Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Make SF More Believable with Neuroscience

FRAISER: Well, your brain chemistry's been seriously compromised. All of you have abnormally low levels of serotonin.

O'NEILL: Which means…?

FRAISER: It's a neurotransmitter that effects moods. Now, low levels would account for depression, but not these other effects. Come here. I want you to take a look at this.

[Fraiser leads them to a computer. On screen is a model of a human brain. She points, outlining an area with her finger.]

FRAISER: This dark spot here appears on all of your scans. Now, it's almost too small an anomaly to worry about but for the fact that it's in virtually the same part of the cortex—

~ Stargate SG-1, "Fire and Water"
Last week Ben Goldacre wrote in his Bad Science blog (and his column for The Guardian) about the Brain Gym, a UK school program that some teachers love despite the pseudoscientific explanations for its various exercises. He points to one possible explanation: a report in the March 2008 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that shows that people are more likely to believe explanations that include neuroscience technical terms.

The subjects were from three groups: everyday people, neuroscience students, and neuroscience academics. All three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones, but the subjects in the two non-expert groups judged that the explanations with logically irrelevant neurosciencey information were more satisfying than the explanations without. What’s more, the bogus neuroscience information had a particularly strong effect on peoples’ judgments of bad explanations. As quacks are well aware, adding scientific-sounding but conceptually uninformative information makes it harder to spot a dodgy explanation.

An interesting question is why. The very presence of neuroscience information might be seen as a surrogate marker of a good explanation, regardless of what is actually said. As the researchers say, “something about seeing neuroscience information may encourage people to believe they have received a scientific explanation when they have not.”

So, if you are writing a story and need to create a plausible explanation for your characters' behavior, try a little neuroscience!

Read a preprint of the original article: Weisberg DS et al. "The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations", J. Cogn. Neurosci., 20: 470-477 (2008) (pdf). If you have access to the online version of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, you can read the article here.

Image: Depiction of eddy current brain stimulation, from the work of Eric Wasserman an the Brain Stimulation Unit at NINDS


Monday, February 25, 2008

The Puppet Masters

Underneath the jacket the body was dressed in a light singlet, almost transparent. Between this shirt an the skin, from the neck halfway down the back, was something which was not flesh. A couple of inches thick, it gave the corpse a round-shouldered, or slightly humped, appearance.
It pulsed like a jellyfish.
~ Puppet Masters, by Robert A. Heinlein
This weekend the Saturday night movie on SciFi is the 1994 version of The Puppet Masters, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Warner. The movie is based on the Heinlein novel by the same name, and features alien slugs that crash land on earth, then try to take over by riding on the backs of their human hosts, controlling them like, well, puppets.

Screenwriter Terry Rossio wrote an amusing account of the many rewrites involved in bringing Puppet Masters to the big screen:
Our original desire to do the novel was based on wanting to see seven great gangbusters sequences. For those who've read the novel, they are:
  1. Investigating the fake spaceship and the fake news broadcast.
  2. Sam gets taken by the slugs, goes over to their side.
  3. Sam sits down in Mary's place for the slug interview.
  4. Sam goes into slug-infested Kansas City.
  5. The President takes off his clothes in front of Congress.
  6. The ape, Satan, gets slug-ridden. And
  7. Sam and the Old Man go into the alien spaceship.
Apparently the movie doesn't follow the book's lead and have all the characters walk around shirtless to prove their parasite-free state. It would be entertaining to see the movie try to manage that and keep its less-than-X rating. In fact, only elements 1 an 2 of the novel made it into the final version of the movie. There isn't even a real spaceship.

The reviews were mediocre, it didn't do too well at the box office, and the biology looks laughable, but it probably is more interesting than the evil-and/or-giant-animal-attacks movies that SciFi usually shows on Saturday night. Or you could dig up a copy of Heinlein's version and spend a cozy evening reading instead.

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Bioscience News Roundup: 02-25-08

Here are some interesting bioscience web tidbits from the past couple of weeks.

Edge has an interview with biological engineer Drew Endy about the future of engineering organisms.
Programming DNA is more cool, it's more appealing, it's more powerful than silicon. You have an actual living, reproducing machine; it's nanotechnology that works. It's not some Drexlarian (Eric Drexler) fantasy. And we get to program it. And it's actually a pretty cheap technology. You don't need a FAB Lab like you need for silicon wafers. You grow some stuff up in sugar water with a little bit of nutrients. My read on the world is that there is tremendous pressure that's just started to be revealed around what heretofore has been extraordinarily limited access to biotechnology.
Bioethics Bytes looks at the ethical issues that arise with human longevity, based on the BBC Channel 4 documentary, Do You Want to Live Forever?, featuring biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey.

io9 reports from the AAAS conference about research from Angela Belcher's lab at MIT that uses specially engineered viruses as battery components. Belcher says we shouldn't worry about the viruses running rampant:
"Let's see what we can get biology to do for us," she said. "It's just a matter of giving biology new opportunities, new materials to work with." One audience member asked if Belcher is concerned about the viruses mutating and perhaps replicating on their own. Not possible, responded Belcher. The only mutations she's seen so far have been viruses reverting back to their old state (ie, making regular virus shells instead of battery components), and viruses making depolarized battery components.
Technology Review presents its annual list of the 10 most exciting emerging technologies. On the bioscience front are enzymes designed to make biofuels from cellulose and "connectomics", which "attempts to physically map the ­tangle of neural circuits that collect, ­process, and archive information in the nervous system."

Technology Review also writes about the work of Miguel Nicolelis's lab at Duke on neural implant technology. Their most recent breakthrough:
In January a rhesus monkey named Idoya did what no other creature has done before: she made a robot walk just by thinking about it. All Idoya had to do was imagine taking a step, and the robot would actually take it.
Australian scientists surveying the deep ocean around Antarctica have found an array of giant sea creatures, including "sea spiders the size of dinner plates." You can watch video from the expeition at the Census of Antarctic Marine Life web site.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins have created a chip that where chemical interactions between neurons mimic those in the brain.

The fossil of a very large frog - estimated to be 16 inches long and 10 pounds - was discovere in Madagascar. The frog, christened Beelzebufo (pictured above), may have eaten baby dinosaurs.

Finally, Korean scientists have developed a space safe kimchi, so the country's first astronaut doesn't have to go without spicy fermented cabbage. Some bacteria have been shown to be more virulent in a zero-g environment, so a bacteria-free version needed to be developed. It doesn't address the other potential problem with kimchi in the close confines of a space vessel: stinky garlic kimchi breath.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Amy Thomson on Alien Aliens

Amy Thomson's 1995 novel The Color of Distance is the story of Juna, the only survivor of a human survey mission on a distant planet - Tendu - with very inhuman inhabitants. Thomson was recently interviewed by io9 about creating truly alien aliens.
Yes, I think writers can and have created really alien lifeforms. The aliens in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, Robert Forward's neutron star dwellers in Dragon's Egg, and many others come to mind.

That said, it isn't easy to create really alien-seeming aliens. There are plenty of books with aliens that are just humans in funny suits in a lot of books. Sometimes that's all the story needs. More often it's not.

For me, I find the easiest way to create a really alien-seeming culture is to start with an animal and ecological model. For example, the Tendu and the rainforest, and the harsel and the ocean. I try to avoid mammalian animals, because warm and furry is too familiar, and to anthropomorphize. In
The Color of Distance, I based the Tendu on tree frogs. The harsels are based on whale sharks, cold blooded, water-breathing filter feeders. I also try to give my aliens a very different reproductive biology than humans. I find that it gives them very different drives and motives.
Read the whole interview for her take on Star Trek-type humanoid aliens, death, environmental balance, and her what she is writing now.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: February 23 Edition

Every so often I read a claim that we are living in a science fictional world and that the future of the golden age of SF has come to pass. What BS. Until we have a tablet that cures the cold and flu, and friendly household robots that will sort and wash my accumulated laundry, cook dinner and do the dishes, and scrub the bathrooms, we are still living in the dark ages. Anyway, that's my excuse for not posting much the past week or so.

Here are some of the science fiction biology links I didn't get around to blogging:

Both CBS and NBC have released some of their old TV shows online for free, including scifi and horror classics. NBC's offerings include the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and Rod Serling's Night Gallery. CBS has both the original Star Trek and the Twilight Zone.

At Bloggasm Simon Owens brown the news that Tor Books will be creating a new online community.
Two sources who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that it’s intended to be a “go-to site, a central community” for science fiction and fantasy fans. A few authors have already been approached to submit original short fiction to be published online. Tor is paying upwards of 25 cents per word for these stories and right now is only dealing with solicited authors.
There will also be social networking-type features. If you haven't signed up for Tor's mailing list, do it now. You can get free ebooks to download (most recently John Scalzi's Old Man's War) and be among the first to learn about Tor's new online offerings.

There's a call for entries for the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York.
The objective of the festival is to screen films that effectively bring together science and the arts.The emphasis would be on fictional films about science and/or scientists with compelling narrative and exciting credible science.
Watch the ISFF trailer. (via Spoonful of Medicine)

io9 has the wrap-up from the recent party in LA in honor of the last issue of the comic Y: The Last Man. There are lots of insider tidbits about the series, including its origins as a project for the now-defunct Penthouse Comics. In case you missed out on the hoopla, Y: The Last Man is the story of Yorick, the only man who survives a world-wide plague, and his monkey. Download the first issue for free.

The Emirates Film Competition is taking place this week in Abu Dhabi. They not only have a science fiction category, it's split into several sub-categories, including "Viral Genetics" . The category appears to have a single entry: Les Inhumans, a 16 minute film in French by Olivier Monot. I guess he's a shoe-in.

At the The Panda's Thumb, Reed Cartwright writes about the movie WΔZ, a horror movie inspired by the Price Equation, which is a mathematical description of natural selection and evolution.

io9 has some great drawings of giant carnivorous plants that will be found on one of the alien worlds in the new Stargate Worlds MMORPG.

Christ Gorski of the American Institute of Physics takes a look at the science of fairy tales for LiveScience. If you've wondered about the strength of Rapunzel's hair, this is the article to read.


Peter Watts on Evolution of Altruism

The newly-relaunched Internet Review of Science Fiction has an interview with Peter Watts, in which he talks about evolution, altruism, and sociopaths.
"No altruists in Darwin's universe." Catchy line, that. Far more appealing than "Altruists may exist, for a variety of social or developmental reasons, but they get weeded out of the population as fast as they arise," which is a more accurate formulation. And one I stand behind.

Let's start with other species, then move closer to home. There are many cases of apparent altruism throughout the animal kingdom: mother ducks caring for the offspring of another female, or a squirrel putting itself at risk by conspicuously raising an alarm call when it sees a predator—even, sometimes, when there are no blood relatives around. But when you look closely, selfish motives always seem to lurk at the heart of these behaviors. [ . . . ] And let's not forget "reciprocal altruism" (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), or the ubiquitous "kin selection"—that's "motherhood issues," to you hominids—in which we endlessly celebrate the anything-but-altruistic behavior of parents who are doing nothing but protecting their own genes.

According to Watts, sociopaths and psychopaths may actually have an evolutionary advantage, due to having lots of offspring, and the relative ease of outrunning one's reputation in modern society.
Your garden-variety psychopath breeds pretty much the same way the rest of us do—he just does it more often, with a greater number of partners, and with far less in the way of follow-up nurture. It's a classic fuck-'em-forget-'em strategy. To cite Rice again, psychopaths have way more kids than the rest of us, and even the extreme end of that spectrum—psychopathic rapists—tend to target women of child-bearing age, not kids or seniors. Sounds like a successful reproductive strategy to me.
Watts also talks about the basis of his characters in Starfish and Blindsight, unhappy endings and writing horror, and his experience as a molecular biology postdoc, of which he notes:
. . . it's been a damn sight more lucrative than writing science fiction ever was.
Definitely a caution to those of you who think that writing fiction will make you rich.

You can read Starfish, Blindsight and other of Watts' novels at short stories at Rifters.com.

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How a Science Fiction Writer Thinks

Nancy Kress writes on her blog about how she realized she sees the world a little differently than the average person after watching a video of the 200 people who froze in place for five minutes in Grand Central Station:
Had I seen this sudden mass freezing, the first thing that would have come to mind was a virus of some kind, possibly genetically engineered, that causes a vastly speeded-up Parkinson's-like syndrome, locking muscles in place. I would have called 911, afraid that lung muscles would be next and all these people would stop breathing. I would have wondered if it were contagious.
I'd suspect that's how science fiction writers get their ideas: they simply observe the world around them through a SF lens.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Science Fiction Studies: Octavia Butler on Biology and Behavior

Science Fiction Studies is a journal published three times a year by DePauw University that takes a scholarly look at science fiction, including reviews, interviews and literary analyses. They have posted a lot of interesting material online, so his is one of a series on what they have to say about biology in science fiction.

In 1996 Stephen W, Potts interviewed the late Octavia Butler. Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (now titled Lilith's Brood) features an alien species, Oankali, who attempt to colonize Earth with human-Oankali hybrids. In the interview, Potts and Butler discussed aliens and the biology of behavior.

SWP: Something similar is going on in the XENOGENESIS trilogy, isn't it? While teaching the books in my university classes, I have encountered disagreement over which species comes off worse, the humans or the Oankali. Humanity has this hierarchical flaw, particularly in the male, but the Oankali are the ultimate users, adapting not only the entire human genome for its own purposes but ultimately destroying the planet for all other life as well. Are we supposed to see a balance of vices here?

OEB: Both species have their strengths and weaknesses. You have small groups of violent humans, but we don't see all humans rampaging as a result of their Contradiction. For the most part, the Oankali do not force or rush humans into mating but try to bring them in gradually. In fact, in Adulthood Rites, the construct Akin convinces the Oankali that they cannot destroy the human beings who refuse to participate. The Oankali decide that humans do deserve an untouched world of their own, even if it's Mars.

SWP: In the case of both humans and Oankali, you offer sociobiological arguments for behavior: humans are bent toward destroying themselves and others; the Oankali are biologically driven to co-opt the genome of other species and to literally rip off their biospheres. Do you largely accept sociobiological principles?

OEB: Some readers see me as totally sociobiological, but that is not true. I do think we need to accept that our behavior is controlled to some extent by biological forces. Sometimes a small change in the brain, for instance—just a few cells—can completely alter the way a person or animal behaves.

SWP: Are you thinking of Oliver Sacks's books, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat?

OEB: Exactly. Or the fungus that causes tropical ants to climb trees to spread its spores, or the disease that makes a wildebeest spend its last days spinning in circles. But I don't accept what I would call classical sociobiology. Sometimes we can work around our programming if we understand it.

Of course the interview covers a lot of other topics, including science fiction as a white male genre, women and reproduction, and the empathic abilities of her character Laura in Parable of the Sower (which are biological, not psi powers). I recommend reading the whole thing.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Inhuman Love

In association with Zazzle.comFor this Valentine's Day here are a few free science fiction love stories with other-than-human beings. Like real love, some end in happiness, and some in sorrow:

• "Luciferase" by Bruce Sterling
• "Rachel in Love by Pat Murphy
• "Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death" by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon)
• "Breathmoss" by Ian R. MacLeod
• "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" by Neil Gaiman

I think the most romantic science fiction story I've read is The Time Traveler's Wife, but that is unfortunately not free to read online.

Image: "Alien Kiss" postcard by Doodleworks on Zazzle
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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Stenonychosaurus on the Moon?

It may sound like science fiction, but NASA scientist Chris McKay did suggest that we dig for dinosaur relics on the moon at a SETI conference last week. Robin Hansen reports on what he heard and quotes McKay's 1996 paper, "Time for intelligence on other planets":

It is now considered probable that the dinosaurs were not the lumbering clods of urban myth but that they were biochemically and behaviorally as sophisticated as present mammals. Evidence continues to point to parentling and social behavior that is on a par wit small mammals and birds. ... [Considero] the small carnivorous dinosaur Stenonychosaurus, which stood about 120cm, weighed about 40 kg, and had [a brain size ratio] about equal to that of a possum or an octopus, and lived over 12 million years before the end of the dinosaurs. ...

One might speculate that perhaps Stenonychosaurus or her progeny did build radio telescopes, but their civilization was destroyed by some internal or external catastrophe. Perhaps the lifetime of their civilization was so short compared with the resolution of the geological record (typically millions of years) that it is simply lost without a trace in the depths of time. It is difficult to say what evidence would survive of human civilization - if it was terminated now - after 65 million years of tectonic activity, erosion, and sea level change. It is interesting to note that there is one place where the record of human technology will be preserved for times much longer than 100 million years. ... The Apollo landing sites on the Moon would bear mute testimony to technological humans.

Of course, the dinosaurs might have have even more optimistic goals (and a well-funded space program). Maybe, just maybe, they are still out there somewhere - and you can read about them:

For more about detecting alien life, see this July 2006 interview with Chris McKay in Astrobiology Magazine.

Image: Illustration from Space.com "Cosmic Cannon: How an Exploding Star Could Fry Earth"
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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Darwin and Science Fiction

In honor of Darwin Day, a quote about Charles Darwin's impact on science fiction from Lou Anders:
Gardner Dozois has pointed out elsewhere that science fiction really began with Charles Darwin, with the notion of evolution, geological time, and the concept that there was a future that would continue for long enough to be potentially different from the now. Pre-Darwin, the world hadn't been around for more than a few thousand years, and was probably going to end in the next hundred or so, so how could you have anything like off-world colonies, alien species, or a future radically different from the present? Post-Darwin, there was no one running the show and no guarantee that the engines that ran the world wouldn't shake us off and carry on without us.
Now I know that the idea of an older-than-6000-year-old earth started with 18th and early-19th century geologists such as James Hutton and Charles Lyell, and the notion that species evolve began with the work of natural philosophers like Lamarck and even Charles's granddaddy Erasmus. But Charles Darwin's Origin of Species brought evolution into both the mainstream of science and the public eye.

As Astrobiology Magazine points out, evolutionary themes were rapidly adopted by the 19th century writers of fantastic fiction:
The irresistible rise of the metaphor of evolution spawned around 70 futuristic fantasies in England between 1870 and 1900. As a result, an increasing number of people met the astrobiological ideas of Darwinian evolution, not through science, but as a text. These books inspired emotional as well as intellectual reactions and embedded the idea of evolution and the future of humanity even deeper into the public imagination.
The best known of those is, of course, HG Wells' 1895 classic, The Time Machine.

So, happy birthday Charles D, and thanks for more than 100 years of science fiction!

Image: Illustration from "How Will The World End?" by Herbert C Fyfe, Pearson's Magazine, July 1900. "Mr. H. G. Wells has drawn in his romance, "The Time Machine," a strangely impressive picture of the end of the world as he conceives it. The last man, according to his conception, freezes to death, and life becomes unsupportable on our planet, not because of great heat, but rather from intense cold. [. . .] Loathsome animals of huge size, brought into existence by the altered condition of affairs, creep over the masses of ice and crawl over the frozen seas and lakes. Little by little all trace of vegetation disappears -- a steady snowstorm settles down over the earth, and our planet revolves in space for a short time only to fall a frozen mass into the bosom of the dying sun."

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Bioscience News Roundup: 02-11-08

Some interesting bioscience bits from the past week:

io9 reports on the open source biohacking community. You can join the community yourself at Sourceforge.
Join the fight against cancer, against all sorts of disease! Or would you rather see some glowing bacterium, get your own ecoli farm set up to amaze your friends? This open, free synthetic biology kit contains all sorts of information from across the web on how to do it: how to extract and amplify DNA, cloning techniques, making DNA by what's known as oligonucleotides, and all sorts of other tutorials and documents on techniques in genetic engineering, tissue engineering, synbio (synthetic biology), stem cell research, SCNT, evolutionary engineering, bioinformatics, etc. And since the project is open, it's free for you to revise or share your experiences, or even share your genes (got anything cool?). The more eyes, the better-- you can't ignore these awesome possibilities (or even the not-so-cool ones*).
The big bioscience story was the creation of a human three parent embryo: the nucleus from a traditionally-created (if that's the right term) in vitro fertilized embryo was transferred into a donor egg. The donor egg had most of its DNA removed, but still contained mitochondria. More at Genetics and Health

Mind Hacks writes about the 1959 special issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry on 'space psychiatry'.

PLoS Biology published an article about chameleons using color change as social signals. Wired has the basics, including a funky chameleon video.

Bruce Sterling writes about work by the Army to hack mitochondria:
Oxford University biochemists look for ways to get mitochondria to feed on fats, instead of sugars -- without all the nasty side-effects of a constant cheeseburger binge. (((Did I mention it also makes you slender, sexy, and ravenously erotic at the age of 60? See if you can't slither through that rusting thicket of bayonets surrounding at the mitochondria plant, ladies))) If the scientists are successful, small rations of the ketone cuisine could boost a soldier's stamina, and maybe even keep him nourished for days at a time....
The Neurophilosophy blog has video from the World Economic Summit in Davos:
In this film, Scoble talks to the Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who discussed his recent experiments in which a monkey with a brain-computer interface implanted into its motor cortex controlled the movements of a robot that was located more than 7,000 miles away.
New Scientist writes about a "DNA-based fabricator" created by CalTech bioengineers. They used it to create "two-legged DNA molecules that walk along a ladder-like track."

They also report on a nifty ink jet printer designed by scientists at Wake Forest to "print" using cells rather than ink.

Technology Review reports on recent experiments towards gene therapy for chronic pain
Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine injected a virus carrying the gene for an endogenous opioid--a chemical naturally produced by the body that has the same effect as opiate painkillers such as morphine--directly into the spinal fluid of rats. The injections were targeted to regions of the spinal cord called the dorsal root ganglia, which act as a "pain gate" by intercepting pain signals from the body on their way to the brain. "You can stop pain transmission at the spinal level so that pain impulses never reach the brain," says project leader Andreas Beutler, an assistant professor of hematology and medical oncology at Mount Sinai.
It looks like there is one common ancestor for the blue-eyed.

Forbes looks at how to cheat death

Nature reports that insect-eating plants produce useful enzymes (subscription required)

Carnivorous plants are not the first organisms to come to mind when searching for biomedical compounds. Yet, like something from science fiction, researchers are discovering enzymes in the digestive fluids of carnivorous pitcher plants that could prove useful in controlling infections.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: February 9 Edition

Some biology in science fiction bits from around the internets:

Times Online lists The Top 10 modern sci-fi movie clichés, starting with "A virus has decimated the population . . . " (via SF Signal)

As quoted in the latest edition of Ansible:
History looks more and more like a science-fiction novel in which mutants repeatedly arose and displaced normal humans -- sometimes quietly, by surviving starvation and disease better, other times as a conquering horde' (Gregory Cochran, co-author of a paper on human evolution, quoted in Newsweek , 19 January)
David Hughes, editor at Electric Spec, reviews Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain, including how well the science holds up 15 years after its original publication.
I'm afraid that Kress didn't get it right in terms of how much genetic science (among other things) would develop. (If fact, there's one point where smoking is referred to as an "archaic" habit. If only we'd come that far!).
Wil McCarthy's Lab Notes column in Sci Fi Weekly takes a look at the science of the Cloverfield monster

Adam Weiner, author of Don't Try This at Home! The Physics of Hollywood Movies looks at the science of superheroes for Popular Science. It is mostly about physics, naturally, but there are also bits on the physiology of The Hulk and the improbability that The Torch has intact DNA.

A special edition of GATTACA will be released March 11.

BoingBoing TV presents Codehunters, a short anime by Ben Hibon. There are demons and death and DNA:
Since Khaan came into power his supremacy had been challenged by a single dissenter, a man named Krai. This man was a renowned “Coder”; one of the last survivors of a supreme race possessing the ability to manipulate DNA, the code of life. Krai was the only person with the power to challenge Khaan’s rule of terror. As his wrath turned against Khaan, Krai became the people’s hero, a symbol of rebellion and freedom.

io9 determines which giant monster is tallest - Cloverfield monster? King Kong? Godzilla? Kroll? Read it to find out.

In the New York Times Paper Cuts blog, Dave Itzkoff lets actor/comedian Bill Hader review his favorite science fiction and horror novels. (via the Dizzies)
I was reading an interview with Alex Garland about “28 Days Later,” where he said: This is basically me ripping off this book I read when I was a kid, called “Day of the Triffids.” I found it in a used-book store in L.A., called the Iliad, and from the first chapter alone I was hooked. It is a lot like “28 Days Later” – a guy wakes up in a hospital and there’s no one in there, and all of London is vacant. But instead of turning into zombies, everyone in London is now blind, because they were watching an asteroid shower. They figure out that he can see, so he’s being chased by all these blind people. Think about if everyone in New York lost their sight, and you were the one guy who could still see, and people figured it out. It’s just such a terrifying image. And then the plants show up. Just to add another layer, there are plants that whip out and destroy you. After I read “Day of the Triffids,” I read “The Ruins,” a Scott Smith book that’s also about killer plants. Now I’m afraid of plants
You can win a copy of Edward Willett's new novel Marseguro. From the cover blurb:

Marseguro, a water world far distant from Earth, is home to a small colony of unmodified humans known as landlings and to the Selkies, a water-dwelling race created by geneticist Victor Hansen from modified human DNA. For seventy years the Selkies and the unmodified landlings have dwelled together in peace, safe from pursuit by the current theocratic rulers of Earth–a group intent on maintaining human genetic and religious purity.

Then landling Chris Keating, a misfit on any world, seeks personal revenge on Emily Wood and her fellow Selkies by activating a distress beacon taken from the remains of the original colony ship. When the Earth forces capture the signal and pinpoint its origin, a strike force, with Victor Hansen’s own grandson Richard aboard, is sent to eradicate this abomination.

Yet Marseguro will not prove as easy to conquer as the Earth force anticipates. And what Richard Hansen discovers may alter not only his own destiny but that of Marseguro and Earth as well…

Find out how to win a copy and read sample chapters.

Finally, to get yourself a weekly fix of cool free fiction, head over to Tor and sign up for their mailing list.
The first week's free book is Mistborn, by rising fantasy star Brandon Sanderson. Next week's will be Old Man's War by John Scalzi, 2006's winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Over the next several weeks, other books still.


Total Recall or Little Shop of Horrors in Intro Bio?

The Onion reports on a biology teacher with a dilemma:

The Onion

Science Teacher Struggles To Justify Showing Total Recall

SOUTH BELOIT, IL—South Beloit High School biology teacher Nathan Merchant struggled Tuesday to provide a satisfactory educational reason for...

Reading the article, it sounds pretty justified to me!

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Sanctuary and the Secrets of Evolution

Sanctuary is no ordinary online science fiction series. Its creator is Damian Kindler, a writer and producer for both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, and stars Stargate's Amanda Tapping. Tapping is joined by costars Robin Dunne, Emilie Ullerup, and Christopher Heyerdahl and a guest stars from many other British Columbia-filmed science fiction series, including the Stargates, Battlestar Galactica, The Dead Zone, Smallville and The 4400. The plot is a mash-up of horror and science fiction:

Moving from Victorian England to present day, Sanctuary’s story takes place in a world that is different from our own, yet feels familiar – like the X-Files meets Van Helsing. In Sanctuary, monsters move secretly throughout the world, both threatening and threatened, while one woman and her team search them out.

Sanctuary tracks the adventures of Dr. Helen Magnus, a 157-year old physician who studies monsters. She is aided in her work by her reluctant protégé, psychiatrist Will Zimmerman, and her fearless daughter Ashley. Together they seek to find and help the strange and often frightening creatures that populate their world.

Dr. Magnus is on a mission to finish her father’s work and unlock the secrets behind human evolution using a unique combination of science, medicine and her own knowledge of the supernatural. After becoming entangled in a relationship with a time-travelling murderer and bearing his child, Magnus’s story fast-forwards to the present day where she and her daughter Ashley now operate an underground sanctuary and scientific laboratory that houses the monsters and creatures they capture and study.

What makes it SF rather than fantasy to me is that it's set on an alternate Earth where the monsters are more biological than supernatural.

Eight available-for-purchase episodes are available online, and you can watch low-res versions of the first four episodes for free. If you enjoy those, you'll be pleased to know that the SciFi channel has committed to a 13-episode season.

I'm looking forward to it!

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Artificial Skin for Terminators (and People)

The basic plot of FOX's new series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, has a familiar formula: Sarah and her son John - who will ultimately lead the human rebellion against the machines - are aided by a friendly and attractive cyborg from the future, Cameron, who helps protect them from a bad terminator, Cromartie.

In the series premiere Cromartie was shot with a high-energy rifle from the future and apparently destroyed. Not too surprisingly, his head - stripped of it's human-seeming flesh - survives, and contains programming for automated repair. Cromartie rebuilds the metal skeleton of his body, but still needs a flesh covering to appear human. To that end, he seeks out a scientist, Dr. Fleming, who is working on a formula for growing skin in vitro. In exchange for a formula that makes the skin grow extra super duper fast, the scientist helps Cromartie grow a covering of flesh. The process doesn't leave him very pretty, but at least he doesn't look like a robot any more:

The only thing Cromartie was missing was human eyes, which he also got from the docto - after killing him, of course.

In real life, skin can indeed be grown in a laboratory. The difference is that it takes a lot longer than a day. An example is a recent study that demonstrated growing new patches of skin from stem cells that are stuck to hair roots.
“We pluck a few hairs off the back of the patient’s head and extract adult stem cells from their roots, which we then proliferate in a cell culture for about two weeks. Then we reduce the nutrient solution until it no longer covers the upper sides of the cells, exposing them to the surrounding air. The increased pressure exerted by the oxygen on the surfaces of the cells causes them to differentiate into skin cells,” explains Emmendörffer. In this way, the researchers can grow numerous small pieces of skin, produced individually for each patient, which add up to a surface area of 10 to 100 square centimeters when pieced together.
A 10cm x 10cm (or 4 inch x 4 inch) patch would only replace a tiny portion of the 1.5-2 square meters of skin on an adult human. Starting with a larger piece of tissue the size of a postage stamp, enough skin to almost cover the entire body can be grown in just three weeks.

As yet, there are no artificial skins that can permanently replace human skin tissue, although biotech companies are working in that direction. An example of progress in that direction is Apligraf, an artificial living skin used to help heal ulcers and sores. Apligraf is constructed from human kerotinocytes and dermal fibroblasts grown from neonatal foreskin grown on a matrix of cow type I collagen. It has layers of cells like normal human skin, but has no sweat glands or hair follicles. Two other artificial skin products, TransCyte and Integra, help provide a scaffold for skin grown in burn patients, as CNN reported in 2003:

TransCyte contains skin cells called fibroblasts, which act as a kind of skin stem cell, growing, if conditions allow, into the variety of tissues that comprise healthy skin.

But they don't just grow; they need something to cling to, and TransCyte is made of a kind of scaffolding, not unlike a garden lattice that encourages vines to grow up around it.

Patients with third-degree burns, however, may require Integra to replace the dermal skin layer. It also provides a kind of scaffolding that helps the dermis regenerate itself, in part by tricking it into thinking there are healthy epithelial cells above it.

And while these products help promote skin growth, they only a temporarily replace normal skin. Artificial skins that can be permanently be integrated into the body are still in the testing stages. One such product is in development by British biotech firm Intercytex. As reported last summer:

Called ICX-SKN, the artificial skin mimics the process of natural wound healing. It is made up of a matrix of fibrin, which is a protein found in healing wounds. Fibroblasts – cells that produce collagen in natural skin – are integrated into the matrix.The matrix can be implanted into the wound, where it integrates with the patient’s own skin, closing the wound.In the study, the researchers cut small, oval sections of skin from the arms of six healthy volunteers, and inserted the artificial skin into their wounds. Within 28 days the wounds had fully closed, and showed relatively little scarring.

While further trials are ongoing, Intercytex already has related cosmetic products in the final testing phase, including ICX-TRC autologous hair regeneration therapy (cells used to treat male pattern baldness and female alopecia), and VAVELTA a "facial rejuvenation product" made of human dermal fibroblasts.

So, while it may be a while before skin can be replaced by simply bathing in cultured cells (cyborgs take note), the use of cultured cells to make us younger looking is right around the corner.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Kipling the first modern SF writers?

AboutSF has been posting a series of video clips to YouTube from their Literature of SF DVD. There are commentaries on SF from many leading lights of the past century, including Isaac Asimov and Damon Knight*.

In the clip below, SF writer argues that modern science fiction is characterized by a dynamic rational universe based on natural law and includes social changes driven by technological changes. According to those criteria, Knight argues that modern science fiction started with HG Wells, "who studied biology and dissection", in the late 1800s and early 1900s. More surprising to me was that his contemporary Rudyard Kipling also wrote science fiction.

While Wells is clearly a science fiction writer, it never occurred to me that Kipling was as well**. It turns out that Kipling's writing includes a lot more than just The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, Just So Stories and military poetry. Knight mentions his stories "With the Night Mail" and "As Easy as A.B.C.", but a number of his other stories can also be thought of as science fictional as well. Indeed, the Golden Age SF editor John Campbell considered him the first modern science fiction writer.

What's particularly interesting to me is the idea that his stories of India are the predecessors of SF with aliens and strange worlds.
But the best way to understand why Kipling has exerted so great an influence over modern science fiction is to read his own work. Begin with Kim, the most successful evocation of an alien world ever produced in English. Follow the Grand Trunk Road toward the Northwest Frontier, and watch the parade of cultures that young Kimball O'Hara encounters. Place yourself in his position, that of a half-assimilated stranger in a strange land; and observe carefully the uneven effects of an ancient society's encounter with a technologically advanced culture. SF writers have found Kim so appealing that several have told their own versions of the story: Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy and Poul Anderson's The Game of Empire are two of the best.
Those who believe we can communicate with unEarthly aliens should take note of the historical difficulties in communication between human cultures.

Kipling's science fiction stories don't involve aliens. Instead they involve new technologies that has affect his characters' lives. Many have seemingly supernatural elements, but that isn't so different from later science fiction writing. The works of Kipling have mostly fallen into the public domain, so you can read them and judge his writing for yourself. And it may not need saying, but Kipling used terms that we would consider racist (and sexist, but that doesn't seem as shocking to my eyes).

"With the Night Mail" (1911) and "As Easy as A.B.C." (1912):

Neither story is biological - they are based in a "future" world where easy air travel has shaped society. Of the two I find "As Easy as A.B.C" much more interesting - "With the Night Mail" reads to me like an adventure aboard a sailing ship transplanted to the air. If this is

"In the Same Boat" (1911):

In this tale, sufferers of nighttime horrors take Najdolene to try to help them sleep through the night, but side effects of the treatment are themselves debilitating.

On a certain night, while he lay between sleep and wake, he would be overtaken by a long shuddering sigh, which he learned to know was the sign that his brain had once more conceived its horror, and in time—in due time—would bring it forth.

Drugs could so well veil that horror that it shuffled along no worse than as a freezing dream in a procession of disorderly dreams; but over the return of the event drugs had no control. Once that sigh had passed his lips the thing was inevitable, and through the days granted before its rebirth he walked in torment. For the first two years he had striven to fend it off by distractions, but neither exercise nor drink availed. Then he had come to the tabloids of the excellent M. Najdol. These guarantee, on the label, ‘Refreshing and absolutely natural sleep to the soul-weary.’ They are carried in a case with a spring which presses one scented tabloid to the end of the tube, whence it can be lipped off in stroking the moustache or adjusting the veil.

Three years of M. Najdol’s preparations do not fit a man for many careers. His friends, who knew he did not drink, assumed that Conroy had strained his heart through valiant outdoor exercises, and Conroy had with some care invented an imaginary doctor, symptoms, and regimen, which he discussed with them and with his mother in Hereford. She maintained that he would grow out of it, and recommended nux vomica.

One sufferer, a Mr. Conroy, meets a woman with a similar affliction, and together they overcome both the Najdolene use and the night terrors. Kipling - who himself suffered from depression - seems to be saying that we should be able to overcome mental problems with difficulty, but without medication.

"Unprofessional" (1930):

Medicine and doctors played a role in many of Kipling's stories. Published in 1930, "Unprofessional" features what would have been cutting edge biomedical research.
Some of the samples—mere webs of cancerous tissue—he had, by arts of his own, kept alive in broths and salts after sentence had been executed on their sources of origin.

There were two specimens—Numbers 127 and 128—from a rarish sort of affliction in exactly the same stage of development and precisely the same position, in two women of the same age and physique, who had come up to Vaughan on the same afternoon, just after Vaughan had been appointed Assistant Surgeon at St. Peggotty’s. And when the absurdly identical operations were over, a man, whose praise was worth having, but whose presence had made Vaughan sweat into his palms, had complimented him. So far as St. Peggotty’s knew, both cases were doing well several months after. Harries found these samples specially interesting, and would pore over them long times on end, for he had always used the microscope very neatly.

‘Suppose you watch what these do for a while,’ he suggested to Loftie one day.

I know what they’ll do well enough,’ the other returned. He was hunting a line of his own in respect to brain-cells.

The tale goes on to a bit far-fetched ending that crosses the border from legitimate chronobiology to seemingly supernatural effects. It reminds me of some outside-the-mainstream (to put it mildly) biological research on "biophotons" and "morphic fields".

* Knight's most famous story, at least with regards to pop culture, is "To Serve Man"
** It turns out I had read "As Easy as A.B.C.", but somehow missed (or forgot) that the author was Kipling.

Image: Illustration from "With the Night Mail"

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