Saturday, October 25, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: October 25 Edition

A few collected links from the past couple of weeks:

On Biology as "Hard" Science

Fantasy & Science Fiction interviewed women science fiction writers, and Nancy Kress commented:
From a personal standpoint, the only time I have felt gender discrimination in SF has been in sometimes not being taken seriously as a "hard SF writer," partly because I write about biology rather than astronomy or physics, but also perhaps because I'm female. However, I think even that prejudice has lessened over the years.
Henry Gee writes about the "hardness" of biology:
I can’t help thinking that there is an implied value judgement here, stemming from the invasion of traditional biology by physicists that resulted in the birth of molecular biology in the 1950s. The result was a kind of replacement theology in which molecular biology was seen as an exact science (in other words, ‘hard’) whereas traditional biological pastimes were seen as so much vague stamp collecting (that is, ‘soft’).

Such prejudice carries on to the present day. It is the ‘hard’ biology, big on expensive laboratories and machines that go ping, that gets the funding and the grants, whereas ‘soft’ biology is usually seen as dispensible, and because it is much cheaper, it is thought that it can probably survive on nothing at all, and even then, it wouldn’t matter if it disappeared entirely — except, of course, when some big anniversary comes around, and biologists, hard or soft, come out and celebrate the legacy of Mr Darwin. But he’s a historical figure, and poses no threat.
Written Word

Mike Brotherton has a simple formula for putting more science in your science fiction: scan the science news to find a report that piques your interest, consider what the new technology or findings might mean in terms of unintended consequences or who might get hurt or marginalized, and remember:
SCIENCE IS FREAKING AWESOME! We figure out the coolest shit with science. If you’ve picked an article or topic that fascinates you, get that fascination into your story! If it’s about the methodology, focus there. Or the technology, or the potential, or the insight, or the dedication. Whatever you think is the coolest thing, that should be your focus.
Jennifer Rohn describes concerns about including technical details when writing "science in fiction" novels:
Interestingly, non-scientists are not as concerned as you might expect about “understanding” the science. For them, the experience of hearing about science – including the lingo – is part of the atmosphere, and is absolutely fine as long as they can follow the human story. Think of Scotty on the original Star Trek, babbling on about “plasma reflux in the warp core interfering with the delta configuration of the dilithium crystals”: we never needed to know what that meant: all we needed to know was that the ship was in danger and that Kirk had only ten hours to fix it. It is part of the setting, the scene, the milieu. Provided it’s made clear that this detailed content is not required for understanding the characters’ motivations and actions, it’s actually irrelevant whether they get it completely.
The Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine that explores the Renaissance science and medicine that inspired the magic in the novels. They also have an older online exhibition "Do Mandrakes Really Scream: Magic and Medicine in Harry Potter" (via bioephemera)


LiveScience talks to to Rob Chiappetta and Glen Whitman the "science guys" behind Fringe. As JP at SF Signal put it:
I guess it shouldn't come as a shock that the science consultants don't have backgrounds in science. In fact, they're doing what anyone with a computer, a reasonable internet connection and a healthy sense of curiosity could do. But they get paid for doing it. The bastages!
Not coincidentally, there's a mini-industry in writing articles about how awful the science on Fringe is.

At Popular Mechanics: Scientists Debunk Personal Electromagnetic Fields on Fringe: Sci-Fi Fact vs. Fiction.

At SF Scope: Stupid Science - a review of Fringe's "The Cure"

At Popular Mechanics: On Fringe, Radioactivity is Real, But Cures are Junk Science

At the Discover Science Not Fiction blog: Eleventh Hour: Advanced Pest control and the troble with GMOs


Phil For Humanity has a bit of a rant about "How Science Fiction Misrepresents Cloning" (via SF Signal)

io9 has some cool artwork of alien parasites that are apparently part of an as-yet-unnamed independent horror film.

At io9 Charlie Jane Anders gave a mixed review of the movie version of Blindness: "Blindness' Dystopian Fable Becomes An Overwrought Movie"

Cool Bioscience

The Imagine Science Film Festival in New York included the short "A Fruit Fly in New York":
... a 12-minute flight over New York City, the laboratory and the history of fruit fly research. Beyond the informational content, the film also explores the personal rapport that a scientist may have with his model organism as a painter may have with his canvas. Through the microscope lens, the fruit fly appears human-like – a monstrously beautiful animal that has sacrificed itself in the pursuit of science.
National Geographic reports on a "bio-computer" created from "snippets of engineered RNA assembled inside a yeast cell." There's a slightly more technical post on the research at io9.

Scientists directly wired single neurons in the brain of monkeys to wrist muscles. The monkeys were able to teach themselves to use those new connections to move those muscles. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker rounds up the news reports.

Discover Magazine looks at the latest experiments "melding humans and machines" to create real-life cyborgs.

A study published last year compared the sequence of FOXP2, the so-called "language gene", in modern humans (us!) and Neanderthals, and found that we carry the same version. Greg Laden dug behind the hyperbole in the media to explain what that may actually mean for the possibility of Neandertal language.

It's 19th-century meets 21st-century in Second Life, where the University of Cincinnati is recreating the Galapagos islands and making it possible to retrace Darwin's voyage aboardthe Beagle.

In 1953 Stanley Miller showed that zapping a flask filled with simple chemicals thought to represent Earth's atomosphere billions of years ago- water, methane, hydrogen, ammonia - created amino acids, crucial components of life as we know it. Recently original samples from Miller's experiments were discovered and reanalyzed using more sensitive equipment than Miller had access to. It turns out that Miller ran the experiment using different conditions that are now thought to be closer to the conditions on early Earth, but condered the results "a dud". The new analysis turned up 22 amino acids, 10 of which had never been found before in similar experiments. Read the details in Wired and at And for some background on the subject, check out this talk by Professor Jeffrey Bada on "Prebiotic Synthesis in Planetary Atmospheres."

Finally, it turns out that clever data diggers can figure out censored DNA sequences in publically posted human genomes.


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