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

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.

Paris in the Fall, mais oui
December 2, 2015, 6:53 pm
Filed under: Hot Earth Dreams, livable future, sustainability | Tags: ,

Okay, I’m a pessimist.  Is it a good thing to cheer on the Paris COP21 Climate talks, or not?

On the one hand, if they fail, I’ve got a great marketing tool for Hot Earth Dreams: it will be a more likely future.  Except that the scenario will probably fail because the Earth will get hotter faster than I predicted, so I might have to do a bit of a rewrite and get depressed that I wasn’t pessimistic enough the first time.

On the other hand, if COP21 comes up with a treaty, no one will want to read about a hot Earth, except that I’m pretty much describing what the COP21 treaty will accomplish: partial control of carbon emissions, which extends the terafart out to 100 years when it could run in as little as 20-50 years.  Guess that means I’ll try selling the book again in 10 years, when people start seeing the shortcomings of getting GHG emissions cut but not eliminated.

Still, why not be hopeful?  Maybe something will come out of this one.  My pessimism is wrong more often than not.  That’s why I’m pessimistic about it too.

If you’re interested in exploring a future that’s not depleted of fossil fuels, where we get GHG emissions truly under control, you might want to check out The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  It’s a think-tank, excuse me, a “global collaboration of energy research teams charting practical pathways to deeply reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their own countries.”  With decent PR, obviously, despite “decarbonization.”  From what I’ve read of their reports so far, they aren’t bad.

Their overall message so far is something that should be familiar to those who have read Hot Earth Dreams: it’s technologically feasible to get greenhouse gas emissions under control, keep economic growth going, and so forth.  The problem is one of politics and logistics, since it requires a large-scale transformation of civilization over the next few decades to pull it off.

Am I the only one who thought “oh, so it will never work”  on reading that last sentence?  Why won’t it work?  Builders are going to get rich rebuilding civilization to deal with this crisis.  Why are so many people running away from it, rather than towards it?  It’s funny that in the 21st Century, “let’s reinvent society so that everyone gets a better life” is something we’ve been taught to cringe from, when in the 20th Century, whole revolutionary movements got started that way.  How times have changed.

In any case, let’s be hopeful that something good comes out of Paris.  And if you want to write about a 21st Century with climate change, I’d suggest that the Decarbonization crew is a good place to start your worldbuilding research.

Any thoughts on it?




And we thought hibernation was simple…
November 24, 2015, 7:52 pm
Filed under: colonizing space, Real Science Content | Tags: , ,

Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall at the moment so you can only see the abstract, but PNAS just published a draft genome of the tardigrade Hypsibius dujardini.  Here’s the Yahoo news piece on the finding.

Basically, tardigrades are microscopic animals that are renowned for their ability to be frozen, boiled, desiccated, subjected to a vacuum on the outside of the space shuttle and so forth.  They’re the ultimate survivors among animals, and I’m pretty sure that every SF writer who thinks about putting astronauts in hibernation is thinking something along the lines of copying tardigrade’s toughness in humans through some futuristic technology.

But there’s an itty bitty catch.

If the draft genome is right (and there’s no reason to think it isn’t), tardigrades just took the record for having the most foreign DNA in their genome of any animal, about 16%, double the previous record holder.  They’ve got genes “derived from diverse bacteria as well as plants, fungi, and Archaea.”

My first thought was of Brin and Benford’s Heart of the Comet and the weirders (I still like that book), and then that ooh, massive horizontal gene transfer will take us to the stars!  Yay!  We get to go as gardens.

Then I read some more and found out that tardigrades’ toughness comes at a price: their DNA falls apart when they’re desiccated, and their cells get leaky as they rehydrate.  As a result, DNA from the surrounding environment gets taken up into their cells and, where it’s useful somehow, it gets taken into the tardigrade’s rebuilding genome.  Now bacteria do this all the time, so what’s unique here is that an animal has separately evolved the trick.  It’s one hell of a trick too, being able to repair eukaryotic DNA at that level and to usefully incorporate genes from wildly different organisms.  There’s a lot to be learned from these cute little water bears.

Still, this puts a whole different spin on putting people into hibernation to send them into deep space and to the stars.  It looks like tardigrades don’t have a magical way to avoid the damage caused by freezing.  Instead, it looks like they’re amazingly good at picking up the pieces afterwards and rebuilding themselves.  Presumably, that’s what we’ll have to learn to do (assuming it’s possible–tardigrades don’t have big brains),  if we want to turn people into corpsicles and back again without damage.  At the moment, the only methods we know of involve the use of either narrativium or handwavium, and both these elements are really unstable.


One monster in 10,000? Some thoughts on the Colorado shooting

I should be writing a report right now, but that damn shooting at the Dark Knight Rises keeps bothering me, so I thought I’d post my thoughts.

First off, the shooter James Holmes (hereafter Little Jimmy) tried to call himself “the Joker,” and the news media seems to be picking up on this. Quiet, brilliant scientist turns into long wolf monster with no warning! News at 8, noon, 5, and 11! Perhaps I’m cynical, but where I work was close enough to hear the damn news copters orbiting around his parents’ house for hours, and an out-of-town news crew actually stopped us for comment on our way to work out (I told him we were new in town, which wasn’t entirely true).

So let’s demythologize Little Jimmy a bit. Yes, he perpetrated an evil, unjustified act, but in all he was a failure, not a brilliant student and budding scientist, and certainly not the Joker. Let’s run down his record. In fact, let’s really run down his record:
–Bright kid, went to a good high school, got top marks at a good college. Yep, all true, but much as I like UC Riverside (and I know some of the faculty members there), UC Riverside ain’t Harvard. Little Jimmy wasn’t a genius rocketing towards fame and fortune, but just another smart kid.
–Ooh, and he was getting his PhD. True. But Little Jimmy couldn’t land a job out of college, so he went back to grad school. This is a really common move, but evidently the employers didn’t see him as God’s Gift to Neuroscience, for whatever reason. While Colorado is a good school, it ain’t Stanford. Again, this is a smart young man who could have made a decent career, but not a genius.
–He failed to hack grad school, so he quit after a year. Lots of people do this. I’ve known quite a few, including the labmate who committed suicide. It’s a shock to go from being one of the bright undergrads to just another starving grad student, and I suspect it’s getting worse, considering how public schools are getting squeezed by our crazy politics and misguided deans are imposing corporate management models. But I ramble.

Anyway, Little Jimmy may have decided that, since he couldn’t be the next Sigmund Freud, he would try to be the next Charles Manson. So he spends however long acquiring firearms, explosives, body armor, and so forth, and turns his apartment into a discarded set from the second batman film. Do we mention that he calls himself the Joker but dyes his hair orange, not green? Another failure, perhaps.

So he goes on his rampage. What happens?
–His gun jams, thank God. FAIL.
–His major atrocity, the bombs in his apartment, FAILS. Part of this was obviously luck, but…
–He doesn’t die in a blaze of police gunfire. Instead, he surrenders and tells them about the apartment. I hope this was a glimpse of sanity, but who knows? Maybe he wanted to be admired for his evil handiwork.

So yes, he killed at least a dozen people and injured 58 more, destroyed his family’s reputation, and so on, but I do hope that Little Jimmy is remembered as a failure, not as a monster. Based on the presumptive brief glimpse of sanity, I also hope he gets life in prison, and that he grows enough of a conscience to spend the rest of his life regretting his choices.

Was he running amok? In other places, I posted that it certainly looked like it. Now, I’m not quite so sure, but he could have been. For those who don’t know, running amok is a very old phenomenon, Captain Cook, all the way back in 1770, “described the affected individuals as behaving violently without apparent cause and indiscriminately killing or maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack. Amok attacks involved an average of 10 victims and ended when the individual was subdued or ‘put down’ by his fellow tribesmen, and frequently killed in the process. According to Malay mythology, running amok was an involuntary behavior caused by the “hantu belian,” or evil tiger spirit entering a person’s body and compelling him or her to behave violently without conscious awareness.” (Source). Not quite what Little Jimmy did, because he planned and prepared for months, but it’s eerie that he dyed his hair orange, not green, and that he killed 12 people, despite having the capacity to kill many times more. Maybe an evil tiger spirit possessed him? It’s as likely as any other post facto explanation pundits are likely to give. Whatever else happened, Little Jimmy was certainly a black swan, and because of that, I distrust any attempts to rationalize his actions.

A rather better idea comes from the August 2012 Wired, in an article called “The Fire Next Time” about how humans mis-process near misses as permission to continue hazardous activities, rather than as warnings to figure out what went wrong and not to repeat it until disaster happens. According to the article, research b the Process Improvement Institute across many industries showed that “there are between 50 and 100 near misses recorded per serious accident, and about 10,000 smaller errors occur during that time.”

Let’s stop blaming the availability of guns, big rifle magazines, the proximity of Columbine near Aurora, or whatever else for Little Jimmy’s atrocity. Instead, let’s look at grad school. I had a rough time in grad school, what with a labmate committing suicide, a conflicted relationship with my advisor, and various chronic injuries that meant I did much of my research in pain. But I didn’t even buy ammunition for the one gun I had, and although I was terribly frustrated and angry many times, sure I was going to fail, I didn’t spend my savings on blowing up anything or killing anyone.

Why not? In my case, the reason was because I couldn’t see anything useful coming from it. I also listened to Garrison Keillor, who can be a wonderful bard about the possibilities of living with failure. And so got on with it, got my PhD and went on.

I’m probably one of those 10,000, someone who could have turned into a monster, had things been a little different in my neurochemistry, my circumstances, or whatever (or whether an evil tiger spirit had noticed me). Possibly I was one of the near misses, people who really should have talked to a counselor, but who worked through their problems without help. Whichever. I do know there are a lot of people like me in grad schools across the country, troubled people who never turn into monsters, who go on to lead productive lives. People who succeed in some fashion, no matter how frustrating the process is.

Little Jimmy Holmes was a failure. People failed to spot the threat he represented, certainly. If nothing else, this might be a wake-up call for grad schools to get a bit more proactive in their students’ social lives (not that I think this will ever happen, but I can dream). Still, even with no intervention whatsoever, only a vanishingly few isolated, angry men of any sort ever turn into monsters. Little Jimmy, for all the deaths and injuries he caused, failed to be as big a monster as he wanted to be, and I’m glad he failed. Good riddance to him.

Instead, let’s praise those who succeeded last Friday, Start with those in the theater who took bullets to protect friends and loved ones, and succeeded, possibly at the cost of their own lives. Let us praise those who helped get others out of the theater, sometimes again getting shot in the process. Let us praise the police who responded quickly, following their training, and caught the murderer. Let us praise all the people who worked for days disarming the apartment. And finally, let us praise all those men and women who get their PhDs in neuroscience and go on to productive careers in many fields. They aren’t the next Sigmund Freuds either, but they are successes. All of them.

The Interstellar Two-Step

Let’s assume, for the moment, that interstellar travel is possible. Let’s further assume that there’s no magic wand of teleportation or FTL, traveling to another star takes a looong time, and it basically means colonizing your starship (or gaiaspore, if starship is too passe for you). The ship may be Charlie Stross’s hollowed out asteroid, or a comet, or something similarly large, but whatever the ship looks like, the basic idea is that people don’t put their lives on hold for the duration of the trip. Rather, they settle into their ship, and then they (or their distant descendents) settle another world elsewhere.

The two-step is an environmental filter. Many technologies that are ubiquitous on Earth, such as cooking knives or internal combustion engines, are non-starters in free fall (where scissors work better) or in small biospheres (gasoline engines). Consequently, interstellar travelers will abandon quite a lot of Earth’s technology when they live in space. They’ll also certainly invent lots of uses for vacuum and all sorts of high energy particles, but that’s another story.

Anyway, once they’ve made the first step of abandoning Earth tech and its associated culture (no car culture in space), once they get to another planet, they’re faced with a new environment where they have to adapt again. Suddenly they have dependable gravity and a huge biosphere to draw on (or at least, a planet’s worth of resources). In the second step, do they simply adapt spacer culture and technology to meet the challenges of the new place, or do they read through copies of the ancient Wikipedia and start experimenting with, say, gasoline engines again?

There’s a real-life analogy to this process: Polynesia. As the Lapita peoples settled the Pacific, they abandoned things like pottery, weaving, and flaking rock (and possibly bronze metallurgy) as part of their adaptation to living on coral atolls. Once they colonized places like New Zealand, they didn’t spontaneously pick up their ancestor’s technologies, even though they had the resources (such as clay) to do them again. Instead, they adapted their Polynesian tool kits to new surroundings.

There are some subtleties here: for example, Polynesians didn’t just abandon pots because there was no clay on atolls. They were abandoning them before they got to the atolls, because they were switching from cooking over an open fire (where pots are useful) to cooking in an earth oven (where pots are useless). Moreover pots are more fragile than wooden bowls, coconut shells, and gourds. Similarly, they switched from flaking rock edges (on obsidian) to grinding, because grinding works on all sorts of materials, including the giant clam shells used for adze blades on atolls, while flaking just works on glassy rocks. The thing is, adzes work better when they’re ground rather than flaked (whatever they’re made of), the Polynesians also had bamboo (which can be shaped with an adze to make a nice sharp knife), and Easter Islanders figured out how to flake knives on their own in any case. The bottom line is that loss of technology isn’t just about losing the tech, its involves a whole shift to other tools and practices that sometimes makes things superfluous. A society on electric cars won’t be exactly the same as a society built around gasoline cars, because the two vehicles have different strengths and weaknesses.

Getting back to the interstellar two-step, it’s a fun to play as a thought game. If you were leaving Earth for space, what would you abandon? If you were planning on getting your descendents to settle elsewhere, would you have them do: resurrect Earth culture, adapt spacer culture, or both?

Examples of adapting spacer culture might range from using scissors and shears in place of knives, to using air guns instead of gunpowder, to using various cooking techniques that work regardless of gravity, but not gravity-requiring methods such as frying. How about transportation? Art? Agriculture? For example, if they kept goats in space, would you have them bring along cow embryos and the means to grow them to re-establish cattle, or would you rather give them the biotechnology to engineer a giant goat that fulfills most of the cow’s roles in terrestrial agriculture?

What do you think? How would you do the Interstellar Two-Step? I’ll say right off that there’s no right answer. This is a thought game, pure and simple.