Archive for March, 2010

Shortpacked! understands

I just wanted to share this August 17, 2009 Shortpacked! webcomic. I think writer/artist David “Walky” Willis kind of gets what SiMF is all about.

David also contributed a Shortpacked! comic to the Crossed Genres LGBTQ issue: Don’t tell Galvatron, but Shock Fleet’s lookin’ at him funny.

Science learning and learning science

Earlier this month Athena Andreadis discussed the increasing anti-science trend apparent in US culture and politics, and its implications for science fiction. Paradoxically, while public discourse is dominated by anti-scientific rhetoric and issues – global warming, evolution, vaccination seem to be the most common – US adults know more about science than they ever have.

Dr. Jon Miller at Michigan State University has devoted his career to studying civic scientific literacy (CSL). To be scientifically literate, an adult must understand basic concepts at a high-enough level to follow PBS science programs or the newspaper science section. Dr. Miller regards this as “the level of understanding of science and technology needed to function as citizens in a modern industrial society.” CSL has broad consequences since it is positively associated with support for basic scientific research and for intellectual freedom.

Basic scientific literacy includes both knowledge of terms and concepts and a grasp of the methods scientists use to understand how the world works. The latter point is one of my great frustrations with the way science is presented in the media. Science is a self-correcting process. While individuals may stick to particular ideas for a variety of reasons, scientific consensus changes over time as new facts are discovered and improved interpretations developed. Change is crucial to the enterprise. My favorite example of this is on They Might Be Giants’ new album, Here Comes Science. First TMBG plays their song about the workings of the Sun, then they perform a second song that says, in effect, “Our previous song was wrong – this is how we now think it works. Isn’t science cool?” Media articles about difficult scientific topics often present this changing understanding as a reason not to listen to scientists at all: “First scientists said this, then they said that, so who knows what to believe? Let’s just ignore them all.” CSL allows people to understand the reasons that scientists change their minds and the possible consequences of new knowledge.
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If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!

(incorrectly but fittingly ascribed to Emma Goldman, feminist, activist, trouble-maker)

Those who know my outermost layer would consider me a science geek. I’m a proponent of genetic engineering, an advocate of space exploration, a reader and writer of science fiction. However, I found myself unable to warm to either transhumanism or its literary sidekick, cyberpunk. I ascribed this to the decrease of flexibility that comes with middle age and resumed reading Le Guin’s latest story cycle.

But the back of my mind gnawed over the discrepancy. After all, neither transhumanism nor cyberpunk are monolithic, they come in various shades of… and then it hit me… gray. Their worlds contain little color or sound, few scents, hardly any plants or animals. Food and sex come as pills, electric stimuli or IV drips; almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement have atrophied, along with most human activities that don’t involve VR.

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Help us get the SiMF contest in print!

(copied from the original post on Crossed Genres.)

In case you missed it, Crossed Genres announced the Science in My Fiction short story contest! (Here’s a link to the original announcement.)

And now’s the part where we ask for your help. Obviously, we want people to enter stories in the contest (beginning on April 1). And with the prizes being offered, we’re confident there’ll be a good number of entries.

Well, we also really want to put the winning entries in print! But after taking the costs of the contest directly out of our pockets (in addition to regular CG expenses), the additional costs of producing a quality print edition is a bit too much for us.
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Thinking Outside Very Small Boxes

Every few years there comes from the distant Mountains of Science a new technological magic, a Panacea that will cure all ills, a Genie that will grant all wishes, a Silver Bullet that will slay all evils. In the 1950s it was nuclear power; later it was computers; later still the bounty of the Space Age; later still genetics. People still believe the Internet will make everyone fabulously wealthy for free (and yes this is a retread of computers, much as nuclear power was a retread of the idea very early in the twentieth century that Radioactivity is Good For You). And one technomagical fad still going strong in SF is nanotechnology: Teensy-Robots Who Will Turn Us All Into Gods, or Else Kill Us All.

Well, maybe.
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Announcing the Science in My Fiction short story contest!

We’re enormously pleased to announce the Science in My Fiction short story contest!

“Here’s how it works: Authors write a science fiction or fantasy short story which is inspired by a scientific discovery or innovation made or announced within the past year. It can’t be peripherally added: the science must be integral to the story. Writers must include a link to a relevant article or study of the applied science when they submit their stories.”

A panel of 6 amazing judges will vote on the finalists. There’s $400 of cash prizes to be won, plus subscriptions, books, etc.

Please visit the contest page, read the entry guidelines, see who the judges are, and read about our Kickstarter drive to put the winning stories in print!

Then, enter your story! The contest will be open for entries from April 1 through June 30. Winners will be announced on July 21.

Show us there’s still room for real Science in fiction! Huge thanks to everyone who helped us make the contest happen!

You Are What Your Granddad Ate

You are more than the sequence of your genes.

No one should find that particularly controversial: there are differences between genetically identical twins, after all, and the concept of X-chromosome-inactivation (with an obligatory picture of a calico cat) was part of my high school intro bio class a quarter century ago. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that in multicellular organisms like humans, different types of cells express different genes, even though their DNA is the same.

Diet and environment can induce some of those changes. For example, there are compounds in broccoli that can potentially prevent cancer by altering the packaging of DNA. And smoking tobacco can cause modifications of your DNA that likely increase the risk of cardiovascular disease long after you quite smoking. These changes are considered “epigenetic” rather than “genetic”, because they alter gene expression through the addition of small chemical groups to the DNA or to the proteins that bundle the DNA, rather than by altering the DNA sequence itself.

I’m sure some of you reading this are thinking that this isn’t particularly exciting. We all know that eating vegetables is good for your health and smoking is bad for your health, no matter what biochemical changes are going on inside your cells. But there’s more to it than that. What has brought epigenetics recent attention in the popular science press recent studies showing that epigenetic changes are heritable.
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Cooking Pasta on Mars

Fact: Humans need food and water to survive. On Earth as in space. Yet you don’t often find talks of food in science fiction – a passing mention at best and pills are often used – while finding and preparing food in space or, worse, on another planet would present rather a crucial challenge to explorers.

Space food has made a lot of progress since the dry freeze stuff they used to feed the Apollo guys with but food on board the International Space Station (ISS) still has to come largely out of pre-cooked/frozen microwaveable meals in pouches that can be sucked at, for reasons of microgravity. Chefs have been called upon to prepare Christmas or New Year’s Eve special meals for the Station but they still come mostly in that easy to eat format. Some adventurous astronauts do try cooking – most of them are scientists to some degree or another so enjoy twisting their brains over a problem – but the experiment is still not part of their daily exercise problem, possibly because they do have easy access to supplies from Earth. And yet cooking in space presents a real challenge and one that must be tackled for human exploration missions.

So you send your heroes on a deep space mission. Far away from home and its comfort. What could be better for the soul – and stomach – than the perfect dish of pasta?
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Water Purification and Civilization

Water: the most valuable resource on earth. Wars have been fought over it, religions worshiped it. It has influenced civilization, migration patterns and resources. Now the question of purification is one of the most vital scientific and social sciences.

An estimated one-eighth of the world population suffers from a lack of clean water. Disease, filth and pollution lower the quality of life. Droughts follow the deforestation and devastation of progress, industry, mining and war.

New advancements are being made every day. Fundraisers are held to buy pumps and purification units for isolated villages. Chemicals, organics and microbes are studied to see if maybe they hold the key to the world’s biggest danger.
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SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Twelve years ago, Harvard Alumni Magazine asked me why I wrote The Biology of Star Trek despite my lack of tenure.  My answer was The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction.  In it, I described how science fiction can make science attractive and accessible, how it can fire up the dreams of the young and lead them to become scientists or, at least, explorers who aren’t content with canned answers.

syfyThe world has changed since then, the US more than most.  American culture has always proclaimed its distrust of authority.  However, the nation’s radical shift to the right also brought on disdain for all expertise – science in particular, as can be seen by the obstruction of research in stem cells and climate change and of teaching evolution in schools (to say nothing of scientist portrayals in the media, exemplified by Gaius Baltar in the aggressively regressive Battlestar Galactica reboot).

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