Monday, April 30, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: April 30, 2012

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

Recommended free Kindle book (limited time only): Long Eyes eBook: Jeff Carlson: Kindle Store »
Free for the Kindle (or if you are running the Kindle App), at least at the moment:
"Long Eyes" by Jeff Carlson. This collection includes "sixteen stories about strange worlds, biotech, commandos, and the girl next door" along with Carlson's commentary about his inspiration for each story.
Kickstarter project plug:
Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology »
Kickstarter plug: the Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology will be edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer:
"The anthology will emphasize women's speculative fiction from the mid-1970s onward, looking to explore women's rights as well as gender/race/class/etc. from as many perspectives as possible. The contributors are not yet established so we hesitate to name names, but rights to reprint stories from Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree Jr. would be sought in addition to a wealth of newer voices in the field."
You can learn more about the project at
Geek Life:
What It Means To Be A Geek »
Are geeks the most enthusiastic people on the planet? And what does it mean to be both a girl and a geek?

Science and Science Fiction in the Arts 
  • Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson on the origins of the arts | Harvard Magazine May-Jun 2012 »
    Could there be a Shakespeare of the ants? E.O. Wilson writes about the arts - painting, music, literature - and how they are influenced by neuroscience and human evolutionary history.
  • Strongest Female Protagonist in YA? | Strange Chemistry »
    Who is your favorite female YA novel protagonist? For current novels, I'd have to go with Hermione from the Harry Potter series. From my youth, I'd vote for Mia in "Rite of Passage" by Alexei Panshin.
  • Scientist Spotlight: Aaron Blaisdell | The Science & Entertainment Exchange »
    The Science & Entertainment Exchange interviews animal behavior expert Aaron Blaisdell, who has been a consultant to Disney Animation. He says:
    "Practitioners of science and fiction are both in the business of exploring the question “what if?” For a scientist the question is a hypothesis to be tested, for the fiction storyteller the question is explored in the medium of film or writing. Personally, I find good fiction gets my creative juices flowing, which translates into better, by which I mean more creative and thoughtful, science."
  • How Movie Makers Use Science To Make Magic : NPR »
    NPR talks to scientists from Pixar and ILM about creating digital characters:
    "...  capturing that emotion in a performance is very difficult, and that's what our animators bring to the table. Once the emotion is there, then other artists are responsible for making sure that, you know, the plastic looks like it should and that the lighting is going to reflect the desires of the director."
  • Untangling The Hairy Physics Of Rapunzel (YouTube)
    Science Friday looks at the science behind CGI
Science of the Future? 
  • 14 extinct animals that could be resurrected »
    If you could resurrect one extinct animal, which would it be? Saber toothed cats? Passenger pigeons? The dodo? Giant sloths? T-rex?
  • UK team develops Trek 'tricorder' »
    This sounds very cool:
    "At its heart are bacteriophages - viruses that attack bacteria. By attaching antibodies to the viruses, they can be made to "stick" to specific micro-organisms. [...] Like strands of pasta, the viruses "line up" when stirred in a solution. But just as meatballs disturb rows of perfectly aligned spaghetti, bacteria cause the viruses to separate and tangle.
    Polarised light shone through the viruses makes it possible to show when the bugs are present. The light is blocked by aligned viruses, but passes through them when they become tangled. This generates an electrical signal displayed as a set of numbers on a computer screen. "
  • DVICE: Biophotovoltaic table harvests electricity from moss »
Cool Bioscience
Other worlds

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Putting More Science into UK Fiction and Movies

A group of UK SF writers, including Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, Geoff Ryman, Justina Robson, Simon Ings and Paul McAuley, are calling for a UK equivalent to the US Science & Entertainment Exchange, which connects scientists with the entertainment industry.

In their letter published in the Manchester Review they suggest that scientific credibility in entertainment is important to both scientists and the public:
In Britain, though, scientists, and people in arts, TV, movie and literary worlds do not work together as they should. This is a major problem: we all desperately need to understand each other’s constraints to create works that are entertaining, enlightening, and scientifically authentic. But worryingly, Britain is falling behind the United States, where organisations such as The National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange are forging these new and productive relationships between scientists and the entertainment industry.
The authors are participating in the "Putting Science in Fiction" symposium at the University of Manchester this week.  The scientists participating in the conference include biologist Matthew Cobb, astrophysicist Tim O'Brien, and paleontologist Phil Manning. They are joined by David A. Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood (sample chapters), and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, author of Science on Stage (sample chapter).

As Ryman told The Guardian, part of the problem is poor communication between scientists and science fiction writers:
"I work with a lot of scientists and one of the frustrating things they find is that all this fascinating stuff is being done which doesn't find its way into science fiction. They say look at the science fact pages – they're so much more imaginative than science fiction," said Ryman, winner for his novels of a British Science Fiction Association award, a World Fantasy award and an Arthur C Clarke award, and a creative writing lecturer at the University of Manchester. "It's my experience that scientists can find it difficult to understand the needs of scriptwriters or storytellers. [. . .]"
On this side of the Atlantic, the Science and Entertainment Exchange is a program of the US National Academy of Sciences. It will be interesting to see whether the UK group is successful in organizing a similar program with ties to the Royal Society or another scientific organization that can help with promotion within the scientific community.

And I wonder how interested the entertainment industry is in getting suggestions from scientists about "fascinating stuff" - from the interviews I've read on the Science and Entertainment Exchange site, it seems more common that scientists are asked to help with the implementation of scientific ideas that are already part of an existing screenplay. It seems to me that the more unusual scientific discoveries are more likely to appear in written science fiction than on TV or in the movies.  But maybe that's a misperception influenced by my entertainment choices.

In any case,  I strongly believe that popular culture influences the public perception of both science and scientists.  Any improvement in the interaction between scientists, writers, and members of the entertainment industry is good thing.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: April 23, 2012

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

Mythical CreaturesScience and Science Fiction in the Arts
Science of the Future?
Cool Bioscience

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Eron Sheean's Errors of the Human Body: A New Genetic Thriller

In 2007 Australian filmwriter and director Eron Sheean became an artist-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG) in Dresden, Germany.  

In his more than two years at the Institute, Sheean got a first hand look at real-life science.  As he explains, the experience changed his outlook on genetics:
Like most of those unfamiliar with the mechanisms of science and scientists, I had a lot of naive assumptions about the reality of research and an overly active imagination as influenced by the mass media, with its undertones of modern Frankenstein and Promethean stories. Obviously, all technology can be exploited for both negative and positive purposes, and genetic research more than most evokes wondrous fear. I was struck by the knee-jerk reaction of artists to this form of research; artists who are supposed to enquire beyond the potential horror or destruction of our exploration into new frontiers, but to also celebrate the possible beauty and humanity.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute study the development of the nervous system and heart, the genetics behind cancer, and flatworm regeneration, which I imagine provide plenty of science fodder for an active imagination.

Sheean's experience inspired his creation of a new film Errors of the Human Body. It's the story of a scientist (played by Geoffry Burton) whose son is born with severe and rare genetic disease.  That drives his research into a "human regeneration gene"  with the goal to "ensure a future line of people free from disease and deformity."

He talks a bit about his inspiration:

Set in Dresden, and filmed in part at MPI-CBG in early 2011, it looks like the bits of the film showing science taking place will be more realistic than depicted in most psychological thrillers.  There are more images from the film on the official web site.

The first teaser-trailer has been posted at Twitch Film:

The release date has not yet been announced. If you are interested in contributing to the movie making process, donations are being accepted through Interactor.

I look forward to seeing the finished film!

(via io9)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: April 15, 2012

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

Good to know in an emergency:
Science, Science Fiction and the Arts
Interesting Bioscience
Exploring Space and Extraterrestrial Life
  • Ancient Astronauts and Forgotten Dreams: End of Space Exploration — Features — Utne Reader »
    Mark Dery remembers the time when dreams of space exploration looked like Disney's Tomorrowland and pulp science fiction.
    "The Space Age is ancient history. Why not admit, then, that its greatest contribution to American culture is the rich fund of symbolism it has given us? The 20th century’s greatest myth, space exploration is the only true new religion since the Bronze Age. Christianity gave us the unforgettable fable of the alien messiah who touched down on planet Earth, assumed human form, sacrificed himself in order to save the species, then rose from the dead and returned to the stars." 
  • Life discovered on Mars .... 36 Years Ago
    "An international team of mathematicians and scientists have re-evaluated data from NASA's Viking mission to Mars over three decades ago, and have come to the conclusion that the data prove life exists on Mars. " 
  • Short Sharp Science: How Earthly life could populate space by panspermia »
    Could life have spread from Earth to the rest of the galaxy?
  • Dinosaurs From Space! »
    Might there be advanced, hyper-intelligent dinosaurs on other planets? A recent paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society looked at "right handed" versus "left handed" chemical building blocks for life. All pretty straightforward biochemistry..
    But for reasons that are unclear, the scientists (perhaps having just finished a+Syfy movie marathon) concluded the paper with a bit of bizarre speculation about dinosaurs on other planets (!!?): 
  • Tardigrade Eggs Might Survive Interplanetary Trip | Wired Science | »
    Tardigrades and ticks may take over the galaxy...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hand transplants, face transplants ... and brain transplants?

If you can believe what you read in science fiction, in the future we'll be able to swap out any damaged or malfunctioning body parts for new and better functioning replacements. But not only are there serious ethical issues to be considered before that can become a reality - where or who do the replacement parts come from, exactly? - there are also many technical hurdles that need to be overcome.  So what may the future bring?

There was a lot of buzz last month about a major surgical achievement: a man who had suffered severe facial disfigurement from a gunshot wound received a full face transplant. Using techniques less than a decade old, the transplant included facial tissue from his hairline to his neck, and included a replacement of his upper and lower jaw and teeth. The results were stunning.

Face transplants represent just the latest step in the development of transplantation technology over the past century.  Experiments on dogs and other non-human animals beginning in the early 1900s demonstrated that limbs could indeed be transplanted successfully. But there were serious complications caused by infection and rejection of foreign grafted tissue. And even if the procedures could be successfully used to help human patients, there was a lack of donors.

It wasn't until 1944, in the midst of World War II, that Lieutenant Richard H. Hall, a member of the Navy medical corps, proposed a method for human arm transplants.  The time was ripe: recently developed sulfa drugs, penicillin, and other antibiotics could prevent loss of the transplanted limbs to infection. And there was a need. With no end of the war in sight, Hall noted that "there is certainly a growing demand for this procedure." He proposed that "civil or military casualties" could be used as donors. It's terrible to consider, but wartime created a flood of both potential recipients and deceased donors. 

It turns out that Hall was decades ahead of his time. In 1964 the first human hand transplantation was performed, but that failed after two weeks when the hand was rejected by the recipient. It wasn't until 1998 that a hand transplantation was performed successfully. And the first successful arm transplantation followed  in 2008, more than 60 years after Hall's paper was published.

But even though Hall's proposed methods weren't immediately successful, that doesn't mean his paper went unnoticed.  In 1959 Astounding Science Fiction published Anne Walker's short story "A Matter of Proportion" that explicitly cited Hall's 1944 paper. As one of her characters explains it:
By curiosity, I know a bit about such things. A big surgery journal, back in the '40s, had published a visionary article on grafting a whole limb, with colored plates as if for a real procedure[A]. Then they'd developed techniques for acclimating a graft to the host's serum, so it would not react as a foreign body. First, they'd transplanted hunks of ear and such; then, in the '60s, fingers, feet, and whole arms in fact.
But since this is science fiction, Walker takes the idea to it's logical extreme, from "simple" limb transplants to  whole brain transplants:
"[...] When you cut your finger, it can heal in two ways. Usually it bleeds, scabs, and skin grows under the scab, taking a week or so. But if you align the edges exactly, at once, they may join almost immediately healing by First Intent. Likewise in the brain, if they line up cut nerve fibers before the cut-off bit degenerates, it'll join up with the stump. So, take a serum-conditioned brain and fit it to the stem of another brain so that the big fiber bundles are properly fitted together, fast enough, and you can get better than ninety per cent recovery."

"[...] There's a place in the brain stem called the isthmus, no cell masses, just bundles of fibers running up and down. Almost all the nerves come off below that point; and the few that don't can be spliced together, except the smell nerves and optic nerve. Ever notice I can't smell, Willie? And they transplanted my eyes with the brain—biggest trick of the whole job."
You'll have to read the whole story to learn about what sort of man is willing to risk being a brain donor. 

Of course there's no real world brain transplantation, at least not yet.  And maybe we're more likely to have our memories, thoughts and emotions uploaded to a computer than have our brains transferred to a new mortal body. Only time will tell. 

On a side note, I am quite curious about the author Anne Walker.  I've only found one other story attributed to her, published in 1961, and then she disappears. Was she a doctor or other medical professional? if not, how did she come across a Hall's article in a medical journal? If any of you readers have more information about Walker, I'd love to learn more about her.


Hall RH "Whole Upper Extremity Transplant for Human Beings." Annals of Surgery 120:12-23 (1944)

"A Matter of Proportion" by Anne Walker at Project Gutenberg
Top image: Hall (1944) Figure 3 "Donor graft in place on recipient, medial aspect. Closure partially completed. (a) Details of vascular anastomosis."
Bottom image: Illustration from "A Matter of Proportion" by Bernklau

Monday, April 09, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: April 9, 2012

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

Free for the Kindle (limited time):
Science and the Arts
  • Jonah Lehrer, science fiction writer | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine
    Will increasing creativity mean mankind's demise?
  • The neuroscience of Bob Dylan's genius
    But how is brain activity reflected in our brain's activity?
    "Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Instead, we skip straight to the  breakthroughs. The danger of telling this narrative is that the feeling of frustration – the act of being stumped – is an essential part of the creative process."
  • Cambridge Ideas - Bird Tango (YouTube)
    A dance inspired by Darwin.
    "By day Professor Nicky Clayton researches the social behaviour and intelligence of birds but by night she is an accomplished dancer. Recently, Professor Clayton has been encouraged by Rambert Dance Company to merge the two passions by becoming their Scientist in Residence....."
  • The music created by your brain waves could score a horror film
    The video:
    "Brain waves are picked up from the parietal and frontal lobes, then sent by radio waves to the motherboard, which converts the radio waves into a wave pulse that is output as sound."
  • Do science fiction and fantasy cause recurring dreams?
Looking at the Future
  • TEDxBrussels - Rudy Rucker - Beyond Machines: The Year 3000 (YouTube)
    Rudy Rucker's vision of the future:
    "As in his novel "Software" where computers 'preserve' the human brain, a so-called 'life box' database remains which keeps our memories alive. These machines however cannot substitute humans as our minds perform more physical and biological processes, where artificial intelligence only relies on inferences."
Interesting Bioscience
Other Planets and Extraterrestrials
  • What would your voice sound like on Venus?
    I'd probably end up sounding like James Earl Jones.
  • Q&A: The Anthropology of Searching for Aliens | Wired Science |
    Anthropologist Kathryn Denning talks to Wired about how our cultural narratives affect the way we think about extraterrestrial intelligence and possible contact with alien cultures.
    "From Star Trek to SETI, our modern world is constantly imagining possible futures where we dart around the galaxy engaging with bizarre alien races. Denning points out that when people talk about these futures, they often invoke the past. But they frequently seem to have a poor understanding of history."

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Alien: The Easter Edition

The crew of the USS Chocstromo discovers a suspicious (and delicious) giant egg. If you've seen Ridley Scott's 1979 classic Alien, you have an idea of how it all turns out. The movie features John Seaward (of the Inbetweeners). Also be sure to check out filmmaker Will Tribble's blog for a look at how the sets and various alien incarnations were created.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Whale Songs and Dolphin Chatter: Free Science Fiction

IMG_0621The great mammals of the oceans, dolphins and whales are like intelligent aliens right here on Earth. They are intelligent and share their own language. Whales and dolphins may even be able to learn to speak to each other. It's been suggested that learning to better communicate with dolphins will help us better communicate with extraterrestrials, if and when we meet them.

It's no wonder that cetaceans frequently appear in science fiction. Often their intelligence has been given a boost - "uplifted" in SF terms - so that they can take their place beside humans.

This month the Biology in SF Free Fiction Directory highlights stories featuring dolphins and whales who communicate with humans in a variety of ways. Go check it out!

 Photo: By IK's World Trip on Flickr

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Science and Science Fiction Highlights: April 1, 2012

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

Science and the Arts
Interesting Bioscience

Other Planets and Alien Life
  • Why black (or blue, or red) plants might be the key to finding life beyond Earth
    Life on other planets may be colorful!
  • Science Fiction or Fact: ET Will Look Like Us
    Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at SETI sums up the answer nicely:
    "Why should they look like us? No other creatures look that much like us, except for other apes."
    He also points out: "An alien will look like whatever its evolutionary niche is."
    Despite that, the article gives a 3 out of 4 plausibility rating for the idea that extraterrestrial aliens will look like "us". What the heck?
  • If We Discover Aliens, What's Our Protocol for Making Contact?
    It seems like the biggest mistake we could make is assuming that aliens will think and behave like humans and that they likewise understand our behavior. Do open gun ports signify an imminent attack or are they a sign of respect?
  • Science Fiction or Fact: Sentient Living Planets Exist
    The article doesn't really focus on planets themselves that could be sentient, like the Gaia of Asimov's Foundation universe. Instead it asks whether a network of living beings on the surface of a planet could become sentient. In either case, the answer is "pretty darn unlikely".
  • “Snowing Microbes” On Saturn’s Moon?
    It's all speculation at the moment, but Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porcini thinks there's the possibility of life in ice jets of Enceladus:
    "In the end, it’s is the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search. We don’t even need to go scratching around on the surface. We can fly through the plume and sample it. Or we can land on the surface, look up and stick our tongues out. And voilĂ …we have what we came for.”
  • Could Life Be Abundant In Our Galaxy?
For Regular Updates Follow Biology in Science Fiction:

Biology in Science Fiction

Promote Your Page Too