Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Science & SF Tidbits: Oct. 31: Happy Halloween!

A few more spooky biology links for Halloween:

Plants are Cool, Too! Halloween Special (YouTube)

Even plants can be scary - especially when they live on the flesh of innocent bugs. Biology professor Chris Martine gives a tour of some of the less animal friendly plants out there. Feed me Seymour!

Bad Moon Rising: The Science of Werewolves >> Cocktail Party Physics

Hypertrichosis or excessive hair growth, plus a psychiatric condition known as lycanthropa, may have inspired werewolf folk tales.  I wonder how many disturbed or very hairy people were persecuted for their conditions.

13 Horrifying Ways to Die (Arthropod Edition) >> Compound Eye

Some fantastic photos of the terrible ways insects die, from being hunted by packs of determined ants to zombie fungus infecting your brain. Not a nice way to go amongst them.

Image: 1648 portrait of Petrus Gonsalvus, the first documented case of hypertrichosis. Three of his children also had this condition. (Public Domain)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: Oct. 30, 2012: Spooky Science

Some spooky science for Halloween:

• Science Friday »
The radio program Science Friday rounds up their scariest stories, from Chupacabras to Zombies to Vampires.

• Bone-Chilling Science: The Scariest Experiments Ever »
My favorite "sounds like fiction" scary science project: training bats to bomb the Japanese during WWII. Apparently the project was abandoned before the bats were put into action.

And one for the physics lovers out there:

• Iä! Iä! Cthulhu Fhtagn >> The Titanium Physicists Podcast

Theoretical physicist and mathematician Ben Tippett has written a paper explaining how general relativity and gravitational lensing could have caused the weird events in Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu. From the abstract:
In 1928, the late Francis Wayland Thurston published a scandalous manuscript in purport of warning the world of a global conspiracy of occultists. Among the documents he gathered to support his thesis was the personal account of a sailor by the name of Gustaf Johansen, describing an encounter with an extraordinary island. Johansen’s descriptions of his adventures upon the island are fantastic, and are often considered the most enigmatic (and therefore the highlight) of Thurston’s collection of documents. 
We contend that all of the credible phenomena which Johansen described may be explained as being the observable consequences of a localized bubble of spacetime curvature. [. . .] it seems to us improbable that Johansen should have unwittingly given such a precise description of the consequences of spacetime curvature, if the details of this story were merely the dregs of some half remembered fever dream.
It all could be real............

Image: Lovecraftian monster by Futurilla on Flickr. Shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

SF and Science Tidbits: October 28, 2012: Biohackers and Mars Dreams

Interesting recent science:

• The Deferred Dreams of Mars | MIT Technology Review »

NASA originally suggested human exploration of Mars after landing on the moon, but funding cuts and technical problems have deferred that goal. Even now "basic problems"  like how to feed astronauts on a Mars mission - have yet to be solved. The current goal is a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, but even that may be overly optimistic.  Brian Bergstein argues it's still a worthy goal:
"Exploring for its own sake, even when there is no immediate, obvious benefit, is something humans have always done."
I can't help but agree that's a worthy goal in and of itself.

Amateur "biohackers" in London with home-brewed labs are starting to attract the attention of professionals.

In the more dystopic science fiction futures, poor people end up selling their body parts so that the wealthy could replace damaged or failing organs. In more optimistically depicted futures, spare parts are grown in laboratories or made by replicators and everyone has access to excellent health care. 

Science has been progressing towards developing methods of growing body parts that could eventually make the organ trade obsolete. The article linked below covers some exciting recent progress in using stem cells to start the organ growing process.

But assuming they are eventually successful, I wonder if these brand new organs will be made available to everyone, or if they will only be an option for the rich and elite. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: Oct. 24, 2012: Alien Moons, Zombies, and Living Longer

Today's links are about aliens, zombies and how to get to be an old person:

• Prions: The Real Zombie-Makers (YouTube)
Prions: spread through brain eating, but not really zombie making - symptoms of prion-based diseases do include cognitive, memory and balance and movement problems, but infected people don't usually seek fresh brains to eat.

Are you prepared for a zombie attack? Be sure to check out the CDC's zombie apocalypse preparedness tips so that you are ready!

Never Mind Life on Distant Planets. What About Distant Moons? »
Is it more likely that the (hypothetical) moons around planets in distant solar systems may be more likely to harbor life than the planets themselves? Perhaps. Seems like science fiction has this option covered, with (fictional) life teeming on moons as close as Jupiter's Europa, and as far away as Pandora and the moons of Endor.

How to Live to 100 (With or Without Biotechnology) | Think Tank | Big Think »
Want to live to be 100? Don't go to college! Of course that's a bit silly: the infographic in the article illustrates out one of the foibles of statistics. A correlation between two things - attending college and shorter lifespan - doesn't necessarily mean the one causes the other, especially considering that 100-year-olds today would have attended college in the 1930s. On the other hand, eating nuts is correlated with longer life - it certainly doesn't hurt to do that and it's tasty!
If you want real science fictional thinking, the article also quotes Ray Kurzweil as saying that if you can keep yourself alive for the next 15-20 years, you will have lived long enough for biotechnology to reprogram your genes away from disease and aging. Considering that we haven't yet developed a reliable method for editing human genes, let alone determined whether "longer life" genes in humans exist or how they function, I figure this is less plausible than my college education shortening my life span.

Image: "Get a Kit, Make a Plan, Be Prepared". Spread the word about the CDC's Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse program

Monday, October 22, 2012

Science & SF Tidbits: Oct. 22, 2012: Fictional Exoplanets, Scientific Goals, Resurrecting T.rex

Interesting links:

SF Author and astronomer Mike Brotherton provides some guidelines for science fiction writers who want to don't want their story set on a distant planet to seem scientifically out of date in light of recent astronomical discoveries.

Why Mars Died, and Earth Lived (YouTube)

This visually striking video takes a look at why Mars and Venus may have been stripped of their atmospheres while Earth was spared. What saved us? Magnetic fields and the moisture in the atmosphere contributed.
I wonder what this means for possible plans to terraform Mars: is it risking failure because the planet cannot hold an atmosphere? or could we get around that problem continuously replenish the air?
How should we update Boyle's list of problems for scientists?

In the 1660s chemist Robert Boyle wrote a list of 24 problems for scientists to solve. While some of his goals - like the art of flying and methods of determining longitude - have been solved, Boyle thought big, including some goals that scientists are still working towards 300 years later. We've made progress towards "recovery of youth", "prolongation of life" and "curing wounds at a distance" since Boyle's day, but research in those fields is still ongoing. But Matthew Baggott wanted to know what great visionary goals could be set for today's scientists and so started a discussion at Quora: check it out!

You can see a scan Boyle's original list on the Boyle Project's collection.

How a T.Rex named Bob is brining about a revolution in paelontology.

Koan de Paus explains how there may be hope yet for Jurassic Park-style cloning of dinosaurs. A key finding: a fossil from a pregnant T.rex nicknamed Bob that contained a fragment of soft tissue. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but it's fun to think about.

Image: Portrait of chemist and visionary Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom c. 1689. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Science & SF Tidbits: Oct 21, 2012: Sequencing Martian DNA, Animal Language, Anthropology SF

More bioscience and science fiction bits from around the web:

Genome Hunters Go after Martian DNA - Technology Review »

It's a race: two biotech companies - J Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics and Jonathan Rothberg's Ion Torrent - want to send a DNA sequencing machine (made by their company, of course) to Mars. Both companies are adapting their hardware for Martian conditions, and are testing them in Mars-like Earthly sites like the Mojave Desert.

The advantage to sequencing the DNA of Martian microbes while on the planet, rather than sending the sample back to Earth - is that it makes contamination from Earthly life less likely. The experiment would have an incredibly high payoff, if any DNA were found to be sequenced.

Undaunted by the lack of any evidence that Mars currently hosts microbial life, Venter is already talking about reconstructing Martian organisms from their DNA sequence in a super-secure laboratory on Earth.
"People are worried about the Andromeda strain," says Venter. "We can rebuild the Martians in a P-4 spacesuit lab instead of having them land in the ocean."
I'm pretty sure this is a publicity stunt, but it's a fun one to think about the possible results if it were actually successful.

Is language unique to humans? » BBC Future

Parrots, bonobos, dolphins and even dogs can learn to understand human words and sentences. But is that language? Maybe not, if you think of language as a method of computation rather than a means of communication.
"What makes human language unique is not that it allows us to communicate with each other, but that it allows us to do so with infinite variety. A monkey can scream to warn its troopmates of an approaching predator, or alert them to a cache of tasty food, but it can't communicate something like "doesn't that hawk have a funny looking beak?" or "with a little salt, this fig would taste divine"."
How to Read Like a Science Nerd » New York Times Magazine

Science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker shares her book recommendations with The New York Times and recommends a science fiction classic:

“Lilith’s Brood,” by Octavia Butler, is the best book about an alien invasion that I have ever read. It’s smart, and it’s deeply human, and (as a former anthropology major) I think it should be on the required-reading list for anyone interested in cultural anthropology.
I agree with her recommendation. Butler's Lilith's Brood (also known as the Xenogenesis Triology) should be required reading for all SF fans, not just anthropology enthusiasts. It asks the uncomfortable question of whether alien takeover might actually be for our own good.

Image: Parrot Culture by Marendo Müller. Public Domain.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Free Friday Flicks: Tales of Tomorrow: Future Medicine from the Golden Age of SF

The science fiction anthology series Tales of Tomorrow ran from 1951 to 1953, and was the first TV show of its kind. The brainchild of Theodore Sturgeon and the Science Fiction League, the published stories of the SF League's illustrious members were made available for adaptation.

The stories may not seem so cutting edge today, especially since many have been retold on television a number of times. But at the time the series originally aired, the Golden Age SF stories they were based on were still relatively new.

I've listed a few of the tales featuring futuristic takes on the medical profession below. Sure, the doctors are all middle-aged white men - what sets them apart from the "present-day" of the 1950s is novel technology and science, not noticeable changes in society.  Also, women apparently ruin everything.

If you like classic SF and old-time TV, they are worth watching, if only to see the way the future looked a half century ago.

The Little Black Bag
Watch at the Internet Archive or Hulu
The episode is based on the story of the same name by Cyril Kornbluth, which was originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950.

Synopsis: a depressed doctor is ready to quit his practice when he stumbles onto a medical kit that has seemingly miraculous properties. The doctor and his wife can't agree on how it should be used, and there turn out to be unintended consequences (goes without saying, right?)

The Miraculous Serum
Watch at the Internet Archive or Hulu
This episode was adapted for TV by Theodore Sturgeon from Stanley G. Weinbaum's 1935 story "The Adaptive Ultimate".

Synopsis: a doctor invents a treatment that cures any illness or injury by "magnifying their adaptability". He tests it on a destitute woman who decides to use her new-found vitality to take on the world. Can this beautiful power-seeking woman be stopped? (It does seem a bit sexist)

Seeing-Eye Surgeon
Watch at the Internet Archive or Hulu

This episode does not seem to be based on a previously published story.

Synopsis: A neurosurgeon who lacks confidence finds himself leading the operative team performing brain surgery on an important physicist. A pair of special glasses given to him by a mysterious stranger helps see him through. This one seems to be more a tale of magic than science.

Past Tense

Watch at the Internet Archive or Hulu

Synopsis: Boris Karloff stars as a physician who invents a time machine to travel back in time to try to get rich selling penicillin to a pharmaceutical firm. Will he be successful? Could his wife ruin everything?

So there you have it: two hours of old time SF TV.

You can watch most of the series episodes at the Internet Archive and Hulu.

And the collection is available on DVD at and other retailers.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: October 18, 2012: Hard SF, Silky Electronics, and Exoplanets

Recent interesting science fiction and bioscience bits:

• Locus Online Perspectives » Stanley Schmidt: Art of Speculation »
How would you define "hard" science fiction? Analog editor and SF author Stanley Schmidt thinks most fans are getting it all wrong. From his interview with Locus:

‘‘ What I mean by ‘hard science fiction’ is actually pretty simple: there’s some element of speculative science or technology in it, which is so integral to the story that you can’t take it out without making the whole story collapse. [...] The second requirement is that there should be some attempt to make the science or technology speculation plausible.”
I agree with him. The focus on engineering and technology often causes stories with solid speculative biology and chemistry to be overlooked as "hard" SF.

• A musical interlude for Battlestar Galactica fans: Sound of Cylons
Hello Gaius my old friend ....

• Excellent Idea of the Day: Sci-Fi in Class : Discovery News »
Do you think high school level science textbooks should include science fiction references or examples? A recent study suggests that science fiction can stimulate students' interest in science.
Join the discussion on Google+.

• Jumping DNA rides aboard a virus, which targets a giant virus, which infects an amoeba, which infected a woman’s eye | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine »
Examination of the microbes in an infected eye turned up a zoo:
"It was carrying two species of bacteria, and a giant virus that no one had seen before—they called it Lentille virus. Inside that, they found a virophage—an virus that can only reproduce in cells infected by other viruses—which they called Sputnik 2. And in both Lentille virus and Sputnik 2, they found even smaller genetic parasites – tiny chunks of DNA that can hop around the genomes of the virus, and stow away inside the virophage. They called these transpovirons."
• ALPHA CENTAURI HAS A PLANET! | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine »
Exciting discovery: The Alpha Centauri star system has at least one Earth-sized planet! As the nearest star system to our own, it's a frequent destination for SF space travelers, from Lost in Space to Avatar.  The bad news: it's so close to it's star, it's definitely not another Earth:
"... the planet is baking hot, far too hot to sustain any kind of life as we know it, or even liquid water."
• Spider Silk Could Weave Biodegradable Computer Chips | Wired Science | »
Materials science turns to nature: Spider silk is very thin, stronger than steel, extremely flexible and can transmit light almost as well as glass fiber optic cables. Even better, the human body doesn't have a problem with implanted fibers and the components are biodegradable.  That means that there is the potential to use silk produced by spiders or silkworms to develop implantable biomonitoring devices that do not need to be surgically removed. And perhaps far in the future there will be electronic devices that can be composed, rather than producing toxic waste.

Top Image: Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.orgReleased by ESO under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. More artist's images and diagrams can be found at

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dance your PhD: Viruses in Space and Muscle Demons

I'm a big fan of work at the intersection of science and art, so I quite enjoy watching the entries in the annual "Dance Your PhD" contest. Anyone who has completed a PhD in a science-related field can submit a dance video, with the only requirements being that the PhD has to participate in the dance and the video needs to convey something essential about the research.

This year's overall winner is from the chemistry category. Titled "A super-alloy is born: The romantic revolution of Lightness and Strength", University of Australia materials science PhD student Peter Liddicoat's entry includes several interludes, with a big dance number, alongside juggling, and a bit of clowning.

A couple of this year's biology entries seemed to have a speculative fictional flare that I think deserves a closer look.

The first video that caught my eye was the winner of the Biology category: "The Fable of the Agonist, the Antagonist, the Force and the Demon". Physiology PhD student Maria Vinti turned her thesis research into a surreal dance. Patients affected by stroke sometimes have difficulty moving their limbs because they cannot control the agonist and antagonist muscle groups. Injection of botulinum toxin (a powerful neurotoxin also known as "Botox") into overactive muscles can help ease this condition. Here's the science in dance form:

The Fable of the Agonist, the Antagonist, the Force and the Demon from Maria VINTI on Vimeo.

The second University of Texas graduate student Alaina Brinley's video is the only one to include a rocket and dancing astronauts. She turned her dissertation on "Epstein-Barr virus Reactivation During Spaceflight" into a ballet. Her research seems a bit worrying: 90% of the population carries the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which can cause mononucleosis and is associated with some cancers. Spaceflight seems to "wake up" the virus, and cells infected with EBV don't die, even when they are seriously damaged, potentially making cancer serious health risk for astronauts on long-duration space missions.
Watch the dance version of her research:

Brinley:Dance your Dissertation from Alaina Brinley on Vimeo.

It's fun to watch these scientists share their passion for their research through dance. And if some of us viewers learn something new in the process, that's even better!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: October 15, 2012: Thinking machines and changelings

Interesting articles elsewhere:

• From Cooling System to Thinking Machine | Being Human »
Carl Zimmer writes about the history of Western thinking on the function of the brain from ancient times to the present. Will our current thinking of how the brain functions eventually seem as outdated as the ancient notion of "animal spirits"? From the article:
"Are we brains in a vat? Strictly speaking, it’s hard to prove we’re not. But in any world—real or manufactured—we still know so little about how brains work that we wouldn’t be able to put Putnam’s thought experiment into practice."
Hilary Putnam is a philosopher who has used the "brain in a vat" analogy to discuss the human concept of the external world)

How does the child in this tale sound to you? A changeling? or would we modern folk simply say he's not neurotypical?  
"Once upon a time there was a poor man and his wife who lived in the middle of the woods.  They had a beautiful little boy with blonde hair and strikingly blue eyes.  He was the light of their lives… and then something changed.
The boy wouldn’t coo. He wouldn’t look at his parents or at the pretty toys they dangled in front of him.  He shrank away from their touch as if it physically hurt him, couldn’t gag down his food, and began to scream."
Mercedes Yardley's article provides much food for thought.

Horror artist Russell Dickerson has gotten some negative reactions from people when they learn what he does for a living. He argues that it's people who are outside the norm who make change in the world:
"It takes those strange folks out there, with odd ideas of fantastical things, to really change the world. Scientists, artists, authors, folks from all different walks of life who simply believed differently than those around them. Those odd people created the very world we live in, because they dared to put those strange ideas out there for all the world to see."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: October 13, 2012: Nobel Prizes, Bringing Back Dinosaurs, Martian Biorhythms

Have you watched my live interview with artist Brian Kolm yet? We talk about his design of the Biology in Science Fiction logo, teaching art, and socializing with other artists. Be sure to check it out!

From around the web:

• G Protein-Coupled Receptors (GPCRs) win 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry | The Curious Wavefunction, Scientific American Blog Network
On Thursday the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to two biochemists: Brian Kobilka (Stanford) and Robert Lefkowitz (Duke). Their work helped explain how a signal on the outside of the cell (such as a neurotransmitter, hormone or even light) is translated into physiological changes inside the cell and altered gene expression. Their research focused on a particular class of receptors in cell membranes that are associated with "G protein" signalling molecules inside the cell. The article linked above is a pretty good overview of how they function.

• An Interview with Sir John Gurdon winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology or Medicine
I recommend this Cambridge University video interview with John Gurdon. He talks about his original work on frog cloning in the early 60s, the relevance of his work today, and how his parents helped him pursue studies in science after his teacher made him out to be a failure in the subject.

• DNA has a 521-year half-life :: Nature News
After 6.8 million years nearly every bond in a DNA molecule would be broken. That means no Jurassic Part-style cloning of extinct dinosaurs will be possible. Sad news for those of us wishing for a cute cloned Sciurumimus as a pet. It also brings into question reports of extracting DNA from very ancient amber.

• Weird Things » Blog Archive » Who Needs DNA to Bring Back the T-Rex?
Perhaps dinosaurs could be reconstructed even without their DNA. The trick is to use what we know about T. rex anatomy and modern animal biology and fake the rest:
"The blueprint for this creature will be everything we know about the T-Rex. We can design bone structure, ligature and a thousand other tiny details we’ve learned from the fossil records. Although we may never find DNA, we have found cells inside T-Rex fossils, resembling the same kind in ovulating birds. Cells, protein and other kinds of information can help us build a replica that’s perhaps 95% accurate"
• Ridley Scott Explains Prometheus, Is Lovably Insane |
Ryan Britt summarizes Ridley Scott's commentary from the DVD release of Prometheus. Sounds either quite brilliant or a bit unhinged, or maybe both.  I may have to watch the movie with commentary myself to see what he says about the dumbest biologist in the galaxy (ooh, the goo in this alien building full of dead bodies is unexpectedly turning into a snake-like creature - let me pet it!)

• Fossil of Ancient Spider Attack - only one of its type discovered
About 100 million years ago a young spider was about to start munching on a wasp caught in his web. But before he could commence munching, tree resin flowed over spider, wasp and web and they were trapped in amber.  Click here to see the fantastic large image.

• How Blue Light And Caffeine Will Help Humans Move To Mars
Mars days are 24.6 hours long, which means we humans with Earthly 24-hour internal clocks can find it hard to adjust. It turns out the key is carefully timed blue light, caffeine, and a comfortable sleeping environment. Tests on members of the Mars Phoenix mission suggests it works, even for folks here on Earth.

• Science In My Fiction » Mind-Control and Instant Skill
Optogenetics combines advanced genetic engineering of neural tissue in the brain and implanted fiber optics to allow external control of behavior and learning in mice. It has even been shown to work to some extent in monkeys. And simply stimulating the brain with electrical current and speed up learning in humans.  Not surprisingly, the military is at he forefront of this sort of research. But it's still in it's early stages - there won't be human "mind control" using this technology any time soon. But if it did work, would you allow your brain cells to be manipulated if it would give you instant skills?

• Report: Ukraine Trains Dolphins With Friggin' Pistols on Their Heads | Danger Room |
Pistols attached to dolphins may be far fetched, but it's already the case that navies (including the United States) use dolphins for mine clearing and other underwater operations. The US also apparently uses sea lions "equipped with a spring-loaded clamp that can be attached to a diver’s legs. The sea lion then swims back to its handlers, who can reel the enemy diver in like a snagged fish."  But if you want to make dolphins really lethal, give them mechanical arms and hands. Not only will they be able to kill, before you know it they'll be piloting starships!

Image: Courtesy of Brian Kolm at Atomic Bear Press. Used with permission.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gamify your PhD Winner takes you on a Fantastic Voyage Shooter

Last month the Wellcome Trust brought together 6 scientists and 21 game developers for the Gamify your PhD contest. Thomas Rawlings, a game consultant, explained the thinking behind the weekend game jam:
“Science and games are a natural fit: both are about the participant seeking to understand the rules that govern the world they find themselves in and achieving this by experiments such as trial and error.”
The games produced by the six teams were judged by Nate Lanxon ( editor); Bennett Foddy (rock star game maker and Deputy Director of the Programme on the Ethics of the New Biosciences at Oxford), Charlie Hasdell (Principal Designer for the game SingStar); and Danny Altmann (Head of Pathogens, Immunology and Population Health at the Wellcome Trust). That's a panel with expertise in both game play and science.

The winner was a game based on the work of biologist Margherita Coccia, whose doctoral research focused on the pathogenesis of inflammatory bowel disease. Working with a team of game developers from Clockwork Cuckoo and Force of Habit, they created Dysb'os's (or Dysbiosis), a scientifically accurate shoot-em-up. You control intestinal cells, which need to destroy oncoming bad bacteria, while letting the good bacteria survive. Accurate shooting lets you build up a mucus shield, which gives your cells protection. But if too many bad bacteria survive you lose.

That's very much the way your gut is supposed to work, at least in broad outline. Dysbiosis refers to a microbial imbalance within the body. Abnormal growth of bacteria in the small intestine is associated with irritable bowel syndrome.

Watch the demo video or download the game.

I think it's a fun concept: use tried and true game mechanics with a "story" based on science. You can't help but learn a bit of basic biology as you advance through the game.  And I appreciate the simplicity: a Fantastic Voyage-like game with fancy graphics would likely look beautiful, but I would find it harder to get into the game play than I would with a simple yet addictive shooter or puzzle game. More of those please!

Contest runners up:

• Monsieur Baguette presents RNA transcription of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae by Jane Elizabeth Anne Reid with Opposable Games (video clip only). It's a pattern matching game based on the function of the enzyme RNA polymerase II in the synthesis of RNA.

• Simalaria by Thomas Forth with Mobile Pie. This is a resource management puzzle game that models the metabolic reactions in malaria. Can you help the parasite survive?

• See the related article at BioTechniques with links to all the games.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: October 10, 2012

Some interesting bioscience in fact and fiction links:

• Sir John B. Gurdon - Interview »
On Monday the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University for their pioneering work in cloning and stem cells.  Gurdon originally showed back in 1962 that the nucleus (and DNA) of a cell taken from the gut of an adult frog could be transfered to an unfertilized egg cell, which could then be induced to develop into a tadpole. The first vertebrate clone!

When Gurdon was interviewed by the Nobel folks, he expressed optimism that we'll eventually completely understand how cells function:
"Once the principle is there, that cells have the same genes, my own personal belief is that we will, in the end, understand everything about how cells actually work."
I'd like to think that prediction will eventually come true.

• Live from the English Channel: Microbe-Inspired Jazz | Wired Science | »
The rhythm of life: Biologist Peter Larsen has taken seven years worth of environmental and genetic data from his study of the microbes in the English Channel and translated it into jazz.
"To turn data into music, Larsen employed a few different approaches. In one composition, the chord progression comes from seasonal shifts in radiation intensity while the melody – restricted to an octave and a half – came from the combination of eight notes, each tied to a chemical measurement. If nitrate concentrations are high for a given sample point, its note in the corresponding measure will be high-pitched, and vice-versa. Every oceanic observation gets its own musical measure, so each song covers a time course of several years."
You can listen to several of the compositions  and or watch videos with his musical accompaniment.

• The Biological (Im)Plausibility of Dragons - Mad Art Lab »
Dragons as depicted in art and literature are pretty scientifically implausible. They have too many limbs - vertebrates have evolved to have no more than four - and can breathe fire. But is there a way dragons could be engineered? Maybe there is! Check out elfinn's analysis of dragon genetics at Mad Art Lab.

• Science fiction is a global language describing our shared future | IMPAKT – critical and creative views on contemporary media culture »
Weird fiction writer and teacher Damien G, Walter writes about science fiction in China and how it's not so much an "outsider culture" there the way it is in the West:
" [. . . ] through the 20th century [science fiction] emerged as the culture of choice for the people doing the hands on work of making the future happen – the engineers, programmers, designers and various creatives most exposed to future-shock. It’s the geeks who love SF, in books, comics, films and video games. And as geeks have taken over the world, geek culture has become inextricably part of mainstream culture, so that now ideas born in SF, of space travel, intelligent machines and cyber-enhanced humans, have become common place."
• Searching for Life on Mars (YouTube)
Mars Science Laboratory Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada talks about the search for life on Mars and other goals of the Curiosity Rover mission.

• Slime Has Memory but No Brain »
Slime molds can "remember" where they've traveled by detecting the slime trail they leave behind.

Image: (Biologically improbable) dragon reproduced from a medieval tapestry in a Swedish Encyclopedia. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Interview with Brian Kolm of Atomic Bear Press

Brian Kolm is the talented artist who created the Biology in Science Fiction mouse-with-rocket-pack logo. Today I chatted with him about logo design, motion comics, art classes, the Alternative Press Expo (APE), socializing with other artists and more. You can watch the video right here on this post, on the Google+ Event Page or the Science and SF YouTube Channel.

More information about what we discussed:

Brian Kolm at Atomic Bear Press
Ink, Drink, Draw
(hang out and create with other artists in San Francisco)
• Motion Comic Magic sample work: video promoting the comic Kid Beowulf and video for Karen Luk's Kickstarter SteampunkABC
• Alternative Press Expo (APE) 2012 (San Francisco)
• Schulz Museum (Santa Rosa)
Cartoon Art Museum (San Francisco)
• Artist influences: Brian Froud, Charles Vess, James Gurney

Watch our chat:

Monday, October 08, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: October 8, 2012

Interesting science and science fiction from around the web:
Newfound Acorn Worm Named After Yoda
“Discovered a new type of acorn worm, scientists have. Named it after Yoda, they did.”
Researchers with the University of Aberdeen's ECOMAR project have found a new deep sea invertebrate, much more colorful than Yoda the Jedi. But apparently the force is strong with it...

Nichelle Nichols: Loving Science »
Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols reminisces about her love of learning when she was growing up: "Science was fun!" Awesome!

• Truth about Lemmings » Ultraphyte
Migrating lemmings swim streams and rivers to find more resources and the strong swimmers survive. But sometimes they mistake the ocean for a stream and even the strong swimmers are lost. Are we lemmings? Joan Slonczewski writes:
"In Vonnegut’s Galápagos, we humans are all lemmings. We all descend from infinite apocalyptic rises and falls. In real life, the ghosts of ocean-drowned humans never return to haunt us, like the Vonnegut’s ghostly narrator. We go on merrily assuming that energy demands, economic growth and atmospheric CO2 rise can go on forever (that is, until the next crash). But what if Earth falls into catastrophe–like the lemmings, we cannot tell the difference between stream and ocean."
• Return of the Science of Aquaman: Welcome to the Trench « Southern Fried Science »
The Aquaman comic gets some things right about deep sea life, but misses the opportunity to include some cool and weird critters.

• NASA plans to use biobricks and urine to build homes on Mars (Wired UK) »
Biology used for building on Mars: Genetically engineered bacteria fed by settler's urine could help produce cement craft bricks as strong as concrete or limestone.
"Every gram delivered to Mars or other planets translates into huge additional costs and energy demands. Biology rather than physical engineering is the only realistic way to do things on a planetary scale," [scientist] Dear sai
•  The Science & Entertainment Exchange »
Television writer (and long-ago pre-med student) Kath Lingenfelter talked to the Science and Entertainment Exchange about her favorite TV shows, the creative process and science. I love her response to a question about why using real science in film or television is an advantage:
"Whatever you think your imagination is capable of, science can make it go further. And, beautifully, the reverse is also true (see: tricorders/smartphones).
Image: Newly discovered deep sea acorn worm Yoda purpurata. Photo courtesy David Shale, from the official press release.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: October 7, 2012

Recently around the web ...

What If The Neandertals Didn't Die Out? »
It turns out Neanderthals amongst us is a popular science fiction trope, especially in some really cheesy movies. I think my current favorite short stories in the genre are Asimov's "Ugly Little Boy" and Ted Kosmatka's "N-Words". You can listen to both stories free: Ugly Little Boy at SFF Audio, and N-Words at EscapePod

Amazing Finding: Skin Regenerating Mammals
These little guys are amazing! African spiny mice have an unusual defense mechanism: their skin sloughs off easily when they are captured. They are then able to regenerate the skin, hair follicles and even holes in their ears. It's possible that what is learned about this process can eventually help wounded humans to regrow skin or even new digits. Read the original article in Nature.

Alien Landscapes »
The article asks "What would we see if we stood on an alien world?" I think landscapes and life on other planets will be dependent on the same laws of physics and chemistry as Earth. Perhaps alien vistas won't be any stranger than what we see here on our home planet.

The Infected Air (NSFH [Not Safe For Hypochondriacs]) | The Loom | Discover Magazine »
There is no escaping microbes: In each cubic meter of air, there are between 1.6 million and 40 million viruses and between 860,000 and 11 million bacteria. You are breathing them right now. Not safe for hypochondriacs is right!

Warping Through Star Trek: The Next Generation's 25 Years With Ronald Moore | Underwire | »
Ron D Moore looks back at his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, including his most and least favorite episodes, and what he thinks about all the "treknobabble":
"There were other stumbles, such as way too much Treknobabble overall in the series. It was always one of my chief criticisms, so much so that when I approached Battlestar Galactica I swore that I would never do endless scenes of technobabble to explain and resolve scenes. But yeah, there are definitely entire sequences that we could lose from the show and it would be much stronger. Because we just had endless pages of Data and Geordi pressing buttons and speaking in gibberish.
BibliOdyssey: BRAINS »
Some amazing 18th century illustrations of brain anatomy by Félix Vicq d’Azyr.
"[d'Azyr] was Queen Marie-Antoinette’s physician and a member of the French Academy of Sciences and of the Academy of Medicine. He wrote the section on pathological anatomy in 'L’Encyclopédie' by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and in 1786 published 'Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie', which was lauded as one of the most realistic works of neuroanatomy."
Why do men have nipples? »
Zoologist Pau Carazo explains why men have nipples, when they seem to serve no purpose: men have nipples because it's beneficial for women to have nipples. That's evolution!

Making of Heterodontosaurus Flesh Model
Newly reported cat-sized dinosaur Pegomastax africanus had fierce-looking fangs and spines, but was probably a plant-eater. More information at Science Friday

Image: Detail of a brain dissection from "Traité d'Anatomie et die Physiologie" by Félix Vicq D'Azyr (1786)

Friday, October 05, 2012

Free Friday Flick: Things to Come - science conquers all

This week's recommended science fiction movie is the British 1936 spectacular Things to Come. The story is adapted from HG Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come. 70-year-old Wells wrote the screenplay himself, incorporating some ideas from his non-fiction book The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind, an overview of global economics and sociology.

The movie follows the residents of Everytown over the course of a century as the population is first decimated by biological weapons in a devastating decades-long global war and then rebuilt into a shining future city by technocrats. It depicts a triumph of science and engineering that that brings order and prosperity, and even opens mankind's way into space.

The movie was was produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzes, and stars Raymond MasseyRalph Richardson, and Margaretta Scott.

It apparently was not widely popular at the time it was released, perhaps because the public was all too aware that real war in Europe was looming on the horizon. The filmmakers were certainly aware of that possibility. Ralph Richardson's depiction of the thug-like Boss was based on the dictator Benito Mussolini, causing Things to Come to be banned in Italy.

While the acting is rather stiff at times, the film is worth watching if only for the still-stunning visual design. It's a science fiction classic.

Well's original novel is also worth reading. As a future history it includes a fair amount of 1930s racism and sexism, and the envisioned world state where individualism has been "overcome" seems nightmarish. But I do find it interesting that Wells imagined a future where crude biological engineering eventually becomes common-place. As he describes it:
In 2047 Homer Lee Pabst published his remarkable researches on the effect upon chromosomes of certain gases derived from the old Sterilizing Inhalation made from Permanent Death Gas. These gases are known now as Pabst's Kinetogens, and there is a whole series of them. Their general effect is to produce mutations of various types. They bring about, abundantly and controllably, a variability in life which has hitherto been caused only with comparative rarity by cosmic radiations. By 2050 the biological world was confronted by a score of absolutely new species of plants and--queer first-fruits in the animal world--by two new and very destructive species of rodent. The artificial evolution of new creatures had come within the range of human possibility.
Not only are new species created in this future society, but extinct species are restored. 

In this instance, Wells thought too small. The revolution in genetic engineering arrived 75 years before he predicted, and techniques we use today allow genes to be modified both specifically and subtilely, as compared to the crude introduction of mutations using radiation and mutagenic chemicals that was still fairly new science in the 1930s. 

Perhaps Wells was familiar with the work of Herman Muller (published in 1927), demonstrating X-rays could be used to introduce mutations in fruit flies. But his description of "Pabst's Kinetogens" sounds more like the research of Charlotte Auerbach, who discovered the mutagenic properties of mustard gas. Her work was not published until the 1940s, so perhaps Wells was prescient about the direction of biological research, even if he was a century off in his prediction.

You can watch Things to Come for free on YouTube.

You can also purchase a copy of the colorized version of Things to Come or a copy of the original novel The Shape of Things to Come at

Monday, October 01, 2012

New post at SIMF: The Future of Green Energy?

I have a new post up at Science In My Fiction that takes a look at a literally green form energy: the use of the electrical potential between plants and the soil they are growing in to power electronic devices. While it is unlikely that our woods and parks will be able to charge our smart phones any time soon, there is already the potential for the development of environmental monitoring devices in remote locations that require no batteries and minimal human intervention. 

I like to think that someday we'll be using electronic devices that require so little current that maybe we could be able to simply plant a few trees in our backyards for our energy needs. 

Or perhaps botanists could engineer plants with a bit more potential? If the Tnuctipun could engineer trees into living rocket boosters, we humans should be able to design trees that could replace diesel generators, right? Maybe just in science fiction.

Read The Future of Green Energy? at Science in My Fiction

Image: Violation by hapal, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.