Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Science of the Movies is on Tuesday nights at 9pm on the Science Channel. (If you, like me, have never even heard of The Science Channel, check the high numbers of the cable channels you receive. On my TV it's channel 191.)
Tags:special effects, science
Monday, May 25, 2009
It is an important and popular fact thatthings are not alwasys what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, many had always asumed that he was mor intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - while all the dolphins had ever done was much about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.If you happen to see someone walking down the street this afternoon wearing nothing but a towel, Don't Panic! She's probably just celebrating Towel Day in tribute to the late Douglas Adams. Click the link for pictures, posts and related information. If you upload your own towelish photo to Flickr and you could win a cool Sony e-reader.
~ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Adams was not only the author of the Hitchhikers Guide the Galaxy and many other humorous science fictiony novels. He was also deeply interested in wildlife conservation. In the mid-1980s Adams and biologist Mark Carwardine traveled around the world to search for nearly extinct species, including the aye-aye in Madagascar, white rhinos in Zaire and the Yangtze River Dolphin in China. Those excursions were parlayed into a book,Last Chance to See, as well as a BBC radio series (UK listeners only, alas). And despite Adams' premature death in 2001, his legacy is living on in a new Last Chance to See TV series hosted by comedian Stephen Fry. It will be shown on BBC 2 beginning in August.
If you are in the UK, you can watch Fry and Carwardine discussing the original series and Douglas Adams' legacy here:
You can get the latest information about the series and related information on the unofficial Another Chance to See blog.
Image: Thumbs Up by kreg.steppe on Flickr.
Tags:Towel Day, Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See
Friday, May 22, 2009
The first engagement in the Little War took place at Fifteenth and K street in front of the Sheraton Bar and Grill in the heart of Washington. For over a month young people had been pouring into the city, massing for a huge demonstration to protest the Thirty-ninth Amendment to the Constitution. Like other prohibitions before it, this Compulsory Birth Control Act was impossible to enforce, and youth had taken the stand that it was a direct infringement of their rights. Bitter resentment was directed against the two arms of Governmental enforcement, the National Council of Eugenics and the Federal Birth Study commission. Washington had no business regulating the number of children a citizen could have. Bitterness turned to talk of rebellion.In 1967, the year Logan's Run was published, tens of thousands of young Americans descended on San Francisco for the fabled "Summer of Love", and it must have seemed like teenagers really would take over the country. It was the perfect backdrop for William Nolan and George Clayton John's future dystopian youth culture, where all upstanding citizens went voluntarily to their death by their 21st birthday.
~ Logan's Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
The seeds of the Little War were planted in a restless summer during the mid-1960s, with sit-ins and student demonstrations as youth tested its strength. By the early 1970s over 75 per cent of the people living on earth were under twenty-one years of age. The population continued to climb - and with it the youth percentage.But, as Charlie Stross has pointed out, it's extremely difficult to write near-future science fiction that stands up to history. As it turns out, in 1967 the 25- and under population was at its peak, and only declined from that point on. Today the US the population is older than it has ever been, with the largest group age 25-44. The reason is a combination of longer life spans*, aging of the baby boom generation combined with the increased availability of effective contraceptives and declining fertility. Teen birth rates are the lowest level ever.
In the 1980s the figure was 79.7 per cent.
In the 1990s, 82.4 per cent.
In the year 2000 - critical mass
So while the novel is still an entertaining read, the backstory hasn't aged very well. It makes me wonder how the on-again off-again on-again off-again on-again movie remake of Logan's Run will approach the material. Director Joseph Kosinsky claimed back in 2007 that the story would "hew closer to the book than the 1976 movie." That wouldn't be too difficult, since the movie didn't follow the novel much beyond its basic premise. In particular, I think the original movie's shift of the age of death to 30 from 21 significantly changed the tone of the story - for some reason I find 16-year-old enforcers more disturbing than 26-year-olds in the same role.
While the new movie will supposedly be released in 2010, there probably won't be any official word until later this year as to whether it's actually being made. Until then, enjoy this trailer for the original film, that really captures it's cheesy 70s goodness:
* Life expectancy at birth was 47.3 in 1900, 70.8 in 1980 and 77.8 in 2005 (See Table 26)
Image: Sexy-but-significantly-older-than-21-year-old Michael York in the original Logan's Run movie (via the excellent City of Domes web site).
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
"In South America there are, if my memory serves me—you will check the observation, Professor Summerlee—some thirty-six species of monkeys, but the anthropoid ape is unknown. It is clear, however, that he exists in this country, and that he is not the hairy, gorilla-like variety, which is never seen out of Africa or the East." (I was inclined to interpolate, as I looked at him, that I had seen his first cousin in Kensington.) "This is a whiskered and colorless type, the latter characteristic pointing to the fact that he spends his days in arboreal seclusion. The question which we have to face is whether he approaches more closely to the ape or the man. In the latter case, he may well approximate to what the vulgar have called the 'missing link.' The solution of this problem is our immediate duty."If you've watched the news - or used Google today - you can't have missed all of the publicity about the well-preserved 47-million-year old primate fossil nicknamed "Ida" (or more technically, Darwinius masillae). She is both beautiful and important scientifically. As the authors summed up in their paper describing the find:
~ The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
Darwinius masillae represents the most complete fossil primate ever found, including both skeleton, soft body outline and contents of the digestive tract. Study of all these features allows a fairly complete reconstruction of life history, locomotion, and diet. Any future study of Eocene-Oligocene primates should benefit from information preserved in the Darwinius holotype.Ida is a prosimian in the family Adapidae - similar to present-day lemurs - and the type of primate that may have been ancestor to Anthropoidea - including present-day monkeys, apes and humans. The scientists studying Ida were careful not to claim that she was necessarily of a species ancestral to humans.
Note that Darwinius masillae, and adapoids contemporary with early tarsioids, could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here, nor do we consider either Darwinius or adapoids to be anthropoids.At least they were careful until they started talking to the press, where one author claimed Ida is "the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor". The hype may have something to do with the History Channel special - "The Link" - featuring the discovery, which was announced alongside the paper. The program's web site has more hyperbolic quotes, my favorit being from the paper's lead author Jens Lorenz Franzen:
"When our results are published, it will be just like an asteroid hitting the Earth."Presumably without all the death and destruction.
To add to the hype, many of the articles in the mainstream media have touted the find as "the missing link" - a non-sensical term, since every new fossil species is a new link in the evolutionary record. As the quote from The Lost World suggests, the phrase had already fallen out of favor by the beginning of the 20th century, so it's simply bad science journalism for news reports to be using it now.
And it's not just the media hype that's at issue. At Laelaps Brian Switek has raised some questions as to the quality of the paper's analysis of the fossil. I'm not well-versed enough in paleontology to give my opinion on that. However, I do find it troubling that the History channel's PR department and the scientists' own self-promotion are providing a false picture of the significance of this fossil find. I suspect that the over-the-top promotion will be a turnoff to many people who already assume that scientists routinely exaggerate their findings.
And I doubt Stephen Baxter will feel the need to add a chapter to Evolution.
For more coverage, Carl Zimmer has a nice post about the science and they hype and see Bora's roundup of related links at A Blog Around the Clock.
Images from Franzen JL et al. "Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology" PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. (2009) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723
Tags:science fiction, evolution, paleontology, Ida
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Charlie Jane Anders @ io9: Is "Sense of Wonder" Just a Code for Returning to Childhood? (my answer: no way!)
Nancy Kress: SF is Dead - Again
Ben Bova: Science is so important to us, yet so unappreciated
Wired Science lists science fiction novels that feature memory alteration
SF Signal interviews CJ Cherryh about her new novel Regenesis.
Jo Walton @ Tor.com reviews Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
From A Sci-Fi Standpoint reviews James E. Gunn's 1962 novel, The Immortals.
Actually the Immortals appear very little in the book, primarily at the beginning, and play a relatively small role. As you read on, you find that the book is really all about issues relating to medicine and its role in society, and especially about its differential availability to those at various economic levels. Indeed, the hunt for the Immortals is really a metaphor of sorts for the privileged status of the ultra-rich who have access to the best, most cutting-edge medical care.
In a BBC interview, author Peter F. Hamilton (Night's Dawn) talked a bit about genetic engineering:
PFH: The genetic technology that hopefully will cure Spina Bifida one day could also be used to create viruses that could just wipe us out completely.
But does that mean you should stop researching genetics? We laugh, we hold politicians and the political process in contempt, but the societal structure of international law and order does actually hold that off.
What do you call a movie that is set in the very near future, explores biotechnology that is almost-but-not-quite-yet possible, but doesn't otherwise use any science fictional tropes? What if it's a bit too speculative to be considered true realism, but too realistic to quite be SF? I don't really have an answer (speculative bioethics?), but there are a couple of recent films that seem to fit the bill: My Sister's Keeper (watch the trailer at Genetics and Health) and The Baby Formula.
According to SciFi Wire, Warner plans to remake the BBC's Primeval as a big-screen movie.
Warner and Goldsman will transplant the action to the United States and ramp up the spectacle.Because battling dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures clearly just isn't actiony enough. BBC-America will show season 3 of Primeval beginning tonight, and SciFi is currently airing season 1 on Friday nights.
Center for the Study of Science Fiction has video of Forrest J. Ackerman on Mad Scientists in the Movies
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is being made into a movie starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. It is being filmed in the UK and there is no word on whether the spectacle is bing
At SciFi Scanner Christine Fall writes about Sleep Dealers and new technological advances that may help allow scientists to translate brain activity into images.
Miriam at The Oyster's Garter compares Vampire ecology in Twilight vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
CHUD.com reviews The Gene Generation, recently released on DVD. Bottom line: be very glad you didn't pay to see this movie in the theater.
Live Science: Can You Have Bones Like Wolverine?
ComputerWorld asks "Do sci-fi films get advanced tech right?" including genetic engineering.
Science Not Fiction has a series of posts reviewing the science of each Fringe episode.
Popular Mechanics also has a series of posts reviewing the science of Fringe.
Also at Popular Mechanics: Dollhouse's Memory Science Mixes Fact With Fiction
Annalee Newitz @ io9: Five Brain-Maanipulating Technologies That Prove Dollhouse Exists Right Now
If you are interested in the science of Eleventh Hour, check out the regular Eleventh Hour posts at Science Not Fiction and Genevieve Valentine's posts at Tor.com.
Also Åsa Karlström has an article about the depiction of biophysicist Dr. Jacob Hood at LabLit.com
Tags:science fiction, biology
- Listen to the talk (MP3)
Tags:science fiction, neuroscience
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Genetically engineered microorganisms, or GEMs, had been on the scene only about half a century when the first hundred arrived on Mars. But half a century in modern science is a long time. Plasmid conjugates had become very sophisticated tools in those years. The array of restriction enzymes for cutting, and ligase enzymes for pasting, was big and versatile; the ability to line out long DNA strings precisely was there; the accumulated knowledge of genomes was immense, and growing exponentially; and used all together, this new biotechnology was allowing all kinds of trait mobilization, promotion, replication, triggered suicide (to stop excess success), and so forth. It was possible to find the DNA sequences from an organism that carried the desired characteristic, and then synthesize these DNA messages and cut and paste them into plasmid rings; after that cells were washed and suspended in a glycerol with the new plasmids, and the glycerol was suspended between two electrodes and given a short sharp shock of about 2,000 volts, and the plasmids in the glycerol shot into the cells, and voila! There, zapped to life like Frankenstein's monster, was a new organism. With new abilities.Robinson's description of engineering DNA sequences and introducing them into cells using electricity almost reads like an excerpt from a biology textbook. It was (and pretty much still is) the standard molecular biology technology of the present day. In Red Mars genetic engineering is used to modify microorganisms, fungi, algae and plants to aid in the terraforming of Mars. It's pretty mundane science - and that's the way he meant it to be.
~ Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)
Back in 1996, Robinson answered readers questions for Science Fiction Weekly, including the following:
Why couldn't the geneticists of the Mars trilogy alter the human genome to allow humans to breathe and live in a less-altered environment?His answer made it clear that he was sticking to science that would be achievable in the near-future of Red Mars, which is set in 2026:
I like the plausibility of that, as if colonizing Mars is within our current scientific means.
The technology described in the Mars trilogy is not super-science, and the genetic engineering as outlined in some detail in Red Mars is not that far beyond what they are doing now. So you can make some changes, but you can't just drastically remake creatures and plants. The existing Martian environment has an atmosphere of 10 millibars of mostly CO2, and no genetic engineering is going to make us able to breathe that, nor keep all our capillaries from exploding (die by hickey as Damon Knight put it), etc.
And so, if you're altering the environment a little, you might as well go for a little more and not get into the realm of super-science, or the postulated realm of radically altered bodies. I like our bodies the way they are.
You can read Red Mars for free by downloading a copy from the Suvudu Free Book Library (pdf version, Kindle version).
Tags:Red Mars, genetic engineering
One of the first staff meetings I attended concerned a script that had come in from the outside, and was considered insufficiently exciting. The consensus was that it needed a good injection of crew jeopardy so that it wouldn't drag. That could be difficult because it had to make sense in the context of the existing story, and, to keep from sending the episode over budget, it had to be cheap to film even though special effects are generally costly. I had what I thought was an idea that fit those constraints and, even more exciting (for me), an idea rooted in real astrophysics. I took about half a minute to pitch it, and for the first time everyone's attention was focused on me, the new guy. When it was over I turned to my boss, a producer who was a gruff middle-aged former NYPD homicide detective. He stared at me for a moment, his face totally unreadable. Then he said, with great force, "Shut up, you f––king egghead!"
That producer and I eventually became close enough that when he later sensed he was going to be axed, he gave me advice on what to do in the unlikely event that I survived. (No. 1: never mention the "old days." No. 2: when you do see the inevitable pink slip coming, turn down the heat on your swimming pool.) One thing I learned from him is that I had had it backward. The fun in "Star Trek" didn't come from copying science, but from having science copy it. My job wasn't to put real science into "Star Trek," but to imagine new ideas that hadn't yet been thought of.
Trek is about gadgets and engineering, not science.
Mlodinow then goes on to talk about the similarity of Star Trek's "free thinking" point of view to the burst of American post-WWII technological innovation, which makes sense to me. The future depicted on Trek is one in which technology - particularly American inventions - has made the world a much better place. Well, except for human genetic engineering, which resulted in a war that killed 30 million people. No wonder we don't hear much about their innovations in biotechnology.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
And then there are the parasitic wasps. Wasp eggs are injected into a caterpillar, which provides a cozy protected space for the embryos to develop. Once they have matured, the larvae paralyze their host and bite their way out. Sound familiar? They were the inspiration for the "birth" scene in the 1979 movie Alien (The Director's Cut), which used John Hurt in the caterpillar role. *shudder*
Here's their video of the parasitic wasp larvae emerging from a caterpillar:
Tags:science fiction, parasitic wasp, Alien
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Le Guin's early years help explain her abiding concern: Is there such a thing as a stable human nature? She grew up in Berkeley, the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, a founder of modern anthropology, and Theodora Kroeber, author of "Ishi in Two Worlds," about an American Indian who had outlived his tribe. Her childhood, which included summers at a family ranch in Napa, was full of reading, storytelling and visits from European intellectuals and Native Americans.[Note that I added the links to the excerpt above.]
"I was privileged," she says, "to know the kind of people that most American kids, most bourgeois white kids, don't." She was raised "as irreligious as a jack rabbit."
Eric Rabkin, who teaches at the University of Michigan, sees her work as profoundly shaped by her exposure to alien cultures as well as her father's ambition to find as specifically as he could the time and place from which Western civilization had sprung. "There's a kind of romance to that view," Rabkin says. "That once upon a time, the worst antagonisms were merely inter-familial -- that basically we're all alike and trustworthy. And I believe she grew up in a family in which that was considered not a fantasy but a scientific fact."
While most of Le Guin's science fiction would be considered of the "soft" rather than "hard" variety, that doesn't mean that there is no science - or technology - in her work, as she aptly points out in this rant:
How can genuine science fiction of any kind lack technological content? Even if its principal interest isn't in engineering or how machines work — if like most of mine, it's more interested in how minds, societies, and cultures work — still, how can anybody make a story about a future or an alien culture without describing, implicitly or explicitly, its technology?Read the whole essay. I can't help but think that her ability to clearly explain how silly it is to limit "technology" to modern shiny gadgets has something to do with the anthropology in Le Guin's background. It's excellent food for thought.
Nobody can. I can't imagine why they'd want to.
Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine - and so on and on. Perhaps very ethereal people aren't interested in these mundane, bodily matters, but I'm fascinated by them, and I think most of my readers are too.
Tags:science fiction, anthropology, Ursula Le Guin
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
On the other hand, technobabble and all, Star Trek fulfills a very imporant role. It shows and endorses the value of science and technology — the only popular TV series to do so, at a time when science has lost both appeal and prestige. With the increasing depth of each scientific field, and the burgeoning of specialized jargon, it is distressingly easy for us scientists to isolate ourselves within our small niches and forget to share the wonders of our discoveries with our fellow passengers on the starship Earth. Despite its errors, Star Trek’s greatest contribution is that it has made us dream of possibilities, and that it has made that dream accessible to people both inside and outside science.You should read her entire post, Forever Young, at Starship Reckless. I also recommend her article Making Aliens: The Repercussions of Planetary Settlement, which proposes that human settlements on other planets will end up evolving into new non-human species.
Athena is guest blogger at Sentient Developments this month, and I'm looking forward to reading her posts.
Tags:Star Trek, biology, Athena Andreadis
Head over there to see what I and the other Mind Melders have to say on the subject.
Tags:science fiction, biology, television, movies
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
I have a guest post at The Reef Tank Blog about marine science fiction. The focus of the post is SF with an ocean setting you can read for free online. Go check it out!
Photo credit: U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program
Tags:science fiction, marine biology
Monday, May 04, 2009
Wookieepedia has the best collection of all this information. There you can follow in the footsteps of Iyra sentientologist Tem Eliss, and explore the rich biology of the galaxy's sentient species, semi-sentients, and other creatures. I find browsing through the wiki at least as entertaining as Episodes I-III!
Image: detail from drawing of Tem Ellis by Pablo Hidalgo.
Tags:star wars, biology
Jimmy's father worked for OrganInc Farms. He was a genographer, one of the best in the field. He'd done some of the key studies on mapping the proteonome when he was still a post-grad, and then he'd helped engineer the Methuselah Mouse as part of Operation Immortality. After that, at OrganInc Farms, he'd been one of the foremost architects of the pigoon project, along with a team of transplant experts and the microbiologists who were splicing against infections. Pigoon was only a nickname: the official name was sus multiorganifer. But pigoon was what everyone said.Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is set in a fictional future where advanced genetic engineering and other biotechnology is in widely used. Atwood has talked about her longstanding interest in biology, which is based in part on conversations with the scientists in her family:
[... snip ...]
The goal of the pigoon project was to grown an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host - organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which there were more strains every year. A rapid-maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were perfecting a pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time.
~ Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003)
Several of my close relatives are scientists, and the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice, or, when that makes the non-scientists too queasy, the nature of the Universe. My recreational reading — books I read for fun, magazines I read in airplanes — is likely to be pop science of the Stephen Jay Gould or Scientific American type, partly so I'll be able to keep up with the family dialogue and maybe throw a curve or two. (‘Supercavitation?’) So I'd been clipping small items from the back pages of newspapers for years, and noting with alarm that trends derided ten years ago as paranoid fantasies had become possibilities, then actualities. The rules of biology are as inexorable as those of physics: run out of food and water and you die. No animal can exhaust its resource base and hope to survive. Human civilizations are subject to the same law.The general interest in science, the casual reading of science magazines, the following of scientific trends - all are pretty typical behaviors for science fiction writers. That's why I find it disappointing that Atwood claims that what she has written totally isn't science fiction.
Here is what she wrote at the time Oryx and Crake was published:
Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid's Tale, it invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?After acknowledging that it was science fiction in a 2005 article, she has once again backed away from the term in an interview published several weeks ago in the New York Times:
Her nightmarish, futuristic scenarios have caused some of her books to be tagged as science fiction, though she thinks that genre doesn’t quite fit — “since there aren’t aliens and spaceships and the other usual things,” she said.It's not as if Atwood isn't familiar with the genre, or willing to acknowledge that some SF works are "brilliant", it's that she wants to draw a line between science fiction, which is "gizmo-riddled and theory-based space travel, time travel, or cybertravel to other worlds, with aliens frequent" and speculative fiction, which is about "human society and its possible future forms, which are either much better than what we have now, or much worse". The problem is that her definition excludes many award-winning works that are considered by most to be science fiction, including Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain (to name two stories that are bioscience based), as well as the entire ribofunk subgenre.
Science fiction readers consider novels like hers that look at the future of humanity to be part of the genre, so I think she's pretty much stuck with the label. I just wish she could embrace the genre that she seems so reluctant to be a part of.
(If you are interested in a longer discussion of "science fiction" as a genre category, there is a long thread on the topic at Making Light.)
Tags:science fiction, genetic engineering, Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake