Archive for September, 2010

Science is so Cool it’s Approaching Absolute Zero

Free © WakaBee (Used with permission)

Here’s to you, scientists! Yesterday you introduced us to a fish that suckles its young. Today you revealed an exoplanet that almost certainly evolved life. Tomorrow, you’ll probably blow our minds again. You should feel like big rockstars!

Can you imagine a world in which dedicated scientists are celebrated instead of being treated like boring dorks? What if every little kid’s role model wore a lab coat? What if there were as many high schoolers with basement laboratories as there are with garage bands? What if millions sat glued to their televisions watching TED Talks instead of American Idol?

I don’t know about all of you, but that sounds like my kind of planet. Geeks rule!

Write for Science in My Fiction!

Science in My Fiction wants you! More specifically, we want your articles. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or fantasy and you can’t help giving more than a passing thought to the real science behind warp drives and singing swords, then you might have what it takes to blog for SiMF. If you’re a scientist frustrated by speculative fiction which appears to thumb its nose at the basic principle of cause and effect, then you should hit us with your best shot.

From our ‘About’ page:

The purpose of the Science in My Fiction blog is to get science fiction and fantasy writers and fans thinking ahead of science again. Playful bloggers will take a look at recent scientific developments and extrapolate potential futures from them.

This is a fight for survival of the fiction. It’s time to seize culture and do science to it!

If you’re interested in writing for the blog, please choose a topic that is in some way relevant to speculative fiction, research it, and write an article about it. Remember to be playful – don’t take your subject or yourself too seriously or the internet will flame you alive and miss your point entirely – and remember to keep it real. We’re not interested in validating pseudo-science, but feel free to debunk myths or examine authentic scientific phenomena often mistaken for magic.

This should go without saying, but before you write your article, read several already posted to the blog to see for yourself what we expect. After you write it, take more than a moment to edit it. Typos happen, but rigor will deliver you far into our good graces.

Email your SiMF audition articles to:

If you’re looking for a few bright ideas, try reading a little non-fiction:
Robotic Arm’s Big Flaw: Patients in Wheelchairs Say It’s ‘Too Easy’
City Living Helped Humans Evolve Immunity to Tuberculosis and Leprosy, New Research Suggests
Insight Into the Impacts of Too Much Communication
Making Bees Less Busy: Social Environment Changes Internal Clocks
Newly Created Material Resembles Cilia

Building the Apocalypse: Neighbor Bob, King of Vancouver?

Speculative fiction is littered with stories showing our future after Apocalypses of all sorts. Vampires, dying suns, exploding stars, epidemics, plagues, earthquakes, fires…the list goes on. It’s Baskin Robbins and the 32 flavors of the Apocalypse!

The amount of world-building necessary for a post-apocalypse, dystopian or near-future alternate reality is as heavy as any fantasy world. It is simply a matter of extrapolation. Instead of creating things to see how they develop, destruction is the start of a post-apocalyptic world.

For the next few months, my focus will be on some of those deconstructions. Society, religion, cryptozoology, even zombies! While these are deep, broad subjects worth a better study and a lot of discussion, I’ll be attempting to hit the high points.

Building the Apocalypse: Neighbor Bob, King of Vancouver?

Social lines, in a world as crowded as ours, are beginning to blur. Instead of hundreds of insular, small societies and a few large, open-bordered cultures, we have the formations of a monolithic society with shaded boundaries and a few small pockets of unique societies.

So, what happens if the world collapses around such a large society? If our communications go, and our governments fold, and our law systems dissolve, where do we go from there? For answers to this, the best studies are probably prison inmates, immigrants and concentration camp prisoners. Without any common bonds–blood, religion, race, history–except circumstance, chaos and disadvantage, these random groupings of people develop their own societies and laws.

As most prey animals know, there is indeed safety in numbers, in putting the weakest creatures at the center of the herd. Given time and the right agitations, humans in chaos eventually sort themselves into strata. Nuclei form, protection from the elements that haven’t found some sort of order.
Humans are both predator and prey. So we create elaborate systems to protect ourselves, and turn the predators into the protectors to channel their aggressive instincts.

The question is, how would this happen? Would things be different in a rural community, versus a big city? In different climates? With different levels of infrastructure damage and wealth?

Certainly. For one thing, it would depend on the type of apocalypse that got served up. Most likely, a large city would be more devastated by a catastrophe, while a smaller community would have, perhaps fewer resources to ride out the storm, but less to throw into chaos and a faster recovery time.

“A small town in Kansas, for example, can likely rely upon reputation and the fact that everyone knows everyone else, while the residents of New York City need some mechanism, like punishment, that can work in the absence of reliable reputations,” ~Evolution of Fairness

In other words, a metropolis, like LA, New York, Chicago or Atlanta might be more likely to give rise to a dictatorship or monarchy, with an individual or group seizing power, while a smaller town might get off with less social back-lash.

However, such a situation would be a plausible basis for American feudalism. In a society shaken badly enough by disaster, those with the most resources/knowledge will fare the best in the cities. After a disaster, crime lords, high-level politicians and wealthy opportunists might have the resources to make power-plays.

The concept of ‘turf’ is, in a way, feudalistic anyways. Competing for resources, location, followers and power, the political set-up isn’t that different. Frightened, disoriented people turn to leaders, and leaders sometimes turn into rulers.

Even the weather and neighborly trust have something to do with our recovery.

Is the Apocalypse hot or cold? Ice Age or Global Warming?

Climate can also have an influence over the mind and behavior. Studies have shown that violent-crime rates are higher during warmer months compared to colder months. ~Social Ecology: Lost and Found in Social Science

A low-violence, organized community that works together and pulls as a team would also, likely, be faster to recover economically.

For example, nations high in general trust have more subsequent capital investment and economic growth that nations that are low in general trust.~Social Ecology

In the 1920’s, America shifted from a rural-centric society into an urban-centric society. Manufacturing brought about an age of leisure, fun and indulgence. For the first time, it wasn’t just the rich who had to look for things to do. Automation, 8 hour work-days and unions took some of the load off of the American citizen.

When the Great Depression hit, this leisure society was abandoned, and people had to work again. While this was a dark and horrible time in our history, it may have, in fact, contributed to our overall health and prosperity.

A recent study suggests that, as grandma always said, ‘idle hands are the Devil’s playground, but hard work is the way to heaven.’ People who are busy and active are more likely to be happy than people who are more sedentary.

For the study, volunteers completed a survey, then had to wait 15 minutes before the next survey would be ready. They could drop off the completed survey at a nearby location and wait out the remaining time or drop it off at a location farther away, where walking back and forth would keep them busy for the 15 minutes. Either way, they would receive a candy when they handed in their survey. Volunteers who chose to stay busy by going to the faraway location were found to be happier than those who chose to be idle. ~Science Daily

If you want to learn how to do more than is humanly possible, ask a farmer or rancher. I'm in awe of my rancher great-grandfathers, who worked right on through retirement. They were good, solid people, and always had a laugh and joke at the ready. They knew how to pack a lot of work into not a lot of time, and still have fun.

Compare this to the majority of modern society!

If happiness, activity and trust are key to the economic success of a country, then perhaps we'd start knitting together in the rural areas, the secluded glens. Maybe our reconstruction would come from the Appalachians, or the backwoods of Idaho.


These are just a few of the many things that could happen in American society, if a disaster of national or global impact were to shatter our infrastructure. As has been demonstrated in the past, it would take a truly epic event to damage us beyond repair. But our nation is also more fragile than it has been for a while, so who can say?

However, you can rest easy: we’ve survived world wars, influenza epidemics, Katrina and politicians with a relatively intact infrastructure. If an event big enough to crash America ever does happen, most of us will be dead, and not caring if Neighbor Bob becomes King of Vancouver.


deus ex cerebrum

A recent Science in My Fiction post asks a few questions about the logistics of religion as a part of worldbuilding for science fiction and fantasy stories. All its questions are fun to speculate upon, but in hindsight, there’s a relevant science question missing from the list: If religion is a product of human brain function, as it appears to be, does it make sense for non-human characters in fiction to have religion?

There is evidence that Neanderthals were the only other species on Earth that ever shared our capacity for religion. But they were so closely related to modern humans that our two species were able to interbreed. That makes sense, though; if we and they were alike enough to be reproductively compatible, then of course we should have shared comparable mental capacities. Other apes may possess great empathy and intelligence, but their minds aren’t organized in such a way that religion has emerged in their societies.

For that matter, there are other species with so much apparent intelligence that some scientists suggest we should acknowledge their personhood. But although they may one day be recognized as people in their own right, there is still no indication that dolphins or whales practice religion, or that their brains are organized in ways that would allow them to conceive of it.

But what about aliens and elves? Surely any species as advanced as humans must have developed at least some kind of spirituality, right? Maybe, maybe not. First, consider their needs. Do their societies depend on hierarchies and ritual? Well, that’s certainly a common feature of fictional non-human civilizations. Do they generally feel that “biology lacks critical and highly desirable features“? That sounds like too impractical a worldview to persist in any successful society, yet we know from experience that it is persistent in spite of our tendency to weaponize it. Indeed, if non-human cultures evolved to be as dominated by daring-yet-insecure individuals as human cultures, then it follows that they might share our gravitation toward extremes. In fact, if their brains are as vulnerable to elevated carbon dioxide levels and damage as ours, then there could very well be as many visionary aliens and elves as there are humans.

So non-human religion is possible, but is it necessary? Nobody can say for sure without some basis for comparison, but it sure is fun to think about:

-If non-human civilizations evolved without the capacity for religious belief, what other social features might be absent from their cultures? What features might be present instead?

-What capacities might be diminished or missing from the human mind related to the emergence of spirituality?

-If non-human sapients lack religion, how do they modulate anxiety? Or other impulses, for that matter?

With regard to life, this comes down to the questions ‘how alien can alien be?’ and ‘how alien can we comprehend?’. The truth is that we can’t know. But we can speculate about the unknowable, and that’s where fiction comes in.

Tell us: What are your favorite non-religious science fiction and fantasy civilizations? What other inhuman characterizations do you enjoy?

“Ending Alice” to be first published SiMF fiction

We’re pleased to announce that Stephanie King‘s short story “Ending Alice” will be the first fiction published on Science in My Fiction.

It will appear on the final Monday of October (the 25th). A new short story will appear on the final Monday of every month from then on.

Speaking of which, we’re still looking for submissions! Read the guidelines, and then send us your science-inspired speculative fiction short stories!

T-minus 1 Evolutionary Shift

On November 1, 2010, one of the greatest endeavors in United States history will see the beginning of the end – weather permitting.

The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to make its 39th and final flight on 11/1 (originally scheduled for August 19). Not only will it be Discovery’s last hurrah, but it will most likely mark the end of the U.S. shuttle program. The U.S. “…will have no capability to launch people into space on American rockets for many years to come.”

How soon will those “years to come” arrive? On April 15, President Barack Obama said “By 2025 we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crew missions beyond the moon into deep space. So, we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to earth, and a landing on Mars will follow.” Deeper manned space exploration than ever before within 15-20 years sounds promising, if it happens.

And it’s not as though the U.S. has a monopoly on space flight: Russia continues its work, and China’s space program is flourishing. Space exploration isn’t dead. But knowing those miraculous behemoths are flying for the last time can still wrench in the hearts of anyone who’s dreamed of visiting the stars.

Just how important is it that we continue to explore space, though? Thus far, we’ve learned that outer space is a harsh environment that we’re not suited to live in. Microgravity will cause bone loss and may impair birth, and of course space radiation could kill us without heavy protection. Why do we care so much about leaving our own planet? “Because it’s there”?

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Poetry in Science in Poetry

Friends, readers, science fiction fans! Lend me your attention span!

The inaugural issue of Stone Telling magazine just came out, and it includes work by two Science in My Fiction bloggers. Read the issue and show your support for a smart new market.

Congratulations Stone Telling, and Athena Andreadis and Calvin Johnson!

Look What I Brought for Show and Tell!

Turtle © Adam Wesierski (Used with permission)

Since we began domesticating animals, they’ve apparently shaped our evolution. I wonder how differently we might have evolved if we’d domesticated megafauna instead of wiping out the giant animals.

What sort of furniture could withstand Smilodon scratching? What sort of fence would keep a mammoth in the backyard? How step would the fees be for failing to scoop your Megatherium’s poop?


Among the stereotyped traits of of scientists are literal-mindedness, pedantry, and most of all, a complete lack of humor. This goes doubly so for physicists and astrophysicists.

And yet… a second thought brings one to all those oddly evocative names:

The Big Bang.

Black holes.

Strange quarks.



Other fields have their fantabulous names as well: the idea of a Velociraptor chasing you has thrilled dinophillic children for years, and who couldn’t love a gene called SonicHedgehog? But I’m going to focus on the origin of whimsical names in physics and, a bit, in astrophysics.

# Read the rest of this entry »

How Linguistics Can Help You Part 3: Syntax

After a bit of a break, I’m happy to bring you the continuation of my series, which is intended to make Linguistics user-friendly for writers by relating linguistics topics to the use of created languages in science fiction and fantasy.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the word “syntax,” if not in grammar contexts then perhaps in computer programming!  Syntax is the study of how sentences are put together.

Part of syntax is word order. This is the one everyone fears because it often involves diagramming sentences. Actually, one of my most intense and wonderful classes was Syntax 1 at UC Santa Cruz. We put together a set of rules for how to create the sentences of English, based entirely on example sentences given to us by our teacher, Professor Sandy Chung (who totally rocks, by the way). Each time we thought we had it, she’d throw us another sentence that didn’t fit, and the rule set evolved.  While this doesn’t reflect the most advanced theoretical knowledge on syntax today, it certainly acquainted us with critical questions in the study of syntax.

So how is syntax useful for science fiction and fantasy writers?

First, consider Yoda. He doesn’t use typical English syntax. We know this. Yet we can still understand him. I always figured he was a native speaker of some other language and that affected how he could speak the common tongue – but my husband says he never thought of that, and he thought Yoda was just quirky.

Be that as it may, one of the things you can do by altering syntax is give a feeling of dialect, or of a foreign accent. The key here is to keep it all consistent. If it’s inconsistent it will feel weird, and might be construed as an error.

So how do you keep it consistent? Track your subject/verb/object order, and track your phrase types.

In English we use SVO (subject-verb-object) word order: I hit him: I=S, hit=V, him=O.
In Japanese they use SOV (subject-object-verb) word order. boku ga kare o utta : boku=I (for boys)=S, kare=he=O, utta=hit=V

World languages have quite a variety of orders.  The Atlas of Languages gives the following list:
SVO: English, Finnish, Chinese, Swahili
SOV: Hindi, Turkish, Japanese
VSO: Classic Arabic, Welsh, Samoan
VOS: Malagasay (Madagascar), Tzotzil (a Mayan language of C.Amer.)
OSV: Kabardian (Caucasus)
OVS: Hixkaryana (a Carib language of N. Brazil)

All the permutations are there, though the object-first languages are definitely fewer.  There are even twists to this pattern, in that some languages don’t conceptualize parts of speech the same way, for example treating adjectives the same way as verbs.  For alien languages, who knows? They might not even conceptualize subject and object and verb the way we do – in which case it might be tough to write out their language in the story!  If your protagonist is a human and is allowed to be confused, this may not be a problem.

Some languages have freer word order than English. Take for example Latin or Japanese. This is a place where phrase syntax (in the Japanese case) or morphology (in the Latin case) can allow you greater freedom.

In Japanese, the subject and object are marked by particles, special words that come directly after the nouns they apply to and tell you their role in the sentence. With your words marked like that, you can scramble the phrases up a bit and still get meaning out of it.

In Latin, morphology provides case suffixes. Case suffixes essentially play the same role as the Japanese particles, and by labeling the word’s role directly, allow more freedom for altering word order.

Play around with it. Yoda shows us that we can understand a lot of different ways of putting a sentence together, provided that we know enough to track each noun’s role in the action at hand. You might also want to run it by your friends to make sure it’s comprehensible!  When I work with alien languages I very often play around with syntax to give my English an alien-language flavor – but with each of my two most recent stories, I’ve had to do a round of revisions in which I took my alterations and made them more user-friendly.

At this point you may notice that I’ve been talking about altering English syntax within a story to imply the structure of another language. I do this a lot because I like to write in alien point of view, and yet the story has to be written in English if I want people to enjoy it.  The same syntactic principles apply if you want to write sentences in a created language – but I’m guessing this is going to happen less often in writing a story than will the use of English for implication. I have written a song in one of my created languages, but I don’t imagine it will do more than sit in an appendix, since putting the entire thing in the story as Tolkien did isn’t quite my style.

Now, go forth and have fun with syntax!