Friday, November 28, 2008

David Brin on Science and Science Fiction

David Brin has kindly answered the ScienceOnline09 questions about science in science fiction by e-mail - I've posted them below. His responses are below. Peter Watts has also answered the questions on his blog, from both the scientist and science fiction writer points of view, and links to all of the responses so far are collected on the original post.

Here are David Brin's responses:

Questions for Science Fiction Writers

• Why are you writing science fiction in particular? What does the science add?

Only a few SF authors are scientifically or technically trained. Though many -- like Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson -- were English majors who love to hang around with scientists and pick their brains.

In fact, most SF authors read History far more than science. Indeed, history -- and its possible extensions in time or other universes -- is far more often a topic of interest than any specific point of science. SF should have been called Speculative History.

• What is your relationship to science? Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool? Do you have a favorite field?

My masters was in electrical engineering and my Ph D was in astrophysics. I have also published papers in psychology and evolutionary biology.

• How important is it to you that the science be right? What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?

I find that it is easy to get expert opinions from top scientists, for the cost of some pizza and beer. Getting the science right is important. But no more important than getting the characters, the personalities, the personal stories and the details of plot right.

• Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

My own: ;-)

Questions for Scientists

• What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?

Science Fiction is the literature of change... the genre that admits that human life is in flux and that transformations occur all of the time. Sometimes these are propelled by scientific advances or technology. But not always. The changing roles of women in society, for example. These have long been grist for SF stories that predicted the important shifts that have taken place. Modern environmentalism was first pushed in SF.

• What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?

Silly movie sci fi can be harmful. It often goes for the simplistic tale, and cares little about how people would really react to new technologies. The standard Idiot Plot is lazy and assumes that people and society will be stupid, because that drives a simpleminded plot easiest. Viewers come away convinced that progress is bad, society is helpless and we will always misuse technology. A dumb notion to propagandize!

Some films actually try to avoid this alluring trap, along with many good novels.

• Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?

There is a wiki online that tracks 23 successful predictions from my bestselling novel EARTH.

• Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

I'll just add a recommendation specifically for Brin's articles about science, particularly his article on "Science Fiction That Teaches"


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hope You're Having a Sci-Fi Thanksgiving!

Wired explains how artificial inseminated turkeys and mutant corn have become staples of the American Thanksgiving dinner.

Gobble gobble and Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

And on a more serious note, to any of you who live in or have friends or family in Mumbai, I hope you and your loved ones are safe. I am sending good thoughts your way.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Evil Triplet Repeats and The Age of Magic

I'm not really much of a superhero comic book fan. Ask me whether I prefer the DC Universe or the Marvel Universe, and my answer is pretty much "who cares?" That isn't to say that I don't enjoy comics or other sequential art, though. For example, I love many of the titles in the Vertigo line of graphic novels1.

I've been slowly working my way through the Books of Magic and related titles, which follow the adventures and trials of Timothy Hunter. Tim is a bit of a misfit teenager who learns that he is destined to be the most powerful magician of our age, and his story is about learning the ways of magic, while searching for the truth about his parents and learning to understand himself. While there are some superficial similarities to Harry Potter (which was published several years after the original Books of Magic series), I think the story of Timothy Hunter is much darker and much more wide-ranging, since Tim has to not only learn to navigate the good and evil of the magical world, but also the mundane world of his family and friends.

While the series is fantasy, it has occasionally included tropes that would be familiar to any science fiction fan, including time travel, alternate universes, and a steampunk cyborg. That's why it didn't surprise me that DNA sequencing, genomics and genetic engineering made it's way into the Timothy Hunter mythos.

In issues 8-11 of Hunter: The Age of Magic, genetics and magic become entwined. Tim meets a molecular biologist who has been studying the genomic sequence of evil individuals, including a young girl who became evil - and whose genome changes - when she was possessed by a demon. He discovers that sociopathic behavior is associated with an alteration of the "F5412 Gene".2 In evil individuals the gene has the repeated insertion of three nucleotides in the sequence ACT.

While I wouldn't call triplet DNA repeats evil, they can cause serious problems in the human genome. A few examples of human genetic syndromes caused by trinucleotide repeat insertions:
  • Fragile X syndrome is associated with CGG repeats in the FMR1 gene on the X chromosome. Proper FMR1 expression is required for normal neural development, and excess CGG repeats causes the DNA to be methylated, which silences FMR1 expression. The result is intellectual and physical disability.
  • Huntington's chorea is caused by excess CAG repeats in the Huntingtin gene on chromosome 4. The symptoms include jerky, uncontrollable movements and impaired cognitive abilities, which usually appear when the person carrying the mutation is in her 30s or 40s.
  • Myotonic dystrophy, a muscle wasting disease, can be caused by expansion of the sequence ACG in the DMPK gene on chromosome 19.
The trinucleotide repeats undergo dynamic mutation. Not so much over the course of a liftime, as in the case of a demon possessed little girl, but over the course of multiple generations. The severity of the symptoms can increase as the number of trinucleotide repeats increases from generation to generation. In adult-onset diseases like Huntington's, that means parents can pass a more detrimental form of the mutation on to their children even before they know they are affected themselves. That's a terrible situation, but certainly not evil.

Of course Age of Magic is fantasy, so DNA sequences have the same kind of transformative power as magical words. An analysis of Tim's DNA turns up a sequence with totally different properties that reflect the magic within him. And the DNA from an angel's feather is something else altogether . . .

If you'd like a glimpse of the series, you can download Issue #1 of the Books of Magic

Related reading: Sutherland GR and Richards RI. "Simple tandem DNA repeats and human genetic disease" Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1995 April 25; 92(9): 3636–3641.

1. Yes, I know Vertigo is a DC imprint, but that doesn't mean the graphic novels they produce are exactly part of the DC universe the way the superhero comics are.

2. F5412 appears to be an entirely made up gene on human chromosome 2

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Close Encounters with John Hodgman

In this entertaining TED talk, John Hodgman talks about the Fermi Paradox, alien close encounters, Dune, and love.

If you are having trouble with the embedded video or would like the MP3 version, go to the original TED Talk page.

(via David Ng)


Monday, November 24, 2008

Ask a Scienceblogger: Promotion of Science with Science Fiction

This week's "Ask a Scienceblogger" at featured our main ScienceOnline09 question for science bloggers about science and science fiction: "What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any?"

There are already some interesting answers:
Be sure to check out the other responses to the questions put to science bloggers and science fiction writers.

And if you'd like to add your own opinion, just post your answers on your own blog and let me or Stephanie know. (And if you don't have a blog, feel free to post your answers in the comments section of one of our posts)


Friday, November 21, 2008

Pitch Your TV Show

Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance attended the Hollywood launch of the Science and Entertainment Exchange and came away with a great idea: The Cosmic Variance Elevator Pitch Contest.

The idea is to give a brief pitch for your idea for a TV show - brief as in the length of time you might spend in an elevator with CBS CEO Les Moonves, or at most 100 words - that's based on science. Here is what you should keep in mind:
Most importantly: Les Moonves’s goal in life is not to make science look good. It’s to make money. So don’t pitch that this show would make the world a better place, or make science seem interesting; convince him that it’s exciting to everyone and will attract millions of eyeballs.

Use the science. For our purposes, we’re less interested in a show idea that tacks on some science to make things sound cool, as we are in a concept that couldn’t happen without the science.

Story is paramount. As much as we love accuracy and realism, there has to be a compelling narrative. You need to convince Moonves that people will be emotionally connected to the characters and their situation.
It can be any genre, so fire up your imagination and pitch your show in the post's comments. The winner will receive an excellent Cosmic Variance T-shirt.

Here's my idea:
Friends in a top university molecular biology lab. Three young men and three young women - a couple of postdocs, grad students, a Sigma sales rep and a departmental administrator - find love and laughs as they run gels, hang out in the departmental lounge, attend conferences, and interact with the other wacky lab denizens. Plenty of opportunity for sight gags, such as an unbalanced ultracentrifuge “walking” through a wall or the noob grad student accidentally setting her bench on fire. And lots of opportunities for romantic situations: all-night sample collecting in the cold room, working closely in the darkroom, or a mixup that puts our male and female postdoc in the same hotel room at the AAAS conference. And what holds them together is their love/hate relationship with their research.
I'd watch it, anyway.

(via Adventures in Ethics and Science)


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Free Philippine speculative fiction: Keeping Time

The Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler is just what it sounds like: a collection of short SF stories by Filipino writers in English. Most of the stories are more fantastic than scientific, but I think all of them are worth reading.

One story does have a premise that is both science fictional and biological: "Keeping Time" by FH Batacan. The story won first prize in the short story category of the 2008 Philippine Free Press Literary Awards.

(via Futurismic)

Should The Mammoth Return?

Scene from Mammoth
The mammoth hair used for sequencing was not found in the wreckage of a small town ravaged by a rampaging Mammoth.
The latest science story that has taken the fancy of the popular press is the news that a small team of scientists at Penn State University have sequenced the woolly mammoth genome using DNA recovered from the hair of two mammoths. The sequence revealed that woolly mammoths were more genetically similar to modern elephants than previously thought. The mammoths also appears to have low genetic diversity, which may have made the species "especially susceptible to being wiped out by a disease, by a change in the climate, or by humans."

I think that's pretty interesting news, but of course that isn't what what is making it burn up the airwaves and internet tubes. What's captured the public imagination is a comment by one of the lead scientists on the project, Stephan C. Schuster, that elephant DNA could be modified at the 400,000 or so positions where it differs from the mammoth, then used to create an embryo that would be carried by an elephant. The result: a baby woolly mammoth brought back from extinction. And all for the low, low price of $10 million!

I think tedious and expensive are relatively easy barriers to overcome, since even in these difficult economic times there are wealthy people who are looking for projects to spend their money on. A single cloned woolly mammoth wouldn't exactly be enough to create a Pleistocene Park, but it could be a step in that direction.

But would it be the right thing to do? Kelly Hills at Women's Bioethics Blog notes that there are some ethical issues we should consider before taking that step:
And more in my own areas of interest: do we really have the right to bring something back from the dead? Can we assume that it died for a reason, and we might really be mucking with things to undo that? If we regenerated a mammoth today, would it have the right foods to eat? How would its immune system handle common viruses? Would the climate be right? Where would it live? Are they herd animals, or can they be solitary?
It's already controversial to keep elephants in zoos. Would it be cruel to resurrect a lone mammoth for a life of possibly very uncomfortable captivity? And what would science gain by the experiment?

Professor Schuster doesn't think it would add much to our current understanding of mammoth biology:
"From a scientific perspective, I think we would learn very little from doing this. A lot of what you want to learn about body plan and tissues we can get just by studying the carcasses," said Schuster. "I would file it under the category of boutique science. The public is very curious. But you'd just generate a few specimens, a freak creature that you could put on display."
Given that, it's a bit surprising that the Times got Harvard geneticist George Church to speculate on methods of cloning Neanderthals that would skirt ethical and religious objections to generating clones with modified human DNA:

Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would “alarm a minimal number of people.” The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp’s genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.

“The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it,” Dr. Church said.
Considering the close similarity between the human and chimpanzee genomes, I doubt there would really be much difference between chimp and human genomes modified to be "close" to Neanderthal DNA. For me, at least, the ethical considerations would be the same using either approach: what would we gain by creating a lone Neanderthal, beyond the "gee whiz" factor?

And Larry Moran points out another potential issue:
What if the Neanderthals turn out to be smarter than us—a distinct possibility? Wouldn't they take over all the good jobs, like university professors? And what if they turn out to be stupider than the average human? Don't we already have enough creationists?

More Information:
Related Post:
Images: top: scene from SciFi movie Mammoth, middle: drawing of a woolly mammoth, bottom: recreation of a Neanderthal face from a skull, from BBC Horizon Programme
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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Katherine MacLean and the cutting edge of biology

"Do you now anything about their home planet?" asked the man from the Herald.
"Their world must be earth-like to them," the weary-looking young man answered uncertainly. "The environment evolves the animal. But only in relative terms, of course."
~ "Pictures Don't Lie", Katherine MacLean (1951)
One of the things I love about the internet is how it had made it possible to see original historical documents from around in the world. Take, for example, the BBC Archive collection of documents related to "The Genesis of Doctor Who." We get to read the original in-house reports discussing bringing science fiction to the BBC. Of course we know that they ended up producing Doctor Who, but it's quite interesting to read about the other stories they considered.

This 1962 memo laid out the Beeb's requirements:
  • No "Bug-Eyed Monsters"
  • No "Tin Robots" as central characters
  • No "large and elaborate science fiction type settings"
  • "an opportunity for genuine characterization"
  • "ask the audience to suspend disbelief scientifically and technologically on one fact only"
Stories with telepaths and time travelling were high on their list. Among the reports recommendations were Poul Anderson's Guardians of Time (time travel), Erik Frank Russell's Three to Conquer (telepath), Clifford Simak's Eternity Lost (immortal characters), C.L. Moore's No Woman Born (humanoid robot with a human brain), and Katherine MacLean's "Pictures Don't Lie" (alien contact).

"Pictures Don't Lie" was the most "biological" of the bunch. The plot is pretty straightforward: humans make contact with friendly aliens who are directed to land on Earth. The aliens follow the directions, but end up in a deadly swamp full of monsters. Even worse the humans can't figure out where they landed. Finally the humans figure out the problem: ** SPOILER ** the aliens are actually microscopic and have landed in a puddle on the tarmac in the airfield, which is rapidly drying out. ** END SPOILER **

The BBC's assesment? "The whole thing is absolutely possible and logical."

Well, that piqued my curiosity. BBC passed on the story, but it was produced for the NBC radio SF drama program X Minus One, which you can listen to at Internet Archive. It's an entertaining story, athough I'm not so sure about how plausible it is, but it does seem inspired by real science.

Author Katherine MacLean was well known for the use of "hard science" in her fiction. Born in 1925, she focused on math and science in high school, majored in economics in college, then, after graduation in 1950, began postgraduate studies in psychology. It was in 1947, while MacLean was working as a laboratory technician in penicillin research, that she began writing science fiction. One of her major influences was supposedly the General System Theory of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, which was initially developed to explain the interrelatedness of organisms with their ecosystems.

Many of her short stories explore biological themes*, which sound remarkably modern considering they were written shortly before Watson and Crick published their model of the structure of DNA, and long before genetic engineering was a possibility. A few examples:
  • "And Be Merry" or "The Pyramid in the Desert" (1950): A biologist tests an experimental longevity treatment on herself. The treatment, which regenerates the cells in her body, is initially successful, but mutations in some of the cells cause them to grow out of control, giving her cancer.
  • "Syndrome Johnny" (1951): Engineered retroviral plagues genetically re-engineer the human race.
  • "The Diploids" (1953): A young man "suspects he may be an alien because of certain physical and biochemical abnormalities but discovers that he is a commercial human embryonic cell line, sold for research and illegally grown to maturity"
In 2006 MacLean discussed the science behind her story "And Be Merry", which was far ahead of the molecular biology of 1950:
Finding she has no chance of evading eventual death, she immediately loses her obsession with safety, becomes interested in biochemistry again, and invents a new theory. (New at the time.) Mutation from background radiation does not just strike the sperm and egg making chromosome changes in the embryo and mutated progeny, it also strikes the chromosomes in each cell of any living creature, damages and mutates them also, and produces cancer. This cannot be prevented. She called it "somatic mutation" and used the new concept of body deterioration by slow radiation damage (age) to underpin her rediscovered recklessness, and be happy.

Even now most biotechs have not fully accepted the implication that every cell in the body can generate an entire copy of the person. But perhaps a copy will be changed and mutated for the worse by exposure to ambient radiation and other mutagens. Perhaps a cell needs to generate a placenta around it to develop into an entire body. Something like that is holding up the biochemists from successfully making copies of individuals from body or blood cells. Not for long! I wrote three more stories with novel genetic ideas before 1953. Some have not been followed up by scientists yet.
Her recollection is not entirely accurate. The idea of somatic mutation has been around since at least the 1920s, even if it was not known what "mutation" meant in the biochemical sense. However, the hypothesis that somatic mutations cause cancer was being debated in 1955 and probably later than that. And it's only in the last decade that DNA from adult somatic cells has been used to clone mammals - although no humans so far.

MacLean continued to publish short fiction through the 1990s. Her 1995 short story "The Kidnapping of Baroness 5", which blends biotechnology with fantasy tropes, was nominated for the Hugo. She was named Author Emeritus at the 2002 Nebula awards.

Unfortunately none of Katherine MacLean's early short stories are available online. However, they were collected in the 1962 anthology The Diploids and other Flights of Fancy, which was reissued in 2000.

Listen to MacLean's "Pictures Don't Lie" (14 MB MP3)

* as an interesting aside, the Katherine MacLean Wikipedia article was apparently edited by MacLean herself

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Science and Entertainment Exchange

The Science & Entertainment Exchange is a program run by the National Acadmy of Sciences that attempts to bridge the gap between the entertainment community and the science community by connecting science experts with producers, writers and directors. More specifically:
Spanning the range of science topics, The Exchange can find experts that will work with you to identify and effectively portray the science details that complement a storyline. We can help flesh out ideas that depend upon accurate details relating to insects, extraterrestrial life, unusual Earth-based life forms, or the mysteries of oceans. We can refine concepts relating to emerging science concepts in areas such as space travel, multiple dimensions, nanotechnology, computer technology, and engineering. We can find experts in environmental and ecological issues, health, medicine, and disease, and U.S. educational practices. We are also well positioned to work with you on public policy issues that relate to science such as stem cell research, global climate change, and teaching about evolution and the nature of science.
On Wednesday, November 19, the Exchange is running an invitation-only symposium in Los Angeles hosted by Seth MacFarland. It will serve as "the platform from which to formally announce The Exchange" and give entertainment industry types and scientists a change to network.

There really isn't much information on the official web site about how the program will work, but I think it's encouraging that its program director will be science writer Jennifer Ouellette, (who doesn't get any mention on the official website at all, what's up with that?). She will be bringing both a great fascination with science and constructive attitude to the position. She explained her approach on her blog, Cocktail Party Physics:
... I'm convinced that while the constant snark directed at science in movies and TV might be entertaining to those in the "geek clique," it is not, in the long run, constructive, or conducive to fostering change in how science is portrayed in Hollywood. It's easy to point fingers and toss off zingy crowd-pleasing one-liners; it's a lot more difficult to actually offer well-considered workable alternatives in a format that is easily accessible to those in the entertainment industry. It should be a "win-win" for both science and Hollywood in terms of fostering creative cooperation between the two groups. I think the Science and Entertainment Exchange has the right idea, and I'm delighted to have the chance to put the hypothesis to the test.
I hope she's right, and the Exchange is able to help Hollywood create more realistic depictions of science on television and in the movies. I'm a bit skeptical that it will have much influence. There are already producers and directors who tout the fact that they have science advisors, but seemingly ignore the advice of those experts for the sake of an exciting story. I'd love to be proved wrong. We'll have to wait and watch.

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Science and Science Fiction: The First Responses

So, the first responses to Stephanie and my query about your thoughts on science and science fiction are starting to come in. We'll be updating our posts with links to people's responses, but I'd like to give a special *thank you* to our first responders:
Now we'd like to hear from you! Read the questions, post the answers on your blog and leave a link in the comments section of my post or Stephanie's post. If you don't have your own blog, you can leave your answers directly in the comments.

We are interested in hearing from a wide variety of voices from all branches of science - physical, natural, and social - and from all types of speculative fiction writers. If you are a SF fan, we'd be interested in your perspective too. That means you!


Any Twilight Fans Out There?

There was a large advertising insert in this morning's LA Times for the new teenage vampire movie Twilight. Not being a Twilight fan myself, I had sorted the section into the recycling pile when I read this bit on the Hero Complex blog:
Today, people will again be buying the paper as a keepsake or potential collectible because of the huge black posters advertising the film "Twilight," which is nothing less than a pop-culture sensation and it hasn't even hit theaters yet. Looking at the posters that landed on my doorstep this morning, I was pretty amazed, wondering how many vats of black ink must have been used to print up this darkly stylized, special advertising insert. If you don't live in Southern California, don't worry, you will be able to get one of these soon on EBay....
Of course Hero Complex is an LA Times blog, so they may be a wee bit biased, but the ads are rather nice images of the movies young stars. So of the off-hand chance that someone might be interested I rescued them from the bin.

So here's the deal. If you would like to have the inserts leave a comment on this post, first come first served. I'll mail it anywhere within the the United States or Canada - elsewhere if you are willing to pay postage.

Here are the details:

- two sheets that can be either assembled into a single 23" x 36" poster or, if the flip side is preferred, two posters 23"x18" and 23"x 20"

- it's matte newsprint, and predominantly black

- it was folded into the newspaper, so it's creased

I'm curious to know if there are many Twilight fans among the readers of my blog.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: November 16 Edition

Some recent biology & science fiction-related links:


Arvind Mishra has an overview of The First Ever National Disuccussion of Science Fiction: Past, Present, Future, held in Varanasi, India from November 10-14.

If you like both "Lost World" and Americana you'll probably love Dinosaur Kingdom in Natural Bridge, Virginia, where the Civil War meets dinosaurs (via Metafilter)

Written Word

Lots of memories of Michael Crichton. A few that talk about the biology in his books:
Jennifer Rohn posts about natural-sounding ways to have your scientist characters introduce science background into your novel.

Peter Watts has finished an outline for a new novel (not a completed novel like I first wrote, bummer). Like Blindsight it is based in neuroscience:
What we got here is a Blindsight spinoff; a thought-experiment on the nature and evolution of Singularities, past and future; a cast of characters who don't understand their own actions (one of the themes of the book is that it's neurologically impossible to understand our own true motives; the best we can do is make guesses after the fact); all told through the eyes of a man whose brain is literally being rewired throughout the course of the story.
There's a CJ Cherryh link roundup at Feminist SF.


A Fantasy Magazine Randy Henderson explains Why We Need Scientist Heroes Again

The LA Times Show Tracker blog interviewed Fringe writer Jeff Pinkner, who claims the shows plots are based in science fact:

A: There’s always a degree of responsibility we feel, but all of our science is grounded in reality. We’re not telling any stories that are in the world of potential.

Q: If you’re playing with the reality anyway, why rely on scientific fact at all? Couldn’t you just completely make something up that sounds plausible and go with that?

A: Yes. But our rule is we don’t want to do it if it’s totally made up. I’m sure people would tell you everything we’re doing is totally unbelievable, but for us, if we set out to do an utterly fictional show, it would probably be easier in some ways, but it would be less exciting. I think we all quite like the idea that we’re working in the realm of the real, as opposed to the entirely made-up. Again, it’s not necessary to watch the show and see how it’s ripped from the headlines, because it’s not. But there’s a certain quality of authenticity that it’s much easier to create if you know the parameters.

Science Not Fiction reviews the Primeval DVD:
The other big stars of the show are the creatures, beautifully and realistically animated CGI creations–it’s not a surprise that they’re good, since the team that produces them was responsible for the BBC documentary Walking With Dinosaurs. For Primeval, some artistic license does get taken, but the creatures that run, swim, and fly through the show are very believable, and prove you don’t have to travel to another planet to find creatures and worlds that are utterly alien.
Science Not Fiction also has another look at science in The Eleventh Hour: Staying Safe From Scary Germs


Hero Complex talked to Guillermo del Toro, who told them that Swamp Thing is "one of the last Holy Grail projects that is still out there."

Repo! The Genetic Opera has been released on a small number of screens, and the reviews are in - and pretty bad. Says the LA Times:
The film is bad -- not good-bad, tacky-bad or fun-bad, just plain awful and nearly unwatchable. "
On the other hand, some fans in LA have already seen it 4 times. Paris Hilton groupies, perhaps?
And io9 has an interview with writer and on-screen graverobber Terrance Zdunich. He says there's a real organ trade behind the fiction:
... when Darren Smith and I were researching and doing the writing of Repo!, we actually had some really cool interviews and some cool stories we found with surgeons and transplant doctors. We just studied what's really out there. The reality is, a lot of what's happening in Repo! isn't as far-fetched as it may seem. And certainly, perhaps not that far off in the future. Organs are used as currency. Maybe not at Walmart, but there is a market around body parts — and ironically, right now, at least in the States, the only people that don't profit from organ donations are the actual donors. Everyone else literally makes a killing off of it. And in other countries, there are tons of stories, in South America, for example, of people who are selling, like, a kidney to fat rich Americans. And they're doing it for a price that you'd be kind of like — "Woah, you're losing a kidney for just, you know, a Whopper combo super-sized? That's pretty intense." And even recently, the Chinese government, which has denied it for ages, came clean on the fact that they had been in many cases executing prisoners and then taking their organs and selling them again to rich, fat Americans. So I don't think it's that far off. Do I ever think that Big Brother's going to come in and actually on-the-books sanction murder? I don't think so. But do I think that there's perhaps a lot of social commentary and satire in what we're doing? Yes, that was definitely intentional.
Mike Brotherton lists ten great SF novels that would make terrible movies. He doesn't think people would want to see Connie Willis's plague novel, The Doomsday Book, even though it's about the survivors; Forward's The Dragon's Egg is too alien; and the smart dolphins of Brin's Startide Rising would "look dumb on film". I'd watch any of those over the rumored Ridley Scott movie based on the Monopoly board game.

SF Signal has a trailer for the new animated CGI movie Monsters vs. Aliens. Looks cute!

Slice of SciFi reports that there may be a new Planet of the Apes movie in the works - not a sequel to Burton's recent version, but another "reboot".

Wired reports on "Six Real Gadgets Minority Report Predicted Correctly", including neuroscientists being able to "predict mistakes" (no, not murder, though). I'm not sure it's that clever that the 2002 movie "predicted" technologies that were almost certainly in the pipeline at the time it came out. It's still nifty stuff.

Cool Bioscience

Carl Zimmer has a great science fiction idea: aliens whose skin turns green from the plants they eat. It's based on the real science emerald green sea slugs that turn green from plant matter they retain in their skin from the algae they ingest.

Japanese scientists cloned a mouse that had been in the freezer for 16 years, and have speculated that extinct animals like the wooly mammoth could be next. Aparently a Pleistocene Park (ala Jurassic Park) is already in the planning stages.

Scientists have identified the genetic changes that allowed vampire bats to "subsist on a diet of pure blood."

Lifehacker has clips from the 60 minutes program about recent developments in brain-computer interfaces.

Post-Weird Thoughts has a bit on a plant named Midori that has its own blog. Somehow Midori's bioelectric signals are translated into words - sounds like science fiction to me.

The New York Times ran an interesting series of articles about epigenetics. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker has an overview and links. Two of my favorite science writers contributed: Natalie Angier on the meaning of "Gene" and Carl Zimmer on "the rest of the genome".

Hourglass is the blog carnival of biogerentology: the science of aging. Read the latest edition at psique.

Ian Musgrave at Panda's Thumb points to a cool interactive web exhibit exploring the origins of life on the Boston Museum of Science Web Site.

Genetics & Health rounds up information on the "hard questions" about the personal genome revolution.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Science and Fiction: What Do You Think?

Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far! See below for links to responses. If you would like to contribute to the conversation, just leave a comment with a link to your post.

ScienceOnline09 is an annual science communication conference that brings together scientists, bloggers, educators, and students to discuss promoting public understanding of science. Stephanie Zvan and I will be moderating a session on science fiction as a tool for science communication. We're looking for input on the topic and to start an online conversation between science fiction writers and science bloggers.

Participation is easy:

Questions about science and its relationship to science fiction are posted below and at Stephanie's blog Almost Diamonds. Send us a link to your answers on your own blog or post the link the comments at either site. If you're a writer without a blog, you can post your answers directly at either site.

We will then collect links to the posts on the ScienceOnline09 conference wiki, as well as our own blogs, and facilitate a discussion on the different ways science and science fiction are used.

Responses from the SF Writer Point of View
Responses from the Science Point of View
There's also discussion of the topic going on at io9.

Questions for Science Bloggers
  • What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?
  • What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?
  • Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?
  • Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

Questions for Science Fiction Writers
  • Why are you writing science fiction in particular? What does the science add?
  • What is your relationship to science? Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool? Do you have a favorite field?
  • How important is it to you that the science be right? What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?
  • Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

Thanks for taking part, and we look forward to your answers!

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Better Mousetrap

There is a new short short story up at Mike Resnick's "A Better Mousetrap" (pdf). It's a far future tale of a battle between men and some of their oldest adversaries. Will the biologists on engineers be able to put together a winning strategy? Read it to find out!

The story was originally published in the 15 November 2oo7 issue of Nature as part of their "Futures" series.

Image: Mickey Mouse vinyl by Ikayama on Flickr

The Future of Sci-Fi

This week's issue of New Scientist has a special focus on science fiction. They asked a number of science fiction authors what the future holds for science fiction.

I thought Stephen Baxter made an excellent point about the changing nature of science fiction as science has progressed over the past century:
But science fiction has - rarely - been about the prediction of a definite future, more about the anxieties and dreams of the present in which it is written. In H. G. Wells's day the great shock of evolutionary theory was working its way through society, so Wells's 1895 classic The Time Machine is not really a prediction of the year 802,701 AD but an anguished meditation on the implications of Darwinism for humanity. As science has moved on, a whole variety of science-fictional "futures" has been generated
He notes that today's science fiction is influenced by advances in biotechnology and information technology which have created the possibility of transhumanism, and the looming issue of climate change.

Kim Stanley Robinson similarly points out that science fiction "spring(s) from the realities of the time", but notes that "rapid technological change, volatile global politics and inevitable climate change all combine with contingency to make imagining our real future impossible."

I think that's what makes science fiction interesting to me - there are so many possible futures out there to be explored.

Also see comments by Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson, Margaret Atwood, and Nick Sagan.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Regrowing Body Parts: Real Bionic Women

Nina Munteanu has a very interesting post about the latest military technology that uses nano-scaffolding to regrow internal organs and other body parts.
Much like a real scaffold, the nano-scaffold guides cells to grab onto it so they can begin to rebuild missing bones and tissue. “The tissue grows through tiny holes in the nano-scaffold, in the same way a vine snakes its way up a trellis,” writes Vito Pilieci of the Vancouver Sun. “after the body part has regenerated, the nano-scaffold breaks down, is absorbed into the person’s body and disappears entirely.” The nail, bone and tissue re-grew completely.
As Nina points out, this sounds very much like the "anthrocyte" nanomachines that rebuilt Jaime Sommers in the rebooted version of The Bionic Woman . . .


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thar Be Dragons

There's an interesting essay on the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog about CGI-based animal documentaries that cross the line from real biology into the realm of science fiction. Apparently one of the most egregious examples was an Animal Planet "documentary" on the biology of dragons.
Among the worst offenders was the 2004 “documentary” Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real, which investigated what the fire-breathing behemoths would be like if they had roamed the Earth. In addition to CGI animations, the program featured “footage” of “scientists” analyzing the gas content of a dragon’s organ and studying a printout of its DNA.
According to the Animal Planet web site, dragon anatomy and physiology "fantasy facts" were inspired by real animals.
Biologist Peter J. Hogarth was the technical expert for the program, and while answering questions in a live chat session gave a few more details about how they settled on platinum as the key ingredient for the dragons' fire breathing mechanism:
It's the setting fire to the dragon that's the problem. I think our ideas were hydrogen and air mixing and exploding, and the only way we could think of it to work was the powdered platinum. We wondered if they could strike a spark against their teeth. Large dinosaurs did ingest stones to help digest their food, but the stones couldn't be large enough. There was the possibility of electricity. There are animals that create amounts of electricity — electric eels and electric rays — but they couldn't generate a spark, so the platinum theory seemed to be the best.
It's a fun thought experiment, but pretty unlikely. In fact, from the descriptions it seems that the biological characteristics of dragons were selected more for their on-screen excitement than their actual biological plausibility. Definitely edutainment.

Not all fictional dragons are so biologically implausible. See, for example, James Maxey's explanation of how he designed realistic dragons for his novel Bitterwood.

For a free short story that features dragon paleontology, check out Robert Reed's "The Dragons of Summer Gulch".


Monday, November 10, 2008

Edd Cartier's Interstellar Zoo

The Golden Age Comic Book Stories blog has a great set of illustrations from "The Interstellar Zoo", found in the 1951 short story collection Travelers of Space. The aliens were drawn by Edd Cartier, who was a regular illustrator of the science fiction pulps. Cartier also illustrated the cover of the anthology (shown at right).

His distinctive style is iconic of the Golden Age of science fiction. Go check out all the images.

(Thanks for the tip Bri!)

Boom! Saving the Human Race

That’s one of the truths of biologists. We always have ice.
To freeze the things we kill.
And for drinks.
~ Jules the marine biologist in Boom, by Peter Nachtrieb

As an undergraduate at Brown University, playwright Peter Nachtrieb studied both theatre and biology. His study of the mating patterns of the Panamanian damselfish was the inspiration for his latest play, Boom, billed as a comedic "sci-fi fantasy". As the program notes explain Nachtrieb also addresses the difficulties in effectively communicating science - particularly evolution and global warming - to the public:
He knows the frightening scenarios that face us—and he knows the struggles our scientists face in communicating them to the rest of the world. Humans will eventually die off or evolve as every species before them has. While some people would despair at this knowledge, Peter chooses to sees beauty in the larger picture. “I definitely feel that a sort of natural approach to the world, seeing humans as organisms, is a major cornerstone to my world view.” Boom dramatizes the quest for truth in the face of great obstacles, ultimately celebrating the resilience of life itself.
So what is the play about? Jules is a graduate student who studies fish sleep cycles in an underground laboratory which doubles as his apartment. He is joined by Jo, a journalism student who is answering a calssified ad offering "sex to change the course of the world". Their encounter shifts towards "realms of ontogeny, phylogeny, evolution and extinction" and saving the human race. A strange woman pulling levers also has something to do with their situation.

You can read the first 20 pages of the script (pdf), which sets up the encounter, but doesn't give away much of the plot. The quote from Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale at the beginning may give a hint of where Nachtrieb is coming from. And if you want to know more details, there's a spoilery review in the New York Times.

There will be a panel discussion of the scientific themes of Boom at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington DC on Saturday, November 22, with marine biologists Kiho Kim, Dwayne Meadows and Mark Eakin. Admission is free, but you must RSVP by Thursday, November 20th to secure a seat.

Boom is at the Woolly Mammoth through December 7. If you aren't in the vicinity of Washington DC, Boom can be seen at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, November 13-December 14 and the Cleveland Public Theatre, November 28-December 20.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Chariots of the Gods

I wasn't planning to post today because I have out-of-town guests, but I saw this report on a recent lecture by Erich von Däniken and couldn't help myself. Long long ago, when I was 12-ish, I devoured von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods which recounts all the "evidence" that alien astronauts visited Earth in ancient times. I put "evidence" in quotes, because it's really a mish-mash of archaeology and pseudoscience, and the book jumps from the Nazca lines in Peru to Easter Island to the Biblical book of Ezekiel. Pretty much any remnant of an ancient culture that was not recognizable as a "realistic" portrayal of ancient peoples or their gods was interpreted as alien astronauts, with no alternate explanations presented. It captured my imagination as a pre-teen, but it definitely does not hold up to my adult scrutiny. I tried to reread it when I was in my 20s, and didn't make it beyond the first chapter.

I was pretty surprised to see that von Däniken was still on the lecture circuit, since I read Chariots of the Gods 30-odd years ago, and it originally published 40 years ago. And, based on the lecture summary, he's still talking about the "proof" that ancient humans were visited by aliens.
Apparently "the scientists" do not believe what he says. By the way, during his whole lecture, he is always talking about "the scientists" or the "wise guys" without mentioning any names -- in contrast to his supporters who are always introduced by name and in detail. However, those unbelieving scientists apparently say that
  1. Aliens do not exist,
  2. Aliens would look completely different from humans, and
  3. Even if they do exist, they could never reach Earth because of the large distances.
If you watch the SciFi channel the idea that the ancient gods were actually aliens should sound pretty familiar, since the Stargate movie and the Stargate SG-1 television series were both based on this premise. Sadly, though, there aren't any actual stargates that would have allowed ancient Egyptians, Celts and other peoples to have spread across our galaxy, so those three objections that von Däniken lists sound pretty reasonable to me. But of course he has another explanation :
Däniken also has an explanation for the similarity between humans and aliens: panspermia! This theory, proposed by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, states that life on Earth came from space. Simple life forms may survive even in space and travel to Earth e.g. with meteorites. Däniken specifically stresses the point that Arrhenius won a Nobel Prize (which in fact he received for other achievements). However, Arrhenius never mentioned any aliens involved in panspermia. Däniken would have done better to cite another authority: Fred Hoyle, who believed in "directed panspermia". Aliens have purposefully sent seeds of life into space to spread life to as many planets as possible. This is also Däniken's claim. He then states that evolution will proceed in the same way in similar environments and thus it should be not surprising that aliens look similar to humans.
That scenario is pretty improbable, but I suppose not completely impossible. However, convergent evolution of non-human aliens on Earthlike planets isn't the focus of von Däniken's claims. What he believes is that there is hard evidence that aliens have actually come to Earth - not just to visit, but to mold the human race. Unfortunately it doesn't sound like his "evidence" has improved much over the past 40 years - it's still bits and pieces lifted from ancient religious texts, geometric analyses of the positions of cities and structures (pyrimids!), and other pseudoscience wildly extrapolated into spaceships and aliens. See, for example his "accurate" space ship drawings based on the Book of Ezikiel and the Mahabharata.

But there's good news (or bad, depending on your point of view): the aliens/gods will return on December 21, 2012, so spread the word!

Image: Skull from the Museum of Ica, Peru from The caption in English is "Human (?) skull" (question mark in the original), while the German caption says roughly "Human skulls were deformed in many cultures around the globe. Who were the people trying to imitate? Here is an example from the Museum of Ica, Peru." Obviously the answer is supposed to be "aliens".


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

"Life is too short, and DNA too long."
-- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park
Author Michael Crichton unexpectedly passed away yesterday at the age of 66 after a battle with cancer. His novels usually focused on the dangers of scientists pursuing research without restraints and science run amok, as the article reporting his death points out:
"Through his books, Michael Crichton served as an inspiration to students of all ages, challenged scientists in many fields, and illuminated the mysteries of the world in a way we could all understand," his family said in a statement.

Crichton's works often focused on the use and abuse of emerging technologies which spiral out of control and endanger people, as was the case in "Prey," "Sphere," "The Andromeda Strain" and "Timeline." The author's medical background also played a role in his work, leading to the award-winning television series "ER." His most recent novel, 2006's "Next," dealt with genetics and law.
Crichton received an MD from Harvard, despite the fact that he found himself more interested in writing than practicing medicine, at least according to his his autobiographical book Travels. After receiving an MD, from 1969-1970 he was a postdoc at the Salk Institute in San Diego, before leaving both science and medicine for writing and Hollywood. It's not surprising with his background that many of his novels featured biotechnology, usually with deadly unintended consequences.

Even though the science in his novels often wasn't very accurate, I actually found it fun to read (and later watch) stories where the actual process of doing science was portrayed. Take Jurassic Park, for example. Crichton's suggestion that the "gaps" in dinosaur DNA be replaced with frog sequences was grossly unlikely, and the actual DNA sequences published in the novel turned out to be from bacterial expression vectors rather than related to genes found in vertebrates. But the science got biogeeks like me talking about it. And the portrayal of the bio lab in the movie version of Jurassic Park was recognizable as a molecular biology lab, down to the Falcon tubes and the pulling of ethidium bromide-stained bands of DNA from a CsCl gradient (even though that particular method was becoming obsolete). Even though wasn't great science, but it was science being portrayed. And even though Crichton's biotechnology usually spins out of control, I would bet it has inspired many a youngster to find out more about the real science. Who wouldn't want to clone a dinosaur?

A selection of his biology-based novels:

The Andromeda Strain (1969) was Crichton's first bestselling novel. A military satellite collecting upper atmosphere microorganisms to exploit as bioweapons falls back to Earth carrying a deadly extraterrestrial bacterium. A team of scientists races to find a way to stop the deadly plague.

The Terminal Man (1972) is the story of Harry Benson who suffers from psychomoter epilepsy. He has an experimental procedure in which electrodes and a minicomputer are implanted in his brain to control his seizures. Instead of curing him, the treatment ma turns Benson into a homocidal sex fiend.

In Congo (1980) competing groups of explorers race to find an extremely valuable deposit of diamonds deep in the rain forests of the Congo. They unexpectedly meet a band of killer gorillas (which are possibly gorilla-human hybrids) which were bred by the natives in prehistoric times to guard the diamond mines.

In Jurassic Park (1990) dinosaurs have been recreated from prehistoric DNA extracted from amber in the hopes of making an island off the coast of Costa Rica into a sort of wild animal theme park. The dinosaurs turn out to be much more dangerous than their creators anticipated. Even worse, the biological controls on the dinosaur population - lysine deficiency and an entirely female population - also fail. That brings us to the sequel, The Lost World (1995), in which dinos have escaped from their tropical island and wreak havok on the mainland.

The dangerous technology in Prey (2002) is very small, rather than very large. Nanorobots by genetically modified E. coli bacteria escape from the laboratory and into the desert, where they form predatory swarms, eventually evolving the ability to infect and take over people.

In Crichton's most recent novel, Next (2006), is the ultimate in scary biotechnology. The villain is BioGen, a biotechnology that decides their legal rights to a cancer survivor's cells also gives then the right to harvest cells from the survivor's daughter and grandson, who flee. Meanwhile, BioGen has created a gene therapy treatment that cures drug addiction, and the scientist in charge of the project is unsure whether he should spread the news before understanding the side effects - which turn out to be rapid aging and death. There are also a cast of transgenic animals, from glow-in-the-dark turtles to a human-ape child.

In addition to his techno-thriller-scifi novels, Crichton also wrote, directed and produced movies and TV shows, including the movies Coma and Westworld, and the television series ER.

Related posts:
Thanks to Guy Plunkett for the Jurassic Park quote and for reminding me of the popularity of Jurassic Park amongst the biosci set.

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