Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

For those of you who have indulged in rich food and sweets over the past couple of weeks, you might be interested in the video below that exposes the truth about the easy weight loss fad that will sweep the world in 2009.

(If you are in the UK, you can watch the high quality version of the video on the BBC web site)

I'll be back to more regular posting next week.

Have a fun and safe New Year's Eve!

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End of the Year Stats

Here's what visits and visitors to Biology in Science Fiction in 2008 looked like:

Most Visited Posts
Some old, some new this year (*)

1. Parasites that Control Behavior
* 2. Stenonychosaurus on the Moon
3. Farandolae
* 4. How Alien Should Science Fiction Aliens Be?
* 5. GenPets: Bioengineered Pets Perfect For You
6. Vampirism as Disease
7. Genetics of Heroes
8. Real Elves
* 9. What Kills Everybody in The Happening?
* 10. Splice: Rock and Roll Geneticists and the Horror of Genetic Engineering

Top 10 Search Terms

1. genpets/genpet
2. farandolae
3. vampirism disease
4. real elves/are elves real
5. biology in science fiction
6. superpower flying
7. stenonychosaurus
8. chromatophores
9. science fiction
10. centaur anatomy (tie)
10. future diseases (tie)


Top Referring Sites
(excluding Google, Stumbleupon, BlogCatalog and the like)

1. Jeff Rense Program
2. io9
3. Red Ice Creations
4. SF Signal
5. Cocktail Party Physics
6. Wikipedia: 2Suit
7. Wookieepedia: Midi-chlorian
8. This Week in Evolution
9. Maajak World
10. From a Sci-Fi Standpoint

Thanks for the links!

Top 10 Countries
Visits from the US outnumbered visits from Canada and the UK by a factor of ten.

1. United States
2. Canada
3. United Kingdom
4. Australia
5. India
6. Germany
7. Philippines
8. Netherlands
9. Spain
10. France

Top 10 Cities
Some of the cities were listed twice by Google Analytics. I've combined their numbers.

1. London, UK
2. New York, NY
3. Sydney, Australia
4. Chicago, IL
5. Brooklyn, NY
6 Houston, TX
7. San Francisco, CA
8. Seattle, WA
9. Melbourne, Australia
10. West Hollywood, CA

Followed closely by Brisbane, Columbia (MO), Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Austin (TX).

Browsers and OS

Internet Explorer 47%
Firefox 42%
Safari 7%

Windows 83%
Macintosh 14%
Linux 2%


Thanks to everyone who stopped by Biology in Science Fiction this year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dickens, Disease and Bio-Christmas Carol

Imagine Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol in an alternate universe, where Scrooge is a PI and Bob Cratchett is his graduate student, and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future are a developmental biologist, biochemist and evolutionary biology, respectively. You would probably get something very much like Vince LiCata's "A Bio-Christmas Carol". It made me smile.

Of course if you prefer a more serious discussion, you might be interested in the medical analysis of Scrooge by Lisa Sanders, M.D. She has diagnosed him with Lewy body disease.

Or you could simply read the original Dickens classic.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Biology of Peace


They did terrible things to each other because they could not have children. But before the war - during the war - they had done terrible things to each other even though they could have children. The Human Contradiction held them. Intelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior. They were not free. All he could do for them, if he could do anything, was to let them be bound in their own ways. Perhaps next time their intelligence would be in balance with their hierarchical behavior, and they would not destroy themselves.

~ Adulthood Rites, by Octavia Butler
In Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (aka Lilith's Brood) the very alien Oankali collect the remnants of humanity that have survived global nuclear war. The remaining humans are stored aboard their interstellar ship while both they and the flora and fauna of the Earth are "repaired" using the Oankali's superior biological engineering skills. The humans are eventually given a choice: they can join the Oankali, living with them in bioengineered settlements and trading their genes to create Human-Oankali Construct children, or they can live as resistors, with an extended life span and free from the aliens' presence, but completely sterile. They are not allowed to have children because the Oankali believe that the "Human Contradiction" - intelligence coupled with hierarchical behavior, inherited from our ape-like ancestors - would always ultimately lead to the destruction of the human race.
"The Oankali believe . . . the Oankali know to the bone that it's wrong to help the Human species regenerate unchanged because it will destroy itself again. To them it's like deliberately causing the conception of a child who is so defective that it must die in infancy."
~ Imago, by Octavia Butler
Now a new nonfiction book by science writer Thomas Hayden and reproductive biologist Malcolm Potts - Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World - makes essentially the same argument. In an article for the December 19th issue of New Scientist they present an overview of their thesis that is based, in part, on our similarity to our close biological cousins, the chimps:

Chimpanzees -- and virtually every hunter-gatherer society studied -- live in male-dominated social groups, in which the males are blood relatives and females move from one group to another. The dominant males largely monopolize breeding opportunities, leaving younger males with little choice but to work their way up the in-group hierarchy, or to launch attacks on neighboring out-groups if they are to secure the resources, territory, and females they require to survive and pass on their genes.

We are all descended, in other words, from the victors in conflicts over resources, territory, and mates. The majority of those battles was instigated and fought by males, with the most skilled, ferocious and cunning surviving to pass on their genes. Human males today bear the marks of this legacy in the behaviors and impulses that still spur us on to lethal conflict -- including the widespread and devastating association between war and rape -- even when other solutions might be both available and preferable.
It sounds very much like they are arguing that biology is destiny - male biology, anyway. It would seem that the Butler's Oankali are right, our evolutionary heritage has doomed to a continuous cycle of war and violence. But that would be too downbeat to make a very good (or at least salable) book. Hayden and Potts don't think it's all that bleak. They argue that the proper kind of "nurture" can win out over "nature":
But crucially, the fact that war is an evolved behavior does not in any sense condemn us to a future as bloody as our collective past. Behavioral predispositions function in response to environmental stimuli: change the environment, and you change the biological response. In Sex and War; we show that a series of relatively simple strategies, including the empowerment of women and slowing population growth, can help the biology of peace win out over the biology of war.
I confess that to some skepticism, though, about both their hypothesis and their solutions. That's pretty much a knee-jerk response on my part to anyone who gives seemingly simple evolutionary explanations for what are often complex human behaviors. I'll have to read the book before I can actually give a knowledgeable opinion one way or the other. I will say that empowerment of women sounds like a far better solution to create peace than losing our humanity altogether.

Related Information:



Image (top): "The 'Real' American Soldier" by Aaron Escobar on Flickr
Image (bottom): Chimp Maaike by belgianchocolate on Flickr
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Friday, December 19, 2008

Greg Egan Idea Man

At Tor.com Jon Evans speculates on why Australian science fiction writer and computer programmer Greg Egan isn't a superstar. He says:
If you haven’t read any Egan, you so should. He takes the wildest frontiers of today’s science and turns them into truly brainbending speculative fiction that continually challenges the reader’s ideas of both reality and humanity. He’s also a terrific sentence-by-sentence writer.
Egan writes hard science fiction that is frequently based on mathematics, physics and computer science. For example, his short story "Wang's Carpets" involves the discovery of truly alien aliens that are living embodiments of Wang tiles.

Evans speculates that one reason Egan's writing doesn't enjoy more popularity is because his stories are actually too focused on complicated scientific ideas. It's hard to know how much of a role that has played in his writing career, but I do know it affected my interest in his novels. I've read a few of his short stories, including "Wang's Carpets" and "Border Guards", and enjoyed them, but I don't have a particular interest in quantum physics or mathematics, and his novels just didn't sound that appealing to me - at least not appealing enough to seek them out.

Now maybe I've been wrong - I really enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, which seems to have some superficial similarities to Egan's Quarentine - and I'll probably give Egan's work a chance next time I run across it. But that points to another problem Evans points out: Egan's novels can be hard to find in bookstores and libraries. For example, the nearest library copy of his latest novel, Incandescance, is 60 miles away in the next county over. It's obviously not something I'd find by browsing the shelves.

It's nice, then, that a number of Egan's short works are available online. I've been downloading some of them for future reading, and discovered is that some of his stories are based on bioscience too. I haven't read them all so I don't really have anything to say about the actual science in them. All I can suggest is that you read them for yourselves. Here are a few links for your weekend reading pleasure:
And it's not biological at all, but definitely read "Border Guards". It both has weird science and a very touching ending.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Living in a Pocket Biosphere

Mstislav, our most dedicated gardener now that Sledge rarely emerges from the Attic, has been tinkering with the carbon-dioxide balance, a dangerous but crucial sport. At six or seven hundred parts per million, the air in here is dreadful but sustains life. Regular jiggering of organic functions is needed to keep the ratio from ballooning to something deadly. To make a long story short, after an alarmingly high reading Mstislav discovered a mound of rotting mangrove fronds under a seemingly healthy hillock of wheatgrass—a camouflaged nightmare of poison-leaching compost. Endgame for us could be that simple, that foolish.
~ "Lostronaut" by Jonathan Lethem
Half of the oxygen in the air we breathe is produced by phytoplankton, tiny plants living in Earth's oceans. The plant life is crucial to maintaining the proper balance of gases in Earth's biosphere. It's only natural, then, that NASA has been trying to develop efficient bioregenerative life support systems that incorporate plants and bacteria for long term space settlements and space stations.

It's not an easy problem, though, either scientifically or politically, as NASA scientists pointed out back in 1997.
"If the current [funding] level is maintained, I would not expect to see a functional ground-based regenerative system for 10-15 years, or a space-rated system for 15-20 years," Finger said. "If a long-duration manned mission becomes a reality, then I would expect the budget to increase significantly for all aspects of life support research."

In addition to the reality of funding, doubts about the reliability of biological systems remain fixed in many people’s minds. Can a closed system recycle waste material quickly enough to renew vital resources? Will the reduced gravity environment of space affect the biological system in ways we cannot assess on Earth? What back-up life support must lunar or planetary colonies have if a plant-based system should fail? Above all, is the concept truly feasible?

"The challenges of designing a working bioregenerative life support system are gargantuan," Morris admitted. He noted that investigators will need to find ways to make such a system extraordinarily compact and energy-efficient. Physicochemical back-up systems add a slew of weight and energy requirements.

Browsing through the NASA web site, it doesn't look like there has been too much progress in the past ten years. The International Space Station (ISS) has a Plant Research Unit is being used to study the effects of microgravity on plant growth and reproduction . It's important research to determine the best plant strains and growth conditions for low gravity environments, but it's just one of the first steps in developing a self-sustaining environment. Science not Fiction has more about NASA's plant research.

But science fiction steps in where science has yet to go. Jonathan Letham's short story "Lostronaut", published in the November 17th issue of The New Yorker, is set on a space station orbiting Earth. The Chinese have planted mines below the station's orbit, preventing the astronauts from leaving the station or supplies from being delivered. They are completely dependent on the the slowly deteriorating systems, including the plant beds that provide them with oxygen and absorb excess carbon dioxide. Letham doesn't provide a lot of scientific details, but does give us a moving story of memory and love and death and life.

Read Jonathan Lethem's "Lostronaut"

For more technical information about plant research on the International Space Station, see "Factors Affecting the Utilization of the International Space Station for Research in the Biological and Physical Sciences" (2003)

Top Image: 39-inch closed glass Ecosphere in the Rose Center for Earth and Space, American Museum of Natural History. The sphere is a closed ecosystem containing small shrimp, bacteria and algae in salt water. Credit: me.

Bottom Image: Corn growing under red LED grow lights, which would be efficient for growing plants in space. Source: NASA.


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Majel Barrett Roddenberry (1932-2008)

I was very sorry to read that Majel Barrett died today of complications from leukemia. Barrett's acting career was intimately twined with the Star Trek franchise, not only because she was the widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, but because she played so many roles in the the various TV series:
  • In the original pilot for Star Trek she played Number One, first officer on the Enterprise. The role was dropped at the suggestion of NBC's executives who thought "audiences would never accept a woman being second-in-command of a ship."
  • She played nurse Christine Chapel in Star Trek: The Original Series.
  • She voiced Chapel and M'Ress for Star Trek: The Animated Series
  • She had a recurring role as Lwaxana Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space 9
  • She played the voice of the Enterprise's computer in The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and two episodes of Enterprise. She also voiced the computer in four films: Star Trek Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek Nemesis. And it has been reported that she recently finished recording the voice of the computer for the upcoming Star Trek movie to be released next May.
In addition to her Trek roles, she also produced and occasionally appeared in the role of microbiologist/neurosurgeon/genetic engineering expert Dr. Julianne Belman on the unintentionally funny* Earth: Final Conflict.

It's sad to think that she's no more.

* I do a wicked Taelon impression.
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Meet the Surreal Botanists

If you will be in New York City this Friday, you'll have the opportunity to learn about surreal botany first-hand:
This Friday, December 19th at 7:00pm, nine authors from A Field Guide to Surreal Botany will share their botanical discoveries at the KGB Bar in New York City (83 E. 4th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues). Jason Erik Lundberg (editor) and contributors Erik Amundsen, Steve Berman, John Bowker, Christopher M. Cevasco, Kris Dikeman, Susan Fedynak, Matthew Kressel, Livia Llewellyn, and James Trimarco will present their work and sign copies of the book, which will be available via Mobile Libris. Artwork will also be displayed during the reading. Admission is free.
More details.

Related Post: A Field Guide to Surreal Botany

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008 Holiday Gift Guide: Bioscience Fact

Even if the people you are buying gifts for aren't interested in SF, they might enjoy a popular science book. I've rounded up a selection of books that take a look at different aspects of the biosciences that were published this year. (Note that the descriptions were swiped from Amazon.com, since I haven't read most of these books myself.)




Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga

Neuroscientist Gazzaniga is "adept at aiding even the scientifically unsophisticated to grasp his arguments about what separates humans from other animals. His main premise is that human brains are not only proportionately larger than those of other primates but have a number of distinct structures, which he explores along with evolutionary explanations for their existence."
Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer

Science writer Zimmer "guides us on a memorable journey into the invisible but amazing world within and around a tiny bacterium. He reveals a life-or-death battle every bit as dramatic as that on the Serengeti and one that offers profound insights into how life is made and evolves."
The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson

"The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of The Ants render the extraordinary lives of the social insects in this visually spectacular volume. [...] Coming eighteen years after the publication of The Ants, this new volume expands our knowledge of the social insects (among them, ants, bees, wasps, and termites) and is based on remarkable research conducted mostly within the last two decades."

Cloning: A Beginner's Guide by Aaron D. Levine

This is a well-reviewed introductory guide to the science and ethics of cloning.


Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin.

"Fish paleontologist Shubin illuminates the subject of evolution with humor and clarity in this compelling look at how the human body evolved into its present state."
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

Roach offers a witty look at the science of sex. I think it would make a nice gift bundled with Laura Woodmansee's Sex in Space.
The Science of Heroes: The Real-Life Possibilities Behind the Hit TV Show by Yvonne Carts-Powell

Carts-Powell uses the TV show Heroes as a jumping off point for discussing biology and physics. I actually have a copy of this which I'll post a review for soon.
Beyond Human: Living with Robots and Cyborgs by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malatre

"The simple title of this book belies its profundity-and its sense of humor. Besides an up-to-date, comprehensive overview of developments in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence, physicist Benford and biologist Malartre also address deeper questions about the relationship between the brain and the mind, as well as humankind's nervous relationship with increasingly sophisticated machines"

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many more similar books listed at the Biology in Science Fiction bookstore.

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2008 Holiday Gift Guide: Science Fiction Novels With A Bit of Biology

Tis the season and all that, so if you haven't finished your holiday gift shopping I thought I'd make a few suggestions.

I don't think it should surprise any of you that books are at the top of my list, both for giving and receiving. Here are a few recent science fiction novels with a bit of biology that I blogged about this year:








Infected: A Novel by Scott Sigler (read the original post). Sigler's follow-up novel, Contagious, will be released in hardcover on December 30th.
Unwelcome Bodies ,a short story collection by Jennifer Pelland (read the original post).
Dr. Franklin's Island, a young adult novel by Ann Halam (read the original post).
Ratha's Courage is another young adult novel (read the original post). It's the long-awaited fifth book in Clare Bell's "The Named" series.
Dogs by Nancy Kress is (read the original post) is a biological warfare thriller.
Seeds of Change is an anthology featuring short stories by Tobias Buckell, Ken MacLeod, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, KD Wentworth, Jeremiah Tolbert, Jay Lake, Ted Kosmatka, Blake Charlton, Mark Budz and John Joseph Adams. (Read the original post)
Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker and Blindsight by Peter Watts may represent a new SF movement: neuropunk. (Read the original post)

Riders of the Storm is the latest novel set in Julie Czerneda's Clan Chronicles universe. (read the original post)
Paul McAuley's The Quiet War features engineering of both people and ecosystems.(Read the original post)
Invertebrata Enigmatica: Giant Spiders, Dangerous Insects, and Other Strange Invertebrates in Classic Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Chad Arment is a collection of SF short stories "involving strange invertebrates". I haven't read it - or blogged about it - but it sounds like fun.

And if none of those sound interesting, you might check out the Biology in Science Fiction bookstore, assembled by yours truly.

There are 2 days left to order from Amazon.com with free shipping and still have the package delivered by Christmas - three days if you are ordering from Amazon.co.uk - so you can even shop from the comfort of your own home.

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