Archive for August, 2010

Dead Lakes, Dying Seas

In my last post we discussed Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, specifically the chinampas, or floating gardens, used to feed the population. Tenochtitlan was situated on an islet in the middle of Lake Texcoco, the largest of five lakes. The surrounding four lakes, Zumpango, Xaltoca, Xochimilco, and Chalco, combined with it to cover about 580sq. miles of the valley floor. The four lakes in the Valley of Mexico are now considered extinct with only small remnants to be found. What remains of Lake Texcoco rests about 2.5 miles outside of Mexico City. It is surrounded by salt marshes and its waters are evaporated to access the salts found in high concentrations.

The Aztecs were a hydraulic society. They depended upon these lakes and surrounding mountain spring water for their basic needs such as bathing, cleaning, agriculture, and transportation.  When the Spaniards conquered Tenochtitlan, the leaders ordered the waterways and structures destroyed. When Mexico City was rebuilt in its place, these structures were not restored. Flooding was a common problem. One flood submersed most of the city for five years. The Spaniards began draining the lake by channels and a tunnel connected to the Pánuco River. Yet, the flooding continued until a deep (98-820 ft.) drainage system was installed in 1967. The city fills the lake basin and most of it exists under the phreatic level. The soft, saturated clay base Mexico City is resting on is collapsing due to that extraction and the continued seismic activity that is frequent in the area. This leads to a circular problem. The extraction of ground water causes the city to sink. The sinking has created runoff problems, waste management issues, and flooding.

Pollution, waste management, and drinking water scarcity are issues the city must deal with. You can read more about this here. The lakes are no longer in proximity to the city to support its population. There are other ecological consequences involved with the extinction of the lakes. Species that were indigenous to these lakes also became extinct or are endangered. Some parts of the valley are now semi-arid while Mexico City remains subtropical. “In recent years, architects Teodoro González De León and Alberto Kalach, along with a group of Mexican urbanists, engineers and biologists, have developed the project plan for Recovering the City of Lakes. The project, if approved by the government, will contribute to the supply of water from natural sources to the Valley of Mexico, the creation of new natural spaces, a great improvement in air quality, and greater population establishment planning.” (Wikipedia)

Abandoned Ship on the Aral Sea

Two abandoned ships in the former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan. - Photo by P. Christopher Staecker

This is not an isolated incident. The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once considered one of the four largest lakes in the world. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union diverted the two rivers that fed the sea, and it has been shrinking since. I came across this disaster after I concluded my research on Mexico City, and the parallels were not immediately apparent to me. Both areas suffered major repercussions as a result of the depleted bodies of water. The Wikipedia link above discusses the history behind the situation and the ecological/economic impact it has had on the inhabitants of the area. The article I had been reading at the time I first encountered this story featured someone’s travel journal and tons of photos of ships listing to the side or wedged flat into the bottom of some dead sea. It looked more like a desert. You can see some similar photos at Artificial Owl.  I thought of Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl during their adventures in the sand at Davy Jones’ Locker.  

I encourage you to read more about both situations and the long-term effects. These were not natural disasters. The situations were caused by humans and their political agendas. The consequences have been severe for these regions. Have you come across this in your reading? This is fodder for your imaginations. Does it spark a story idea or two?

The World Sings to Me

Calligraphy. Rebel Without A Cause. Heartbeats. Chaos Theory. Predicting heart attacks.

What might these things have in common? The 1/f Fluctuation.

From Wikipedia:

In stochastic processes, chaos theory and time series analysis, detrended fluctuation analysis (DFA) is a method for determining the statistical self-affinity of a signal. It is useful for analysing time series that appear to be long-memory processes (diverging correlation time, e.g. power-law decaying autocorrelation function) or 1/f noise.
The obtained exponent is similar to the Hurst exponent, except that DFA may also be applied to signals whose underlying statistics (such as mean and variance) or dynamics are non-stationary (changing with time). It is related to measures based upon spectral techniques such as autocorrelation and Fourier transform.
DFA was introduced by Peng et al. 1994 and represents an extension of the (ordinary) fluctuation analysis (FA), which is affected by non-stationarities.

Sorry if your eyes crossed about halfway through that, like mine did. That’s not even the formulas or anything!

Here’s the simple version:

The 1/f Fluctuation is a concept from chaos theory. The 1/f fluctuation is a pattern of attention that naturally occurs in the human mind and elsewhere in nature. It appears to be a constant in the universe, showing up in engineering, economics and the human heartbeat, among many other things.

It has been said that the pattern which is characterized by the 1/f fluctuation is a source of pleasant feeling. It is found in classical music (leading one to wonder if perhaps the composers were even more brilliant than we give them credit for!), certain brain waves, Japanese calligraphy, and the human pulse.

Recently, it has been used to break down what makes something attractive to the human eye and ear. There is an extensive study of the mechanics of calligraphy’s beauty, as explained by the 1/f fluctuation, among other theories.

The Science of Hollywood
What makes a blockbuster? Why do new movies feel so different from older movies?

Perhaps due to a natural evolution based on our attention patterns. Movies that miss the pattern might not last, no matter how good their plot or characterization might be, while the blockbusters, lacking depth and brilliance, continue to draw huge crowds.

Scientists have found several movies which have near-perfect 1/f fluctuation patterns, some in almost every genre. The Perfect Storm, released in 2000, Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, and, perhaps not surprisingly, Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, released in 1935.

I have to wonder what would be discovered in analysis of Hitchcock’s works as a whole, or Steven King, or any of the other massively popular authors, movies and music. Is this a determining factor in what makes a masterpiece? Or merely a chart-topping piece?


This is a science that doesn’t apply only to what is within our stories, but perhaps even the stories themselves, and their delivery.

If movies are indeed more successful because they follow this formula, then how long until Hollywood requires its directors to understand the fluctuation, and utilize it in their movies? Will music become a collection of songs based on 1/f? Can this theory be moved from visual and auditory experiences and be leveraged against print audiences? If the fluctuation was mastered, would that be the cornerstone of truly immersive virtual reality?

Anything for another dollar, right? But would this be bad? If the 1/f fluctuation is a fluctuation of pleasure, then would music become art again? Could book pacing be patterned for maximum attention? (I hold no hope for Hollywood, sorry…)

Within a story, the 1/f fluctuation could serve science or magic. Perhaps that is the pattern of Avatar’s Ewa, or a the foundation of mood-music on one of Saturn’s moons. If the world is based on a rhythm or pattern, could we change the future by manipulation of the fluctuation, or, if such fluctuations are fixed, determine the future to some degree.

Granted, this is all speculation based on a science that is, at best, confusing for someone who hasn’t studied it in depth. But any way it is looked at, it is fascinating to think that, perhaps, this is the rhythm, the heartbeat of the world.

Living in Microgravity

In Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees and its sequel The Smoke Ring, the crew of an interstellar exploration party settles an unusual habitat: a torus of gas containing plants, animals and water orbiting a neutron star.

Astronaut Pedro Duque watches a water bubble aboard the IS

While some of  the Smoke Ring colonists live on giant trees that provide pseudogravity, many live in free fall. Even though original crew that settled the Smoke Ring had been selected for their physiological tolerance of microgravity, their offspring did not develop normally.

Pregnancy was easy in low gravity. Women became pregnant many times during their lifetimes. Infant mortality (“lost ones”) was high, perhaps around sixty percent; the natives seemed to take it for granted.  […] the growth of bones and organs was altered by altered gravity. Some children could not digest food. Some grew strangely, until their kidneys or livers or hearts or intestines would no longer work because of their shape
~ The Smoke Ring

However, those who survived childhood were quite tall and thin and functioned just fine with misshapen limbs in free-fall. Humans adapt well to new environmental conditions.

While Niven’s depiction of the biological effects of microgravity seem plausible,  we’re only beginning to understand the long-term effects of microgravity on the human body.  From studies of astronauts on Skylab, the International Space Station, and the Space Shuttle we know that the physiological effects of weightlessness include loss of bone density,  muscle weakness, and a reduction in immune system function. Those physiological issues haven’t caused serious complications to astronauts when they return to Earth. Human bodies are resilient.

But what about long-term human colonies in low gravity? That’s currently the realm of science fiction, and there are lots of aspects to consider.

Will people be able to have babies? One obvious concern is that human reproduction will be serious affected. While frog and fish embryos appear to develop normally, the lack of gravity appears to impair the early stages of mouse development. Clearly more research needs to be done before people consider having babies in space the old-fashioned way.  Could there be a technological solution?

And what about the other needs of colonists, who will be subject to the physical changes of aging and will have plenty of leisure time? There have been a few interesting inventions along those lines, such as special adjustable eyeglasses for free fall and the 2Suit, meant to “stabilize human proximity” for sex.  Other inventions are sure to be developed as soon as there is a market for them.

Astronaut Carl Walz performs on the space shuttle.

The colonists would also certainly develop new customs specific to their living conditions. Take, for example, the free-fall banquet in John C. Wright‘s story “Guest Law”:

[The Captain’s] feast was arranged in a circle around her, little colorful moons of ripe fruit, balls of wine-jelly, spheres of lacy bread, meatballs or sausages tumbling end-over-end. As the feast progressed, she would rotate slowly clockwise, to let one delicacy after another come within reach of hand and foot (toe-foods for the foot, finger-foods for the hand) and the order of the orbiting food around her was organized by traditional culinary theory.

Since the captain’s head was always “up,” the feasters must be attentive, and match their rotations to the captain, eating neither too swiftly nor too slowly, nor grabbing for any favored food out of order.

Nothing like that could take place in gravity!

So while science fiction has indeed frequently touched on different aspects of living in free fall, there still many aspects of living in microgravity that are ripe for science fictional speculation.

  • Will medicine be able to prevent the effects of low gravity on bone loss and muscle tone? Would that even be necessary?
  • What advances in technology would make life in microgravity easier?
  • How could genetic engineering improve human life in microgravity?
  • What would childhood and old age in microgravity be like?
  • What sort of microgravity-specific rituals would develop?

Background reading:

Edited to add: A study released by NASA today shows “Astronauts can become as weak as 80-year-olds after six months at the International Space Station

There Can Be Only None!

A natural fear of dying has lead history’s storytellers to create characters with immortality, or such extreme longevity that they can’t be considered mere mortals, anyway. Psychologically, it makes sense that these characters are common in literature and folklore around the world, but that’s pretty much the only logical thing about most immortals in fiction.

The end of life is a fact of life, but since it’s unlikely that people will ever stop telling stories about deathless wonders, the phenomenon ought to have at least a brush with science. Given the amount of research dollars spent studying longevity, you’d think more contemporary storytellers would tap that medical fountain of youth, but no. Most cases of literary immortality still come with the same old magical excuses they always have: His dad was a god; she’s an elf; this one’s a vampire; that one’s radioactive/an alien/from the future; or they just can’t die because they have unfinished business here on Earth. The persistence of nonsense is mind-boggling.

The science behind life spans can also boggle the mind, but in a good way. For all its fascinating complexity, there are a few key points to keep in mind:

Size matters.
Calories count.
Gender is an issue.
Pleiotropy (what’s good for the growing is bad for the gray).

Therefore, for believable immortality, we should compose more stories about megafauna who eat little relative to their size, among whose populations there are proportionally more female than male immortals, and for whom the debilitating effects of aging are mitigated by natural selection or medical intervention. If they’re anything like giant tortoises, they’ll be as perpetually dreary as they are loveably mad.

There’s more to it than that, of course. In general, bigger is better, but that only holds true until someone remembers that some microorganisms can survive in stasis for ages. And what about ‘super-organisms’? The idea of hive life may give us the heebie-jeebies, but when you think about it, all complex organisms are composed of unimpressive, disposable individuals. The big difference is that where other animals just have cells, bee hives have entire drones and aspen groves have whole trees. It only makes sense that species composed of super-organisms have a better shot at producing immortals than most other species.

Honeycomb © Julie Dillon (Used with permission)

The social lives of immortals are another problem that usually seems ignored or mishandled. In fiction, immortals are often warriors or rulers, and/or live in isolation. But if the natural world tells us anything about extreme longevity, it’s that individuals with very long lives tend to emerge in stable communities with cultures that take care of their members as a matter of course. That certainly seems to apply to humans, and we’re the longest-living mammals on Earth, even though we’re hardly the largest.

Then, of course, there are the consequences of immortality. For one, longevity seems to come at the price of fecundity. This implies that truly immortal individuals must be altogether sterile, which makes it a non-inheritable trait and therefore an evolutionary dead end and a threat to resource availability, even though it seems like an obvious advantage. Furthermore, ‘length of life’ and ‘quality of life’ aren’t necessarily synonymous. By nature, extremely long-lived organisms change very little over time, but if natural selection tells us anything, it’s that adaptation is key to survival.

In other words, believable characters can either live forever or reproduce, but not both, and true immortals must be terminally ‘un-hip’.

The naming of things

Elena looked out over the savannah-like plain. A full scientific team would have to come develop a full taxonomy for the organisms of this world, but Elena enjoyed making up names for the mobile and sessile organisms she saw, the animals and plant equivalents of this world. Maybe some of her names would stick, though it was more likely that the eventual colonists would come up with their own names.

It was traditional that a geographic feature be named after the first survey pilot, but other than that new colonies were free to call things what they wanted. Elena thought the big lumbering herbivores with the purple stripes and trifurcated tails were certainly heffalumps. The tall purple foliage swayed in the breeze, its angled stems somehow aligned: zigzag grass. And the oiltrees, glistening softly here and there among the grass, some showing black where the heffalumps had rubbed against them. Elena added each her report, linking images and video to her new names.

So you’ve found (invented) a new world of your own, created some geography, put the biomes in their proper places, and thought up some really exotic plants and animals and others. But what to call them? Will your names blend seamlessly into your new world, sucking the reader in? Or will your names needlessly puzzle or annoy or frustrate your reader, destroying the illusion you’ve worked so hard to create? Names are important, and it’s worth paying some attention to them.

There are two kinds of names: what scientists call things in formal speech or writing, and what everyone calls things in regular conversation. Scientists have two goals for their names: each species has one and only one name, and that name not only provides a unique species identifier but also reflects evolutionary relationships.

The first part is simple: there are formal committees to keep track of names and make sure that each new name is unique, and that each new species has only one official name. These names are usually Latin or Greek descriptions of the most important plant characters (you’d be surprised how many plants are named some variant of “fuzzy”), or named for a person or place.

Renaissance scientists used long descriptions as their formal names. This was an unwieldy system, to say the least, and Linnaeus came up with a bright idea in the 18th century: the binomial system. Each species gets two names, the genus and the species. Canis familiaris, for example. Canis is the genus, and is always capitalized. You can think of it as the family name, and the species name familiaris as the individual name (not usually capitalized). Just as you can look at my name — Sarah Goslee — and assume that I’m probably closely related to other people named Goslee, but not the same person as John Goslee, you can assume that Canis familiaris is closely related to Canis lupus.

Here’s the complicated bit. Many of these formal names were assigned in the 18th century, a hundred years before Darwin. Linnaeus and his colleagues looked at the anatomy of organisms, and assigned the same genus name to species that looked the most alike. As scientists learn more about evolutionary relationships, they rename species to match their improved understanding. This can be very frustrating: one species I work with has changed genus name four times in the past ten years.

Most species are more stable. Many of them even have the original names that Linnaeus came up with. The domesticated dog in my previous example? Taxonomists have decided that dogs are so close to wolves that they don’t even get their own species name anymore. Dogs have been reclassified as Canis lupus familiaris, the domesticated subspecies of the gray wolf.

The scientific name doesn’t matter at all to everyday usage: we all still call them “dogs” and “wolves”. These common names are what people generally use in conversation, but they don’t always make for good communication. When I say “wolf,” one person might think of a timber wolf, and another a gray wolf. It gets worse: not only can one common name apply to more than one species, sometimes those species are very different. My favorite example: spikerush, bulrush and woolgrass are all sedges rather than rushes or grasses, but broomsedge is a grass and not a sedge.

To make it more confusing, a species can have lots of common names. Linnaria vulgaris, a yellow flower, is called both “butter-and-eggs” and “yellow toadflax” depending on where you are. Lots of species don’t have distinctive common names. (For database purposes these have usually been assigned common names that are translations of their scientific names.)

Many common names describe the species in some way. People name things for what they look like, what they remind you of, what they do. This seems to be especially true for plants. Dandelion – lion’s tooth, for the jagged edges of the leaves. Lungwort – believed to heal lung diseases. Eyebright – believed to heal eye diseases. Tearthumb – just what it says. Turtlehead – flowers look like a turtle’s head peeking out from under its shell. And so on.

These would be great starting places for naming your own assortment of species: does it look or act like something familiar? Or have some obvious distinguishing characteristic that could be used as a name? Does it affect people in a good or bad way? Even if your POV character is an alien, these are good default ideas for naming organisms. Unless you have some need to use a different system, this approach will make sense to your reader even if the referents are non-terrestrial. If you have POV characters of different species or from separate areas, you could both separate them and show their differences by having each use slightly different names. Don’t get so carried away that you confuse your reader without good reason, though.

I’ve been tempted, but have managed to restrain myself from naming examples of bad worldbuilding in previous essays in this series. Good examples I’m not at all reluctant to discuss. Undertow by Elizabeth Bear uses species names effectively for worldbuilding and for characterization.

The novel is set on the wet planet Greene’s World, and takes place in and around water and marshes. For “background” species, those groups that set the feel of the place, Bear uses the same names we do: fish, birds, biting flies and noseeums, reed. Human colonists would be likely to use those familiar terms anywhere that those kinds of lifeforms are found, and the reader knows just what it meant without needing any thought. Paramangroves are named for similar terrestrial plants, but are important enough to have a distinctive name.

Then there are the more evocative species names: silverling, cutthroat weed, waxflowers. Can’t you picture a mudskitterer based solely on the name? Or a nessie? Reaverbirds and redcaps too are named for what they do and how they look. None of Bear’s names are complex or unfamiliar-sounding, even the ones that are not used for terrestrial species. Instead, they add depth to the worldbuilding. Even without reading the book you probably already have a mental image of the marshes based just on the species names.

The alien sentient species in Undertow is vaguely frog-like, so it is called a “ranid” in formal conversation. But different characters at different times refer to them as “frog” or “froggie”, the usage reflecting how the speaker views these aliens: respectfully or dismissively.

Bear is not the only author to have a way with names. “Samlon” will always stick with me. Have you encountered any worldbuilding with particularly evocative or memorable species names?

[Note: this is part of a series on the science of worldbuilding. Previous installments have covered climate and biomes and looking at habitable planets from orbit, and plate tectonics.]

Worship This

Shooting Star © Nicc Balce (Used with permission)

Much of worldbuilding in epic speculative fiction involves constructing new cosmologies. It’s fun, it can flavor the text memorably, and deities can provide easy justifications for a lot of character motives (just like in real life).

That said, I have some questions:

-With an obvious, active pantheon, how is monotheism possible?
-Are holy wars more or less likely when you know your enemy’s deities are as real as your own?
-With deities directly influencing events in the world, who needs prophets or messiahs?
-What of missionaries? Would conversion practices work where people could expect very real retribution from scorned deities?
-For that matter, what’s the point of priesthood? If gods and goddesses can intervene in anybody’s affairs, why would anybody deal with an intermediary when they wish to intervene in deific affairs?
-After all, in these worlds, isn’t prayer just another form of magic use?
-Moreover, is faith even possible in worlds where religious cosmology is fact? Or would stubborn atheism there be the parallel of religious fundamentalism here on Earth?

Sure, magic is fun, but this is a science blog. Let’s do science to the deific.

-Cultures evolve and species evolve, but can immortal individuals evolve? Or is that an ‘All Power’ reserved for deities associated with rebirth and transformation?
-As technology advances and societies progress, how do adaptable deities keep themselves relevant?
-What do star-faring people worship? Does sun-worship get revived as ‘stellar-worship’?
-Would real, hard sci-fi gods and goddesses even be interested in worship? Or would they be keener on invention and novelty than on rote tradition?
-For that matter, how could followers of progressive, science-loving deities reconcile themselves with the paradox of embracing the directives of entities of unquantifiable existence?

Your thoughts?

Electric-Organ Slide

All animals emit some electrical charges, usually very weak. Some animals, however, have evolved complex and beneficial electrical tools. Whether this is the stun to kill, or merely a tracking device, it is a fascinating field full of high potential.

The most commonly known creature is, of course, the Electric Eel. Not a true eel, it is actually a member of the knifefish family. Comprising 4/5ths of the eel’s body mass, the three electrical organs within the eel can produce enough electricity to be fatal to a human. Additionally, these are air-breathing fish, and must return to the surface for air.

“The electric eel has three abdominal pairs of organs that produce electricity: the Main organ, the Hunter’s organ, and the Sachs organ. These organs comprise four-fifths of its body, and are what give the electric eel the ability to generate two types of electric organ discharges (EODs), low voltage and high voltage. These organs are made of electrocytes, lined up so that the current flows through them and produces an electrical charge. When the eel locates its prey, the brain sends a signal through the nervous system to the electric cells. This opens the ion channel, allowing positively-charged sodium to flow through, reversing the charges momentarily. By causing a sudden difference in voltage, it generates a current.

The electric eel generates its characteristic electrical pulse in a manner similar to a battery, in which stacked plates produce an electrical charge. In the electric eel, some 5,000 to 6,000 stacked electroplaques are capable of producing a shock at up to 500 volts and 1 ampere of current (500 watts). Such a shock could be deadly for an adult human.

The Sachs organ is associated with electrolocation. Inside the organ are many muscle-like cells, called electrocytes. Each cell can only produce 0.15 V, though working together the organ transmits a signal of about 10 V in amplitude at around 25 Hz. These signals are what is emitted by the main organ and Hunter’s organ that can be emitted at rates of several hundred Hz. ” ~ Wikipedia

Researchers have theorized that such organs can not only be replicated, but improved, and possible used to power bionic limbs.

The Electric Ray is another unique beast. Known since antiquity for it’s electrical qualities, this ray was possibly used in the treatment of gout and headaches, as well as to numb the pain of childbirth.

While several other varieties of fish use some form of electricity, only two mammals do: the platypus and the echidna. Electrosensors cover the platypus’s bill, allowing it to distinguish between trash and living food.
Research into the electrical capabilities of these animals is fairly new. Bionic limbs is only the beginning.
Imagine the underwater weapons! Ray guns, underwater. Because electric animals all have a unique energy sender, whoever owns the weapon could have an integrated chip within their hands to protect them from the shock.

Warning systems. A magic city, guarded by advanced eels. Hey, I’d read it.

New organs, or saving old organs. A heart-attack occurs, leading to a change in the electric sensor. Tuned to that frequency, some sort of organic-tech hardware is triggered to jump-start the heart, giving the victim valuable time, and possibly lowering the amount of brain-damage.

Electricity is often equated with life. What if these creatures became central to an empire, a magician’s court, or a healing practice?

The possibilities for electric creatures are nearly endless. Organic or cold tech, human or fish, this is a largely unknown system. (As an aside, wouldn’t it be great to see electric eels and rays in steampunk?)

So, where do you think it could take us? Be as wild and weird as you want, and let us know!

Southpaws: The Hops in Humanity’s Beer?

This is the first article in a series that explores the attribute of chirality (handedness), which is intrinsic to life across scales yet surprisingly absent from speculative fiction (the single time I recall a plot point hinging on it is during Mal’s battle with the Operative in Serenity).  A version of it appeared on Huffington Post.

“Light is the left hand of darkness…” – Ursula K. Le Guin

Those who are, like me, left-handed and older than fifty probably recall being forced to write with our right hand and the frustration of using many “handed” tools, including scissors, rulers and computer mice. We also remember being told that left-handers are prone to immune deficiencies, shorter lives, depression, dyslexia, schizophrenia and a host of other woes… and no wonder, given the drizzle of harassment! Finally, there is the conflation of left with evil, wrong or inept in practically all religions and languages (sinister, gauche, linkisch…) not to mention most political systems, especially those which place high value on obedience and conformity.

Left-handedness is genetically determined, although controversy swirls around candidate genes that have been tentatively linked to the trait and the complications supposed to accompany it – most prominently a protein with the impressively lengthy name of Leucine-Rich Repeat Transmembrane Neuronal 1. LRRTM1 is involved in regulation of the synapses, the tips of the neuronal processes where exchange of information takes place by molecules bridging the gaps between cells. Other theories propose that left-handedness may arise from exposure to increased testosterone during gestation. Yet others attribute it to the asymmetry of the human brain, brought about by the appearance of language whose centers almost invariably reside in the left hemisphere (which regulates the right side of the body).

In contrast to the even distribution of paw preferences in our ape cousins, the percentage of human left-handers hovers around 10% regardless of race and culture. The most common explanation for the persistence of the trait was that left-handed warriors had the element of surprise in primitive societies. As a result of this sneakiness, they survived long enough to leave a few like-handed descendants. Notice that this explanation is exclusively male-oriented and also implies that the trait is both monogenic and dominant. In fact, LRRTM1 is maternally silent – but at least in my case, I know that I inherited my quasi-ambidexterity (loaded word!) from my mother’s side.  On the other hand, nobody who has met me can conclude that I’m low on testosterone.

From my professional knowledge of biology and my own awareness of what strengths and weaknesses I possess, I hit upon a slightly more flattering explanation for the persistence of the trait. Namely, I decided that left-handed people must be less lateralized in their thinking. This can lead (literally) to crossed brain wires – and hence to such outcomes as dyslexia. But it can also lead to less mental compartmentalizing, more efficient multi-tasking, enhanced ability to see the big picture and to think across boundaries.

Recent results from several neurobiological disciplines lend support to these speculations. Apparently, left-handers do cluster at the two ends of the IQ range; the connections between the two sides of their brain are faster than in right-handers; they often use both hemispheres for language; and they excel at complicated tasks. Lists of southpaws in history show that they are disproportionately represented among mathematicians, scientists, artists and, for better or for worse, among charismatic leaders — from Alexander the Great to Jeanne d’Arc. Moreover, a disproportionate ratio of US presidents since WWII have been southpaws, partly because schoolchildren in an increasingly un-corseted culture were no longer forced into right-handedness. So left-handers may not be a relic of barbaric times, after all. Instead, they may be the hops that add zest to humanity’s beer.

Images: top, Southpaw by RobtheSentinel; bottom, an illustrious left-hander — Marie Sklodowska Curie, Physics Nobel 1903; Chemistry Nobel, 1911.

You Came All This Way to Pick a Fight?

Martians vs. Thunder Child by Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa for the novel The War of the Worlds (From Wikimedia Commons)

What’s the deal with alien invaders? Would they really cross the galaxy to pick a fight with their planet-bound neighbors? Doesn’t that seem like a waste of effort? I mean, if they have the technology to bridge the vast distances between worlds, what would any world have to offer them? By that point in their development, couldn’t they just use their technology to conjure anything they might need for their survival? Or are we puny Earthlings somehow an affront to their cosmology?

But fast forward to the optimistic future in which we Earthlings develop Faster Than Light travel (or the capacity to survive in space for generations). Given human history, wouldn’t we arrive at every new world prepared to conquer it, one way or another? I mean, if we’re going to travel all that way, wouldn’t we insist on staying?

Of course, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, I still hope that by the time we’ve developed the technology to carry us to other Earth-like planets, we’ll have evolved enough to refrain from repeating the mistakes of our past. I hope the same of alien invaders, too.

Your thoughts?

Tenochtitlan and Floating Gardens

Tenochtitlan, the seat of the Aztec empire, was founded in 1325 and was situated on an islet in the middle of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. When the Spanish conquered the city in August of 1521 after an eight month siege, the city was destroyed. In its place, Mexico City was established. At the time, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world. Population estimates range from 100,000 to 300,000.

The links above are from Wikipedia. There are so many history resources available that recount those events and detail the culture of that time. It was hard to pick one aspect to share with you. When I was reacquainted with Tenochtitlan during a research tangent, the small pox outbreak brought by the Europeans that killed a third of the inhabitants of the valley was what kept me reading on. What has stayed with me though and kept my creative mind ticking away is the feat of civil engineering that was Tenochtitlan.

The Aztec city-states in the valley were hydraulic societies. They used bridges, causeways, dikes, sluices, canals, aqueducts, terrace farming, and chinampas (artificial, floating gardens) to sustain the population and allow for navigation about the city. The city was quartered into campans or zones with twenty calpullis or districts in each. There were main roads and canals crossing the calpullis. Bridges were made to be removed at night in defense of the city. While the idea of symmetry excites me, it is the amount of planning in advance for growth that I find jaw dropping. Each calpullis had a market. Public buildings that served spiritual and educational functions were in the center of the city. All new development had to be approved by the city planner, the calmimilocatl.

The Tenochtitlans used the aqueduct water from Chapultepec for bathing and cleaning. They used mountain spring water for drinking and cooking. Residences had private bathrooms and public ones were made available. What I found fascinating is that roughly one thousand men would float through the city collecting garbage and human waste. That waste was used along with lake bottom sediment to fertilize the crops grown on the chinampas.

The chinampas answered my biggest questions. How did Tenochtitlan manage to feed its population? How did the city expand in the middle of a lake? It turns out that the lake was not deep. Each of these gardens was built in a very shallow location. It was staked and then fenced in with waddle. The lake bed was dredged for its rich sediment, and the beds were built up with this material along with decaying vegetation. Trees were sometimes planted as anchors. Canals separated the chinampas.  These raised beds were above lake level. As the beds dried and expanded, the city’s land surface did as well. The lake on the other hand shrunk. The growing system was so efficient that the chinampas could turn three crops a year.

I searched floating gardens on the net to see what I might come up with. Several articles can be found discussing the Aztec chinampas. Believe it or not, the Hanging Gardens come up as well. I also found a cool instructional article, “Floating Gardens in Bangladesh.” The floating garden is suggested as a sustainable way to overcome land scarcity and flooding in Bangladesh.

Vincent Callebaut is an architect with an eye on the future. He has designed a whale- shaped floating garden. Its primary purpose is to filter out pollutants from the world’s rivers. He has another biomimicry design meant to imitate lily pads.  These are intended to serve as sustainable floating cities whose residents are climate change refugees that lost their homes to rising ocean levels. He has also proposed a floating vertical garden tower the looks like a pair of dragonfly wings for New York City’s Roosevelt Island. This is another example of urban farming and would also augment an island as the chinampas once did. While this urban farming skyscraper by Romses Architects does not float, it does take into account the reuse cycle apparent with the chinampas.

The how-to article and the project examples offer food for thought and possible plot bunnies. In the articles pertaining to the buildings, utopian and dystopian come up. It isn’t only about the future though. It’s terrific is that these new concepts draw from such an old technology. The answers to current problems might be arrived at after an exploration of the past. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Where would chinampas fit in your story? If you have any fictional examples to recommend, please include links or at least the title and author in comments.

When Mexico City was built on top of what was Tenochtitlan, the dams were destroyed and never reconstructed. The city dealt with constant flooding. The conquistadors began draining the lake as they settled into the city. The five lakes that were situated in the valley are now considered extinct even though a small portion of Lake Texcoco still exists in Mexico City. When I return later this month, it will be to discuss the long term effects of this development and how the concepts might be useful in fiction.