Saturday, November 28, 2009

Silurian Tales

"Here about the beach I wander,
Nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science,
And the long results of time."
- Alfred Tennyson

The Silurian Period of the Paleozoic Era featured coral reefs in shallow seas, and abundant life - jawless fish, sea scorpions, nautiloid cephalopods, trilobites and other creatures - inhabited the oceans. Plants - mostly mosses - were just emerging onto dry land. What would it be like if we could travel back to that time?

Steven Utley has written a series of time travel stories featuring scientists exploring the Silurian era. As he explained in an interview:
The stories in Silurian Tales span 25 to 40 years in the lives of a number of recurring characters, scientists and other visitors to mid-Paleozoic time, who are trying to do the work that is important to them while coping — or failing to cope — with isolation, boredom, privation, their own and one another’s shortcomings, and the implications of so-called time travel in accordance with the many-universes hypothesis advanced by quantum physicists. It is, in short, a book of stories about folks trying to be happy.
Over the years Utley has read extensively to provide background for his stories:
The last time Utley calculated the number of books and magazine articles he’s consulted for the series, it was over a hundred. "Including the Atlas of the Prehistoric World, Wildlife of Gondwana, John G. Maisey’s Discovering Fossil Fishes, works by David Attenborough, John McPhee, books about plate tectonics and oceanography, back numbers of National Geographic," Utley said. "I got off into astronomy and quantum physics, too. Everything became grist for the mill. Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy proved useful in writing some of the stories, so, too, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and throughout you’ll catch me paying homage, consciously or otherwise, to all sorts of authors besides Wharton — Jane Austen, Edmond Hamilton, H. P. Lovecraft, Conrad, Borges, Proust. Zane Grey, of all people: his description of a canyon in Riders of the Purple Sage or Heritage of the Desert somehow informs my sense of a Paleozoic landscape. [...]

While an anthology is supposedly in the works, it doesn't appear to have been published yet. Fortunately, several of Utley's Silurian tales are free to read online:
Image: Asaphus species (Trilobite) from the Ordovician-age strata near St. Petersburg, Russia.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Botany of Pandora

James Cameron's soon-to-be-released movie Avatar is about immersion in an alien environment:
We enter the alien world through the eyes of Jake Sully, a former Marine confined to a wheelchair. [. . . ] He is recruited to travel light years to the human outpost of Pandora, where corporations are mining a rare mineral that is key to solving Earth's energy crisis. Because the atmosphere of Pandora is toxic [to humans], they have created the Avatar Program, in which human "drivers" have their consciousness linked to an avatar, a remotely-controlled biological body that can survive in the lethal air. These avatars are genetically engineered hybrids of of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora... the Na'vi.
The visuals of Pandora - mostly CGI - look stunning. This video featurette gives a bit of backgound on how it was created.

Pandora is a lush tropical-looking world, a "garden of Eden with teeth and claws" in the words of Cameron.

To help create the lush backdrop for both the movie and the Avatar game, Cameron consulted with Jodie S. Holt, a Professor of Plant Physiology and Chair of the Department of Botany & Plant Sciences at UC Riverside. She also provided some pointers for Sigourney Weaver's botanist character. As Holt explains:
In 2007, I was asked to consult with an A-list actress who plays a botanist in the movie. She turned out to be Sigourney Weaver. My role was to advise her on how a botanist might dress and act. I met with her in her trailer in a sound studio in Playa del Rey in Los Angeles, and we had a long conversation. A set designer was also present during this meeting. I gave Weaver advice on topics like how a botanist would approach a plant and take samples. With the set designer, I later engaged in an email communication in which I advised him on the sets and equipment that Sigourney Weaver could use in her work as a botanist. I also shared information with him about plant physiology and plant sampling. For a period of months, we exchanged a number of images about equipment a botanist might use to study plants, and I wrote him short lectures on the plants.

Then, in the fall of 2008, I was told that James Cameron was developing a whole suite of game products. I was asked if I would help out by developing content around the plants that appear in the games. I agreed. So in December 2008 I met with Cameron and Jon Landau, the co-producer, in the sound studio, and agreed to develop wikipedia-type entries for the plants. In the game products, players can pause near a plant of interest and read up about it by clicking open an entry about that plant. I provided the content for these entries. Cameron and Landau were looking for credible botanical information for all these fantastic-looking plants. My challenge was to come up with explanations for why Pandora’s environment would select for the kinds of plants the game products have. Some of these plants are fluorescent, some can move, some can fire things off. Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore!

Watch a short video of Holt talking about her involvement with Avatar.

Watch a short video of Weaver talking about making Avatar.

Avatar will be released on December 18th.
Avatar the game is due to ship December 1. (It can be preordered through

Top Image: Sigourney Weaver in her avatar body, via MarketSaw.
Bottom Image: Official Avatar movie still
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cum Grano Salis

Imagine you and the rest of your expedition are stranded on a distant planet. Food stores are running low, but the local trees produce a lovely chartreuse fruit. It's tasty and full of nutrients, but has the unfortunate side-effect of killing the experimental animals you've tested it on (as illustrated above). So what can you do?

"Cum Grano Salis" is a good old-fashioned science fiction problem story that was originally published in a 1959 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Since figuring out the scientific solution to the problem is the whole point of the story, I won't give it away. But if you want a few hints, you can follow the links below (mousing over the links will probably give it all away):
Read "Cum Grano Salis" by David Gordon

(Edited to make the links clearer)
Illustration by Emsh (Ed Emshwiller) for "Cum Grano Salis", originally published in
Astounding Science Fiction, May 1959, currently at Project Gutenberg. Colored by me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Directory of Free Science Fiction With Biology

You may have noticed a slight change to the Biology in Science Fiction blog's appearance. The change isn't merely cosmetic - I finally launched a project I've been fiddling with for quite a while.

One of the wonders of the internet is the abundance of quality fiction you can read (or listen to) for absolutely free. I've been collecting free fiction links as I run across them in a list, which has gotten less and less useful as the list has grown. My original plan was to clean up and organize the list for my own use (removing all those dead SciFiction links, alas), but as I got down to sorting, I realized that other people might be interested in what I was putting together. Add to that the fact that there are more free stories released each month than I could possibly blog about and the solution was obvious: make a web site with the information!

Of course it turned into a bigger project than I expected, but I think it's finally ready to share:

I'm still tweaking the formatting and the categories and I have a long list of links that are yet to be added, but I'm hoping that some of you will take a look and let me know if the layout is confusing or anything is broken or missing.

You can subscribe to the site's RSS feed to keep on top of the latest additions:

Subscribe to the Biology in Science Fiction: Free Fiction directory feed

You can rate the stories, leave a comment or send me a suggestion or correction.

I hope you find the database useful and interesting!


Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Clone Song: You don't need to

Oh, give me a clone
Of my own flesh and bone
With its Y chromosome changed to X.
And after it's grown,
Then my own little clone
Will be of the opposite sex.

The Beam Me Up blog has posted "The Clone Song", a ditty sung to the tune of Home on the Range, penned by Randall Garrett and Isaac Asimov. As the first verse above suggests, it's all about -er- self love.

It actually reminds me a bit of "Nine Lives", Ursula Le Guin's clone-based short story that was published in Playboy in 1969. Those clones didn't need anyone but each other either. (I find the whole "if I had a clone I'd be totally into incest" theme a bit creepy, but it's a popular one in SF.)


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Will aliens look like us?

Michael Shermer - science writer and founder of The Skeptics Society - has made a brief video in which he explains why it's quite unlikely that aliens would look essentially like humans with minor differences in eye shape or forehead topology.

He continues in an article in the November issue Scientific American in which he discusses the possibilities with Richard Dawkins, who isn't quite as skeptical as Shermer. Dawkins argues:
In the film vignette, you implied a quite staggering rarity, so rare that you don’t expect two humanoid life-forms in the entire universe. Now you are ... pointing out, correctly, that a certain inevitability would predict that humanoids should have evolved more than once on Earth! So, yes, we can say that humanoids are fairly improbable, but not necessarily all that improbable! Anything approaching “a certain inevitability” would mean millions or even billions of humanoid life-forms in the universe, simply because the number of available planets is so huge. Now, my guess is intermediate between your two extremes ... I suspect that humanoids are not so very rare as to justify the statistical superlatives that you permitted yourself in the vignette.
The argument depends on how often life has actually arisen in the universe, and I hard to find it disagree with Dawkins when considering the potentially vast number of intelligent species that could have arisen in an infinite universe.

However, I think Dawkins slightly misses Shermer's point. The way that popular culture depicts aliens - from the many humanoid species in the Star Trek and Star Wars universes to the big-eyed Greys of UFO abduction stories - is almost certainly wrong. Even if the universe holds a million planets with intelligent humanoids, the chance that humans will encounter them is vanishingly small. If we do eventually find intelligent extraterrestrial life, it's likely that they won't be anything like us. And they almost certainly won't look like this:

Related: Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology on "Richard Dawkins and the crappy 'humanoid dinosaurs' that just won't die" (based on Dawkins' comments quoted in Shermer's column).

Read "Will E.T. look like us? at Scientific American

Or if you want something a bit lighter, check out "Star Trek's 6 Most Ridiculous Alien Races" at (although in an infinite universe perhaps there really is a planet inhabited solely with individuals who appear to match the "cartoonish Italian mobster stereotype" of early 20th-century Earth - anything's possible, right?).

Image: Cantina scene from the Star Wars Holiday Special

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sci Fi Psi

At io9 Charlie Jane Anders wrote about the riffs on Star Wars in the Ewan McGregor-George Clooney movie The Men Who Stare at Goats. The movie is a humorous fictionalized take on Jon Ronson's (supposedly) non-fiction book by the same name, which documents the real-life US Army program to develop psychic soldiers in the 1980s.

At Wired's Danger Room blog, David Hambling takes a closer look at the program, and its origins in New Age woo. But it's woo with a sciency overlay. Just take a look at Lt. Col. Jim Channon's First Earth Batallion manual (pdf), which suggests that psionic powers are a matter of evolution (we may be abled to live on a diet of radio waves and our carbon based bodies may be turning into silicon!).

I kind of like the manual's description of warrior monks who participate in "ethical combat" and are connected into the biosphere and the universe. But I find the psychic powers idea to be pretty silly non-supported by any conclusive evidence that it work. Read the whole Danger Room post for more about what was tried and what they succeeded in doing.

But the idea that the human mind holds untapped abilities is a familiar one to anyone who has read the classics of science fiction from the mid-20th century. That was due in large part to the fascination of John W. Campbell - influential as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction - with pseudoscience. As Wikipedia quotes:
In 1957, novelist and critic James Blish tallied: "From the professional writer's point of view, the primary interest in Astounding Science Fiction continues to center on the editor's preoccupation with extrasensory powers and perceptions ('psi') as a springboard for stories.... 113 pages of the total editorial content of the January and February 1957 issues of this magazine are devoted to psi, and 172 to non-psi material.... By including the first part of a serial that later becomes a novel about psi the total for these first two issues of 1957 is 145 pages of psi text, and 140 pages of non-psi." James Blish, The Issues at Hand, pages 86-87.
But psi-based science fiction stories didn't start with Campbell. There's a long list of pre-golden age SF featuring telepaths at io9, many of which have passed into the public domain. And moving into mid-century - Campbell's era - there are number of SF classics featuring characters with psi powers: A. E. van Vogt's Slan (1946), Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953), Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1953), Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation (1953), John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), to name a few.

There is a common theme that development of psychic powers is supposed to move Homo sapiens up the "evolutionary ladder"*:
"E for Esper," he muttered. "Esper for Extra Sensory Perception . . . For Telepaths, Mind Readers, Brain Peepers. [ . . . ] Those damned mind-readers are supposed to be the greatest advance since Homo sapiens evolved. E for Evolution. Bastards! E for Exploitation!
~ The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Definitely good reading, but personally I don't consider telepathy to be "science" no matter how it's dressed up in technical terms. While some parapsychology researchers have claimed to see positive results, those studies are controversial and, even if valid have only demonstrated minor effects.

I get the sense that SF authors sometimes want to write about powerful wizards in a technology-based setting, hence psi-powered supermen that explore the stars. I don't think that's a bad thing, but it does annoy me when people go on about about how "hard" the science was during the olden days "Golden Age".

And coming back around to The Men That Stare at Goats, it sounds very much like the story of people who view the world through a science fiction lens. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

(Danger Room post via BoingBoing)

* Of course evolution has no direction or goal. Continuing human evolution does not mean that Homo sapiens will become more "advanced", only different. Listing the SF stories that get that wrong is a completely different post.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Biopolitics of Popular Culture Seminar

The Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies (IEET) will be hosting a seminar on the "Biopolitics of Popular Culture":
Popular culture is full of tropes and cliches that shape our debates about emerging technologies. Our most transcendent expectations for technology come from pop culture, and the most common objections to emerging technologies come from science fiction and horror, from Frankenstein and Brave New World to Gattaca and the Terminator.

Why is it that almost every person in fiction who wants to live a longer than normal life is evil or pays some terrible price? What does it say about attitudes towards posthuman possibilities when mutants in Heroes or the X-Men, or cyborgs in Battlestar Galactica or Iron Man, or vampires in True Blood or Twilight are depicted as capable of responsible citizenship?

Is Hollywood reflecting a transhuman turn in popular culture, helping us imagine a day when magical and muggle can live together in a peaceful Star Trek federation? Will the merging of pop culture, social networking and virtual reality into a heightened augmented reality encourage us all to make our lives a form of participative fiction?

During this day long seminar we will engage with culture critics, artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television.
Sounds pretty interesting - and some of the confirmed speakers should be familiar to science fiction fans:
You can check out all of the particpants at the official web site.

The seminar will be held on Friday, December 4th in Irvine, California. Click for details. If you register before November 15th, the cost is only $99 - $60 for students.

Saturday and Sunday, December 5th and 6th, the Humanity+ Summit will be held at the same location.
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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Empire of the Ants

In a few miles of this forest there must be more ants than there are men in the whole world! This seemed to Holroyd a perfectly new idea. In a few thousand years men had emerged from barbarism to a stage of civilisation that made them feel lords of the future and masters of the earth! But what was to prevent the ants evolving also? Such ants as one knew lived in little communities of a few thousand individuals, made no concerted efforts against the greater world. But they had a language, they had an intelligence! Why should things stop at that any more than men had stopped at the barbaric stage? Suppose presently the ants began to store knowledge, just as men had done by means of books and records, use weapons, form great empires, sustain a planned and organised war?
~ "Empire of the Ants", HG Wells (1911)
Sometimes an ant is more than just an ant.

University of Kent senior lecturer in the history of science Dr. Charlotte Sleigh has been known as "the ant woman" for her research into the way that society has shaped the way scientists have looked at ants. In her 2003 book Ant she discusses how ants came to represent "Europeans' fears about the complicity of savage insects and humans" and how that was "part of a larger anxiety about "degeneration".
This has been well documented by historians; predictions that the sun was going to die, that hte comforts of civilization would cause evolution to run backwards, that the working classes were out-breeding the rest, and that the white man could not survive the tropics all contributed to the sense that things were going downhill around the turn of the twentieth century.
This is, of course, the period when H. G. Wells wrote most of his novels, and it is no coincidence that many of his monsters were quite ant-like. And, of course, in Wells's short story "Empire of the Ants" the monstrous creatures truly are ants. Sleigh points out:
Although they are large as ants go, they are still too small to be shot, and little enough to swarm and surge like Ewers' black carpet. The ants also seem to have evolved greater intelligence than normal. The Portuguese captain turns out to be incompetent; he sends the lieutenant to his death on an infested ship of human corpses. He futilely fires his cannon at the ants' ranks - ranks that simply scatter and recondense like so many droplets of black water. No wonder, then, that the mission fails. The ship turns around and sails away with all haste, leaving the ants to their new-found mastery of the continent.
What gives the story its bite is its title. The tale goes beyond the fantastic and taps into contemporary fears about the tenability of European empires.
[. . . ]
Wells could not resist pushing anxieties about the limits of progress and the fragility of European superiority to their furthest extreme.
That brought to mind another ant short story, Carl Stephenson's "Leiningen Versus the Ants", originally published in Esquire in 1938. The story is about a "scrappy, no-nonsense" settler in the Brazilian wilderness who battles to save his plantation from being overrun by ants. Even though he's the hero, when I read the story I ended up quite disliking Leiningen (who is racist, sexist, and arrogant) and was rooting for the ants to win. But, alas, he does. Apparently Europeans can conquer the savage wilderness if he is of strong enough character and willing to do anything to succeed.

You can read "Empire of the Ants" in the HG Wells collection The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories at Project Gutenberg. (The collection also includes the story "Valley of Spiders", which may or may not symbolize something beyond icky eight-legged creatures. ) Aternatively, you can download the pdf of just "Empire of the Ants" from

Read "Leiningen Versus the Ants" at Classic Short Stories.

You can purchase Ant and Sleigh's follow-up book Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology

Top Photo: Ant Pile by Thirteen of Clubs. / CC BY-SA 2.0
Bottom Photo: Salivating Ant by NeilPhotography. / CC BY 2.0

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Monday, November 02, 2009

The Stonemaker Argument

The latest episode of science-loving web comic The Stonemaker Argument features a little girl after my own heart.

Go read the whole comic!

(via Bad Astronomy)


Genetics in Fiction @ Clarkesworld

Roger Moraga has a nice article in the current issue of Clarkesworld Magazine on "Modern Genetics in the World of Fiction":
Most of the time there is a certain amount of unrealistic superscience involved in the creation of speculative fiction, but as a geneticist I can't help but wonder if it is really necessary to trample all over what we do know about genetics to make it happen. Ultimately it is up to the creator to decide how much, and how soon, to depart from "real" Science, but before long it may not be necessary to depart much at all. A more in-depth look at what genetic engineering is doing today may be enough to make one's imagination run wild.
You should definitely go read the complete article for yourself, but I will note that I couldn't agree more with Moraga's conclusion:
If you are a writer considering genetic engineering for your next work, take a little time to invite a molecular biologist to a drink or two and pick his* brain. We don't bite, we love speculating about science fiction, and many of us even like free drinks.

* and don't forget that some molecular biologists are she rather than he (hint hint).
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