Sunday, September 30, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: September 30, 2012

Some of the science and SF links originally posted on Google+Biology in Science Fiction on Google+Twitter, and Facebook over the past few days.

Reminder: My live interview with artist Brian Kolm will be on Wednesday, October 3rd and 4pm (Pacific time). More information here: Interview with Artist Brian Kolm of Atomic Bear Press

• Quanticare Cura Tattoo Product Launch (YouTube)
Imagine a tattoo that monitors your health! This is a concept video created by the Norwich Research Park and University of East Anglia 2012 iGEM Team. The team has so far created six sensing "biobricks", including a nitric oxide sensor. Read more about their project.

• For you next science fiction dance party: Gangnam Style performed in the original Klingon. Let's kill some Romulans!

• The Pokemon Plot: How One Cartoon Inspired the Army to Dream Up a Seizure Gun | Danger Room | »
Or, instead of a special weapon, they could just broadcast the flash-flash-flashing Pokemon videos. If it didn't work to cause seizures, it might work to make the enemy run away out of sheer irritation.

• Assembling an Avenger – Inside the Brain of Iron Man | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network »
E. Paul Zehr argues that for Iron Man's suit of armor to work the way it does in the comics and movies, it would have to be directly connected to and integrated with Tony Stark's brain. So is it even possible that our brains are plastic enough to be able to control what are essentially extra limbs and sensors? The tentative answer is yes! Be sure to read the whole article for details.

• Biodegradable electronics here today, gone tomorrow »
Flexible silk, magnesium and silicon-based electronics that dissolve in water - and inside the body - might be the first step towards temporary medical implants that don't need to be surgically removed. Nifty.

• Common Parasite Linked to Personality Changes: Scientific American »
One in five Americans is infected with the behavior-changing Toxoplasma gondii parasite. The infection rate is even higher in other countries. Do you own a cat or eat raw steak? Are you extroverted, but not particularly conscientious? Do you get a lot of traffic tickets? You could be infected too!

• Pictures: Vampire Squid's Surprising Diet Revealed »
Looks can be deceiving! The Vampire Squid turns out to be the only known non-predatory squid.

• Demystifying Science Fictional Terms (+ Reading Recommendations to Help You Understand), Part 4 »
Serious pet peeve: In the The Island of Doctor Moreau, HG Wells does not describe the creation of humanized animals through genetic engineering. Instead the method used is vivisection- direct surgical alterations - and blood transfusion. For some reason that seems more horrifying to me.

Here is the beginning of relevant part of the novel, where Doctor Moreau explains his methodology:
“You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things,” said Moreau. “For my own part, I'm puzzled why the things I have done here have not been done before. Small efforts, of course, have been made,—amputation, tongue-cutting, excisions. Of course you know a squint may be induced or cured by surgery? Then in the case of excisions you have all kinds of secondary changes, pigmentary disturbances, modifications of the passions, alterations in the secretion of fatty tissue. I have no doubt you have heard of these things?”
So engineering, yes, but not "genetic engineering".

Friday, September 28, 2012

Free Friday Flick: Clonely

This week's free movie - Clonely - is a short film written, shot, edited and scored in a mere 48 hours as part of the  2008 Chicago 48 Hour Film Project.

It's the story of a lonely widower who has his dead wife cloned, but who finds she really isn't the same woman he married, even though their daughter (his daughter?) seems happy to simply have her mom back.

Created by Jerry Vasilatos and Nitestar Productions, the movie won an award for "Best Use of Line of Dialogue" ("What's the password?").  The other required elements for the film were a Character "Walter or Wilma Western, Repair Person" and a prop "urn or container with a deceased's ashes".

 I'm not sure if I'd consider the story to have a happy ending or not.

It reminds me a bit of the stories you read about wealthy folks who spend huge sums of money to have their dead dog or cat cloned. The replica is never going to be the same as the original. I can't imagine that a human clone would not be able to fill the hollow place left when a loved one leaves us, although I can understand how tempting it might be if that option were available.

Ultimately, isn't better to move forward with your life than to try to replicate the past?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: September 27, 2012

Bioscience and science fiction links recently shared on Google+, Facebook and Twitter:

• Pre-Life Chemistry Happens At Space Temperatures: Scientific American Podcast »
Even at the freezing temperatures of space hydrocarbons + ultraviolet light = interesting chemical reactions. Another sign that life could have originated in space?

• Did life on other planets originate from Earth? »
George Dvorsky reports new cosmological calculations that suggest there is a tiny chance that life could have spread from Earth and spread to our solar system and beyond.

Interview: Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant »
Award winning author Seanan McGuire (who also writes as Mira Grant) talks about the research she did to create a plausible zombie virus - a sort of hybrid between a Marburg/Ebola-like virus and a coronavirus. It apparently helped that the CDC has filk fans on their staff.

Author Spotlight: Brooke Bolander »
Brooke Bolander talks about her story Sun Dogs with Lightspeed Magazine. It's the tale of Soviet space dog Laika, told from Laika's point of view. May be a bit hard for dog lovers to read...

50 Years of the Jetsons: Why The Show Still Matters »
Why did "The Jetsons" have such an impact on the public imagination, despite only airing a single season's worth of episodes? The article goes into some of the possibilities, including its depiction of a happy middle class future. I also think the series - which aired in re-runs for decades - exposed a huge number of young impressionable viewers to the tropes popular in science fiction stories of the Golden Age of SF, who would never otherwise pick up a pulp magazine or read a science fiction novel.

Are Biologists Watching an Evolutionary Leap: One Life Form Absorbing Another? | 80beats | Discover Magazine »
It is thought that the mitochondria of animal cells and the chloroplasts in plant cells originally started out as independent microbes. At some point in our distant evolutionary past, the small microbes were engulfed by larger cells and became one with them, in a process called endosymbiosis. Now scientists think they may be seeing the process in action: an ocean bacterium seems to be forming an endosymbiotic relationship with an alga. Will they become inseparable?

Shenu: Hydrolemic System by Takram - Dezeen
An internal water-conservation design for desert-living humans - perhaps Earth in 100 years's time. Better than a stillsuit? Check out this video about how the proposed system works.

Junk DNA, Junky PR | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network »
I've been reading up a bit on the ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) project, a massive collaborative project analyzing the "functional elements" in the human genome. It seems like an interesting and worthwhile project, but I think it's unfortunate that their recently announced publication of a bunch of their results has been hyped and misrepresented in the mainstream media touting the "new" discovery of fantastic functions for "junk" DNA (all scare quotes intentional on my part). And that was due at least in part to the way the results were presented to the public by the ENCODE Project itself.

Read Athena Adreadis's entire article at Scientific American for more about why the project is important, but not in the way it's depicted by the media. You can check out the data yourself at the ENCODE Project site:

How Humans Lost Our Chance at a Third Eye »
We didn't really "lose our chance", instead evolution simply resulted in a different arrangement in humans. We may be happier because our pineal gland is no longer in our forehead.

The First Men and the Last Men | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine »
Was the first sapient self-aware human a psychopath? Perhaps all those SF stories where mutant humans with superpowers who despise their weaker forbears aren't far off the mark.

IgNobel Prize in Neuroscience: The dead salmon study | The Scicurious Brain, Scientific American Blog Network »
The IgNoble awards do a good job of highlighting scientific research that at least at first glance seems wild and wacky. But often there are important implications of the offbeat results. See, for example, the study that showed that a dead salmon could produce what appears to be a signal showing neural activity on an MRI - the lesson is not that MRI is bogus, but that careful calibration is required before you can draw conclusions from a study based on MRI results.

See also how EEGs can record "brain" alpha waves from jello.

VIDEO: Watch This Carnivorous Plant Fling an Insect Into Its Mouth »
"Drosera glanduligera, a small carnivorous plant from southern Australia, snaps into action, flinging its prey into its leaf trap." Monstrous plant - imagine if it were people-sized!

Image: MRI Brain Scan by Jon Olav on Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  It is neither a salmon, nor a bowl of jello.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mark your calendar: Live Interview with Brian Kolm on October 3rd

On Wednesday, October 3rd at 4pm Pacific time (11pm GMT) I'll be interviewing artist Brian Kolm of Atomic Bear Press live. The plan is to discuss his design of the logo and header for Biology in Science Fiction, teaching art, conventions and whatever else the conversation brings up. There are more details on the official Event page.

You should also be able to watch the video here on the blog and on our YouTube channel. Stay tuned for details!

You can subscribe to our YouTube channel here:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: September 23, 2012

Recent links shared on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter:

• Questions for Bio Sci Fi » Ultraphyte

Author and biology professor Joan Slonczewski teaches a Biology in Science Fiction class and she's shared some of the questions her students are working on. Those of you who have studied biology will recognize some basic genetics questions with a SF frame. But she also asks students to think a bit more broadly and science fictionally too: how do you think photosynthetic humans might evolve?

• Retro Futurism | Ubersuper »

What does "science" say intelligent beings on other planets in our solar system would look like? Check out these pulp magazine illustrations by Frank R. Paul from the 1930s and early 1940s. The text descriptions are great:
"Mercury, being dangerously near the sun, is a planet of terrific heat. Life, says science, logically can exist only in insect form."
Of course Mercury must be host to giant intelligent insects!

• Physics Buzz: I For One Welcome Our New Slime Mold Civil Engineers »

Slime molds try to find the most economical path to a food source. When food is placed on major cities on a map, the routes slime molds take are quite similar to ancient trade routes and cross-country railways. That probably says more about how such routes are developed than about slime molds: people like to travel the easiest path as well.

• NOVA | Are Neanderthals Human? »

Were Neanderthals human? It may depend on how you define Human. Carl Zimmer takes a look at the history of scientific thinking about Neanderthals for NOVA

• Storyteller’s Rulebook #144: Women Shouldn’t Have To Have It All » Cockeyed Caravan

Screenwriter Matt Bird touches on why women who can "do it all" in the movies can be be so frustrating to watch. It's not because it's not awesome for a woman to be a scientist or a warrior or a girlfriend. It's because it seems like the writers are giving all those traits to a single female character to avoid having to write multiple women characters into the movie. I agree with Bird's conclusion:
If you want to say that “women can be anything”, that’s great, but the way to show that is to have multiple women doing multiple things, not to have one woman do everything.
(Thanks to Brian @ Atomic Bear Press for the link)

• Should we upgrade the intelligence of animals? » io9

Should non-human animals like chimpanzees be "uplifted" - engineered to have higher intelligence? At io9 George Dvorsky takes a look at the bioethical implications. Science fiction often depicts such "meddling" as having terrible consequences. But SF author David Brin doesn't think it has to be that way, that the greater challenge is writing a story of enhancing intelligence where humans do it right (sort of like his Uplift universe novels). Read more of Brin's take on this at his blog:  Intelligence, Uplift, and Our Place in a Big Cosmos

• Terraforming the easy and fun way with desert plants | Pharyngula »

Chris Clarke explains why terraformed worlds might end up looking like California's Mojave desert, with Joshua trees and creosote bushes. The fact that most science fiction TV shows are filmed in Southern California has nothing to do with that, I'm sure.

• The Deep Sea Mystery Circle - a love story | Spoon & Tamago »
Mysterious deep-sea circular designs. Created by aliens? Antlanteans? or love-sick fish? Nature can be as weird as fiction.

Image: Frank Paul's depiction of Life on Mercury circa 1940. Originally posted at Ubersuper.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Free Friday Flick: Project Viper: Gooey Bioengineering B-Movie

Today's free movie probably isn't now and probably won't be considered a classic. Project Viper is a 2002 science fiction-horror film that debuted on the SciFi channel (before it became SyFy). It was directed by Jim Wynorski (as Jay Andrews), whose specialty is B-movies and exploitation films.

The plot is pretty cheesy: a secret project to combine human DNA and computer chips goes (unsurprisingly) terribly awry. One prototype is being carried on a shuttle to Mars, where its adaptability is meant to help in terraforming the Martian landscape. The first sign of a problem is when it kills the shuttle's crew.

The second prototype is stolen from high tech company where it was developed. It soon escapes, and takes up residence in a lake near a small town, terrorizing the local inhabitants. The usual horror movie tropes apply: it's a bad sign when a young couple decides to park by the lake to make out and small nosy dogs don't fare very well either.

The bioengineered monster it a fluid gray goo that conveniently forms tentacles when it wants to grab or skewer someone. It leaves a trail of slime along with the dead bodies in its wake. Nasty!

Our hero, played by a tousle-haired Patrick Muldoon, must destroy the creature before the military has to nuke the town to save the world (of course!). Theresa Russell plays the head of the scientific team that developed Project Viper, so she comes along to help sort out the mess.

The movie doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, which is why it could make a light easily digested appetizer in a double feature with a more serious feature film entree like Moon.

Watch Project Viper at Indie Movies Online

Note: video only available in the United States.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: September 20, 2012

Recent science and science fiction-related links:

• NASA | MAVEN: Mars Atmospheric Loss (YouTube)
The NASA MAVEN probe will study the atmosphere of Mars.
Maybe they can figure out why the Atmosphere Plant broke down so the Barsoomians can return home!

• Peek inside the anatomies of Gremlins, Predators, and Martian Invaders »
If you dissected an alien xenomorph or a mogwai what would its anatomy look like? These drawings by Brad McGinty give an inside look.

• 'Blue Brain' project accurately predicts connections between neurons »
The Blue Brain Project is trying to better understand how the circuits in the brain form and to virtually model them "in silico". While it sounds like this is a major advance, we are still a long way from being able to upload our brains into a PC. From the article:
"Each neuron in the circuit was reconstructed into a 3D model on a powerful Blue Gene supercomputer. About 10,000 of virtual neurons were packed into a 3D space in random positions according to the density and ratio of morphological types found in corresponding living tissue."
That represents a tiny fraction of the total neurons in a human brain.

• Monkey Brain Booster | The Scientist »
Monkeys cognitively impaired with cocaine had their cognitive skills restored with carefully placed electrical impulses through an array of electrodes implanted in the prefrontal cortex of their brains. Interesting result, but I don't think we are going to see this used in humans until it's both a less invasive and also shown to boost brains from a wider range of cognitive deficits.

• Prehistoric "Movie Monster" Mollusk Re-created With 3-D Printer »
This is very cool: a team of scientists created a 3D model from a fossil multiplacophoran mollusk then used a 3D printer to make a physical model. It's not just for show:
"The new model also reveals that P. spinicoronatus was more heavily armored than other mollusks living at the time, and in fact resembled some modern chitons, which live in shallow, exposed environments where there are a lot of predators—as the team believes was the case for the prehistoric mollusk too"
• SETI Astronomer Jill Tarter Recalls ‘Contact,’ 15 Years On »
Jill Tartar was part of the inspiration for Ellie Arroway, the SETI researcher in Carl Sagan's Contact (played by Jodie Foster in the movie version). Tartar consulted with Foster and on the set of the movie, which had a couple of glaring scientific errors:
"There is a scene when Ellie gives a modified version of the Drake Equation, which calculates the odds of intelligent life who are capable of communicating with other life forms, and the calculations are all wrong. “It’s really infuriating,” Tarter said. "
Read the article for more. And if you'd like to become involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, you can participate in helping analyze potential signals here:

• The Birth of the New, The Rewiring of the Old | The Loom | Discover Magazine »
Richard Lenski's lab has been watching evolution in real time. Over the course of 24 years, the descendants of an E.coli bacterial line have been continuously cultured and watched for interesting changes. On branch of descendants have evolved an entirely new trait: the ability to flourish using citrate, rather than glucose, as food. And now they've started to unravel what happened on a molecular level to re-wire the bacteria. Very cool - and a hint as to how evolution works in more slowly reproducing critters.

Image: Artist's depiction of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. Credit:NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: Not enough feathers!

A couple of weeks ago the Doctor Who episode "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" delivered just what the episode title promised: dinosaurs, on a spaceship. Of course there was much more to the story than that, and the episode had a mix of the silly (the Doctor and his companions riding a triceratops and goofy robots) and the dark (the Doctor hastening the death of the pirate trader who had taken over the ship and killed most if its inhabitants.). But for me the dinosaurs stole the show.

Why were Earthly dinosaurs on the spaceship? Because, in the Whoverse the Earth hosts another humanoid race besides Homo sapiens. There is also a lizard-like race called the Silurians or Homo reptilia, currently hibernating deep underground. But millions of years ago the Silurians had a technologically advanced societ among the dinosaurs. When the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs was on a collision course with Earth, the Silurians filled a spaceship with dinosaurs and plants to rescue them. Thus dinosaurs on a spaceship.

Of course I don't watch Doctor Who for serious science, so it's no surprise when scientific inaccuracies appear. But Brain Switek has pointed out that the dinosaur designers for the episode missed an opportunity to make the deadly raptors that stalk the TARDIS crew more colorful. As he put it:
... the unidentified “raptors” suffered the curse of the bunny hands and insufficient feathery coats. Filmmakers seem reluctant to drape feathers over dromaeosaurids, but, for any effects artists who may be reading, we know that these dinosaurs had exquisite plumage covering almost their entire body. If you’re going to have raptors, they should be intricately feathery. [...] You may want to laugh at a Deinonychus all puffed up, but that will be the last sound you ever make before it starts to eat you.
I would go further than that.  It was recently found that a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex  called Yutyrannus huali was covered with a downy coat of 6-8 inch long feathers over most of its body. That has lead to speculation that T. rex might have been feathered as well.

Analysis of the fossilized feathers of the much smaller Sinosauropteryx lead to the discovery that the more than 120 million year old feathers contain melanosome cells that store either red or black pigments. The pattern of those pigment cells in the fossils suggest that Sinosauropteryx may have been striped, at least along its tail.

So I'd propose putting those two findings together with a bit of artistic license, giving even the great T. rex on the spaceship colorfully patterned plumage. I think that would have looked awesome and have had the right mix of terror wrapped in whimsy to suit a Doctor Who episode.

It also makes me think about how quickly science fiction stories can become outdated, even when they are set in the past. I'd guess that most of us have read or watched older science fiction stories where the "future" technology became obsolete long ago. The recent discoveries about dinosaur appearance are an example of how scientific progress can change how we view the past. Perhaps plain gray dinosaurs should go the way of telephone booths and horse-drawn carriages in SF.

Apparently the idea of feathered dinosaurs apparently is quite upsetting to young-earth creationists, who don't like the way it supports the hypothesis that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs. Fiction that depicts prehistoric animals based on the most up-to-date fossil evidence not only has cool-looking creatures, but also helps promote science in general.

More feathered dinosaurs please!

Get Dinosaurs on a Spaceship at

Top image:  Sinocalliopteryx gigas as a stealth hunter feeding on the dromaeosaur SinornithosaurusIllustration by Cheung Chungtat.  From Xing L, Bell PR, Persons WS IV, Ji S, Miyashita T, et al. (2012) Abdominal Contents from Two Large Early Cretaceous Compsognathids (Dinosauria: Theropoda) Demonstrate Feeding on Confuciusornithids and Dromaeosaurids. PLoS ONE 7(8): e44012. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044012.g008. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Bottom image: Cover of Analog Science Fact & Fiction February 1961. It illustrates "The Weakling" by Everett B. Cole, in which there are great "saurians" used as pack animals, meat and pets on an alternate (or future?) Earth. The story is heavily dependent on "psionics" and mind control as a plot device, if you like that sort of thing. The cover and story are available through Project Gutenburg, and are out of copyright.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: September 16, 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.

Interesting New Science Fiction Publications

This graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time by Hope Larson looks pretty neat. This is one of my favorite novels from my youth. Check out this book trailer (via Atomic Bear Press)

Excellent science fiction editor Ellen Datlow has a new ebook out of her 1990 collection of short fiction, all about "psychological exploration of the many shades of love" (aka Alien Sex). There's a foreward by William Gibson, and stories by master SF storytellers Harlan Ellison, Connie Willis, Pat Cadigan,  Pat Murphy, James Tiptree Jr. and more. Yes, the table of contents is right out of the golden Omni era - maybe it dates me, but that's what makes it sound awesome!

SF and Science

At MIT Technology Review, editor Jason Pontin talked to Neal Stephenson about writing and technology. In this clip, Stephenson talks about "predictions" in his writing, particularly Snow Crash.  I usually think of Stephenson's novels as mostly being firmly set in a world with present-day or only slightly extrapolated technology, so it's easy to forget how much the online landscape has changed since Snow Crash was first published in 1992.

What happens when female characters are given a male point of view? It's so normalized in our culture that you may not even notice if you aren't paying close attention.  (Also "The Omniscient Breasts" would make a great title for a horror short story. They are watching you!)

Space Science

We are all made of star stuff! (Or we are all sparkly vampires?)

The student winners of the YouTube Space Lab contest got to see their proposed experiments performed on the International Space Station and hang out with Bill Nye and the astronauts. 
And if you want more spiders in space, check out this video of Nefertiti the redback spider dining: Nefertiti, the redback spider, feeding in microgravity

The NASA MAVEN probe will study the atmosphere of Mars. Maybe they can figure out why the Atmosphere Plant broke down so the Barsoomians can return home...

Cool Bioscience

The idea of human-controlled roaches is creepy both in the literal and figurative sense. While the technology might be able to use roaches to help in search-and-rescue efforts in disaster zones, it could also be used to create mobile spies that could travel through walls and other small spaces to gather intelligence.

Why not look to nature for engineering innovations that work, rather than working from scratch? From the article: 
Though biomimicry has inspired human innovations for decades—one of the most often-cited examples is Velcro, which the Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral patented in 1955 after studying how burs stuck to his clothes—better technology and more nuanced research have enabled increasingly complex adaptions. Design software created by German researcher Claus Mattheck—and used in Opel and Mercedes cars—reflects the ways trees and bones distribute strength and loads. A fan created by Pax Scientific borrows from the patterns of swirling kelp, nautilus and whelks to move air more efficiently. A saltwater-irrigated greenhouse in the Qatari desert will use condensation and evaporation tricks gleaned from the nose of a camel. Now, thanks in part to continuing innovations in nanoscale fabrication, manufacturers are bringing an expanding array of products to market.
Plankton are like microscopic alien gems. They glow and grow while drifting in the currents, where they make up an important part of oceanic ecosystem. They represent a wide range of different organisms, including plants, animals, bacteria, and archaea. Check out the videos at the Plankton Chronicles for a close up look.

These tropical frogs are called "glassfrogs" because their underbellies are transparent. But it's not simple transparency: there is a layer of reflective cells that protect the frogs' internal organs from heat and sunlight. Pretty wild. 
I am bothered a bit that one of the scientists who studies glassfrogs insists that there must be an evolutionary purpose for their transparency. It seems to me that it's just as plausible that there could be a relatively simple set of genetic changes that make their skin transparent, and that is not selected against because it's not deleterious to the frogs' reproductive abilities or lifespan. In any case, they are fascinating to look at.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Free Friday Flick: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

This week's recommended free movie shouldn't really need an introduction. The 1977 Steven Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a classic story of contact with aliens who have been abducting humans for purposes unknown.

The classification system for encounters with unidentified flying objects (UFOs) was devised by astronomer and US Air Force consulting UFO analyst J. Allen Hynek. Later he founded the Center for UFO Studies.

Hynek divided UFO sightings into two categories: relatively distant sightings, like lights in the night sky or flying discs in the distance, and relatively close sightings. Close sightings could be of three different kinds:
  • A close encounter of the first kind is the simple observation of a UFO nearby
  • A close encounter of the second kind is the observation of the interaction of a UFO with the environment, such as burn marks on the ground or physical effects on animals
  • A close encounter of the third kind is observation of occupants of the UFO
In the movie, Richard Dreyfuss plays a regular-seeming guy who stumbles into what will be the first official meeting between humans and extraterrestrials. I think that's what makes the movie so compelling; since the characters don't really know what is going on, we viewers are taken on the journey of discovery with them.

Of course the movie also has strange encounters with flying objects, escapes from government agents and the best alien music scene ever to keep it entertaining. And, unlike so many movie aliens, when we humans finally meet them, they don't blow up our buildings or steal our natural resources, although they do kidnap folks for unknown purposes.  Perhaps aliens really can come in peace.

Hynek consulted on the movie, and even makes a cameo appearance during the close encounter scene, giving it a bit of scientific (or at least scientific-seeming) authenticity.

Maybe my perception is skewed because I was only ten in 1977, but I think that was one of the best years ever for science fiction flicks, what with both Close Encounters and Star Wars (Episode IV) in theaters.   I think both movies have stood the test of time, but it's the first deep notes booming out from the alien ship in Close Encounters that gives me shivers..

Watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind for free at

Upper Image: Ovni.png from Wikimedia Commons by user Crobard (public domain)
Lower Image: Purchase the Close Encounters of the Third Kind Special Edition at

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Gene in Pop Culture: Barbara Duden and Silja Samerski on How to Think About Science

What do you think of when you hear the word gene? Do you associate it with bad things like the risk of heart disease or cancer? or do you think about personalized medicine and the improvement of human health? or simply part of our nature and a determinant of heredity?

About a decade ago German historian Barbara Duden and geneticist and sociologist Silja Samerski collaborated on a project to try to understand what people mean when they use the term gene in everyday conversations. They found that people use the term frequently, even when they didn't have a good understanding or clear definition of what the term meant.

Duden and Samerski were interviewed on CBC's "How to Think About Science" radio show to talk about their work.

So what does the term gene signify in everyday speech? It turns out it means different things to different people. And even individuals may have contradictory feelings, associating the term not only with impersonal scientific experts and health risks, but also the potential for a utopian future where the failings the human body have been cured.

Understanding the term gene as a scientific construct requires a fair amount of background knowledge and education in genetics. Duden argues that for those without a scientific background, the term can be "mystifying and disorienting" when used in everyday speech, and that it has no place there.

Her colleague Samerski draws on her on experience as a geneticist to suggest that confusion in terminology can add to the stress and confusion pregnant women experience in genetic counseling sessions. Genetic counselors provide an analysis of the probability a developing fetus will have a genetic disorder such as Down Syndrome or cystic fibrosis. But they can only talk about what may happen, since they cannot know what will happen. That puts women in a difficult position of having to make decisions about their pregnancy based on a statistical risk analysis that can be difficult to understand.

Samerski argues that the "quasi mythic power" of genes in popular culture may make the statistical probabilities relating to genetic risk profiles more difficult for pregnant women to grasp.

So how can this situation be improved? If people are getting conflicting messages through popular culture regarding what genes represent, then perhaps popular culture is also the best way to generate better understanding of genetics.

"Genes" (along with "mutants" and "genetic engineering") are often used as a simplistic plot device in movies and TV shows to explain changes in human health and behavior and abilities ranging from childhood diseases to the sudden onset of super powers. But entertainment necessarily uses shorthand when it comes to science, and I think there is an assumption that viewers are at least passingly familiar with the scientific terminology they use. Certainly a genetics lecture would seem out of place in the middle of an X-Men movie.

I would argue that a better place to start would be the news media, which often seems to simply regurgitate exaggerated press releases when reporting new scientific developments. Breathless headlines and poor explanations of the latest genetic findings do make "genes" seem almost magical. It's not at all surprising that many people are confused.

And I'd like to think that better public understanding of genetics would lead to more realistic depictions of genes and mutations in popular culture as well. Imagine that!

Listen to "How to Think About Science" Episode 15 with Barbara Duden and Silja Samerski.

Read the interviews with Duden and Samerski and other guests on "How to Think About Science" in the book Ideas on the Nature of Science.

(Just as a side note, my discussion is based on he CBC radio interview which only provides a limited picture Duden and Samerski's arguments. Unfortunately most of what they've written is in German, so I don't really have more information. Anyone who knows more about what solutions they have proposed is encouraged to discuss that in the comments.)

Top image: "DNA Strands" from the Office of Biological and Environmental Research of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science (, with credit to the U.S. Department of Energy Genomic Science program ( through the Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research Image Gallery Gateway.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: September 9, 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.

Congratulations to this year's Hugo Winners!

Be sure to check out SF Signal (Best Fanzine); Jim C. Hines' blog (Best Fan Writer), especially his post where he tries out the poses of women in fantasy book cover art; SF Squeecast (Best Fancast); and the artwork of John Picacio (Best Pro Artist) and Maurine Starkey (Best Fan Artist).

Also free online:
• best novella "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson
"Kit came to Nearside with two trunks and an oiled-cloth folio full of plans for the bridge across the mist. His trunks lay tumbled like stones at his feet, where the mailcoach guard had dropped them. The folio he held close, away from the drying mud of yesterday’s storm."
• best novellette "Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders
The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures"
• best short story "The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (or listen)
"A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees. I reached out to Mom’s creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger" 
• best graphic story Digger by Ursula Vernon

Science and SF Links

Locus Online Perspectives » Cory Doctorow: Why Science Fiction Movies Drive Me Nuts »

Cory Doctorow writes about the bad depiction of science labs in the Spider-Man movie. Of course a realistic looking lab would probably be too cluttered and mundane looking for a movie set (not to mention the unkempt graduate students and post-docs all over the place). From the article:
Because although these are the home of cutting edge research, they look like no lab I’ve ever visited. Instead, they look like a highly polished phone-support bank, with glassed-in conference rooms around the edges that have been temporarily taken over with trade-show exhibits for new products. Every single thing in the ‘‘lab’’ – a wet biology lab, no less – looks like a product, not like an experiment. Experiments are pretty unglamorous-looking, by and large, even when they’re performed on a mass-scale. 
RIP futurist Shulamith Firestone, who hailed artificial wombs and cybernetics as tools of liberation »

Firestone's book "The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution" influenced SF: her book "effectively kickstarted the cyberfeminist movement, influencing later thinkers like Joanna Russ (author of "The Female Man"), sci-fi author Joan Slonczweski, and of course, Donna "I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess" Harraway, author of "The Cyborg Manifesto."" It also makes me think of the "utopian" future in Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time".

'Build clones to relieve us from boredom' »

At BBC Future Indian commentator Salil Tripathi suggests we create brainless clones to take care of mundane tasks for us. It's not clear to me how this would be better than using technology or hiring staff.

Cool (and disturbing) Bioscience

3.5 billion year old rocks in Australia show signs of ancient life. The rocks were first shown to have signs of microbial biofilms back in 2006. Ongoing analysis has provided more evidence that supports that hypothesis. So far this is the oldest evidence life on Earth and it's on the order of 2 billion years older than signs of multicellular creatures. That likely means bacteria and other microbes ruled the world for billions of years.

Humans are a part of nature, even when using technology. Case in point is a recent report that suggests human hunting habits are affecting at least one elk population. But being able to hide from hunters with high powered rifles may not improve survival when the predator is a grizzly bear, which means this may be problematic in the long term for elk populations.

When  Wolbachia bacteria infect a new insect species, the host's immune system mounts a defense that destroys cells hosting the infection. Unfortunately, those happen to be the insect's own nervous system, including its brain. Oops.

The article is not for the squeamish. California has a health problem: tape worms that take up residence in the brain, causing headaches, seizures and paralysis. It's most common in immigrants or those who travel back and forth between the US and Latin America, Asia or African countries where the parasite is more common. It makes me shudder!

Need a refresher on DNA? Check out this video from Scientific American.

Microbes living deep in caves may be able to produce molecules that have drug-like properties.  Chemistry professor Brian Bachmann has set up a systematic program to try to discover what the microbes can do. 

Scientists are tracking honey bees infected with the parasitic zombie fly to see how they affect behavior and their hives.  These "zombie bees", or "Zombees" (cute!) have mostly been found in California, but scientists are hoping that regular folks will be on the lookout for odd bee behavior to see if the infection has spread to hives in other states. You can participate in Zombee Watch here

Exploring the Solar System: Interesting NASA Folk

The LA Times talked to David Oh, lead flight director for the Mars Science Laboratory Team. Oh and his family have been trying to live on Mars time, rather than Earth time, and it's been a struggle. 

The NASA Scientist Who Answers Your 2012 Apocalypse Emails »

Dan Duray at the Awl talks to NASA scientist David Morrison, the man behind NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist", does his best to debunk doomsday predictions that claim the world will end in December 2012. It's hard work for which he hasn't gotten much recognition or credit. He's even made YouTube videos and weathered the comments there, that apparently often are little more than personal insults. I think he's doing good work promoting science and skepticism and hopefully allaying peoples' fears.

Image: Detail from the cover of fanzine Drink Tank Issue 307 (pdf here) by Hugo-award winning artist Maurine Starkey. Used with permission.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Free Friday Flick: Denmark: Throwing off the Balance of Nature

This week's free flick is the 2010 short film "Denmark", a joint project of Daniel Fickle of Two Penguins Productions and the Portland Cello Project.  The film has won a number of awards on the film festival circuit.

The film uses a lovely combination of puppetry and rich cello music to tell the touching story of Pily, a resourceful crustacean who crafts a space ship to escape pollution poisoning his home in the Willamette River outside Portland, Oregon.

In an interview about the project (and in a comment on the video page) director Fickle talks about being inspired by the recording of "Denmark" to develop the film's story. The song was composed by cellist Gideon Freudmann, who wrote it to honor his wife after she died of cancer. Fickle expands the themes of sorrow and loss to changes in the environment.  As he explains it:
Since I used a more environmental vehicle to express the story, the ending could also be interoperated to be about displacement of species. Because of human pollution, it's causing various species to attempt to move to a better place. Sometimes it works, but usually it throws off the balance of nature.
And while that message is indeed specifically relevant to the long-polluted Willamette River, I think it can be interpreted more broadly, especially in light of ongoing climate change that threatens to displace species around the globe. Pretty heavy for a story featuring a puppet, right?

But it's not all serious. You can find out what happened to Pily after the movie in this interview where he talks about his upcoming projects:

Catching Up With Pily from Two Penguins on Vimeo.

Watch "Denmark" at Vimeo or YouTube.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

HG Wells, the Book of Nature, and the Ever Continuing Processes of Evolution

H.G. Wells , c1890It is sometimes forgotten that the great early science fiction author HG Wells studied biology under Thomas Henry Huxley (known as "Darwin's Bulldog") and earned a Bachelor's degree in Zoology. He taught science for a number of years before becoming a full time writer. He wrote both non-fiction and fiction, with similar themes in both sorts of works. For example, in the 1893 edition of his Text-Book of Biology, he writes of the importance of evolution:
It is in the demonstration of this wonderful unity in life, only the more confirmed the more exhaustive our analysis becomes, that the educational value and human interest of biology chiefly lies. In the place of disconnected species of animals, arbitrarily created, and a belief in the settled inexplicable, the student finds an enlightening realization of uniform and active causes beneath an apparent diversity. And the world is not made and dead like a cardboard model or a child's toy, but a living equilibrium; and every day and every hour, every living thing is being weighed in the balance and found sufficient or wanting. 
He concludes that the "book of nature" is as dramatic as a novel.
In the book of nature there are written, for instance, the triumphs of survival, the tragedy of death and extinction, the tragi-comedy of degradation and inheritance, the gruesome lesson of parasitism, and the political satire of colonial organisms. Zoology is, indeed, a philosophy and a literature to those who can read its symbols.
It's not surprising, then, that his 1895 novella The Time Machine the drama derives at least in part from the time traveler's discovery that 800,000 years in the future humanity had evolved into two different species, the beautiful but passive and not particularly bright Eloi, descended from the aristocracy, and the monstrous machine-using Morlocks, originally the working class.

The original serialized version of The Time Machine included a chapter in which the time traveler journeys even further into the distant future and finds that humans have evolved further into grey-furred herbivores. Wells' time traveler concludes that
If you come to think, there is no reason why a degenerate humanity should not come at last to differentiate into as many species as the descendants of the mud fish who fathered all the land vertebrates.
(This chapter was excluded in the book edition, but later published separately as the short story "The Grey Man".)

This is quite different from the popular view of evolution as a ladder, with humans occupying the top-most rung and thus never changing, except, perhaps, to become smarter, longer lived, or otherwise "improved".

It is not that much of a surprise, then, that scientific journal Nature's contemporary review of The Time Machine pointed specifically to Wells' use of realistic science in the narrative.
Apart from its merits as a clever piece of imagination, the story is well worth the attention of the scientific reader, for the reason that it is based so far as possible on scientific data, and while not taking it too seriously, it helps one to get a connected idea of the possible results of the ever-continuing processes of evolution.  Cosmical evolution, it may be remarked, is in some degree subject to mathematical investigations [...] It is naturally in the domain of social and organic evolution that the imagination finds its greatest scope.
I think of this when science fiction writers play fast and loose with evolutionary biology while going into excruciatingly accurate details about planetary orbits or the engineering details of improbable alien artifacts or future technologies. There's no reason not to at least try to be as accurate in the details of evolutionary science, as Wells tried to do well over a century ago.

Read more:
Image: Picture HG Wells about 1890 by LSE Library on Flickr (no known copyright restrictions)

Monday, September 03, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: September 3, 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!

Project looking for your support:

Steampunk ABC - An Alphabet Book of the Victorian Era »
This Steampunk-style alphabet book by artist Karen Luk looks like it will be beautifully illustrated. Check out her Kickstarter project

Science in SF and SF writers

Slow Life » and Interview with Michael Swanwick
Lightspeed Magazine republishes Michael Swanwick's 2002 Hugo-winning story "Slow Life", set on Titan. The setting is both beautiful and deadly Read the interview with Swanwick for more background on the story

B5 Scrolls »
For all you Babylon 5 Fans: this is an interesting interview with Bab5 "consultant" Steve Burg about the design of the Minbari and other alien ambassadors. More over on Facebook.

Sandworm Size Chart »
Have you wondered how the sizes of science fictional sandworm-like creatures compare? Now there's an infographic. I think the Shai-Hulud is the only sandworm that's ridable.

JG Ballard and the magic of memory »
JG Ballard's experience as a teenager in Shanghai during WWII heavily influenced his fiction - not only his semi-autobiographical novel "Empire of the Sun", but his science fiction as well.

Science and Philosophy

Scientists Give Animals Consciousness | Think Tank | Big Think »
Do non-human animals have "consciousness"? Is this a question that can be answered by science, or is it one of philosophy? or both? The recent Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness provides much food for thought.

Assuming We Develop the Capability, Should We Bring Back Extinct Species? »
Assuming no technical hurdles, should extinct species be revived? And if we do, should we "improve" them? Seems to me that we don't understand the complexities of the environment well enough to do that without risking doing serious damage.

Are assessments of scientific intelligence biased toward mathematically oriented fields? | The Curious Wavefunction, Scientific American Blog Network 
Is the definition of "genius" biased towards mathematics and youth? Ashutosh Jogalekar makes a good case that the definition needs updating to include chemists, biologists and social scientists.  One of the commenters on the post makes a good point that mathematics (and physics) advances are easier for the public to notice: 
"I would speculate the reason for the math bias is it is easy for most people to see someone do it. A kid math prodigy calculating some insanely complex equations as fast as a computer is something anyone can see."
Advances in chemistry and the biological sciences more often require extensive observation and experimentation, which is less likely to make people exclaim in wonder.

Cool Bioscience

Researchers grow cyborg tissue that can sense its environment »
George Dvorsky writes about recent advances in growing human tissues in cultures. The innovation: starting with a meshed network of nanoscale silicon wires that not only act as a scaffold, but also harbor tiny electrodes to measure cellular activity. Read the whole article:

Ants Are Basically the Internet but More Harmful to Picnics »
I think it's fairer to say the internet is like ants...
"When biologists and computer scientists from Stanford University put their heads together to try and learn more about how ant colonies make the decision to send out foragers for food, they found that the decision-making process is remarkably similar to Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) — the method by which websites determine how much bandwidth they can spare for a file transfer.
Animals’ Lifestyles Evolve When Old Genes Learn New Tricks »
In rattlesnakes a gene that's normally "drives our response to the molecules that give wasabi its punch, as well as to other chemical irritants, like tear gas" has evolved to become especially heat sensitive, giving them infrared detection system. And vampire bats carry a mutation in a different gene that lets them find the warmest (therefore bloodiest) spot to bite their prey. Evolution in action!

Company Aims to Cure Blindness with Optogenetics - Technology Review »
A company aims to use gene therapy to treat patients in which light-sensitive retinal cells - rods and cones - have degenerated. They would introduce DNA that encodes proteins (at least theoretically) would make the ganglia cells in the eye light sensitive. Preliminary studies in rodents look promising, but there's a long way to go before it's tried in human patients.

200-Year-Old 'Monster Larva' Mystery Solved | LiveScience »
Sometimes "monsters" turn out not to be so monstrous after all. Larvae found in the guts of fish grow up to be shrimp.

Toothed Vaginas and Wandering Uteri: The Seven Most Ridiculous Myths About Female Biology
Are women terrifying alien creatures? Apparently some men thought (or still think!) so.

Evolution Did Not Snap the Brain Together like LEGOS | Talking back, Scientific American Blog Network »
Is our brain more like a multifunctional pocket knife or a bunch of independent modules? Probably more the former than the latter. 

BioTechniques - New Standard for Ancient Genomes »
New DNA sequencing methodology has allowed the genome from fossilized humanoid bones to be sequenced 31 times over "making the results as complete and precise as the genome of a living person". Neither modern human nor Neanderthal, the genome shows interesting differences in genes involved in the wiring of the nervous system, such as the gene FOXP2, which is involved in speech, language and synaptic plasticity.

Unwinding the Cucumber Tendril Mystery »
Plants are always in motion - they just live in a different time scale than we animals. The biomechanics of how cucumbers and similar plants are able to create curly tendrils is pretty interesting, not only because if we understand how plants grow we can hope to manipulate that growth, but because engineers can use similar designs in their own work.

Woman Receives First 'Pre-Bionic' Eye Implant | IdeaFeed | Big Think
A blind woman had an experimental implant placed behind the retina that allows her to see flashes of light. This is helping lay the ground for more complex camera-based implants in the future.

Life off of Earth?

Sugar Molecules Discovered Around Sun-Like Star | Search for Life & Alien Planets | 
The simple sugar they found around the star - glycolaldehyde - can chemically react with other simple sugars to form ribose, one of the components of the nucleic acid RNA. This finding puts one of the building blocks of life close to where planets are forming - or at least closer than interstellar space.