Friday, August 31, 2012

Free Friday Flick: Donovan's Brain, Curt Siodmak, and the science of memory

This week's recommended free online movie is the 1953 science fiction horror film Donovan's Brain, starring Nancy Davis (later Nancy Reagan) and Lew Ayres, and directed by Felix Feist.

The basic plot: a multi-millionaire's airplane crashes in the desert, a scientist keeps his brain alive in a tank, and there are unintended consequences (of course)!

The movie is based on Curt Siodmak's best-selling 1942 novel by the same name. While Siodmak is probably best known as a Hollywood screenwriter for horror movies like The Wolf Man, he also wrote a number of science fiction novels. And he wasn't just interested in cheap thrills. In a 1997 interview, Siodmak talks about how took pains to assure scientific accuracy in his novels.
I have a trick with writing sci-fi [. . .] . In all these books there is a tremendous amount of research involved. I pick up the telephone and call the most important scientist I can think of in that field in America. So far they have all worked with me because they all are frustrated writers anyhow. If someone is writing [a book] for them, then they can correct it, which makes them feel they wrote it. I siphon off years of knowledge and research from those people for a small fee, or for a percentage of the book, whatever the case. But at the end, I have a story that is scientifically right. 
Apparently not one to mince words, Siodmak doesn't paint a pretty picture of scientists as wanna-be writers. I suppose it's a small consolation that he compensated them for their time and expertise.

In the novel version of Donovan's Brain, the brain is kept alive in a mixture of "blood serum" and human brain "tissue ash". That does appear to be based on the latest science in organ culture at the time the novel was written.

In the 1930s aviator Charles Lindbergh worked with biologist Alexis Carrel to develop devices to keep organs alive in culture. At the time, blood serum was one of the standard components of organ culture medium. Their work was widely known even outside scientific circles, and even making the cover of Time Magazine in 1935.

Around the same time, Dr. Fenton B. Turck published a book discussing his experiments indicating that tissue ash - tissues baked in an oven, then dissolved in saline solution - was usually toxic when injected into animals, but could stimulate cellular growth in vitro in low doses. He termed the active component "cytost", which appeared to be a species specific. So extracts made from dog tissues would be active more active when injected into dogs, than it would in pigs or monkeys. Taking that to it's logical conclusion, presumably such extracts from human brains would only work to stimulate the growth of other human brains. Unfortunately Turck's results were not reproducible, but that doesn't stop it from being a decent science fictional premise. (Turck also speculated about the possible toxic nature of mummy dust in Egyptian tombs, which is another great science fiction-horror premise.)

I couldn't find any indication that Siodmak had talked to scientists about how to grow a brain in a tank, but it seems that he could have derived inspiration just from the science news in the popular press.

Hauser's Memory, Siodmak's 1968 sequel to Donovan's Brain, likely was inspired by the James McConnell's research into memory transfer in cannibalistic planarians, which seemed at the time to be mediated by RNA. In developing the background for the novel, Siodmak also studied people with memory loss. As he described it:
 In researching that book, I worked at this hospital where they had 2,500 retarded children, insane and old people, too. I remember two old guys asking me, "Tell me, sir, are we going to lunch or coming from lunch?" They didn't know which. But they remembered what they had done when they were eight years old. So we might have a greater amount of RNA—ribonucleic acid—when we are young. As we get older, that substance dries up. That's why we can't learn new languages so easily when we get older, but kids pick it up right away. The growing process of the brain is based on RNA, which is why we learn so fast as kids. Even memory—and also what is right, what is wrong—is information you pick up easily as a child.
So what about the movie version?

There were three mid-20th century movies based on Donovan's Brain. Apparently Siodmak didn't care much for any of them.  He claims he didn't even bother to watch the 1953 Feist-directed version, because in it "God destroys Donovan's brain with a thunderbolt." So be warned that the movie has less scientific plausibility than the novel. Still, it's a decent B-movie for this holiday weekend.

Check it out:

 Further reading for the technically inclined:
Image: The quintessential brain in a jar, by Flickr user Kaushik Narasimhan, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: August 26, 2012

Some of the science and SF links originally posted on Google+Biology in Science Fiction on Google+Twitter , and Facebook  over the past week. Follow Biology in Science Fiction for more!

Free fiction:

Innsmouth Free Press
Like weird fiction? Check out Innsmouth Free Press's June 2010 issue, which "takes the New England out of Lovecraft". It's free to download.
"The mixture of writers, settings and voices is eclectic, from well-known authors such as Ekaterina Sedia and Charles R. Saunders to other, lesser-known-yet-equally-compelling storytellers. The stories are set in France, South America, India, Canada, and many more locations. The characters are as diverse as the writers, with Hmong painters and Japanese empresses caught between the lines."

Science fiction writers on science, and science in SF:

From the article:
"Isaac Asimov is credited with saying, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka' but 'That’s funny...'" Since you don't want anyone excited about your work, due to the likelihood they will ask annoying questions, you need to avoid this reaction at all costs. Under no circumstances should your work cause anyone to raise an intrigued eyebrow."
Interview: Kim Stanley Robinson »
Lightspeed Magazine interviews Kim Stanley Robinson. They talk about space colonies, economics, and why futurologists declaring that "the singularity" is like bad science fiction:
"I think it’s a misunderstanding of the brain and of computers, in effect. We are underestimating how complex the brain is and how little we understand it, and we’re overestimating how much computers might have a will or intention. I think the intention will always stay with us, and the machines will be search engines and adding machines—enormously powerful and fast binary, digital things—but they’re not going to do the singularity as I understand it, this notion that machines will take off on their own and leave us behind."
David Brin writes about animal communication and the possibly painful path to "Uplift" of non-human animals.

Why SF sometimes needs to be scientifically inaccurate for sake of the story.

Jo Walton looks at what she calls anthropological SF where " one lone traveler, from a spaceship culture that is recognisably connected to our future, as an outsider exploring the culture of a planet populated with low-tech and culturally fascinating people."

Is anyone outside of Hollywood surprised that scientists are regular people?

Science In My Fiction » Blog Archive » Science Fiction Fails Immunology »
At Science in My Fiction Amanda Barrett points out that many science fiction stories ignore the reality 
of the way the human immune system works.

Event Recap: Medical Miracles: Cutting Edge Health Technology | The Science & Entertainment Exchange »
The cutting edge of medical technology: I wonder which will turn up in next summer's blockbusters or the fall medical dramas.

Cool Bioscience

What some grad student scientists do when procrastinating writing their thesis: diagram dragon evolution. It's some hard-core old-school phylogeny based on several centuries worth of dragon art. Very cool! (Also possibly a t-shirt)

Water bears are amazing creatures that can even survive the vacuum of space. Science Friday gives you the whole scoop.

A (sensationalized) look at how scientists at the National Institutes of Health used whole genome sequencing to trace the outbreak of a deadly bacterial infection.

From butterfly wings to pine cones, nature has inspired human design. Why not let millions of years of evolution do some of the design work?

Bioluminescence is most commonly found in marine organisms. This is a rare example of a land-based organism that bioluminesces. Sadly the glowing roaches may now be extinct.

Is GAATACA-style genetic testing currently possible? Not yet, but we're getting closer.

Could identical twins get away with murder? Scars and fingerprints may differ. And there are molecular differences the detection of which seems more like science fiction than science at the moment.

Neuroscience and beautiful brains

A great article about how to recognize bad neuroscience, based on a lecture by Oxford Neuroscientist Prof. Dorothy Bishop. Dorothy Bishop's original presentation is here.

Yoshiki Sasai's research into the development of the nervous system has moved from frog embryos to mammalian stem cells. He's been able to grow an eye and parts of the brain in vitro. What's next?

Winners of the Brain-Art Competition. Beautiful brains!

Watch neurons dance to hip hop. It's a petri dish party!

The search for extraterrestrial life and habitable planets

The The New York Times looks at the current status of Gliese 581g, a planet that may exist in the habitable zone of it's star - just far enough away so that surface water is possible, but not so far that it's frozen.  The trouble is that it still isn't clear if Gliese 581g even exists. 

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait looks at the search for extraterrestrial life. I totally agree with his conclusion:
"So when will we find life in space? If it’s out there, then my hope is: very soon."

We're going back to Mars in 2016!

For creators:

Imagine Science Films | Submit Your Film »
The journal Nature is one of the sponsors of the Imagine Science Film Festival, and they are still looking for entries: 
• ISFF seeks films, that effectively incorporate science into a compelling narrative while maintaining credible scientific groundings.
• ISFF seeks films that have a scientific or technological theme and storyline, or that have a leading character who is a scientist, engineer, or mathematician.
• The scientific content needs to be presented in a compelling, narrative-driven and accurate manner.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

RIP Neil Armstrong: Challenges are in our nature

"I think we're going to the Moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It's by the nature of this deep inner soul. We're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream."

~ Neil Armstrong, quoted in First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong

Astronaut Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, passed away today at the age of 82. NASA has published an excellent obituary and appreciation of his life.

Since Armstrong's historic moon walk in 1969, only 11 other men have followed in his footsteps, most recently in 1972. I find myself saddened that we have not expanded our human presence in our solar system beyond Earth orbit in those 40 years.

Armstrong was a supporter of NASA's Constellation Program,which aimed to take humans to Mars. As he stated in his 2010 testimony to Congress when that program was cancelled:

If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is allowed simply to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that this would be in our best interests.
[....snip ...]
The now to be cancelled Constellation program showed promise to fulfill lofty goals with a high level of safety and flexibility.

Will the European Space Agency, or China or Russia eventually send humans back to the Moon or Mars or beyond even if NASA does not? I think we humans will land on Mars eventually, since as Armstrong stated almost 50 years ago, the challenge is in our nature.

But when that does happen, Neil Armstrong will still have a permanent place in history as the first human to set foot on solid ground beyond the Earth. A "giant leap for mankind" indeed!

And tonight we can all do as his family requests:
For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
RIP Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Image: Neil Armstrong photographed by Buzz Aldrin after the completion of the Lunar EVA on the Apollo 11 flight, July 20, 1969.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Free Flick: Moon

Imagine you are are managing a mining facility on the far side of the Moon, working all alone.  You have no direct contact with your family and friends back on Earth, and you are counting the days until your three year contract is finished and you can return home. And then it happens: you are in a life-threatening accident, and you realize that your situation is not at all as it seems.

That's the premise of the critically acclaimed and Hugo award winning 2009 movie Moon, which stars Sam Rockwell as the moon base worker Sam.

You can watch Moon for free via Crackle on YouTube if you are willing to sit through a few ads.

Note that the video is rated "R", and so you'll need to sign in to your YouTube account to "prove" you are at least 18 years old.

[the rest of post has spoilers]

In the movie, Sam wakes up in the base's infirmary with no memory of the accident, and makes a startling discovery: he's not the Sam that was in the accident, but a replacement clone. The old Sam and the new Sam work together to figure out what's really going on before a "rescue" squad from the mining company arrives.

While the movie's director Duncan Jones has apparently thought a lot about how a Helium-3 mining facility on the Moon would operate, cloning is pretty much just a plot device. As Jones put it:
Cloning seemed to fit  well into the embryonic story I was playing with of a man stuck in a moon base. I got excited thinking:
“If you met you in person, would you like yourself?” I think it’s the most brutal, honest and human question there is…and that makes it perfect for sci-fi.” 
And the movie raises what I think is an important philosophical question: if human cloning were cheap and easy, to what extent would cost-cutting businesses use clones if they were interchangeable and disposable parts of a machine? And how would people respond if that user were discovered?

Moon does not address the issue quite as as deeply or movingly as Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, but it still provides ample food for thought.

I think Rockwell did an excellent job playing two different versions of himself: one whose physical and mental health is breaking down, and a younger, healthier version who has not yet experienced the years of managing the base alone. It's thoughtful science fiction, rather than an action-packed blockbuster. I recommend it.

(If you prefer an ad-free version, you can watch for $0.99 through Amazon Instant)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Asimov on science fiction, plausible science, and predicting the future

In 1975 Sy Bourgin interviewed prolific science fiction (and non-fiction) writer Isaac Asimov for the US Information Agency. I'm not sure that the interviewer had actually read many (or any) of Asimov's novels, but it's an interesting discussion all the same.

In the interview, Asimov is asked to comment on science fiction writers as futurists. He points out that most science fiction writers - including himself - are pretty bad at predicting what the future will look like:
"When people talk about how science fiction writers predict the present, it's because they've gone through a large corpus of work and picked out certain things. We can't just predict, there isn't enough story material in straight prediction. We make up futures. It doesn't matter whether we really think they'll come to pass or not. But we ask ourselves only if this will be interesting to deal with, if this will make a nice story, and then if some of them due come true, well...sure [it makes him feel very good]."
That is one of my pet peeves: reviewers (and sometimes authors) will pick out a tidbit from a science fiction story and use that as an example of the awesome powers of science fiction writers as technological fortune tellers. Often the "prediction" is vague or obvious enough that almost any development in that field of technology will appear to be a match. And they usually forget to mention all the stuff the author got wrong, which isn't  necessarily just the present-day lack of jetpacks and faster than light travel, but incorrect depictions of basic science. 

That's not to say that science fiction is needs to always be scientifically factual.  As Asimov points out, what's important to the story is that the science is at least plausible. And, to do that successfully, the writer needs to know when they are departing from reality. As he put it:
"You're allowed to depart from scientific possibility provided you know you're departing from it and can explain it. The reader will go along with you into the realm of fantasy if you give them an excuse. But to do it without realizing you are going into fantasy is insulting to the intelligent reader."
I think that the biological sciences often get short shrift in that regard. Science fiction is often so focused on physics and engineering that even basic cell biology, anatomy, evolution, and biochemistry are given short shrift.  Of course, Asimov's background as a biochemist at least let him understand when he was departing from reality in that regard.

But despite his claim that most science fiction authors' predictions don't come to pass, Asimov does talk about the future. He makes the point that technology is changing rapidly, which I think everyone can agree with:
"I think science fiction refers to different societies which are connected to ours through scientific and technological change. There is always that feeling that we are heading right now rapidly into changing societies. People who are young people today know that when they are middle aged that life will be nothing like what it is now. And science fiction gives them an opportunity to try in different societies. It's the only thing that's relevant. Anything that deals with the world of today is going to have no meaning to young people of today in say 30 years." 
I was just a kid in 1975, and while I don't like to think I'm middle aged now, the "young person of 1975" he's talking about could be me. I've seen massive changes in technology in my lifetime, from rotary phones to cell phones and video chatting. And 1975 was the infancy of the biotechnological revolution that has spawned technologies that allow fast genome sequencing, routine genetic engineering (at least of microorganisms) and even the cloning of mammals.  

But some technology hasn't changed that much.  Driving a car isn't all that different than when I learned to drive in the 80s, and we still haven't set up a colony on the moon. 

And what really hasn't changed that much are people.  Sure social mores and attitudes have changed significantly, and I think for the better. But we still have the same human desires and foibles that we did 30 years ago (not to mention a century ago). We still have interpersonal relationships and conflicts. And we still have the need for adventure and the desire to explore.  That's what makes older fiction still interesting and even relevant to the present day.

And I think Asimov's predictions for the society of 500 years from now is way off base. He says:
If by the year 2000 we have not solved the problems that face us today, then I would say in 500 years we'll see a world containing a  technological civilization in ruins, in which there will be a relatively small number of human beings, sort of surviving, and with New York City as the most magnificent ruin in the history of the human race.
By contrast, if we have "solved our problems" by the year 2000 he predicts that 500 years in the future we may be living in a utopia.

It's not clear to me whether Asimov really believed that all human problems actually could be solved in the 25 years following the interview, or if he was just pessimistic. Certainly we still have problems today, and I'd like to believe that doesn't mean the human race is doomed. There are always going to be social, political and technological "problems" for society to solve. I think that it's our ongoing willingness to try to resolve our problems peacefully and efficiently that will determine what our future will bring.

Watch the whole interview for more from Asimov about his prolific writing, non-English language science fiction writers, the plausibility of the biology in Fantastic Voyage, and space exploration. 

The interview is also available for viewing or download at

Books mentioned include Asimov's Fantastic Voyage and Robot books, and Richard Adams' Watership Down (which Asimov calls "excellent fantasy"):

.  .
(Thanks to Zetetic Elench for posting the link to the video in this discussion on Google+)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: August 20, 2012

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

Mars Ahoy! Curiosity, Astronauts, and NASA

Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine »
This is awesome! Almost like being there ...

We're NASA and We Know It (Mars Curiosity) (video)
This is a musical satire of mission control for the Mars Curiosity Rover. NASA rocks :)

4 WORST Mars Movies Ever! (video)
Bad Astronomy 's Phil Plait joins Annalee Newitz and Esther Inglis-Arkell on io9's We Come from the Future show to discuss bad science in movies about Mars. They also talk about how terraforming Mars might really work - not surprisingly, not like it's depicted by Hollywood.

Science off the Sphere: Yo-Yos in Space (video)
Just what the title says: yo-yoing on the space station.Looks like fun - and it's physics!

Packing for Mars (Part 2) »Startalk Radio
How might humans evolve if we settle on Mars for the long term? Just one of the topics on this week's StarTalk podcast. (Also possibly more than you wanted to know about peeing on a spaceship).

Aliens and Extraterrestrial Life

Hollywood Aliens: Prototypes for the Real Thing? »
At The Huffington Post SETI institute astronomer Seth Shostak asks whether Hollywood aliens are likely to reflect what real aliens might look like. The answer:
"The bottom line is that Hollywood aliens are mostly reflections of ourselves, and hardly accurate ciphers for real extraterrestrials. 
Read the whole article to see why Hollywoods portrayal of aliens is still important.

Search for Habitable Exoplanets - Sara Seager (SETI Talks) (video)
Planetary scientist Sara Seager talks about the search for habitable planets in other solar systems. She asks: what would aliens see when looking at Earth? And when will we find an Earth-like planet? More about her research

Is a new form of life really so alien?
The PLoS podcast talks to biology professor Gerald Joyce about how we would know if a new lifeform is truly alien or not. Joyce argues that the important question is " How many heritable “bits” of information are involved, and where did they come from? A genetic system that contains more bits than the number that were required to initiate its operation might reasonably be considered a new form of life."

Brian Greene: Why is our universe fine tuned for life? (YouTube)
Is the universe made for us?
"At the heart of modern cosmology is a mystery: Why does our universe appear so exquisitely tuned to create the conditions necessary for life? In this tour de force tour of some of science's biggest new discoveries, Brian Greene shows how the mind-boggling idea of a multiverse may hold the answer to the riddle."

DNA and Genetics

First evidence for photosynthesis in insects »
Carotinoid pigments in aphids appear to allow them to turn light into energy - like photosynthesis in plants.  Maybe the engineered humans with photosynthetic skin described by SF writers like Joan Slonczewski and John Scalzi isn't so far fetched.

Yes, We’re Actually Still Looking for the Yeti »
Will DNA analysis prove the Yeti exists? Probably not, but it may turn up interesting information - and cryptozoologists can't say that scientists aren't helping them out
"One of the scientists involved in the project, Bryan Sykes, sees this as a catch all for those who claim science brushes them off. ““It’s one of the claims by cryptozoologists that science does not take them seriously. Well, this is their chance. We are calling for people to send us their evidence, and we will test it through DNA analysis,” he told the BBC."
Researchers Turn Book Into DNA Code »
Using DNA to encode a story. Seems like you could use the process it to send secret messages if you (and your message recipient) had the technical ability to do that.

Tree's leaves genetically different from its roots 
Evolution within an individual: shown to be possible in continuously growing trees, but I'd guess pretty unlikely in most animals .

Guest Post: Genetics in Game of Thrones: “The Seed is Strong” - Mad Art Lab »
Geneticist Elizabeth Finn explains the genetics in Game of Thrones - it's all about the hair, of course!

DNA extracted from wooly mammoth hair
It turns out hair shafts are full of DNA sheathed in "biological plastic" (keratin). It's protective enough so that external bacteria and other contaminating DNA sources can be washed away before analysis. And it's allowed scientists to analyze 50,000 year old DNA from wooly mammoths. The down side is that hair shafts only contain mitochondrial DNA, rather than nuclear DNA, meaning that what we can learn from the DNA of such extinct animals is limited. But it's better than nothing.

Will we ever correct diseases before birth?
Ed Yong looks at the current state of prenatal gene therapy. While there have been some positive recent advances in gene therapy in children, no one has tried gene therapy in human fetuses. Considering the risk involved, and the complexity of many human genetic diseases, that may not happen any time soon.

First plant made drug on the market
Developments in "bio-pharming": scientists have engineered carrots to produce a human enzyme to treat patients with Gaucher disease. It's cheaper and potentially safer than therapeutic biochemicals produced in animal cells. It lends a whole new meaning to the directive to eat vegetables for health!

Neuroscience and Behavior

How Do We Perceive Color? » (video)
Color perception is a concern of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. You might say it's all in your mind.

Birdsong Not Music, After All - ScienceNOW »
A recent study shows the nightingale wren's song isn't like human music - it's more like talking.
"The birds we prize most for their songs sound most like the human voice, says Robert Zatorre, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who was not involved in the study. The sounds they make have clear tones, repeat similar phrases, and are made of discrete notes. Despite these pleasing attributes, however, it has never been scientifically proven that the notes in birdsong follow the same organizational rules that govern most musical compositions."
Are Vampires Real? »
Yes, the article is sensationalized (and the tatooed woman in a bikini photos are gratuitous) but Renfield's Syndrome is a real clinical diagnosis. Read the article for more.

10 Limits to Human Perception ... and How They Shape Your World »
All of our senses are limited: vision, hearing, taste, touch. Will we eventually overcome them with biological enhancements, either organic or mechanical? What do you think?
The Singularity: Will Transcending Human Intelligence Also Transcend Human Empathy? | IdeaFeed | Big Think »
From the article:
"A recent work of science-fiction, called New Model Army, by English author Adam Roberts examines what the world may look like were humans to submit their individual consciousness to a hive mind, where the aims of the collective were more important than individual concerns. While the novel is set 25 years in the future, much of the book reflects on today's technological advances. "In short, imagine groups arising that resemble Anonymous, whose extemporaneous self-organizing projects [are equipped] with better communications and an interest, not in hacking websites, but in fighting and killing for money."
Reading minds: The Science not the Fiction
Brain decoding is currently more fiction than science:
"Scientists are a long way, of course, from “mind reading” — deciphering complex, abstract thoughts in real-time. With current brain decoding technology, a neuroscientist may be able to tell that you are looking at an image of, say, an apple rather than an orange, but it cannot unscramble all your complex thoughts about that image, such as your memories of apple picking as a child."
Human brain shaped by duplicate genes
What sets the human brain apart from the other apes? It looks like it may have been a simple gene duplication error. The duplicated gene - SRGAP2C - appeared about 2.4 million years ago "around the time that big-brained species of Homo evolved in Africa from smaller-skulled Australopithecines, and around the time that stone tools appeared in the fossil record". Expressing the mutated human gene in mice caused them to develop denser connections in their brains. Is that what makes humans "smarter"?

Image: Still Life with Rover:  This self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation camera. Click the link for more information.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Flick: They're Made out of Meat

I'm meat, you're meat, all of us humans are sentient meat, as two aliens are surprised to discover in this short film:

"They're Made Out of Meat" is an adaptation of Terry Bisson's 1991 Nebula-award nominated short story of the same name.  Directed by Balcony TV founder Stephen O'Regan and starring actor and director Tom Noonan and comedian Ben Bailey, the movie was the winner of the 2006 Science Fiction Short Film Festival in Seattle.

Humans are also made of meat / L@s human@s también estamos hech@s de carneI think the movie captures what's great about humanity: we may be merely carbon-based life forms, but we play music, laugh, play games, flirt and kiss.  And we make machines that reach out to the rest of the universe, looking for other intelligent life to talk to. I just hope that if there is intelligent life out there, we're not dismissed on the basis of our meatiness.

 You can also read "They're Made out of Meat" for free on Terry Bisson's web site. Check it out!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Evolution, popular fiction, and the Lost World

Biology in fiction quote of the day:
Conan Doyle was born in the year of [Charles Darwin's] The Origin. By his fifty-third birthday, the theory of evolution had become so widely accepted that a literary hack could use it as the centrepiece of a work of fiction. Doyle  (who had read the reports of the British explorer who discovered the unique island in the sky) seized he chance and his book sold hundreds of thousands of copies to a well-primed public.
The quote comes from geneticist Steve Jones' entertaining book about Darwin's work as a scientist and evolution:  The Darwin Archipelago: The Naturalist's Career Beyond Origin of Species.

The "work of fiction" he's describing is Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World,  set on isolated plateau high above the Amazon jungle where dinosaurs and other great beasts live side-by-side with humans and "primitive ape-men".  Evolution is a running theme in the novel.

One of Doyle's characters - Professor Challenger - is an expert on the evolutionary theories of Darwin and August Weisman. He pontificates on how animals that we think of as being separated by millions of years of evolutionary history could end up living together in the present day:
"My own reading of the situation for what it is worth—" he inflated his chest enormously and looked insolently around him at the words—"is that evolution has advanced under the peculiar conditions of this country up to the vertebrate stage, the old types surviving and living on in company with the newer ones. Thus we find such modern creatures as the tapir—an animal with quite a respectable length of pedigree—the great deer, and the ant-eater in the companionship of reptilian forms of jurassic type. So much is clear. 
Challenger is arrogant and annoying and challenges the scientific dogma of his colleagues who are, not surprisingly, reluctant to believe his claims about living dinosaurs. But even though he's outside the scientific mainstream, he's not claiming that evolution doesn't happen, but that it works on a different time scale, at least in exotic isolated locations.

That's the point that Jones makes in his comment: Doyle's "paleontological romance", as one contemporary review described it,  takes the workings of evolution for granted. And that scientific point of view didn't seem to affect the popularity of the novel a century ago.

When creationists claim that there is enough "controversy" about evolution that it should be taught side-by-side with creationism (or "intellectual design") in the science classroom, they are ignoring the fact that evolutionary theory has been accepted science - even in the popular imagination - for well over a century.

But Jones' contention that Doyle was a hack?  That I take exception to.

Further reading:
Image: still from the The Lost World (1925) movie

Monday, August 13, 2012

At Science in My Fiction: Metamorphosis, Transformation and Evolution

In the huge, crisp cocoon, extraordinary processes began. 
The caterpillar's swathed flesh began to break down. Legs and eyes and bristles and body-segments lost their integrity. The tubular body became fluid. The thing drew on the stored energy it had drawn from the dreamshit and powered its transformation. It self-organized. Its mutating form bubbled and welled up into strange dimensional rifts oozing like oily sludge over the brim of the world into other planes and back again. It folded in on itself, shaping itself out of the protean sludge of its own base matter. 
It was unstable. It was alive, and then there was a time between forms when it was neither alive nor dead, but saturated with power. And then it was alive again. But different. 
~ Perdido Street Station, China Miéville
I have a new post up at Science in My Fiction that looks a bit at the metamorphosis of caterpillars into moths or butterflies and asks how that might have evolved.

There are many examples of wonderful - or horrifying - metamorphoses in speculative fiction, but they tend to be featured more often at the fantasy end of the SF spectrum.  For example, China Miéville's Perdido Street Station (quoted above) features the transformation of a ravenous multicolored caterpillar into a giant dream-sucking butterfly-like creature. And folk tales of werewolves and vampires tell of humans transforming into animals and back again.

So that leads to my question: what SF aliens go through a scientifically plausible metamorphosis?

The example that immediately comes to mind is the alien Pequeninos (or "piggies") in Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. The piggies go through a metamorphosis from an intelligent pig-like animal into an intelligent tree. While it works in the story as a life cycle sure to take the settlers of their planet by surprise, it never seemed very biologically probable to me.

So are there more scientifically plausible examples in science fiction?

Read the post "Metamorphosis, Transformation and Evolution" and join the conversation.

Photo: Manduca (either tobacco horn worm or tomato horn worm) preparing for metamorphosis by devouring my tomato plant. Photo by me, all rights reserved.