Putting the life back in science fiction

The Way of the Island Locust

Sorry for the click-bait title, this has nothing to do with martial arts.  It’s a reference to a post I wrote in December 2015 about humans being locust-like in our ability to have mass outbreaks when and where conditions are right.  My idea was that we call these outbreaks civilization.  I came at this from the biology side, but of course the anthropologists and archaeologists have been looking at the same phenomenon in their own way for quite a long time.  Over Christmas, I ran into a highly readable version of their thinking based on archaeology and anthropology from Oceania, one of my favorite regions, and…

well, there hangs a substory.  I was originally going to post this after Christmas, but I realized I didn’t quite understand what was going on.  So I read more books by the same author (Patrick Kirch), developed some germ of understanding about what he thinks is going on, and finally looked up to realize that it’s been a long time since I posted last.  Anyway, if you want to read about my holiday reading, aka how a small group of people settled the Pacific using mostly indigenous resources and founded one and possibly two archaic, pristine states, then read more after the jump.

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And We Thought Hibernation Was Simple 2: now with bleach

Most of a year ago, I posted about the first tardigrade genome sequence, which apparently had a lot of bacterial genes in it.  Now, another group has published another genome (io9 article here, report here), and this apparently changes everything, possibly in a better way.  Or possibly, we’ll see some horror move remake of The Fly, only with Ramazzottius varieornatus at the hybridizing end (paging John Scalzi.  I’ve got your vacuum-sucking warriors right here). Continue reading

Facepalm with a hit of nitrous
July 28, 2016, 7:01 pm
Filed under: climate change, futurism, Real Science Content, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’ve been advocating for a partial switch to an ammonia-based economy, on the theory that, while NOx is an air pollutant, it’s better than CO2.

Facepalm time: N2O, good ol’ nitrous oxide, which is another thing that comes out of of using ammonia for fertilizer or burning it, is a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent per pound than CO2.  Right now, it’s 5.9% of US greenhouse gas emissions.  It supposedly lasts about 114 years in the atmosphere, until it gets broken down by some process or other (I’m being lazy about all the bits and bobs in the nitrogen cycle, because it’s hot here, and with a flex alert on, I’m not running the AC). Unlike CO2, it doesn’t look like it sequentially saturates large sinks and stays around for hundreds of thousands of years in the atmosphere.  Rather, it just breaks down slowly.  About 40% of the N2O emitted in the world is from human activities, and it can be cut, in some circumstances, through catalytic conversion technology.

Here’s some really basic information on it (link to EPA)

The basic sources for atmospheric N2O are:

  • conversion of nitrogen fertilizers to N2O by bacteria.  This is the big one, and more efficient fertilizer use and better land management can cut this to some degree.
  • it’s a combustion byproduct, so it comes out the tailpipes of gas-burning cars.  Catalytic convertors can help with this.
  • various industrial processes produce N2O as a byproduct.

Now, the simplistic solution is hydrogen, except that (IIRC) burning hydrogen using air also may release some N2O, because there’s a lot of nitrogen in the air.  Converting to fuel cell-type devices that do electrochemistry rather than combustion and using catalytic convertors on combustion-powered systems probably is the way to go.

It does get more complicated than that.  While catalysis is the simple-minded solution, it’s also prey to the usual simple-minded problems with polluters who don’t keep that part of their car (or other system) working, and thieves after the platinum in the convertors.  It’s the usual, intractable problem: environmental problems, greed, and stupidity don’t mix.

So, what do you think?  Pitch any desire for an ammonia economy out the window and pray for hydrogen and better batteries?  Double-down on catalysis, which catches NOx better than CO2, and start prospecting for platinum at the side of the local highways?  Stick with fossil fuels and assume we’re all doomed?  Some combination of all three?

Oh well, tonight I get to watch  the latest episode of the newest superhero series: Suit Woman vs. Generalissimo Cantaloupe.   I’m not sure binge watching is the right word for it (more the opposite), but it does seem to be the thing everyone’s talking about this season.

Why more droughts matter more than some droughts
July 20, 2016, 9:53 pm
Filed under: climate change, Real Science Content, Speculation | Tags: ,

So I’ve finished reading 1177 B.C., The Year Civilization Collapsed, as I mentioned in the last post.  It’s a good book, and it’s also a good lesson in why I might want to wait until I’m done reading a book before blogging.

It turns out there’s multiple lines of evidence that there was a drought in the eastern Mediterranean around 1177 B.C.  However, if you know anything about Mediterranean climates, you’ll know that droughts happen.  Was this one different?  That part’s unknowable, but a book I read earlier this spring does point to how the eastern Mediterranean can get into a big problem when two droughts coincide, and that’s the little lesson for today: it’s not just the local drought that’s the problem.

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Hot Earth Dreams is still ahead of the curve, but…

Just a brief note.  I saw this newspaper article and wanted to share it:


Here’s a link to the Nature Climate Change article mentioned.  I haven’t received a copy yet, as I just emailed the lead author to see if I could get one.

Just in general terms, it’s great to see more climate scientists looking into the deep future.  Hot Earth Dreams is based on decade-old work by David Archer (who is a coauthor on this paper), and I’m looking forward to seeing the details from the new model.

Fun read about California water politics
January 12, 2016, 8:00 pm
Filed under: economics, Real Science Content | Tags: ,

I’m getting an education in California water issues right now, courtesy of a blog, On the public record, which was “outed” in an recent article in the Los Angeles Times.

“On the public record” is written by a mid-level bureaucrat somewhere in one of California’s water agencies. Except for her gender, that she went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and has at least two degrees, she’s so far remained anonymous (no small feat). She’s been blogging for about seven years, calling it as she sees it.

This blog is a real education for me in how California water politics, regulation, and economics work, and it’s well written too. If this is something you’re interested in, check it out.

The dust of ages

I came across this little bit when listening to NPR’s On The Media.  The episode is entitled “Digital Dark Age” which of course pricked my ears up immediately, as the digital dark age is something I dealt with in Hot Earth DreamsThe whole hour is worth listening to, but the weird idea I wanted to focus on is the idea of using artificially generated DNA for long-term data storage, an idea put forward by Dr. Nate Goldman in this segment.

Superficially, this is a great idea. Dr. Goldman is working on this idea as a way to store the huge amount of genomics data he has to curate at the European Bioinformatics Institute.  DNA is pretty stable and information dense, so if it’s possible to cheaply generate long DNA sequences and to cheaply read them, it’s a good form of ROM (Read Only Memory).  Dr. Goldman develops this into an idea of caching the great works of civilization in some sort of time capsule that starts by explaining what DNA is and how the code works, then progresses to simple decoding examples, and finally to the whole earth encyclopedia, or whatever is supposed to be in the data cache.  DNA is certainly more durable than known electronic digital media and is smaller than durable analog media like baked clay tablets, so superficially it has a lot going for it.

One little problem with this scenario is the idea that it’s easy to generate and read DNA.  It’s easy now, but I remember how hard it was even 20 years ago when I was in grad school.  This is a new technology.  Indeed, Dr. Goldman doesn’t think this technology will be financially viable for another decade or two, although it’s borderline technologically viable now.

Still, DNA ROM works better if we’re talking about a hypothetical sustainable civilization, as opposed to leaving some sort of time capsule for the next civilization 5,000 years from now or whenever.  DNA is not the kind of storage medium that will allow people to jump-start civilization from a hidden cache.  It’s just too tricky to read and write, even though DNA has demonstrably lasted tens of thousands of years in fossil bones under ideal conditions.

It’s even more suitable when we’re talking about interstellar colonization, where information needs to be stable for thousands of years.   Not only can the genomes of potentially useful organisms be stored as DNA, all the other information the starship needs to curate can be stored as DNA as well.

The other little problem with using DNA to store data is that having such technology widely available means that high-level synthetic biology will be available to anybody who wants it.  After all, if the equivalent of a laptop can generate as much DNA as your average genome, how many more bits of equipment are needed to twirl that DNA into chromosomes, insert it in a cell, and make a new eukaryotic life form?   Letting this kind of technology be available to the public is something that is currently forbidden, at least in current American society.   What kind of societal changes would required for people to believe that such technology is safe?

Still, it’s another possible technology for a hypothetical sustainable and starfaring civilization.  Perhaps in the future, we’ll have computers that are as much biotech as chips, where spam is something you feed your machine to support its self-repair function, rather than something you delete from your inbox.

Or maybe we should try to baked clay tablet thing…