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Archive for July, 2010

The Scientist With the Dragon Tattoo


Quetzalcoatl ADN © Lobata-Chan (Used with permission)

Studying Tattoo Science should be a high school graduation requirement.

Before anyone starts lecturing about how suggestible young people are, or ranting about statistics linking body modification with antisocial behavior, I’d like everyone to get a grip on their knee-jerk reactions long enough to remember one thing: Love them or hate them, tattoos are compelling subject matter. That makes tattoos an excellent vehicle for learning.

What is there to learn from tattoos? Everything about tattoos is interesting! You could discover various art styles, explore cultures around the world, study ancient and modern history, and even learn a few things about the law. And above all, science.

What do tattoos and light bulbs have in common? Thomas Edison. Credit for the first tattoo ‘gun’ actually belongs to a skin artist named Samuel O’Reilly, but his machine was based on Edison’s engraving device. Before that innovation, tattoos had to be applied slowly using hand tools that hadn’t changed much in thousands of years.

When is ‘ink’ not ink? When it’s a solid pigment suspended in a liquid carrier and injected into a person’s skin. Exactly what gets injected depends on the chemical structure of the pigment, but whatever their color, ‘tattoo molecules’ are lovely to behold. (Unless they’re invisible, in which case you might try looking for them under a black light.)

Sure, tattoos are mostly decorative now, but in the future, they could come with a prescription. Patients may take advantage of body art that monitors blood sugar or that warns of an impending heart attack. There’s plenty of precedent for using tattoos in medicine; it seems tattoos were used therapeutically as far back as the ice age.

Yes, Tattoo Science has long been used by police to help identify bodies and catch criminals, but we shouldn’t translate intelligent law enforcement into stereotypes about tattooed people. Such stigma is mostly unjustified, and it’s disrespectful to cultures in which tattooing is an intrinsic part of their traditions. If we’re being totally fair, tattooing can even be seen as a sign of cultural evolution.

Take that idea a little further and you arrive at the possibility that tattoos indirectly contribute to the health of our gene pool ‘in the Darwinian sense’. Then, if tattoos are an ‘honest signal’ of fitness, doesn’t it make sense to find so many educated people covered in ink? While in America it may still be a challenge for someone sporting full sleeves or facial tattoos to find a banking job, in academia, visible body art is no longer the barrier to employment it once was. Smart is sexy, in other words, and one way to ‘make it’ in life is to pursue an advanced degree and get some advanced ink to match.

If all of the above still isn’t enough to sell you on science itself, you might want to consider literature. Many writers have tattoos, and there are many excellent books in which tattoos feature prominently.

Because Tattoo Science probably won’t make it into the curriculum based solely on its merits as a brilliant idea, I also bring a warning for anyone who still thinks high school is no place to learn about tattoos: Stupid tattoos are stupid forever. Before you get inked, get educated.

The Civilization of Frogs

A Clever Frog © AdamHunterPeck (Used with permission)

Humans aren’t the only tool-using animals. We share that trait with many apes, dolphins, birds, octopus, etc. There are also some opportunistic animals that take advantage of our tool use (seagulls following garbage barges, among others).

Is it possible for other animals to catch up to us in terms of tool use? The concept of ‘uplifting’ animals has been explored many times in science fiction, but is it possible? Or would that better be considered ‘advanced domestication’?

Furthermore, how far would non-human tool use need to evolve before we will acknowledge non-human sapience? Must animals first match ancient modern humans in terms of the scale and frequency of tool use? Or will we adopt some alternative measure for them?

If we removed humans from the picture somehow (choose your own apocalypse), would other animals ‘rise’ to fill our evolutionary niche? Would the competition be intense? Or does nature already have an early favorite in mind? For that matter, would removing human pressure from the equation alleviate the necessity of advancing tool use by other animals?

For that matter, is tool use and development the most important measure of animal sapience? Could focusing on tools blind us to subtler yet more sophisticated indicators? Or is attempting to quantify animal intelligence essentially ‘wank’ given how little we understand our own minds?

What would the civilization of frogs be like, anyway?

SiMF article gets BoingBoing’ed!

Congratulations to Kay Holt, whose SiMF article “I know why the vampire sparkles!” was linked on the enormously popular site Boing Boing! Said Maggie Koerth-Baker:

In what may possibly be the best fantasy fanwanking ever, writer Kay Holt presents a creepily dead-on theory explaining the characteristics of Twilight-series vampires (up to and including the sparkliness) via revised taxonomy.

I know why the vampire sparkles!

I finally read Twilight, and after hours of internet research, I’ve found a solution to a major problem I had with the story. I know why the vampire sparkles!

Of course, innate body glitter is just the latest thing wrong with vampires at large, so I’ll start with the broader picture and work my way to the answer to that new riddle.

First, I assert that vampires must be giant, highly evolved insects. That makes sense because most of the hematophages in the natural world are bugs.

Second, like many real bloodsuckers, vampires must feed before they reproduce. However, unlike anything in the natural world, vampires seem to reproduce entirely through horizontal gene transfer. If they don’t kill their victim outright, then vampire genes invade the host and trigger…

Metamorphosis. According to Twilight, the process takes days and is excruciatingly painful, which is logical given that the victim undergoes complete hystolysis and histogenesis without the benefit of a pupal stage, let alone general anesthesia.

But wait! How do vampires retain the memories of their human lives? Well, butterflies are apparently able to remember things they learned as caterpillars. While it’s doubtful that the same processes would apply identically to higher-order animals, anything is apparently possible with enough suspension of disbelief.

Furthermore, vampires appear to be ectothermic, or never warmer than their environment. ‘Cold-blooded’, in other words. Their stone-like ‘skin’ also seems more like an exoskeleton than warm, soft, human tissue.

What about vampires’ superhuman abilities? The Tiger Beetle is technically ‘the fastest running land animal’. The strongest animal is the world is the horned dung beetle. Insects also have incredible vision; most see colors invisible to humans and bees see in color at five times the speed we’re able. Vampires and other insects don’t breathe like we do, nor do they possess a human heartbeat. As an added bonus, invertebrates are notoriously hard to kill.

By now, I’m sure you’re all with me; vampires are bugs. But what kind? It took me a while to figure it out, but now I’m convinced that vampires are nothing more than overgrown, parasitic…

Read the rest of this entry »

Speaking Collars and Wonder Clones

One of my favorite recent movies was Disney’s “Up.” One of the characters in the movie is a dog. It speaks through a collar that translates its thoughts. I grew up around pets. My parents always had at least one dog and some other kind of animal. We spent a good amount of time traveling in Maine during April one year. It got cold enough that the goldfish tank had a layer of ice on the top. The four goldfish inside were fine and actually lived rather long in comparison with some others I’d had over the years. I have a suspicion I know what was on their minds without the benefit of that translator.

With that much exposure to pets, you get accustomed to their mannerisms. You learn to speak their language. It isn’t always about barking, chirping, or meowing. A simple nudge can tell you they want your attention. My parents’ Rhodesian ridgeback, Biddy, a dog the size of a small horse, would knock her nose into the Christmas bell hung on the inside of the front door to signal her desire to venture outside. She loved to sun herself. A stroll over to where their food ought to appear in the next five minutes lets you know they are hungry. I am wondering if Pavlov was equally trained by the dog. In fact, when I think about pets in science that is my first thought which is closely followed by cloning.

Biddy passed away Tuesday from seizure complications. The timing of this article is uncanny, and I find it is hard to write it in all honestly. Both of my moms struggled with a call many owners/guardians face when it comes to pets in poor health. As Biddy’s seizure events came with more frequency all of the options offered by her vet were explored. Homeopathic treatments were also employed. In the end, the seizers were a bigger enemy than we could stare down.

Some of the medications even robbed Biddy of her body language that often told us what she wanted or needed and blunted her personality. I don’t live with my parents. I do see them almost every day. I think the changes were more obvious just because of those little breaks. She was never much of a barker. She couldn’t communicate how she was feeling and would often whine and pace. While her emotions and needs became less obvious, we were much more aware of the impending seizures. While I never witnessed one of her seizures, both my parents and my son had. I’d even caught some of the signs while visiting and my mom and I matched them up to the seizure event that happened that evening. Soon we could tell how the onset expressed itself in her system. I wondered if this was how assistance animals knew seizures were about to occur in the humans they aided. I found myself often wishing for that collar in “Up.”

Dealing with the loss of a pet is difficult. For many of us, they are members of our family. Biddy was part of mine. We weren’t prepared to let go, so I do understand the desire to keep them with you as long as you can. If you can’t have them, could a clone be the next best thing? In science fiction, I’ve often seen cloning depicted with grown specimens emerging and some data storage mechanism implanted in their brain. Both of those circumvent the influence of environment and experience. The clone is not subjected to new experiences and environments during development. It comes with its original’s bank of memories and experiences already downloaded.

The reality of clones so far is that they have to be born just like the original. This allows for those clones to have their own experiences in unique environments. This likely makes them different than the original. I wonder in the case of the first household pet clone, Mira, born in 2007, if the fact that she has been raised by the same people that raised Missy, the dog whose DNA she is derived from, is a factor in that she is physically and behaviorally similar.

The company that was formed by the scientists that cloned Missy and produced Mira is no longer in operations. While Mira was a success story, there were complications with the business as well as physical anomalies in some of the clones. After closing, the company is on record in many sources speaking to the experimental nature of cloning as well as denouncing the current cloning black market.

I only mentioned two pet science topics and a couple of fictional references. Fill me in. Toss some ideas out here. Always, correct me if I am wrong. And please, just this time, allow me to dedicate this to my good friend, Biddy.

Science in My Fiction contest winners announced!

The judges’ voting on the Science in My Fiction contest is complete! Below are the winners, Honorable Mentions and Finalists. Subscribers can read the top 3 stories by going to the Subscribers Area or clicking the links below.

WINNER
Del Dryden – Extra Credit

After earning two graduate degrees, practicing law awhile, and then working for the public school system for over ten years, Del Dryden finally got a clue. She tossed all that aside and started doing what she should have been doing all along, writing fiction! In hindsight she could see the decision was a no-brainer. Because which sounds like more fun? Being a lawyer/special educator/reading specialist/educational diagnostician…or writing spicy romances novels and the occasional piece of science fiction?

When not writing or doing “mommy stuff” Del reads voraciously, blogs intermittently, noodles around with web design, and plays computer games with her husband. She is fortunate enough to have two absurdly precocious children, one delightful rescued mutt, two fancy mice and three African Dwarf frogs.

Del and her family are all Texas natives, and reside in unapologetic suburban bliss near Houston. Find out more about her and her writing at http://deldryden.blogspot.com.

2ND PLACE
J Y YangCarrier Signal

3RD PLACE
Durand Welsh – The Justice Arm

Honorable Mentions
James Beamon – “Dialogues With Talking Heads”
Bruce Golden – “The Sum of Their Receptors”
John Eric Vona – “Regular Robots and Irregular Humans”

Finalists
Sarah E. Glenn – “Patch Test”
Chris Hayes – “Maternal Instinct”
Ariyana Spencer – “Carnivores”
Erika Tracy – “Still Life With Dog”

Congratulations to all the Finalists!

Big thanks to the judges and slush readers, everyone who supported the Kickstarter drive, and everyone who entered the contest!

What Moves Behind the Curtain?

©2010 ShatteredSwords (Used with permission)

It’s really no wonder some people are obsessed with dreams. It’s such a curious phenomenon!

Humans and other animals dream, but not every animal. Some people remember their dreams, but others don’t – why is that? Do other animals remember their dreams? If they remember, do they dwell on them? Does aversion to certain dreams keep them awake some nights?

In humans, dreaming has been linked to memory and psychosis, among many other things. Would research show similar things in other dreaming animals? For that matter, how is dreaming defined? What is required for dreaming to occur? Are the requirements different along different evolutionary paths? And is there some advantage to being a dreaming creature, or is it simply a byproduct of neural complexity?

Do you suppose aliens dream? Might they devote as much energy as we have to assigning meaning to unconscious hallucinations? What do you think aliens dream about?

Not a Monochromatic, Blind Lump

The camera pans into the scene. Broken buildings. Fires in windows, shattered icons, blood. Sometimes there are looters, sometimes zombies or bugs or aliens. Occasionally, it is simply an empty wastelands. Oddly, it is almost always raining.

It’s a familiar trope, mainstreamed and popularized by films such as Matrix, Blade-Runner and Terminator. Dystopia, post-apocalypse, grunge, zombies, war. A totalitarian government, a single culture. The future has been a dark and dirty place, recently.

Of course, there is plenty of reason for such a dark depiction. It seems like every new discovery, every bit of progress we make, just turns into one more thing to go wrong. The oil disaster in the Gulf, the garbage patch in the middle of the ocean, the rising ill-health and falling education of our nation. Iowa approves gay marriage, Arizona approves racial harassment. A healthcare bill is passed, an abortion doctor is murdered.

The future could be a very dark place indeed, judging by the current trends. But a powerful, often-ignored entity in the direction of our future is the mechanisms of social globalization and the psychological impact of rapid, wide-spread social evolution.

Even if our world was completely buried under concrete and people, we would not be one blanket culture. The sheer size would force lines and divisions. Besides that, people move, science evolves, kids invent ever more horrific ways to express their individuality.

So what moves society and keeps it from becoming a static, lead-gray sheet?

Exiles, refugees, immigrants, emigrants, tourists, business travelers and merchants. People affect people. The only way a society might remain fairly static (Amish, Amazonian tribes, Basque) is if there are no outside influences. Even one person can trigger an avalanche of social change.

With the ease of travel and communication, the world can’t really be mapped in solid lines any more, but has to be drawn in an ebbing, flowing, living picture.

Tourists are a particularly under-utilized group. Bleak future or not, tourists are like cockroaches: only the total destruction by fire of their entire species is going to stop them. Philadelphia got eaten by giant scorpions? Have an underground trade of stingers, or have hucksters sell Real (imitation) Scorpion Shell. It’s a theme park waiting to happen. People like sensational things, and big events, and to be (safely) scared. As long as travel is reasonably simple and affordable, you’ll have tourists.

Armies. A massive, insular and antagonistic stress on any society. An army leaving a country will open dozens of holes in the economy, familial structure and work-force. An army coming in will create chaos and boost the success of, among other things, drug, sex and entertainment industries.

Technology. Have it, don’t have it, don’t have it but want it…take your pick. The modern world revolves around gadgets and tech. We’re to the point where, if our technology crashed, we’d pretty much self-destruct. Our money is online, our relationships are online, the daily elements of our lives are run by computers.

Maybe the Fourth Quarter has the technology to create computers. Seventh Quarter has running water, and a Third Quarter inventor made this ingenious little machine that creates power out of motion. A friend tells a friend, and pretty soon, they’re meeting in a back room and discussing how to create the internet.

Missionaries. I really want to see someone writing about post-apocalyptic missionaries. No, really. Anywhere you have religion, you’ll have eager young people burning to share their faith. If history is any indication, they have a magnetic draw to isolated places where they will get their skin removed in any number of horrible ways. But a dystopian missionary might have a HAM radio with her.

The environment. The environment is now hugely affected by people. We drill, dump and drain with little regard for the effects. In return, storms are worsening, the ice caps are melting, and our deserts are sinking.

Imagine that the Garbage Patch washes/builds up to the edge of a remote beach, somewhere that modern society hasn’t been able to catch up to. Suddenly, all these pieces of an unimagined future inundate their lives. How long until someone starts connecting wires, rearranging elements, and inventing things that wouldn’t even occur to an American scientist? What sort of science-fiction, alien culture could build from such a unique viewpoint?

Even the way these catalysts interact with each other can affect the society in question. Pit Armies against Weather. Tourists (think Vancouver and China’s Olympics) against Big Brother.

As these catalysts interact with each other, various forms of societal landscapes begin to form. Ethnic lines, technological landscapes, lines of ideas, finances and media. Within a city, ethnic groups will draw together. The classes will sift themselves by money and social status. Groups will be drawn together by technology, fetish and hobby. No matter how many times the lines of society are redrawn, patterns will emerge. Boundaries will change. Religions will rise and fall.

There are thousands of possibilities to be explored and utilized.

Even Dystopia is not a monochromatic, blind lump.

How Linguistics Can Help You Part 2: Morphology

Welcome to the second installment of my linguistics series!  As I explained last time, this series of posts is intended to make Linguistics user-friendly for writers, by relating linguistics topics to the use of created languages in science fiction and fantasy. If you are digging into creating an entire language that penetrates an SF/F world, this should certainly apply!  But they should also be helpful for those who are using minimal-penetration languages in SF/F – languages that consist mostly of names for people and places.

Today’s topic is morphology, which deals with the minimal units of meaning in language.  And believe it or not, morphology is a fantasy and science fiction writer’s best friend.

Seriously. Why? Because everyone uses it, and I mean everyone, whether they know it or not. Every story that makes up a name for a group of people and then pluralizes it is using morphology. Every story that takes a nice-sounding made-up word and then adds on a suffix to make the name of a country or city is using it too.

Morphology is prefixes, and suffixes (and infixes). It is the study of the tiny pieces of meaning that make up words. Each of these pieces is called a morpheme. Some morphemes are free, which means they can occur by themselves and still have meaning. Examples:

cat
do
blend

Yes, these are words. But not all words contain only a single morpheme. Most contain one or more bound morphemes, which are meaning units that can’t occur all on their own. Examples:

-s
re-
-er
-ness
anti-
-ville
-ia

So if we use these in combination we get words with one or morpheme, as follows:

cat+s=cats (2 morphemes)
good+ness=goodness (2 morphemes)
paint+er+s=painters (3 morphemes)
etc.

If you have a fantasy or science fiction language, I urge you to think through the morphemes you use. There are a ton of people out there who make plurals by adding -i, or who make names of countries by adding -ia. But you shouldn’t necessarily fall into the default pattern.

Think first about the feel you want your language to have. A choice like -i for plural is different from -s, which gives the word a slight foreign feel (because of its Latin roots), but it’s still very under the radar for readers. This can be a good thing. On the other hand, your language could potentially use any sound or combination of sounds in its repertoire to pluralize (or it might not pluralize at all!). Using an unusual pluralizing suffix might stand out at first, but if it’s supported by the surrounding text so that its meaning is unequivocal, it can make your language seem far more interesting. The same goes for -ia, which is if anything more standard than the pluralizing -i.

Remember also that your morphemes don’t have to have the same meanings as English words. In the language of my Varin world I don’t use plural morphemes, and I don’t use a morpheme that means “country,” but I do have one that means “place” and another that means “person.” Examples:

The capital city is named after a man named Pelisma, and the suffix -ra means “place.”
Pelisma + ra=Pelismara, the place of Pelisma.

The title of a city ruler is Alixi, which actually breaks down like this:
Alhi=one
-iks=most
-i=person
Alhi+iks+i=Alhiiksi, pronounced Alixi, or the firstmost person.

Morphology is a lot of fun, and when you create a system that makes sense, it shows in your story – so have a great time with it!

The Limits of Knowledge, Part IV: Too Clever for Its Own Good

(Last in a series; see Part I, Part II, and Part III)

“Clever Hans” was a mathematician who lived a century ago. He was also a horse, a genius horse who could add, subtract, multiply, and even calculate dates, giving the answer by tapping his hoof.

But it was discovered in 1907 that Clever Hans was in fact no better at arithmetic than any other horse.  Has was just reading subtle, unconscious cues from his owner,  tapping until he reached the expected answer.

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Is science real? Is it objective knowledge of a world independent of us? Or is it just a cultural invention, an arbitrary game, something we project onto the world, with scientists tapping out results until, like Clever Hans, we get the result we unconsciously want?

Some postmodernists think the latter is true, and point to experiments swayed by unexamined assumptions, including the “Clever Hans” effect in animal intelligence experiments.   They then conclude that all science is equally rigged.

The critiques have some validity, but the examples are heavily weighted towards the sociological and anthropological sciences; that is, we easily fool ourselves concerning issues that touch upon us as humans.

But on the other end of the spectrum the story is different.  Out among the cold reaches of the galaxies and nestled in the hearts of atoms, we have found disturbing truths so contrary to human experience that they can’t be the result of some Very Clever Hans, trying to please our subconscious prejudices. Read the rest of this entry »