneys too. The point is, building new lifeforms is the science of the future and therefore you can never have too many garage laboratories and mad scientists devoted to it. That's why io9 is sponsoring a contest to find two of the best synthetic life forms you can design for us. The winners in our two categories will get either an all-expenses-paid trip to the kickass Synthetic Biology Conference in Hong Kong this October, or $1000 and a chance to have their creature drawn by a cool comic book artist. Find out more below.
There are two categories. In the first category you must make your creature from BioBricks registry of standard biological parts, describe how it would be made and any hazards it might create. In the second category you can let your imagination run more freely and propose any "scientifically justifiable lifeform". The entries will be judged by MIT synthetic biologist Drew Endy, evolutionary biologist and PLoS co-founder Michael Eisen, Spore game developer Jason Shankel, and biology researcher/io9 "ask a biogeek" columnist Terry Johnson.

The deadline is August 25. Get all the details and rules at io9.

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Pop Matters on the Science of The Andromeda Strain

Pop Matters laments the crappiness the recent Andromeda Strain miniseries as compared to the original novel and movie, in part because they watered down the science:

In this regard perhaps the biggest modification is to the factual scientific background behind The Andromeda Strain. If you think about it, with so many groundbreaking advances in the areas of biochemistry, microbiology, genomics, medicine, physics, astrophysics, biowarfare, and informatics that have taken place during the past 40 years, it would have served The Andromeda Strain well if there had been a revamping of its technological setting and jargon.

Regrettably, the filmmakers of these miniseries opted instead for truly far fetched pseudoscientific theories involving time travel and evil aliens bent on intergalactic domination. Indeed, it almost appears as if the new The Andromeda Strain attempted to combine the time travel complexities found in Crichton’s (1987), John Carpenter’s SpherePrince of Darkness (1987), and Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) with the extraterrestrial messengers from Roger Donaldson’s Species (1995) and John Bruno’s Virus (1999).

I definitely agree.

The article goes on to argue that a part of the problem was the shift in emphasis from the science of the original to pubic policy with a relationship to current events in the miniseries.
In this regard, it is perhaps ironic that because of our current fears about the prospect of biological weapons deployed by terrorists in our cities, the science and procedures behind Crichton’s book are as relevant as ever. As such, the original The Andromeda Strain almost appears to be prophetic. Therefore, the reader is urged to peruse the novel, and forget about these miniseries.
And that's what libraries are for!

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

SFRA and Campbell Conference

Next weekend - July 10-13 - the University of Kansas at Lawrence is hosting the Science Fiction Research Association's 39th Annual Conference in conjunction with the Campbell Conference. Not only will the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (best science fiction novel of the year) and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award (best short SF story of the year) be presented, there will also be presentations on this year's topic "Teaching Science Fiction".

Among this year's guests is science fiction writer and biology professor Joan Slonczewski, who will be giving a presentation on The Microbial World. Other guests include Karen Joy Fowler, Paul Kincaid, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and James Van Pelt.

The conference schedule (pdf). Registration information.

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Engineering a Higher IQ?

Kosmo at Genes and Demons points out the 2007 thesis of MarĂ­a Florencia Gosso, "Common Genetic Variants Underlying Cognitive Ability" (pdf) as research to watch.
I've yet to read it in detail, but a quick scan reveals dozens of genes which have been shown to have small cumulative impacts on IQ (with average differences between various alleles being in the two to four point range). The most significant difference I saw was between the two versions of the ADRB2 gene. In humans there exists two non-synonymous coding SNP's (rs1042713 and rs1042714) for this gene. The 713 version conferred a whopping eight point increase in average verbal IQ.
ADRB2 is more commonly known as the beta-2 adrenergic receptor, which is activated by adrenalin and noradrenalin (also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine). Even though the primary role of the receptor is regulation of smooth muscle relaxation, the receptor is also expressed in the central nervous system, and some studies have suggested that it plays a role in memory and learning formation. Interestingly the rs1042713 allele is a human-specific variant differing by a single amino acid from the "ancestral" protein sequence.

But does that really mean we've cracked the code for the genetic basis of intelligence? Not exactly. While there was an 8 point verbal IQ difference between individuals that varied at this allele, the author cautions that there could be "possible inflation of the estimated genetic effect sizedue to the relatively small sample size." Also, because intelligence appears to be affected by many genes it is unknown whether variation of the beta-2 adrenergic receptor sequence would have the same effect in all genetic backgrounds. And, of course, the question of whether the sequence variation affects the receptor's function in smooth muscle tissue has not been addressed. But that's the nature of scientific research. No one study provides all the answers, and this particular study points to an interesting direction for follow-up research.

Someday we may look back and indeed acclaim Gosso's research as a turning point in human genetic research. Only time - and further experiments - will tell.

Note: I did a search of PubMed and this portion of Gosso's thesis does not appear to have been published yet.
Image: 3D representation of the beta2-adrenergic receptor (via
Science).

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Science in Science Fiction Panel at Comic-Con

It's like the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano, only with better costumes: the last weekend in July tens of thousands of comic and science fiction fans will descend on San Diego. Yes, it's Comic-Con, one of the largest comic book and science fiction & fantasy conventions anywhere. This year they are convening a panel after my own heart: science in science fiction. So far the confirmed panelists are Phil "Bad Astronomy" Plait and Jaime Paglia, creator and executive producer of Eureka. There are also some "special guests" who have yet to be announced - ideally there will be at least one with a biology background. And I hope that someone out there records the panel for those of us who will be staying home that weekend.

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NIH Science in the Cinema Film Series

Tomorrow, July 9, the weekly Science in the Cinema film series begins at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. The medical science-themed series is part of the National Institutes of Health science education program, and experts will attend the showings to provide commentary and lead an audience question and answer session.

The schedule:
  • July 9: Away From Her
    Medical Theme: Alzheimer's Disease
  • July 16: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
    Medical Theme: Locked-in Syndrome
  • July 23: Canvas
    Medical Theme: Schizophrenia
  • July 30: The Quiet Duel
    Medical Theme: History of Medicine, Syphilis
  • August 6: Life Support
    Medical Theme: HIV/AIDS, Community Outreach, Drug Addiction
  • August 13: Reign Over Me
    Medical Theme: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Note that none of the films are science fiction, but the "science in fiction" angle of the series sounds interesting.

See the web site for more details about the movies and the experts who will be attending.

(via bioephemera)
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Mike Resnick: Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge

And never was there a race so different from all his fellows as Man. He was extinct barely seventeen millennia after he strode boldly out into the galaxy from this, the planet of his birth—but during that brief interval he wrote a chapter in galactic history that will last forever. He claimed the stars for his own, colonized a million worlds, ruled his empire with an iron will. He gave no quarter during his primacy, and he asked for none during his decline and fall. Even now, some forty-eight centuries after his extinction, his accomplishments and his failures still excite the imagination.

Which is why we are on Earth, at the very spot that was said to be Man’s true birthplace, the rocky gorge where he first crossed over the evolutionary barrier, saw the stars with fresh eyes, and vowed that they would someday be his.
The Summer 2008 issue of Subterranean magazine has the first part of a serialization of Mike Resnick's 1994 Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novella "Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge". The first part story looks back more than three million years, to a time when our intelligent - and violent - distant ancestors were mere "hairless monkeys". The second part looks to the more recent period of the Arab slave trade. The view of human history is one of recurring violence and brutality.

In an appreciation of Resnick in the same issue, Nancy Kress talks about the controversy when it was first published:
When the 1994 story “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” was first published, I remember a fellow writer stating on-line that if that story’s view of humanity were correct, she’d want to shoot herself. But it is correct. We evolved via violence; Darwin didn’t call it “the survival of the fittest” for nothing. Back on the African savannah, “fittest” often meant “most able to trounce the other guy.” We’ve kept that violent genetic heritage. And if we ever do have to start over, it will probably also be through violence. We may not like that view, but the evidence is there. And Mike respects evidence.
So that's not quite right. In biology "fitness" is a measure of the ability to reproduce, so "survival of the fittest"* refers to spreading of genes in the population. As John Wilkins explains:
Fitness has little directly to do with violent behaviour, or strength. A behaviour can reduce fitness if the damage done in a fight or the energetic cost of being strong makes the organism less likely to survive in hard or combative times. Whether or not violence is fit depends on the nature of the organism, its populational neighbors, the times and climes, and so on. Criticisms such as that of philosopher David Stove that if Darwinism were true we'd see fights on the streets by humans and by dogs shows a profound ignorance of evolutionary theory.
So there is no biological requirement that our distant ancestors were more violent than the other primates of the savannah, and whether they were primarily scavengers or hunters is still unknown. But we Homo sapiens are indeed a violent species, as are our close cousins the chimpanzees. I don't think it's unreasonable to speculate that our distant ancestors were as well.

Read "Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge" part 1 & 2 for free online .

* "Survival of the fittest" was a phrase used to describe Darwin's concept of natural selection, but not a terminology used by Darwin himself.

Image: 1.5 million year old chopping tools from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, in the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Thomas M. Disch (1940-2008)

On Friday, July 4, science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch sadly took his own life. While there hasn't been much in the main stream media, it's been all over the science fiction blogosphere. Here are a few links:
Disch's first novel, The Genocides, was published in 1965. It is set on a bleak Earth where humans are being exterminated by aliens using the Earth to grow plants:
[. . .] the exploitation of available resources by these fast-growing plants causes the soil to become barren for any other crop or tree. In addition, these plants are unsuitable for feeding any animal (except, perhaps, the rabbits which appear to be very numerous in the book), causing an ecological catastrophe. The effects on humans are very drastic: Human society breaks down, with people no longer able to live in cities.

The action of the novel is centered on a small group of people who still harvest some corn and have a single pregnant cow. The leader of this group is a religious fanatic who kills every other stranger in the name of the survival of the group. Their already-difficult life fighting against plants and protecting the small crop changes suddenly when an outsider begins living with the group, bringing news of strange forest fires. The fires are started by alien machines (presumably from the same civilization that sent the seeds of the plants) and finally destroy the group's refuge, forcing them to escape into a cave.
And there's no happy ending. The story concludes:
Nature is prodigal. Of a hundred seedlings only one or two would survive; of a hundred species, only one or two.

Not, however, man.

Some of Disch's other novels include Camp Concentration (1968), 334 (1972), On Winds of Song (1979), The M.D.: A Horror Story (1991), and The Brave Little Toaster (1980).

Interviews with Thomas Disch:




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