Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banned: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

This week is the American Library Associations Banned Books Week, which is a celebration of our freedom to read. The Suvudu blog points out that Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World is one of the most challenged books in print. It's not surprising that some people find it disturbing:
Huxley’s 1931 novel remains a stark and at many times frightening vision of a future where “better living through science” has been taken a step or two too far. In Brave New World Huxley imagines his Utopian World State, a place where people live without the threat of violence, poverty, or hunger. And yet, everyone must consume chemicals to stave off depression, children are born in laboratories and trained to embrace societies caste system, and movies have been replaced with “feelies,” or movies that significantly stimulate the senses, and Henry Ford is revered as God. So, as you can see, all is not well. World State might glitter, but it isn’t gold.
The reasons given for banning the book are often because of its depiction of sex for reasons other than babymaking and the fictional future's godlessness and "negative activity", which suggests that they've missed the point. Huxley's future is not one where most of us would want to live - although I suppose the OMG ORGY might distract some teenagers from that point.

So what can you do to celebrate Banned Books Week? Why, read a banned book, of course. If Huxley isn't your cup of tea, why not pick up a copy of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, May Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and celebrate our freedom to read all sorts of books.

Check to see whether there are Banned Books Week events in your area.


Biologically Uplifting NonHuman Animals and Ethics

Project Uplift? Oh yes. I remember hearing about this.

It had been featured in the news, a year or two ago. Both professional and amateur media had swarmed over a small group of "kooks" whose aim was to alter several animal species, giving them human-level intelligence. Foes of all kinds had attacked the endeavor. Religions called it sacrilegious. Eco-enthusiasts decried meddling in Nature's wisdom. Tolerance-fetishists demanded that native dolphin "culture" be left alone, while others rifkined the proposal, predicting mutants would escape the labs to endanger humanity. One problem with diversity in an age of amateurs was that your hobby might attract ire from a myriad others, especially those whose particular passion was indignant disapproval, with a bent for litigation.

This "Uplift Project" could not survive the rough-and-tumble battle that ensued. A great many modern endeavors didn't.

~ "Aficionado" by David Brin

When I hear the term "uplift", at least in the context of biology, I think of David Brin's Uplift universe. In those stories humans have genetically manipulated chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins so that they achieve sapience. As genetic engineering technology and our understanding of the basis of intelligence improves, it becomes more likely that society will have to grapple with the ethical implications of such experimentation. As suggested by the excerpt above, even in Brin's fictional future animal uplift was both ethically and scientifically controversial.

While I don't personally believe that such uplift will take place in the immediate future, I do think it is worthwhile topic to discuss the implications of such experimentation. Futurist and bioethicist George Dvorsky has, in fact, addressed some of those topics in a provocative paper about "developmental and ethical considerations for biologically uplifting nonhuman animals"*. He argues that not only should we be allowed to uplift nonhuman animals, but also that we have a moral obligation to do so.

As many transhumanists and technoprogressives are inclined to point out, human enhancement offers an unprecedented opportunity for the human species to transcend biological limitations. These include not just the benefits of what may be gained, but also the benefits of what may be discarded.

[. . .]

Given the animal rights movement's goal to increase the moral circle to include higher animals, and given that a strong scientific case can be made in favour of animal personhood, a time will come for humanity to conclude that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. Furthermore, it would be unethical, negligent and even hypocritical of humans to enhance only themselves and ignore the larger community of sapient nonhuman animals. The idea of humanity entering into an advanced state of biological and/or postbiological existence while the rest of nature is left behind to fend for itself is distasteful.

Why uplift nonhuman animals? What is it that we hope they will gain? Ultimately, the goal of uplift is to foster better lives. By increasing the rational faculties of animals, and by giving them the tools to better manage themselves and their environment, they stand to gain everything that we have come to value as a species.

Some of Dvorsky's arguments seem to tread close to the idea that animals should be treated equivalently to humans, which I find troubling. It is similar attitudes that have lead to the recent terrorist attacks against biologists. I'm not suggesting that Dvorsky advocates such violence, but he does apparently approve of the legislation in New Zealand and Britain that has banned research on great apes, and essentially considers them equivalent to humans. The irony is that legislation that raises nonhuman animals to the status of "persons" may lead to the abandonment of the neuroscience research necessary to actually develop the techniques for uplifting nonhuman animals to sapience. Dvorsky also argues that his philosphy is non-anthropocentric:

The idea that nonhumans should be uplifted so that they more closely resemble Homo sapiens has been interpreted as a rather anthropocentric perspective. As already stated, the goal is not to transmutate animals in humans, but to improve their quality of life by endowing them with improved modes of functioning and increased health. If anything, the uplift argument is intellicentric and even quasi-perfectionist. Moreover, uplift is primarily advocated by transhumanists who also make the case for Homo sapiens to move beyond human limitations – a rather non-anthropocentric position.

Dvorsky seems to assume that uplifting nonhuman animals necessarily will improve their quality of life. Who are we to say that nonhuman animals live lives of less quality simply because their intelligence is not equal to ours? And sapience is no guarantee of a better quality of life; many humans suffer from hunger, ill health, and homelessness. I'm skeptical that transhumanist-style enhancements will be a fix for those problems, at least in the short term. And since I am anthropocentric, I think that determining how to improve the lives of our fellow humans should be a much higher priority than "uplifting" our nonhuman cousins.

Read: Dvorsky G. "All Together Now: Developmental and ethical considerations for biologically uplifting nonhuman animals" Journal of Evolution and Technology 19(1):129-142 (2008)

Read free short stories set in Brin's Uplift universe:
(via Sentient Developments)

Image: Rock ape investigates postcards by Between a Rock on Flickr
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Monday, September 29, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson: Hero of the Environment

It seems that it's hard to get far away from Mars when talking about notable science fiction (and yes I still have a review of Mars Life to finish). This week Time Magazine named Kim Stanley Robinson as a "Hero of the Environment 2008".
Robinson, 56, is a Californian, an intellectual, a child rearer, an activist, a deep believer in the value of science ("Science is — or should be — the greenest force of all.") He is also one of the most accomplished and popular writers working in science fiction today. In a genre full of environmental warnings, Robinson's gift is a vision that uses the environment and its complexity as the focus of all that happens, rather than merely as grim set dressing or allegorical overlay. And that vision is optimistic about what could, with sufficient will, be brought about. He sees creating utopias as a technical challenge to his craft — they're hard to do convincingly and interestingly. But he also sees them as an empty ecological niche in the imagination; if only to maximise cultural biodiversity, he wants that niche filled.
Robinson is specially noted for his Mars trilogy - Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars - which follows the the human settlement and terraforming of Mars. But many of his other novels also look at the effect of man on the environment, and the effect of environment on both individuals and society. Robinson's latest trilogy is set on a near future Earth in which global warming has cause widespread flooding.
You can certainly read the Mars books as a story of taking responsibility for a planet's reshaping that applies right here right now on earth. But at the same time they are always books about a real Mars waiting in the future, its rocks and ice and canyons and craters relished in their toe-stubbing there-ness. Settings, whether as alien as Mars or as familiar as Washington's Rock Creek Park, are one of the foundations of Robinson's writing; the realism with which he treats the changes he imagines for them is fundamental to making his stories of progress convincing and compelling.
In a 1993 interview published in Eidolon, he talked about how exploration of Mars might actually might help us solve climate problems here on Earth:

"[Red Mars is] almost all based on fact. The only thing about my book that is probably a stretch is the speed with which it is accomplished. Most proposals will put the terraforming of Mars on a scale of thousands, or at least many hundreds of years. I have things shifting pretty rapidly. But we're making awfully big advances in biotechnology. Every decade shows enormous leaps in our ability to manipulate biological matter and that might be a tool much stronger in terraforming than currently predicted."

If the creation of a balanced natural environment were to become possible on Mars, would that help us to save our own planet - re-terraforming it perhaps?

"Yeah, exactly! Mars functions as a giant control experiment. If you terraformed Mars, the amount you could learn would just be enormous and would be directly applicable back to terraforming the Earth."

Considering that NASA isn't even planning a manned mission to Mars until 2031, any experiments in terraforming are likely to be too late to prevent the effects of global warming. Not to mention that we may inadvertently alter the ecology of Mars by simply landing there, as Robinson noted in an interview with BLDGBLOG
The interesting problem on Mars, and Chris McKay has talked about this, is that if we conclude that there’s the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, then it becomes really, really important for us not to contaminate the planet with earthly bacteria. But it’s almost impossible to sterilize a spaceship completely. There were probably 100,000 bacteria even on the sterilized spacecraft that we sent to Mars, living on their inner surfaces. It isn’t even certain that a gigantic crash-landing and explosion would kill all that bacteria.

So Chris McKay has been suggesting that a site like the Beagle or polar lander crash site actually needs to be excavated and fully sterilized – the stuff may even have to be taken off-planet – if we really want to keep Mars uncontaminated. In other words, we’ve contaminated it already; if we find native, alien bacterial life on Mars, and we don’t want it mixed up with Terran life, then we might have to do something a lot more radical than an archaeological saving of the site. We might have to do something like a Superfund clean-up.

Of course, that’s all really hard to do without getting down there with yet more bacteria-infested things.
Maybe we'll make Mars like Earth whether we plan to or not.

For a free story about genetics and biodiversity, see Robinson's short short for Nature Futures "Prometheus unbound, at last"

(Time article via Heliophage via Science Fiction Awards Watch )

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mars Life: An Interview with Ben Bova

Ben Bova's latest novel, Mars Life, takes place in the near future where there's trouble on Earth: advanced global warming has wreaked environmental havoc, while religious fundamentalists have gained positions of political power in the United States and are trying to block scientific research that conflicts with their religious beliefs. One of their targets is the research taking place on Mars, where scientists have discovered an ancient Martian village - and more excitingly, a fossil. The scientists on Mars struggle to keep their project going in the face of the loss of support at home.

Ben Bova kindly agreed to answer my long-winded questions about Mars Life and his thoughts about science, religion and the possibility of life on Mars. Be warned that there may be spoilers:

You say in the preface to "Mars Life" that speculation on whether Mars ever held intelligent life "can only be disproved by a thorough exploration of Mars, an exploration conducted by human beings, in addition to robotic craft." Do you think that a manned mission to Mars should be a short term goal for NASA?

A manned mission to Mars should be a long-term goal of NASA. I believe a lot of prepatory work must be done before we can send human explorers to Mars.

There is also disagreement among the Martian scientists as to whether Mars should be terraformed - its soil and climate altered to match the needs of Earth life - or if it should be kept Mars-like. Do you think that we should focus on understanding Mars as it is before we attempt to make it more amenable to for us to live there?

As I have shown in Mars Life and my earlier Mars novels (Mars and Return to Mars) I think Mars should be kept as pristine as possible while we study the planet and any life it may hold or may have once held. Terraforming is a ridiculous idea. Why spend the enormous amounts of money and time to make a unique planet into another Earth? If you want more real estate, build O'Neill type habitats in empty space. Leave Mars and the other planets as they are. They have much to teach us.

Even though we only glimpse the ancient Martians through their abandoned dwellings, faded inscriptions and a few bones, they seem surprisingly Earthlike in both their anatomy and culture. If we do find life on Mars, do you think that it will be similar to life on Earth?

That's one of the fascinating questions that only the discovery of extraterrestrial life can give us the answer to. If life on Earth based on some universal pattern or would life forms on other worlds be different from our own? We have no idea, at present, because we have only our own terrestrial example to draw from. However, life on Earth is very diversified, even though all terrestrial life forms are based on carbon, water, and DNA. We need to find extraterrestrial examples and see what they have to tell us!

If life was found on Mars, even if only microbial, I would be incredibly excited. However, in the future United States of "Mars Life" the religious fundamentalists who have essentially taken over education, the media and the government see it as a threat. They attempt to squelch the exploration of Mars in the same way they have eliminated the teaching of evolution in the schools. Do you consider religious fundamentalism to be a serious threat to the teaching and practice of science in the US?

I consider religious fundamentalism to be the most serious threat to democracy and individual liberty that this nation has ever faced. Religious intolerance has destroyed great empires in the past. It could destroy the United States of America in the foreseeable future.

There seems to be some tension in the book between the scientists who want to focus on Martian science and the project's more politically savvy supporters who want to "sell" Martian research to gain public support. Do you think that scientists generally do a poor job in generating public enthusiasm for research and science in general? Do you think that science fiction is good a way to present science with the public?

Scientists are usually terrible at "selling" science to the general public. And science fiction isn't much better. Very little science fiction actually deals with scientists and their problems.

Dr. Carter Carleton is the anthropologist who is leading the uncovering of the possible ancient Martian village. He's old-fashioned, set in his ways, arrogant, rude and treats women badly. On top of that, he has fled rape charges on Earth. We readers know the rape charges are false, but his colleagues on Mars do not. I would think that including such a potentially disruptive and divisive individual could cause serious morale problems in an isolated research colony. The way I understood the story was that his brilliance as a scientist trumped any problems with his behavior. Is this an accurate reading? If there is a manned exploratory mission to Mars, do you think that expertise should be more important than personality in selecting its crew?

There will have to be compromises made between expertise and personality. In Mars Life, most of the people on Mars believe Carleton to be innocent of the rape charges, although they understand he can be a pain in the butt - but then, so can many of the others among the team.

One of the people you dedicate "Mars Life" to is Carleton S. Coon. According to Wikipedia Coon was a mid-20th century physical anthropologist who proposed that the different races evolved separately from Homo erectus, with Europeans "evolving earlier" than other racial types*. He apparently fell into disfavor because his ideas about human evolution were used by American segregationists to justify discrimination, and since then, his work has been superseded by the work of physical anthropologists who have shown that his hypotheses are largely incompatible with population genetics and the modern evolutionary synthesis. Is there a particular reason why you singled out Dr. Coon in your dedication? Was he one of the inspirations for Dr. Carleton?

Carleton S. Coon was a great anthropologist whose conclusion was that the Africans evolved later than the European and therefore are more modern and better adapted. He was drummed out of his profession because his views were unpopular. The genetic evidence that failed to support his hypothesis came later. He would have welcomed it. He was interested in learning, not in being correct, politically or scientifically.

The end of "Mars Life" pretty much left the story hanging with a small group of scientists left on Mars who are preparing to start a "million year experiment". Do you plan to revisit your characters on Mars to check in on how the experiment is proceeding?

I might!


Read an excerpt from Mars Life (pdf).

I'll be posting my review of Mars Life tomorrow.

Note: Dr. Bova's answers have been reformatted for the blog, but were otherwise unchanged.

* ETA: If you are interested in a more detailed look at Carleton Coon's anthropological ideas, Afarensis has posted a review of Coon's The Origin of Races.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Regenesis on Hulu.com

The fall TV season is finally in full swing, and I'm already feeling a bit overwhelmed. After tonight's 3 hours of Heroes my head is aching a bit, and I still haven't seen tonight's Sarah Connor Chronicles. Who knows when I'll get to watch that. So obviously, I don't need any more TV to watch, but I've made special note that Hulu is now offering the first two seasons of the Canadian biotech drama ReGenesis online.

I've posted about ReGenesis several times before, but never actually seen an episode. (I believe they've been shown at 2am on Monday nights here in the US). What's especially cool is the collaboration between ReGenesis and the Ontario Genomics Institute to create "Facts Behind the Fiction" and "Science & Society" guides for every episode. Hopefully, I'll get caught up before seasons 3 and 4 become available.

Watch ReGenesis @ Hulu.com
ReGenesis "Facts Behind the Fiction" at the Ontario Genomics Institute

(via io9)

Heroes: The secret to superpower is the adrenal glands

Angela Cavallo, who is in her late 50s, said her son Tony was working beneath his 1964 Chevrolet Impala when the bumper jack slipped and the car fell on him, knocking him out. [...] Cavallo held the car while a young boy rushed down the street and found two neighbors who reinserted the jack and dragged out the teenager, who was not seriously hurt.
~ "Mother lifts car off son", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 14, 1982
It's the stuff of urban legends: a mother sees her child in danger and with a mighty surge of adrenaline is able to perform feats of seemingly superhuman strength. Exaggerate that story by a couple orders of magnitude and you end up with a superhero like the Hulk who is only super-strong when he's angry (and you wouldn't like him when he's angry).

So what is actually happening physiologically? If our brain perceives a threatening situation, it stimulates the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Adrenaline is a catecholamine hormone, which is derived from the amino acid tyrosine. When it is released into the bloodstream, it causes physiological changes that prepare our bodies for either "fight or flight": the heart beats faster, the blood vessels in the skeletal muscles dilate, providing them with more oxygen-carrying blood, and the blood vessels in the skin and digestive system constrict, and there is an increase in blood sugar. The body is now ready for rapid action.

It's not surprising that some of the superhumans on the TV show Heroes can most readily access their powers when angry or frightened. Take Maya, for example. Put her in a dangerous situation and her eyes turn oily black and everyone around her drops dead.* As the current season of Hereos begins, Maya is staying with Mohinder Suresh, the geneticist who has been trying to understand the biological basis for what he calls "evolved humans". Mohinder accidentally frightens Maya, which triggers her powers. Fortunately, she gets it under control before she kills him, and Mohinder has an epiphany: the secret to her superhuman abilities lies in an adrenal gland secretion.

While the adrenal gland connection seems plausible, Mohinder unfortunately then goes on to explain the next step in his research. He supposedly combines some tyrosine with Maya's adrenal gland secretions and to get an enzyme, which really makes no sense at all. As TrinityVixen at Pink Raygun snarkily put it:
Mohinder intimates that some combination of Maya’s humours is what gives her super powers. Her genes determine how the powers manifest, but some compounds in her system have to trigger the genes in the first place. And because adrenaline sets it off for her, that’s how it must work for every super. (Even the ones like Micah who are totally calm when they use their powers.) What I just wrote there is hand-waving magic. It’s still more scientific than Mohinder’s explanation. By his “reasoning” I’m developing superpowers right now as my blood pressure skyrockets because of the bad “science.”


Mohinder’s centrifuge gives him the enzyme. What enzyme? Oh, you know, an enzyme he made out of a corticosteroid hormone and a single amino acid. What the *bleep* is going on here? His centrifuge has given him a super power cocktail. This is like how the IR Spectrometer on CSI can do DNA genotyping. (The IR Spec that’s actually an autoclave.) Just…no. But we shouldn’t doubt his credentials. He’s got colored liquids in jars and tubes! (At this point, my roommate said, “THAT’S CHEMISTRY.” I promised I’d credit her.)**

And since "blood chemistry is unique, like fingerprints", that enzyme will apparently do something different depending on whether you are O- or AB+ or have high cholesterol or low thyroid hormone levels. It's pretty hard to think of a differences in blood chemistry that could determine whether you can teleport or have healing power or shoot electricity from your hands, even if you assume humans could have those powers. At this point the "science" is not really any different from magic.

But even assuming that the enzyme has essentially magical properties, Mohinder's subsequent behavior doesn't make much sense. He doesn't know if the enzyme would be toxic to an apparently normal person. He is also aware that the superpowers are apparently random, with some good (like flying) and some bad (like killing everyone around you). He is supposedly a brilliant scientist, so why is his next move to go outside and inject himself with his preparation? Of course he gets lucky, and the enzyme turns him into a super-strong wall-climbing sex machine. There are those strange growths on his back, and he seems to be secreting goo, but we won't learn more about that until next week . . .

I'm hoping that Mohinder's transformation means that he'll stop with the science already and get on with fighting villains and saving the world, which is why I watch Heroes in the first place.

Watch the two-hour premier of this season's Heroes at Hulu.com: The Second Coming and The Butterfly Effect

* Maya does not have the most useful superpower, since she indiscriminately kills both friends and foes.

** Are there any chemists out there who want to tackle Hiro's half of the secret chemical formula? I see what looks like a purine base, but then my eyes glazed over.

(Image of Mohinder via Heroes News and Spoilers)


ActionBioscience and New Frontiers in Biology Biology

ActionBioscience is a web site run by the non-profit American Institute of Biological Sciences devoted to promoting literacy in the biological sciences. The site has articles on a variety of topics, but probably of most interest to science fiction readers (and writers) are "issues in new frontiers."

Some of the essays and interviews sound like science fiction anyway:
The style is fairly dry, but the articles are generally written in clear non-jargony language and a number of links are provided for further reading. It seems like a useful resource for furthering your biology education.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Growing Rapidly On The Fringe

Fringe, JJ Abrams new series, is like an updated X-Files where every week a gory and mysterious event is investigated. Unlike the X-Files, however, there aren't alien bounty hunters or human-alien hybrids. Instead, it's science run amok ("The Pattern"), stemming from the decades old research of Dr. Walter Bishop and his colleagues. Bishop isn't the bad guy, though, since he's spent the past 17 years in a mental institution. His is old "lab partner" William Bell, is another story. He's the founder and CEO of Massive Dynamic, a giant corporation which is seemingly involved all aspects of cutting edge technology, from genetic engineering to artifical intelligence to rapid transportation. It also has suspiciously advanced R&D labs. Could Massive Dynamic be behind "The Pattern"?

To investigate these events, an unlikely team has been brought together: FBI Agent Olivia Dunham; brilliant Dr. Bishop, on furlough from the mental hospital; his estranged son Peter Bishop, a "jack of all trades" who is naturally brilliant at math and chemistry (and, it was hinted this week, of unnatural origin); and Homeland Security Agent Phillip Broyles, who seems to know more about The Pattern than he's telling.

This week's episode, "The Same Old Story", had a horrific beginning: a young man and woman are in a hotel room, when suddenly the woman starts to writhe in agony and we see something moving and growing in her abdomen. She dies just before giving birth in the hospital to a rapidly growing infant that dies of old age a mere four hours later. Dr. Bishop recognizes that this may have something to do with some of his Vietnam War era research that aimed to rapidly grow soldiers from eggs fertilized in vitro. While they were successful in using pituitary extracts to stimulate rapid growth, so that the lab-reared soldiers reached the physical age of 21 in a mere 3 years, the scientists on the project were unsuccessful in stopping the rapid aging at that point. Soldiers aren't too useful if they are only at their physical prime for only few months, so the project was abandoned. One of my pet peeves about the "clone an army" trope is that it's inefficient if you have to wait decades for replacements to develop, so it's fun to see that problem turned on its head. So is there anything to the science? Could a pituitary extract really rapidly advance aging? Almost certainly not.

The pituitary gland secretes a number of different hormones including growth hormone and thyroid-stimulating hormone. Growth hormone increases height in children and adolescents, stimulates the growth of internal organs, along with a number of other effects. Children with overactive pituitary glands that produce excess growth hormone can end up 7 or 8 feet tall, but they don't age any faster than usual. Thyroid-stimulating hormone does what the name suggests: it stimulates the release of thyroid hormones from the thyroid. Thyroid hormone regulates metabolism and works with growth hormone to promote growth in children (among other functions). Excess thyroid hormone production - hyperthyroidism - have an increased metabolism. Again, no effect on aging. But what if embryos, rather than children, were exposed to high levels of hormone? Overexpression of growth hormone in frog embryos causes the tadpoles to grow twice their normal size before metamorphosis, but they don't develop any faster than their untreated siblings. And while thyroid hormone is necessary for normal development of the brain and other organs, again there is no indication it affects the rate of development.

So is the science in this week's episode completely made up? At the beginning of the episode, Dr. Bishop mutters about cell cycle inhibitors.
"Disabling and reversing cell cycle inhibitors. Activating and turning CIP/KIP and INK4a/ARFs into catalysts."
It may sound like gibberish, but what he is talking about are proteins that normally cause cells to stop the cell division cycle by inhibiting the function of cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs). It seems that Fringe's resident genius thinks that rapid aging is caused by excess cell division. The Dapper Alchemist explains why they aren't equivalent:
Dr. Bishop previously mentions that one can induce conditions, such as progeria [rapid aging], through pituitary gland modulation. Although the pituitary gland is affected in progeria2, I’m not sure if it can be induced as such. Reduction of the CDK-inhibitor function of certain domains causes enhanced tissue growth, which manifests in animals with larger body size3 and leads to increased cell proliferation in the pituitary gland. It seems that JJ has muddled together enhanced tissue growth with rapid aging, the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
So stimulating division of cells can mean excess growth, but not rapid aging.

But the aging effects of the pituitary turn out to not be that important anyway. The bad guy on this week's show is a serial killer who removes the pituitary from his young female victims while they are still alive. That method that is apparently more satisfying than simply purchasing pituitary extract from Sigma (or maybe he couldn't get a purchase order). Anyway, it turns out he is the last remaining "rapid growth" test subject who must have fresh pituitary to keep him from aging. Growth hormone does have some anti-aging properties, so I suppose it's not too much of a leap to suggest that it stops aging all together.

My impression so far is that the science in Fringe ranges from sort-of-implausible to completely impossible. It's no worse that X-Files or Star Trek, though, and I have enjoyed watching it. I like the truly mad Dr. Bishop, who chooses a single cow as his experimental organism, and he keeps her in his basement lab where she gets to watch Spongebob with him. And evil corporations running secret experiments and possibly plotting to take over the world are plausible villains. I'll tune in again next week.

More about the science of Fringe:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Disney's Genetic Imagineers Reveal their Latest Line of Child Stars

Did you ever wonder how all those adorable teens on the Disney channel perfected their pouts? The truth is been revealed in this visit to the Disney Genetic Imagineering labs:

Disney Lab Unveils Its Latest Line Of Genetically Engineered Child Stars


Monday, September 15, 2008

The Biological Science Fiction of Vu Kim Dung

One way that I try to keep up with new biology-related science fiction news is by subscribing to a Google News search using those terms. Most of the news reports are pretty predictable (for example, yet another article about "Spore"). However, every so often something new and different turns up.

One example of an interesting new news story is this interview in the VietNam News with author Vu Kim Dung. Vu was trained as a biologist, but gradually turned his attention to science fiction:
I started writing my first work, Co Kien Trinh Sat (A Scout Ant), in 1972 while I was studying at the university. Once it was published it became very popular among children.I chose to write science fiction because it combines my love for science and literature.
His subsequent science fiction novels were also based on hard biological science:
My book, Nguoi Dep Hoi Sinh (Beauty Revived), is the most satisfying work for me. From a cell of skin, the dead beauty is revived. In the book, I predicted that scientists would discover human cell cloning. I’m proud that I wrote the book before Dolly the sheep was born. The book is respected in this country.

Writing science fiction doesn’t mean basing stories on imagination alone. I have to study science and find scientific evidence. Then I work as a normal writer, finding context and making the stories interesting.

On the other hand, a writer must be creative and predict the future. That’s the big difficulty. The writer’s role is to create what hasn’t been invented. Writing on what already exists creates a story without value.
I Googled around, but couldn't find any additional information about his novels, at least doing a search using the spelling in the article. It makes me curious, but I supposed I'd have to learn Vietnamese to learn more.

Vu Kim Dung is currently the head of the Viet Nam Fund of Science Fiction, which was created by the Viet Nam Association of Young Scientists and Engineers to support science fiction writers. Read the whole interview for more about the VFSF and the reading and writing of science fiction.

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io9 Announces the Winners of their Mad Synthetic Biologist Contest

io9 has announced the winners of their "mad science" contest, in which the contestants were asked to build an improved life form "using MIT's registry of standard biological parts known as "biobricks," or by using other scientifically plausible materials."

The winner in the biobricks lifeform category was Vijaykumar S. Meli, who is a grad student at the National Institute for Plant Genome Research at JNU Campus in \ New Delhi, India. Not surprisingly, he proposed a novel method of modifying plants using a an engineered form of rhizobium bacteria, which normally creates nodules in the roots of legumes, allowing them to process nitrogen from the air more efficiently. That ability to fix nitrogen is a reason why legumes are often planted in rotation with other crops. What Meli has proposed is bioengineering the rhizobium so that they can form similar nodules on the roots of rice. The ability to more effectively use nitrogen would allow the rice farmers to use less fertilizer. That would help both the farmers' wallets and the environment. What's especially cool is that the bacteria could be engineered in a laboratory today. Read his paper.

In the "general synthetic lifeform" category, the winner was UK resident Elliot Gresswell. Gresswell's entry is written as a fictionalized series of lab notebook entries describing the development of "semi-sapient Blue Forests".
Note to Dante down at the Vegetation and Environ Section- we’re really not interested in anything that even resembles a Triffid. No, we don’t care how tasty and delicious they are when boiled. No plants that prey on humans.
Those scientists are so picky! What they started out with was engineeered single-celled microbes that are tethered together into a sort of goo - the final result was a blob-like creature called the Blue Goo. Combine that with some modified hybrid corn-spider plants and some venus fly traps and the result is a moving blue forest. Coming soon to a lagoon near you! Gresswell won a gorgeous drawing of his creation by comic book artist Kevin O'Neill. Read the full entry and see the full-size version of the illustration.

Be sure to check out the entries of the runners-up as well. If this contest is any sign, there may be some nifty new life forms appearing in the next few years.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

First National Discussion of Science Fiction in Varanasi, India

Arvind Mishra has posted a notice for the "First Ever National Discussion of Science Fiction: Past, Present, Future" in Varanasi, India. The conference will be held November 10-14, and is jointly sponsored by the National Council of Science and Technology Communication, the Indian Science Fiction Writers' Association, and the Indian Association of Science Fiction Studies.
The discussion is aimed at focusing on various aspects of science fiction and its role in communicating science and technology related issues to the common people and children .The goal of the five-day exercise is to prepare a draft for “Benaras Document 2008”. The programme would also examine as how science fiction input could be enhanced and successfully employed in various science communication modules currently in vogue in India.


Following 5 sub themes are incorporated in 5 technical sessions. However, the discussion on a particular theme or topic may continue informally beyond the stipulated session until the final conclusions are drawn, reviewed and finalized.

i) Science Fiction - Historical Perspective : The programme shall begin with analysing the development and evolution of science fiction in India vis-à-vis in the world with comparative and analytical accounts on evolutionary trends.

ii) Understanding Science Fiction - A Cognitive Approach : A number of definitions and theories are prevalent across the world when it comes to understanding science fiction. The session will try to redefine various forms such as science fantasy, story, fiction, tale, etc., with pedagogical and cognitive enrichment.

iii) Current Trends in Science Fiction : This shall examine many contemporary issues on science fiction currently debated. It may present an overview on possible cultural influences on the genre, emerging trends, changing styles and characteristics of science fiction.

iv) Science Fiction for Science Communication : This session shall emphasize on various formats and styles suitable for presenting different contents and concepts using mass media, such as drama, theatre, puppetry, tableaux, novel, cartoon strip, film, etc.

v) Science Fiction : Future Perspective : The discussion shall focus on whether science fiction could be made better by making it more like mainstream fiction. The future scope and possibilities of science fiction in development of science and technology would also be explored. The session will also try to understand whether insinuation of science fiction or fantasy into serious mainstream literature is detrimental to hard science fiction!

I hope Arvind plans to blog about the discussions.

Conference schedule and registration information (pdf).


Julie Czerneda on Sex in the Clan Chronicle Universe

As part of John Scalzi's "Big Idea" series of interviews, Julie Czerneda talks about how "a graduate student's observations of fish in a a laboratory" fueled her "Clan Chronicles" series.

How powerful is sexual selection? As species evolve, mates choose sex partners based on whatever they see, hear, smell, touch, or taste that convinces them this one (or however many) will do better than all those others. Being a biologist, my use of the term “do better” is all about the success of the generation that results from that partnership. (Aside: I picked well. We have great kids. Although I can’t say I was thinking along those lines at the time.)

I could see in my tanks the cost in energy, risk, and survival male minnows paid to attract females. Or flipped around, the price expected by the females. Many would only breed once in a lifetime, if that. From all evidence, this extreme works for them.

What about us? How far could sexual selection go within a species that understood its own biology? Surely intelligence would curb extraordinary, risky behaviour. (I can hear you snickering, but I’m talking species here, not teens.)

Those speculations lead to her invention of The Clan, an alien species where females will only mate with males who have been tested and proven to be as strong or stronger as themselves. That strategy turns out to have limitations:
However, being intelligent, you’d expect they’d notice that encouraging more and more power in their females might increase this ability but also will one day seriously limit the number of suitable mates — especially if failure to be chosen means death.
The first book in the series, A Thousand Words For Stranger, starts out by following a female, Sira, who no male can match, and who realizes their species may be in trouble. Since then Czerneda's explored that universe in three series of novels, with the latest, Riders of the Storm, released this month.

Read the whole big idea.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: September 6 Edition

Here are some of the bioscience and science fiction-related articles and blog posts I've been reading the past few weeks. It seems like there are a lot of entries this time. Is that a sign that summer is over? Or maybe I'm just not blogging enough.

Written Word

Watch the teaser trailer for Nancy Kress's Dogs at YouTube.

io9 rounds up novels in which intelligent design is truth:
This is the truly proscience version of ID theory: The notion that humans will eventually live in an ID universe, where our bodies and everything around us is designed. Only it will have been designed by us, in the service (hopefully) of bettering humanity. We won't be the playthings of some third party entity whose motivations are unclear. In the end, we will become our own intelligent designers.
Cheryl Morgan writes at The Bilerico Project about science fiction novels with transgender themes (via io9).

Nature Editor Henry Gee notes that the journal's short science fiction column, Futures, seems to confuse some people who are unclear on the whole fiction concept. If you have access to Nature online you can read the latest Futures, if not, you can read some of the past entries at concatenation.org

The Flowers For Algernon blog is republishing Daniel Key's classic novel in blog format. While the diary format of the original story is easily translated into blog format, the fact that the most recent post is at the top of the page (and the blogger doesn't have individual page posts) means that you have to scroll up to read, which is awkward. (via Metafilter)

Morgan Locke at Eat Our Brains points to data showing that the oceans are dying: Kate
Kate Wilhelm has a short story called “The Chosen.” It depicts the forests of the future, which have fallen silent. And still we mine them. This table is a glimpse at the reality that story predicted.
Lauren Davis at io9 tackles the question "When are Vampires Science Fiction?"


io9 rounds up the poor reviews of the movie version of Jose Saramago's dystopian novel Blindness

io9 also has info about the new French horror movie Mutants

Bloody Disgusting reports that director Guillermo del Toro has a number of new movies on his schedule after he completes The Hobbit, including remakes of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Slaughterhouse-Five, a movie version of Dan Simmon's Drood, and more.

SciFi Scanner writes about science fiction Venusians in book and film.

BoxOfficeProphets writes about the upcoming movie version of The Time Traveler's Wife

Wired interviews Leland Chee, keeper of the Star Wars Holocron - the database of all official information about the Star Wars universe. I didn't even know there was an Endor Holocust. Poor Ewoks.


The Science Not Fiction blog writes about the creepy crawlies from the Eureka mummy episode in "Putting the Crypt in Cryptobiosis"

Brian Switek @ Laelaps writes about the ridiculous situation where an episode of the History Channel's Jurassic Fight Club - ostensibly a science program - uses science fiction/thriller novelist Steve Alten as an expert on prehistoric sharks (presumably on the strength of his novel about one), rather than actual shark experts. The result is a show that's closer to fiction than science:
. . . even worse is that we hear the same old tripe about the possibility that C. megalodon is still alive somewhere in the ocean depths. I haven't studied the history of this claim in modern fiction in detail but it did come up in JAWS, and numerous "so bad it's almost good" novels have been penned on just this premise (i.e. the MEG series, Extinct, Quest for Megalodon, Carcharodon, From the Dark Below, and Megalodon. I won't even get started on all the direct-to-video "Meg" movies...). Alten, of course, is the person who tells us of this shocking news (not like he's trying to get a movie made on the premise or has another book about it or anything...). Brett Kent throws some cold water on the idea, but then we get another clip with Alten saying that it's "wrong to assume" that his favorite monster isn't still out there somewhere. Yes, yes, "teach the controversy" and all that...
io9 interviews special effects artist Dan Rebert, whose gives the scoop on the fang physiology he used for the new HBO series True Blood.

Other Media

Dinosaur Comics on what the prehistoric past might really have been like (dragons and unicorns and butt hands!)

Seed Magazine takes a look at the way video games are reshaping how we perform and promote science, particularly biology.

The LA Times has an article about the LA Opera's collaborations between film and opera, including "The Fly"

Cool Science

Irradiatus at Biochemical Soul has a great post on developmental biology, transhumanism and building a better human

Ask Metafilter collects examples of transhumanism in the real world - nothing quite as cool as the movies.

io9's Biogeek lists the unlikeliest futures for the human species.

Mo at Neurophilosphy writes about the neuroscience of magic, and points to the (freely available) article at Nature Reviews Neuroscience "Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research" and accompanying videos of magician demonstrations from the "Magic of Consciousness Symposium".

TED has posted a video of Paul Rothemund's talk on DNA folding, a process he hopes to use to "create tiny machines that assemble themselves from a set of instructions"

Wired posts about a new gene therapy that stimulates growth of inner ear hairs. Loss of those hairs can cause a range of problems, from tinnitus to deafness, so this is an exciting result, even if it has only been performed in mice.

PZ Myers explains a recent paper that demonstrated the reprogramming of adult pancreas cells by the introduction of three transcription factors.

Engineers at MIT have developed a method of building microbatteries using self-assembling viruses.

Meanwhile, scientists at Caltech have created a "super-compact high-resultion microscope, small enough to fit on a finger tip." Not only is it small enough to fit on a fingertip, it's cheap: $10 for a mass-produced version.
In the future, the microscope chips could be incorporated into devices that are implanted into the human body. "An implantable microscope analysis system can autonomously screen for and isolate rogue cancer cells in blood circulation, thus, providing important diagnostic information and helping arrest the spread of cancer," says Yang.
Jake Young at Pure Pedantry writes about the recent review in Nature on anti-aging science. It's probably not good news if you were hoping for a pill to help you live to 200.

At io9 Annalee Newitz reports on a protein that can prevent telomeres - the "caps" at the end of chromosomes - from shortening over time. The result is cells that retain their "youth", which perhaps will someday be part of a longevity treatment.

Live Science suggests that there are evolutionary advantages to being a little bit mentally ill.

Dark Roasted Blend has photos of the most alien-looking place on Earth (via Posthuman Blues)

Watch a video of Michael Chorost speaking as part of the Authors@Google series about becoming a cyborg:
Michael Chorost became a cyborg on October 1, 2001, the day his new ear was booted up. Born hard of hearing in 1964, he went completely deaf in his thirties. Rather than live in silence, he chose to have a computer surgically embedded in his skull to artificially restore his hearing. This is the story of Chorost's journey -- from deafness to hearing, from human to cyborg -- and how it transformed him. The melding of silicon and flesh has long been the stuff of science fiction. But as Chorost reveals in this witty, poignant, and illuminating memoir, fantasy is now giving way to reality.
Keven at The Other 95% writes about a new species discovered in a piece of amber purchased through Ebay.

Robert Sawyer writes about the latest news on Neanderthals.

Scientists at MIT show how insects use trapped air bubbles to breath under water.

Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science writes about a recent study that shows how European genes mirror European geography.

Scientific American has an article about animal intelligence and the evolution of the human mind.

a Nadder posts about the Aliens Among Us - life on Earth that is at least as strange as fictional extraterrestrials.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Sean Craven: It's the Little Things

It's Friday night, so belly up to a bar and listen to a tale of the fantastic: Sean Craven's "It's the Little Things". Craven says:
It's partially a tribute to the tradition of bar stories -- specifically, Lord Dunsany's Jorkens stories, the Gavagan's Bar series by L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt, and Tales of the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke.

It's also a salute to my favorite SF microscopic worlds, ranging from Fitz-James O'Brian's The Diamond Lens to Theodore Sturgeon's Microcosmic God to George R.R. Martin's Sandkings.
It made me want to reach for my bottle of Tilex . . .


Neuropunk and the future of SF

University of Miami Lit Professor Nader Elhefnawy has an essay for Strange Horizons that takes a look at two very different SF novels: R Scott Bakker's near future psychological thriller Neuropath and Peter Watts' strange far-future just-pre-Singularity Blindsight. What they have in common is that the "science" part of their science fiction is the workings of the brain. Elhefnawy argues that neuroscience - particularly exploration of the nature of consciousness - is the direction science fiction is moving.
Given that Blindsight, like Bakker's book, places such stress on the functioning of brains and the workings of consciousness, the two novels tread much of the same ground, playing off many of the same assumptions, with characters communicating similar ideas in much the same terminology (extending even to Watts's title) in an exploration of an old question made new by recent scientific developments. However, where in Neuropath the scientific proof of this view of consciousness is the story, in Watts's novel it is part of a bigger premise, the angle less the illusory nature of consciousness than the idea that sentience may simply be irrelevant from the standpoint of evolution. Consequently, where Bakker's novel derives much of its impact from its narrow scope and no-frills future, Watts's bigger canvas proves essential to telling his "macro" tale about what such a diminished premium on sentience might mean from the standpoint of the history of life in this universe.

Nonetheless, the similarities between the two works say more than their differences about the direction sf is taking. Rather than concentrating on human beings' scope for choice, writers might find themselves increasingly looking at the absence of meaningful choices, a theme which has already attracted the attention of numerous other writers, Ted Chiang, Greg Egan and Daryl Gregory to name but a few. That would not be unprecedented for literature, nineteenth century naturalism having had a similar focus, derived from the cutting-edge science of its day—Darwin and Marx, particularly. However, where those ideas seemed to demand a new social vision, the new cognitive science seems to imply only an end, whether a "Semantic Apocalypse" as in Bakker's book, or one of a more physical kind, as in Watts's. Put another way, they concentrate on a dark side to a Singularity which is far from brand new—one can see most of its essential concepts already well-developed in Clarke's 1956 The City and the Stars (if not in the novels of Olaf Stapledon)—but which the science fiction of the cyberpunks and after has focused on as never before, and more importantly, tended to treat as imminent.
It seems a bit of a stretch to me to bundle Bakker and Watt's novels together and consider them signs of a "movement" in SF, especially if they are using themes that can be traced back to the 19th century - or at least the 1950s. But hell, what do I know, I haven't yet read Neuropath (it won't be released in the US until next May) and I'm a far cry from an expert in literature. In any case there is a lively discussion at Peter Watts' blog as to what this new movement should be called:
So I'm looking at this, and I'm thinking Hmmm… an academic comparing two related works in a burgeoning thematic niche. Or, more concisely: New Subgenre! All we really need to keep the marketers happy (and to keep the unicorn-huggers out of our shelf space at Barnes & Noble) is a name.
Neuropunk was Watts' first suggestion, but ended up preferring NeuroNazi. Nicely hard edged and nihilistic sounding enough for a subgenre that may, as Elhefnawy puts it, "mark the "end" of science fiction."

For more thoughts from Elhefnawy, check out his "The End of Science Fiction": A View of the Debate at The Fix.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Are clones like cheap knockoffs?

The Science Not Fiction blog points out a scene in the recently-released post-apocalyptic movie Babylon A.D. where mercenary badass Toorop and his charges spot some tigers in a local marketplace:
Anyway, there’s the market place, there’s the tigers, there’s Aurora as Toorop and Sister Rebeka come up behind her. Toorop is not so impressed, later dismissing the beasts as “copies. Clones of clones. Fakes.”
But why so dismissive, Toorop? Cut them, and do they not bleed? Stick your hard-bitten, badass finger near the bars, and will you not bleed?
Of course you would. Cloned tigers are still tigers, after all, but for some reason, science fiction often depicts clones as somehow degraded from the original: The Michael Keaton film Multiplicity compares cloning to being photocopied, with each copy worse than the last, and Austin Powers’ spin on the concept is to render a Dr. Evil clone an eighth the size of the original.
That degradation of clones is actually a significant plot element in Kate Wilhelm's 1976 novel Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. Humanity is nearly wiped out in an environmental catastrophe, and the only hope of human survival is a small well-supplied group of survivors who were able to collect the equipment and reagents needed to run a cloning operation. But there is a snag:
". . . the decline starts in the third clone generation, a decline of potency. He was breeding each clone generation sexually, testing the offspring for normalcy. The third clone generation had only twenty-five percent potency. the sexually reproduced offspring started with the same percentage , and, in fact, produced offspring, and then it started to climb back up and presumably would have reached normalcy again."

Walt was watching him closely, nodding now and then. David went on. "That was the clone-three strain. With the clone-four strain there was a drastic change. Some abnormalities were present, and life expectancy was down seventeen percent. The abnormals were all sterile. Potency was generally down to forty-eight percent. It was down-hill all the way with each sexually reproduced generation. By the fifth generation no offspring survived longer than an hour or two. So much for clone-four strain. Cloning the fours was worse. Clone-five strain had gross abnormalities, and they were all sterile. Life-expectancy figures were not completed. There was no clone-six strain. None survived."
I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that, while the characters overcome some of the technical difficulties of cloning to save the human race, ultimately it's individuals who are the product of sexual reproduction that re-inherit the Earth.

Wilhelm's characters cite the research of non-existent scientists Semple, Frerrer and Vlasic, but the fact is that at the time she wrote her novel the only animal that had been successfully cloned was the frog Xenopus laevis. I don't think it was particularly unreasonable for her to suppose that errors in DNA replication or other factors might cause clones to be somehow inferior to their parents, and, in fact scientists have found potentially damaging problems in cloned animals. The significance of some of those differences, such as shortened telomere length (usually a sign of aging), is unclear. I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that subsequent cloned generations might have compounded problems, a process called "replicative fading" (at least in the Star Trek universe).

However, since the 1970s cloning technology has improved significantly. The first mammalian clone created by nuclear transfer using embryonic cells as a source was reported by SM Willadsen in 1986. Ten years later Dolly the cloned sheep was created by nuclear transfer from an adult cell by Scottish scientists Keith Campbell and Ian Wilmut. And, more relevant to our discussion, scientists have begun to demonstrate that multiple generations of cloning is indeed a technical possibility. Some of the milestones:
So the good news is that it appears that if you can clone an animal, serial cloning is possible (even if less efficient). Of course it isn't ethical to perform similar cloning experiments aon humans, so it's unlikely we'll discover if the rule holds true for Homo sapiens any time in the near future. Hopefully the human race will never become so desperate that cloning technology is the only means for our survival.

Image: "Tiger Tiger Burning Bright" by digitalART2 on Flickr

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Free Fiction: Start the Clock

Frankly, we were excited. This move was what our Pack needed—the four of us, at least, were sure of it. We were all tired of living in the ghetto—we were in three twentieth-century townhouses in Billings, in an “age-mixed” area full of marauding Thirteens and Fourteens and Fifteens. Talk about a people damned by CDAS—when the virus hit them, it had stuck their pituitaries and thyroids like throttles jammed open. It wasn’t just the giantism and health problems caused by a thirty-year overdose on growth hormones, testosterone, estrogen, and androgen. They suffered more from their social problems—criminality, violence, orgies, jealousy—and their endless self-pity.
~ "Start the Clock" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Benjamin Rosenbaum's short story collection The Ant King and Other Stories is now free for download. Most of Rosenbaum's stories are more fantasy than science fiction, but "Start the Clock" takes place in a future where a virus has arrested development, resulting in a world full of chronological adults arrested at the physical age of 15 or 9 or 3. What might happen when it becomes possible to restart aging? Read the story:

Read "Start the Clock" in The Ant King and Other Stories
Listen to "Start the Clock" at Escape Pod

(via Boing Boing)