Archive for May, 2010

When Did We Fall Off the Magic School Bus?

Once upon a time, everyone was a geek. Sure we were inarticulate, illiterate, and incontinent back then, but when we were babies, we investigated the physical world with unrivaled passion. It doesn’t take a genius to see we’re all natural born scientists. When we were babies, we even learned while we slept!

But sooner or later, our guidance system fails…

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The SiMF Contest: LAST CHANCE for copies!

Tomorrow – Monday, May 31 – is the final day to get a copy of the Science in My Fiction contest winners!

  • The 1st Place winner, 2nd Place winner and 3rd Place winner bound together in print and/or ebook format
  • Original cover art by wonderful artist Julie Dillon
  • Original art accompanying each story (Artists TBD)

This is the ONLY time these stories will be published together. There won’t be a general release. If you’re entering the contest, and will want more than one copy should you win (the authors whose stories place in the top 3 each get a complimentary copy), now is the one chance to get them!

  • A pledge of just $4 gets you a “digital bundle”: the ebook of the winners in 7 different digital formats. These formats will work for iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, Palm, B&N Nook, Sony Readers, and more. All formats are DRM-free.

  • A pledge of $9 gets you the digital bundle plus a one-year online subscription to Crossed Genres, which gets you digital bundles for a year’s worth of issues. The subscription normally costs $10 on its own.

  • A pledge of $15 gets you the digital bundle, the Crossed Genres subscription, and a print copy of the book – the only run of print copies there’ll be.

There are other rewards, like extra copies, and even a cartoon portrait of you (With SCIENCE!) included in the print edition. Go here to make a pledge. You have until tomorrow night!

The Limits of Knowledge, Part I: Point of View

Science will not do your homework for you.

Some questions can be answered by science:  “What happens when I add an acid to a base?” and “What happens if I stick this fork into a wall socket.” Others, such as “Does God exist, and if so, why is He not running the Universe to my liking?” and “What is good? What is evil? Does this make me look fat?” can not.

In the ancient world, a business card reading “philosopher” gave one license to inquire into everything, and I mean everything. Aristotle (the Philosopher) wrote on topics ranging from ethics to politics to zoology to cosmology. For any question he had an answer.

But job descriptions change. Part of the evolution of natural philosophy, under nascent scientists such as Francis Bacon and Galileo, was to drop some questions, for example teleology (“for what purpose”), and  focus solely on reproducible, material observations.

Science is about limitations, but limitation is the source of the power of science. Indeed, the history of the physical and mathematical sciences in the twentieth century includes not only discovering the vastness of the cosmos and the infinitesimal secrets of the atom, but also making shocking discoveries what we cannot know.

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A better edition: make it happen!

(Originally posted at Kickstarter.)

We are so close – so close to the $1000 threshold! With just five days left to the Kickstarter we need just $56 to get there!

As we promised earlier, if we reach $1000 or more, we will commission original artwork to accompany each of the winning stories in the print and digital editions. So even those of you who’ve already pledged can improve the final version you’ll get, just by spreading the word!

You’ll also be helping put copies of the book in the best possible places: Libraries. We’ve already reached the point where we’ll be donating 3 copies of the book to various libraries (or reading programs), and for every additional $50 we’ll donate another! And those who pledged will get to recommend and vote on where the books go!

Please call up a loved one, email a friend, stop a stranger on the street, and tell them to make a pledge. Don’t wait until Memorial Day weekend when everyone’s gone! You can count the days left on one hand!

Science in Art: The Right Stuff

©2010 Sachin Teng (Used with permission)

“You say you’re from Mexico? Sorry, but you have to be from America to be an Astronaut. You’ll never go to space.”

Science and art are a binary system, and like other dancers, each will lead where the other will follow. But for all the good and bad these stars of human history are capable of, there’s still something missing from their otherwise impeccable floorcraft: Equal access. By accident and by design, most people are spectators where art and science are concerned. Even those on the sidelines eager to learn the steps are barred from the floor. Some of the sharpest, most creative minds in the world emerge by necessity where resources are most limited, but if they don’t have the right ‘papers’, what chance do they have of contributing to the dance?

What might the world be like if everyone who yearned to was free to become an artist or scientist?

(‘Science in Art’ is a new weekly feature on the Science in My Fiction blog. The objective is to spark questions and encourage speculation by examining the intersection of art and science.)

Alien Languages: Not Human

Contrary to Hollywood and the majority of fictional languages, alien languages are almost certainly not going to look like human ones. They’re not going to have the same sounds, the same word orders, or the same way of solving problems like time, direction, and ownership. Why? Because human DNA and culture help determine what human languages look like, and aliens will, by definition, not share that background.

That’s not to say there won’t be similarities, though. Because language is a communication system and therefore has to convey information efficiently, there are some facts that won’t change.

On Neurobiology

The ability to use language will be coded in the aliens’ genes. Either the aliens evolved language and have basic linguistic structures in their brains at birth, or every individual has to independently invent the language from scratch. With humans, we call this nativism and it applies to a whole range of mental traits, not just language.

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I See the Songs

God made some men of mud, but they were very soft and limp, and they couldn’t see. They could speak, but what they said didn’t make sense.~ Mayan Creation Story (

She sits on the steps, dirty-white sadness wrapped tightly around her, time running through her hands like the quicksand of an hourglass. Music sketching Richter-scale graphs in her mind, her thoughts appearing and disappearing across her mental screen in the empty room of her head.

She has Synesthesia. Sight is sound, time is sand or twine, emotion is colored clay. Music is a pattern, words are a dance. Communicating cannot be done in simple verbal exchanges for her. Oh, she can talk, well enough, but words lack. People’s words are flat with lacking complexity.

If she could communicate with people in her way, shapes and sounds and textures would layer and permeate her language. Instead of a stream of empty, harsh sounds, she would dance, touch, taste and shape her way through the conversation. But, that’s not how English works. She stutters through a description of her day. The kids laugh at her, and she runs.

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Short story contest: Entering, and getting your copy (Last chance!)

We have reached the halfway point for entering the Science in My Fiction short story contest. There are 44 days left to get your entries in! Please be sure to read the entry guidelines. Send your entries via the submission form. Remember, there’s $400 in cash prizes to be won! And your entry could be considered by our amazing panel of judges!

(If you’re short on science ideas for your story, Follow Kay on Twitter! She tweets a series of science links every weekday morning because she is a big science geek.)

Also! There are just 2 WEEKS left to reserve your copy of the winners! Only people who pledge to the Kickstarter drive can receive a digital or printed copy of the winners. The drive ends MAY 31! Not the end of June – the end of MAY.

The winning entries will be readable only by Crossed Genres subscribers, and people who pledge at least $4 to the Kickstarter drive. You can pledge to get an ebook ($4), a discounted subscription AND the ebook ($9) or print copies ($15 & up). There are other neat rewards for pledging too, like signed copies, a LIFETIME online subscription to Crossed Genres, a cartoon portrait of you (with SCIENCE!) included (with your name) in the print edition, etc. The print and digital editions will also have original cover art by Julie Dillon that won’t be available to regular subscribers.

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Worldbuilding in pictures

Surveying a whole new planet safely and efficiently calls for careful planning. After a few hard-earned lessons, the Ecological Survey put little remote satellite sensors in orbit around a new world several years before sending a human to look the world over in detail. It slowed the colonization and extraction timeline, but the satellite was enough to establish intent. Elena pulled up the list of data that the satellite had collected: photographs, of course, but also weather patterns, vegetation maps, surface temperature, ocean profiles: everything she needed to know write the introduction for her report.

If we assume that the Ecological Survey is mostly interested in more-or-less Earthlike worlds, rather than uninhabited planets, the satellites that orbit us provide a guide for what could be recorded for another world. It took less that two years after Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, to begin receiving images from space. Some of the earliest, like the Corona program, took pictures on filmc and the cannisters were parachuted to Earth. The military drove this and other early satellite imagery programs, but the Corona images have now been declassified and are available for other uses.

The United States has had a civilian satellite imagery program for several decades, and more missions are planned. Landsat 1 was launched in 1972. Landsat 5 and 7 are still taking images, and a new platform launch is planned for 2010. These images have a 30-meter resolution, and are very heavily used for everything from mapping different land uses to monitoring agricultural yields.

Most satellite programs now use more sophisticated digital sensors that record individual bands separately. The red, blue and green bands are used to make true-color images like you’d get from a camera, but many platforms record other bands as well. Landsat also returns near-infrared, mid-infrared and thermal data. These other bands can be used to estimate all kinds of things, like the amount of green vegetation present, drought severity, or surface temperature. There’s a lot more available from these satellites than just regular photographs.

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I Need a Cloaking Device – Super Bugs

I’ve been toying with several ideas for my début entry. Last week I settled on super bugs. I came down with strep throat on Tuesday and had a doctor confirm it for me Thursday. The irony is not lost on me. Super bugs are antibiotic resistant bacteria. Several common super bugs include Staph aureus, GAS (Group A Streptococcus,) Clostridium difficile, E. coli, and Salmonella. If I was a lone white blood cell, I’d hate to meet any of these in a dark artery.

These microorganisms mutate and in doing so survive the antimicrobials. The mutation is then passed along to offspring in an elegant evolution that leaves microbiologists and other scientists fighting to keep up. Staph infections are an excellent case study when it comes to this. Each time a strain has been discovered to resist a particular antibiotic, a new antibiotic has been developed to combat the strain. The strain then evolves and becomes resistant to the new antibiotic. Staphylococcus aureus was proven resistant in 1947 to penicillin and then treated with methicillin. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was first documented in 1961. Not only is it resistant to methicillin but also penicillin, tetracycline, and erythromycin. A treatment course of vancomycin became the norm. The staphylococcus aureus developed a strain to resist this course of treatment by the late 1990s. This timeline appears in detail in the Wikipedia entry linked above.

Antibiotics are not the only method employed to fight staphylococcus aureus. Hand washing and sanitizing campaigns have been publicized and are especially visible at hospitals where these infections are most prevalent. Touch surfaces are places that the public handles en mass such as railings and door knobs.

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