Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Could the Solar System be Rife with Life?

Big Picture Science is a radio program produced by the SETI Institute's radio studio in Mountain View, California. SETI stand for earch for extra-terrestrial intelligence, but the Institute also is interested in the original and nature of life in the universe in general.

This week's radio show "Rife with Life" explored whether there could be life in our solar system somewhere other than Earth.

The discussion panel included planetary scientists Cynthia Phillips, Alexander Hayes, Rachel Mastrapa, Robert Lillis, who discuss the environmental conditions on the various bodies in our solar system that might support extraterrestrial life.

Joining them was science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, who talked about the appearance of aliens from around our solar system in fiction.

The tour of the solar system begins, naturally, on Mars.  It all started with HG Wells' War of the Worlds, in which a dying civilization on Mars invades Earth.  But Sawyer points out that it's not until Stanley Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" that we get science fictional Martians who seem well adapted to the dry desert-like surface conditions on Mars.

But over the years it has become apparent that it's unlikely that there is any life (currently) on Mars, and so it has become less popular as a setting for alien cultures.  Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, for example, assumes that Mars is essentially sterile when humans settle there and begin the terraforming process.

Sawyer predicts that there is going to be a renaissance of Mars-based science fiction in the near future. Not coincidentally, he's currently working on his own novel set on Mars, tentatively titled The Great Martian Fossil Rush.

After leaving Mars, the tour moves on to Jupiter and its moon Europa, Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus, and even the Sun.   All of them have been used as the home of fictional aliens except Enceladus, so that's something to keep in mind if you are looking for an unusual setting for your next novel.

I recommend listening to the whole Big Picture Science episode "Rife with Life" for an interesting discussion of both the science and science fiction of possible extraterrestrial life in our solar system. Maybe we'll find life out there yet.

All of the stories discussed in the show are listed on the Big Picture Science blog. If you'd like to get a copy, you can find them here:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Feb. 26, 2012 Link Roundup

Some of the science and SF links originally posted on Google+ Biology in Science Fiction on Google+, Twitter , and now Facebook  this week:

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Virulent bacteria and jumping spiders in space: regional winners of the YouTube Space Lab contest

The regional winners of the YouTube Space Lab contest were announced this week.  High school students were challenged to design an experiment that could be performed by NASA aboard the International Space Station. The two global winners will get to watch their proposed experiments live-streamed by YouTube from space. Pretty sweet.

Two of the regional winners proposed biology experiments: one that might have implications for disease fighting (at least for plants) and another that looks at spider hunting behavior in microgravity.

 Could alien superbugs cure disease on Earth?

This project was submitted by Dorothy Chen & Sara Ma, high school students from Troy, Michigan (USA) in the 14-16 year old division. They propose to send the bacterium Bacillus subtilis into space to see if it becomes more virulent. B. subtilis normally lives in the soil, and some strains have anti-fungal properties that can be used to treat plant diseases in food crops.  Other strains of B. subtilis can act as "probiotics" when ingested by healthy individuals.  In either case, increased virulence would hopefully be a good thing, since that could mean it's a better fungicide or has improved probiotic properties.

Chen and Ma were inspired by experiments performed aboard the space shuttle that showed Salmonella bacteria become more virulent when grown in space (which is definitely a bad thing). It appears that the reason why Salmonella become more infectious is that their environment in microgravity mimic conditions in the intestine altering gene expression. It looks like it's an open question whether B. subtilis - which does not normally infect the gut - will be affected by microgravity the same way.

Watch their proposal video for the details:

Read more technical background information:
Wilson JW et al. "Space flight alters bacterial gene expression and virulence and reveals a role for global regulator Hfq." Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Oct 9;104(41):16299-304. Epub 2007 Sep 27.

Can you teach an old spider new tricks?

This project was proposed by Amr Mohamed of Egypt in the 17-18 year old division. He proposes to test whether microgravity affects the behavior of the zebra spider Salticus scenicus. The zebra spider is a type of jumping spider which does not build a web. They instead stalk their prey, pouncing on it to capture tasty insects.  They glue a silk thread to the surface they are jumping from as a "lifeline". That way if they miss, they can climb back up to their perch. It sounds like a creature out of a horror movie!

 So the question is will this "tiger among spiders" be able to adjust it's hunting technique in microgravity and still catch its prey? Amr doesn't think so.

 Watch his proposal video:

 Read more technical background information:

Dill LM. "Predatory behavior of the zebra spider, Salticus scenicus (Araneae: Salticidae)" Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1975, 53:(9) 1284-1289, doi:10.1139/z75-153 (subscription required)

Which experiment am I rooting for? My head likes Sara and Dorothy's bacterial experiment for it's potential implications for human (and plant) health.  But my heart likes Amr's jumping spiders, because spiders hunting in space sounds pretty cool to watch.

Fortunately I don't have to choose, since the two entries are in different age categories. Both could win! Good luck!

March 22nd Update:  Sara Ma and Dorothy Chen are the YouTube SpaceLab contest global winners! Bacteria in space FTW!

Top image: YouTube Space Lab logo
Middle image: Falsely colored B. subtilis. Source: NASA
Bottom image: Salticus scenicus eating another spider. Source: Dr.Strangelove at de.wikipedia

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Feb. 19, 2012 Link Roundup

Science and SF links originally posted on Google+ Biology in Science Fiction on Google+ and Twitter:

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Friday, February 17, 2012

B Movie Night: Embryo and the science of artificial wombs

The movie you are about to see is not all science fiction. It is based upon medical technology which currently exists for fetal growth outside the womb. 
It could be a possibility tomorrow ... or today.
~ Charles R. Brinkman III, MD
Thus begins the 1976 science fiction horror movie Embryo. Sounds sciency!

The movie is an update of the Frankenstein story, where a scientist (played by Rock Hudson) develops a process where an embryo can be grown from fetus to beautiful adult woman (played by Barbara Carrera) in just over a month. Supporting roles are played by Dianne Ladd, Roddy McDowell and Dr. Joyce Brothers.

I don't think it's to much of a spoiler to mention that eventually everything goes horribly wrong.

But what about the promised science? The quoted Charles R. Brinkman III, MD turns out to have been an actual authority on pregnancy, rather than a mere figment of the filmmakers' imagination.  At the time the movie was released, he was a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UCLA (and is now an Emeritus Professor), with an extensive list of scientific publications.  But despite his expertise, he seems to have exaggerated the state of medical technology.

Here we are, 35 years after Embryo was released and artificial wombs are still more science fiction than science fact.  There has been progress: Nick Otway and his team of fisheries biologists in Australia recently developed an artificial uterus for growing grey nurse shark embryos.

But despite continuing research, growing even small mammals like rats and mice outside the womb has not yet been fully successful. Even if artificial wombs for non-human mammals are developed, ethical and political concerns make it unlikely the research will be extended to human embryos. That's not to say it won't eventually be possible to grow a human baby in vitro, but it isn't going to happen any time soon.

And, of course, there isn't any sort of scientific basis for the movie's acceleration of development and aging to allow human embryos to reach adulthood in a month.   That is likely to remain science fiction.

So not too surprisingly, Embryo doesn't have a solid scientific basis. But it does have Rock Hudson and a pretty girl monster. That's not too bad for a cheesy B movie.

You can watch Embryo for free at the Internet Archive (also embedded below). Note that the uploaded film was "sourced from a 30 year old Betamax tape", so the picture quality isn't very good.

Or for a version with better quality visuals, you can watch Embryo through Amazon Instant Video or add it to your Netflix queue.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Uncommon Science Fiction Love for Valentine's Day

If you are looking for some science fiction romance (and lust) this Valentine's Day, be sure to check out the uncommon SF love stories highlighted over at the Free Science Fiction subsite of Biology in Science Fiction.

Read: Free Science Fiction February Highlights: Science Fictional Love

Image: from Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1955.  Published along with (but not illustrating) Cordwainer Smith's "Game of Rat and Dragon", in which a man loves his partner who just happens to be a cat.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Free Fiction for Darwin Day: Darwin's Suitcase

In honor of Darwin's birthday, a little free fiction: "Darwin's Suitcase" by Elisabeth Malartre.

It's  a story about Darwin meeting a time traveler who tries to convince him that his future publications will change the world.

The time traveler presents a moth to Darwin as a gift. Here's a a little background on its significance:

In 1862 Darwin predicted
 that the unusually long spur of the Madagascar orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) meant that there must exist a moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar and ensure pollination of the flower. Such a moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta or Wallace's sphinx moth) was discovered in 1903, but it wasn't confirmed until 1997 that Wallace's sphinx moth is indeed the pollinator of Darwin's orchid.

Read Elisabeth Malartre's "Darwin's Suitcase" at Jim Baen's Universe.

Happy Darwin Day!

More information: 

"Darwin and Wallace's Predictions Come True" by George Beccaloni at the Alfred Russell Wallace Website

"Was Darwin an ecologist?" at the Darwin Correspondence Project

Image: Detail from Sphinx moth fertilizing Angreguom gesquipedale (orchid) in Madagascar, from Alfred Russell Wallace's article "Creation by Law" Quarterly Journal of Science Vol. 4 (1867). The article supported Darwin's hypothesis.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Science Effect: How Does Science Fiction Influence Public Perception of Science?

Public health and biodefense policy expert Laura Kahn has written an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that argues that science fiction influences public opinion of science and scientists and can ultimately lead to changes in science policy.  Her examples come from the life sciences in science fiction: neurophysiological experimentation in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, vivisection in HG Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau, and genetic engineering in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park

She concludes that literature has affected the way that science is conducted, rather than the other way around:
And so, instead of science affecting culture (neurophysiology becomes the timelessFrankenstein), the culture (the potency of books about animals) affected the science: The scientific community has taken animal welfare to heart and has worked to minimize the number of animals involved in research as well as the animals' levels of suffering.  
That seems a bit too simple to me. It's not as if scientists (or science fiction writers) are completely isolated from the culture in which they live.  That suggests that there is an ongoing dialog between science, literary culture, and popular opinions about science.  

So how does Kahn suggest public opinion of the life sciences can be improved? Write stories with scientists as heroes, of course. 
But, if the scientific community wants to engage and inform the public, science fiction is an excellent strategy. Stories captivate people, they survive the test of time, and they become part of the popular culture. So, if any scientists with a creative-writing affinity want to captivate the public and inspire the next generation to pursue careers in science and technology, perhaps they should put pen to paper and start writing. The world needs more stories with scientist-heroes, not more scientist-villains.
I find it kind of tiresome when this suggestion is trotted out again and again. It's not that I think that positive depictions of science and scientists in science fiction aren't a good thing.  It's that heroic portrayals of science and scientists already exist.  

Of course when science and scientists are positively portrayed, it often just blends into the background. Take, for example, the Star Trek universe, which is so firmly entrenched in popular culture that even people who don't consider themselves science fiction fans are familiar with it.  The future according to Star Trek is a (mostly) happy place to live, in large part because of advanced technology available to the masses:  protein resequencers and genetic resequencers help provide food, tissue and organ regenerators are routine medical treatments and the medical lab on the Enterprise can whip up biomolecules on demand. 

Handsome genetically engineered villain
So Star Trek is chock-full of advanced biotechnology that's portrayed positively, and the medical staff . But what examples of biotech are people most likely to remember? Probably Khan Noonian Singh, sworn enemy of Captain Kirk and epitome of human genetic engineering gone wrong. Conflict is memorable. 

I do think that immoral or amoral scientific research is often unfairly portrayed as a source of evil in popular culture.  But I'm not sure that writing stories with the specific aim of positively portraying science is the answer. 

Fiction written with the purpose of advancing a particular point of view often isn't particularly entertaining.  I've put down more than one novel or turned the channel when a story seemed to be overly heavy-handed in promoting a particular cause.

So what's my solution? I'd suggest science fiction versions of shows like CSI or House where science is used to fight crime or treat rare medical conditions.  And considering that the science portrayed on both House and CSI is speculative enough that that they might already be considered to be dipping their toes in the pool of science fiction, I don't think that it would be too great a leap to create fully science fictional versions, where genetic engineering or cloning saves the day.   I'd watch a show like that!


Original article:  "The science fiction effect" at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Download Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for free: Project Gutenberg, Google eBooks, or for theKindle version from
Download HG Well's The Island of Doctor Moreau for free: Project Gutenberg, Google eBooks, or the Kindle version from

Top image: still from the documentary Experiments in the Revival of Organisms (1940). 
Bottom image: Khan Noonian Singh from Star Trek: TOS episode "Space Seed"

(Article via SF Signal)

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Viewing the mind's eye: communication or interrogation?

His captors positioned the hood directly over his head and began releasing the medusa contacts one at a time, fixing them to his scalp. [...] They finished attaching the contacts to his head. The Gammu type swung the probe's console into position where all three could watch the display. [...]  Yar touched a control on the probes console. Teg heard himself grunt with pain. Nothing had prepared him for that much pain [...]
~ Description of the "T-Probe" in Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert
One of the staples of science fiction technology is the mind probe.  The device can be used to interrogate prisoners or allow the memories of an unconscious patient to be retrieved.

Until fairly recently such devices were more fiction than fact, but recent advances in the development of brain scanning technology may change that.

Based on those recent technological developments, imaging and display expert Mary Lou Jepson makes a bold suggestion in her recent Solve for X talk. She proposes translating mental images into displayed images in order to improve communication.

As UC Berkeley neuroscientist Jack Gallant and his colleagues have recently shown, even the technology we have today can produce surprisingly accurate reconstructed images from brain scans.  In a study they published last fall, brain activity was recorded while subjects were shown short movie clips. The brain scan data was then used to reconstruct the viewed image.  The reconstructed images may not be clear enough to identify the original movie clip, but they were distinct enough to find similar images.

The process will likely work with memories too. Similar studies by cognitive neuroscientists Giorgio Ganis and Stephen Kosslyn have shown that similar regions of the brain are activated when images are remembered and when they are actively viewed.

Currently the images aren't clear enough to provide much more than a vague impression of the image someone is thinking about. However,  Jepson argues that with a combination of higher resolution imaging and holographic techniques (her own speciality), more "big data storage", and improved computational techniques, better images are within our technological grasp.

And it's not just mental images that can be reconstructed from brain scans. A recent report from Robert Knight's lab at UC Berkeley showed that spoken words could be reconstructed from neural activity recorded in the auditory cortex the listener's brain.  The participants in the study had the recording electrodes implanted in their brains, so the technology is still a long way from being a practical mind reading tool. But simply demonstrating that brain activity can be "read" to determine what someone is hearing is a major achievement.

Of course there are major ethical concerns with any technology that could be used for "mind reading". I'm hoping the focus will be developing methods of enhanced communication - perhaps even with non-human animals - rather than interrogation or mental eavesdropping.

More reading:

• Ganis G, Thompson WL, and Kosslyn SM. "Brain areas underlying visual mental imagery and visual perception: an fMRI study" Cognitive Brain Research 20:226-241 (2004) doi:10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2004.02.012

• Nishimoto S et al "Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies." Current Biology 21(19):1641-1646 (2011) doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.031 (supplemental material and FAQ)

•  Pasley BN , David SV , Mesgarani N , Flinker A , Shamma SA , et al. "Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex". PLoS Biol 10(1):e1001251. (2012) doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001251

Related post: Language, Genetics and Alien Communication

Monday, February 06, 2012

Undergoing Remodeling

The Biology in Science Fiction blog and site are currently undergoing a facelift. 

Our spiffy new header was designed by Brian Kolm of Atomic Bear Press.

Our new blog URL is, so you may want to update your bookmarks.

There will be more content added in the coming weeks.