Archive for January, 2011

Gorilla Walks Like A Gorilla, Even On Two Feet

Last week, another video went viral. Actually, there were probably several newly viral videos last week, but I only watched the one with the title slightly more interesting than, “ZOMG, MOST EPIC WINFAIL EVAR!!” By now, millions of humans have seen Ambam, the gorilla who ‘walks like a man.’

Except that he doesn’t walk like a man! The world is full of bipeds, and there are plenty of animals that take advantage of more than one form of locomotion. Birds are the easy example because they all walk on two legs (heh, ‘like a man’), and most also fly and/or swim. Frilled lizards walk and climb on four legs, sprint on two, and swim, for goodness sake! For that matter, some snakes can slither, swim, climb, and glide, and they don’t even have legs or wings to work with. Don’t get me started on octopuses. When Ambam walks bipedally, he still walks like a gorilla, just on two feet.

Sure, he does it better and more often than most gorillas. Certainly, gorillas are close enough relatives of humans that witnessing Ambam’s swagger is exciting to us in ways that seeing pigeons strut never will be. The viral video of Ambam ambulating is definitely cool. But what it doesn’t show us is a gorilla doing anything like a man. Even if living around humans has reinforced the behavior in him and his relatives, it’s still gorilla behavior. Similarly, humans may originally have taught dolphins to tailwalk, but when they do it on their own in captivity or in the wild, it’s dolphin behavior.

This may seem like a silly thing to get bothered about, but consider the fallout from all this malarkey. People are already invoking The Planet of the Apes, the ‘missing link,’ and bigfoot, and it hasn’t been a week. Slightly more serious bloggers still have their biology basics terribly wrong – gorillas are not, will not, cannot evolve into humans. Evar. Yet science fiction publishers and producers are probably going to be flooded with dreadful stories about anthropomorphic gorillas for months. If they’re given enough of that dreck, some of it is bound to get published or made into TV movies.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good anthropomorphism. But in sci-fi, gorillas are as overdone and usually as poorly done as werewolves. My hope at this point is that authors determined to immortalize Ambam will do the world a favor and get their facts right:

He’s a gorilla. He looks, thinks and acts like a gorilla. And dammit, he walks like a gorilla, even on two feet.

Not Like the Egyptians

You don’t need much to mummify a body, really, despite the chemical baths and plastination currently available. Keeping the body in very low humidity generally does the trick, though lack of oxygen or very low temperatures also work. We may not know as much about most of the cultures that gave as the mummies mentioned below as we do about the Ancient Egyptians, and not all mummies are an outcome of religious beliefs, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating. The explosion of headlines over every new discovery attests to that.

Dry mummies are by far the most common, because dryness crops up in caves and deserts and was the go-to process for ancient peoples wishing to preserve bodies. The Guanche people of the Canary Islands embalmed their dead, as did the people of the Kabayan area of the Phillipines, a number of Melanesian cultures, and several South American peoples—the Chinchorro , the Chachapoya, the Inca, and the people of Paracas. Also deliberate are the mummies of eighteenth-century German nobles and the Buddhist mummies of Asia, some of whom helped the process along through diet.

The Saltman of Iran

The Saltman of Iran

There are a number of accidental indigenous mummies in the southwestern United States, others in Lebanon and South Africa, and, of course, Egyptian mummies that pre-date the rituals. There’s also the Saltman of Iran, the mummies of Guanajuato province, Mexico, and the mummies of Encarnación de Díaz, also in Mexico.

A group of dry mummies have made headlines recently, mostly because DNA analysis has advanced far enough to know their heritage for certain. Despite being found in the Xinjiang region of China, the Tarim mummies are tall with red and brown hair, and have a number of DNA markers that point to them being Caucasian. There is controversy, though, over which Euroasians these people are related to and whether they were really indigenous to the area. I can’t say how many other dry mummies have had DNA run on them, apart from several of the famous Egyptian mummies and some of the South American ones.

Qilakitsoq child

Qilakitsoq child

The Inca also left us accidental mummies in the form of child sacrifices. Because the children were on mountain tops, they’re either freeze-dried or frozen when discovered. Other frozen mummies include Ötzi, a Copper Age man discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991; the Scythians of Siberia; the Qilakitsoq mummies, six women and two children found frozen in Greenland in 1972; Kwaday Dän Ts’inchi (long ago person found), discovered in a northern British Columbia glacier in 1999; and three mummified bodies from the Franklin expedition, discovered on Beechey Island in 1984.

The final category of mummies are the bog bodies of northern Europe—mostly Scandinavia and Ireland. Many bog bodies date from the Iron Age. These mummies often experienced violent deaths, though we don’t know for sure whether they were murdered, executed, or sacrificed. Others likely drowned from being sucked into the peat. However they died, the bogs’ cold, anoxic environment preserved their bodies and turned them a spectacular red-brown. The preservation works so well that not only can we still see pores and hairs, but we also have their clothes and final meals. The acidity of the bogs tends to dissolve bones, however. The most famous are Tollund Man, the Yde Girl, and Lindow Man.

Tollund Man

Tollund Man

You’ll notice that I’ve only mentioned the Ancient Egyptians in passing. I’ve omitted them because they’re much better known, to the detriment of the Tarim mummies, bog bodies, Peruvians, and so on, and because they’ve enough had medical and DNA tests to fill a whole other blog post. Perhaps sometime I’ll write that one, but not today. Today’s for celebrating all the other mummies the world’s given us.

(References used but not linked to above found at Mummy Tombs.)

Losing An Arm and A Leg

London Zoo - Animal Adventure - Donkeys - Danger signImagine that you are working on a home improvement project and, being a bit of a klutz, something goes horribly wrong: a slip of the saw and you’ve lost the tip of a finger. Is there any hope of regaining your lost digit?

While there young children reportedly have the ability to regrow amputated fingertips, in adults it’s possible with special medical treatments (or maybe not even that). Cut off your whole finger – or (stars forbid) an entire arm – and unless it can be reattached, it’s gone for good.

While lobsters can regenerate their claws, and many lizards can regrow their tails, humans and other mammals have notably poor limb regeneration abilities.

The notion  that such an “animal” ability could somehow be transferred to people has been a part of science fiction since its early years.  A good example of this is Romeo Poole’s 1926 short story “A Hand from the Deep”, which has a Doctor Whitby experimenting with crayfish extracts on an unsuspecting patient:

“The theory is nothing very new. As early as 1906 it was observed that when a limb is amputated at the middle of a bone, the bone starts to grow out again, but increases only about one-fiftieth of an inch in length before it is halted by some other influence. You know also, of course, about the little warts of so-called ‘proud flesh’ that apparently try to replace the original muscular tissue in case of injuries, but which are misshapen or misplaced. What Whitby was trying to get at, as I see it, was to so control these misdirected efforts of nature as to produce a new and perfect limb.
“The human body is already able to repair damaged bones by rebuilding small particles of the bony tissue; it is also able to replace muscle, nerve and even finger-nail tissue, although in somewhat imperfect forms. Whitby was trying to induce it to build a lost member in perfect form.
“It seems that Whitby has been experimenting for years with the ductless and other glands of shellfish in pursuance of this theory of regeneration, and we have upstairs the living proof that he was able to prepare a glandular extract that changes the bodily cell-structure as well as influencing the building-up processes of nature; but it appears that he near succeeded in isolating the one influence from the other, both being present in his preparation.

Of course there are terrible side effects to the treatment; quite improbably the patient starts turning into a crustacean himself.

Later science fiction tales usually assume as a matter of course that “autodocs” and other advanced medical treatment technology will make limb regeneration almost routine procedure, albeit often a slow and painful one.

California Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma californiense IIBut wouldn’t it be better for future humans to be able to do that on their own?

The only vertebrates able to regenerate entire arms and legs as adults are some species of salamanders.   After a limb is amputated, cells are mobilized to to start healing the wound.  In humans, scar tissue forms.  In newts, on the other hand, cells migrating to the wound site form a structure called the apical epidermal cap (AEC) . Cells under the AEC begin to proliferate and create a tumorlike mass called a blastema which eventually will grow into the newt’s new limb.

If humans could be given that ability,  you could create a superhero (or supervillain) or a super soldier. It’s no surprise that some research in limb regeneration is funded by the US Department of Defense.

But the exact molecular signals that direct salamanders limbs to regrow are still being sorted out.  And it’s not at all known whether similar mechanisms would function the same way in mammals (like humans) if they were somehow transplanted.

There was an interesting paper last year that suggested the removal of a single gene in mice can stimulate scarless wound healing. But despite the wildly speculative headlines, the study did not actually even try to look at whether the mutant mice could regenerate digits or limbs. Mouse limb regeneration – let alone human limb regeneration – is still firmly in the realm of science fiction.

Red on SaleAre there aspects of limb regeneration that haven’t been fully fictionally explored?  What would be the implications if all ordinary people had that kind of wound healing ability for society and medicine?

The wound healing ability in axolotls has also allowed scientists to surgically induce the formation of extra limbs.  What if humans had that ability as well?

Additional Reading and Watching

Video: Newt Limb Regeneration from the HHMI 2006 Holiday Lectures — Potent Biology: Stem Cells, Cloning, and Regeneration

Video: Superhero Science: Limb Regeneration

Gardiner David M and Bryant Susan V. Regeneration Basics. UC Irvine Limb Regeneration Lab.

Interview with Jon Mogford, Program Manager of the Defense Sciences Office at DARPA (2009) [Military projects on wound healing]

Whited Jessica L and Tabin Clifford J. “Limb Regeneration Revisited” Journal of Biology 8:5 (2009)

Bedelbaeva Khamilia et al. “Lack of p21 expression links cell cycle control and appendage regeneration in mice” Proc Natl Acad Sci 107(13): 5845–5850 (2010)
[note that the "appendage regeneration" refers to closure of a hole punched in the mouse's ear]

Illingworth, Cynthia M. Trapped fingers and amputated fingertips in children. J. Ped. Surgery 9:853-858. (1974)

Top Image: London Zoo – Adventure Animal – Donkeys – Danger Sign by ell brown on Flicker
Middle Image: California Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma californiense II by marlin harms on Flickr.
Bottom Image: “Red on Sale” by Artiii on Flickr

Fiction submissions needed!

Science in My Fiction is experiencing a dropoff in fiction submissions. We want your speculative fiction! Please read our guidelines and consider sending us your science-inspired stories!

Nonconformist Aliens – pushing physiology further

I have to admit I was inspired the moment I read the title of Anassa Rhenisch’s SIMF post in November, Nonconformist Aliens Wanted. If you haven’t yet read this great post, I encourage you to do so.  She advocates for the creation of aliens that don’t follow the most common physiological patterns of humanoid, insectoid, feline, robot and reptilian.

I entirely agree, but I think her argument can be carried further.  All too often the creative cultures constructed for aliens are human-style cultures with systematic alterations made for a particular diet (carnivorous, herbivorous, etc). In fact, there is a wealth of information available now on the characteristics and behavior of animal species – even ones which are relatively well-known – and this information is a rich, largely untapped resource for the design of truly divergent cultures.

Take metabolism, for example.  Humans metabolically have the ability to keep working for long periods of time. This makes sense given our size, our warm-bloodedness, etc. We have our ebb moments, which are ideal for siesta time.

So how might aliens differ in measures of metabolism? Well, if you look at tiny mammals like mice, they tend to maintain very high energy levels for short periods of time, and then flop down for a rest, and then go back at it. Cats also have incredibly high intensity sometimes, but sleep a lot. Some animals have stamina for hours, and some don’t. Thus, if you’re extrapolating culture for an alien based on a particular body plan, metabolism will have an enormous influence on the way they organize their daily time. Energy levels will translate into work patterns, and also into such cultural details as furniture – perhaps, whether your people keep couches handy to sleep on when they’re taking a break from work.

Take a look, too, at the social behaviors and patterns of the species that inspire you. You know that bees are divided into workers, drones, and queen (and you’ve probably seen this used with aliens) – but have you heard how raccoon mothers often live apart in order to protect their offspring, and how young male raccoons will live together in groups of up to four individuals?  How might that translate into homes, cities, and a larger cultural pattern? Have you seen a shrew mother taking her babies out to forage for food, each one biting on to the tail in front of him so they look like a miniature train (The Life of Mammals)? What kind of behavior might that turn into for an intelligent alien species?

Once you’ve researched a species thoroughly both in physiology and social behavior, you’ll have a solid basis for an alternate culture and you can grow it from there – not just into artifacts and activities, but into the metaphors your aliens use to understand their lives. Culture comes with ways to make sense of our drives and desires, ways to understand right and wrong, ways to categorize the familiar and the unfamiliar. It’s evident in our thought, even if it doesn’t actually limit the way we think.

Of course, not every element of an alien culture needs to be linked directly to physiology (this happens a lot in fiction, which I think is unfortunate). Culture develops its own internal logic, as we can clearly see from the vast variety of human cultures that exist in spite of our relative physiological uniformity. However, a castle that is built on perfectly flat ground will come out one way, and one built across a river, or against a hill, will come out quite differently. So take those different laws of physiology and those patterns of animal behavior, and see if you can turn them into general principles within your culture. See if they can be extrapolated across contexts – whether the danger of some particular location gets turned into a general fear of locations resembling it, or whether stories grow up around a particular physiological  limitation that affect behaviors across the board for this society.

By all means, strive for originality in your alien physiologies.  Then, take it further, into the fundamental behavioral drives from which cultures arise.  In this way, I believe you’ll arrive at some fascinating non-conformists.

Slicing Through the Gordian Knot of Quantum Gravity: Alternatives to String Theory (Part 3 of 3)

Quantum mechanics is the physics of the smallest of things, while general relativity is the physics of the largest. Not surprisingly, many physicists have been obsessessed with finding a Theory of Everything (TOE) that encompasses both limits.

This has not been easy.

In previous posts I’ve written of the difficulties that arise in creating a coherent theory of quantum gravity, and how one popular approach, string theory, attempts to solve the problem. String theory is not a failure, but neither has it been the overwhelming success quantum mechanics and general relativity have been. In particular, string theory has in general failed to make verified predictions in fundamental particle physics. (NB: some of the mathematical techniques of string theory have been applied to other areas of physics, but this is not the same thing.)

Read the rest of this entry »

From Mud Boots to Polyester – Fashion’s Still Nothing but Shelter, Status and Sex

Once upon a time, a young human with mud on her feet revolutionized the world…

That’s hyperbolic; like fire, the first clothing was probably not discovered by any single person, or only one time, or even in just one place. But I strongly suspect that the first clothing, also like fire, was discovered rather than invented. And although there’s no way to prove it, I believe the first clothes were made of mud.

Mud clothes make sense if you consider our origins. We evolved in Africa, near the equator. It was hot, water was often scarce, and unlike other primates’, our bodies were going bald. We certainly had sense enough to shelter ourselves from the worst of the elements, but few animals can afford to sit in the shade all day and wait for food and water to come to them. No, since the beginning, people have had to go places to get what they need.

Which brings us back to the oasis, or the riverbank, or the lakeshore. At some point, a hot human got mud on her feet and discovered evaporative cooling. And the rest is prehistory.

Recently, some rather better-dressed humans took a close look at the DNA of clothing lice and determined (based on an assumed rate of mutation) that humans first started wearing clothes about 170,000 years ago. Of course, they’re not referring to mud boots or the body paint that likely followed. They’re talking about fur, feather, and fiber – clothing as we know it.

Sometime after the discovery of evaporative cooling, other prehistoric geniuses bent their minds to the necessity of insulation. I figure two things happened: First, our nomadic progenitors started building better overnight shelters, and then they figured out how to carry them on their backs. Whether the first were itchy grass mats or stinky, stiff animal skins is unimportant. What matters is that the first clothes were probably only worn in transit. Somewhere along the way, a brilliant nomad just stopped taking off her shelter at the end of the day. Look ma, no hands and no goosebumps.

Now we wear polyester, which is a petroleum product, and in a way that takes us full circle to our mud boot-wearing days. Too, we adorn ourselves for all the same reasons we always did – shelter, status, sex, etc. In other words, not much has changed since we got the hang of regulating our body temperatures externally. Sure, we have wetsuits and spacesuits (and self-popping pup tents and penthouse suites), but where do we go from here?

When was the last time we saw any truly novel garments in fiction or in life? Is it even possible to revolutionize clothing again, or has human adornment peaked at spacesuits?

A few parting links:

Self-cleaning fabric inspired by dove feathers.

Helmet membrane designed after human skin.

Shoes that imitate mountain goat feet.

Fabric with pigment-less color based on the structure of butterfly scales.

Other biomimetic clothing options.

What is Zerg Creep, Really?

Artwork from StarCraft, showing a creep-infested platform near the planet Char.

“What the hell is that? Looks like the ground there is alive.” – Jim Raynor

Creep: that purple, fibrous, living mat that extends from zerg “buildings” in the computer game StarCraft. Its ominous presence always tells you you are entering unsafe territory, unless of course you’re playing as zerg, in which case it says “welcome home”! But what exactly is it?

Well, let’s think about it scientifically. It is produced by zerg buildings and spreads across any available surface. According to the Starcraft Wiki (which I will use as an authoritative source for all the minutiae of StarCraft trivia that I don’t know) Creep has a cellular structure: it’s not just mucus. The Wiki also says that creep can absorb sustenance from the underlying terrain, that it can be spread by “spores” or excreted by several units, and it provides nutrients to zerg buildings. It is averse to high temperatures but can grow in space and over water.

So, does any real-world living thing match this description? Surely not, right? Wrong. The closest analog that I know of are slime molds. You’ve probably seen slime mold before without knowing it. They are a type of fungus, often brightly colored and found growing on damp logs in the forest. They are also incredibly weird.

Some types of slime mold are made of multiple cells joined together to form a super-cell with a shared cytoplasm. Ok that’s weird enough, but the other kind of slime mold starts off as a bunch of separate single-celled organisms, which can then coalesce into a multi-celled organism.

In terms of similarities with creep, slime molds are spread via spores but can also grow and multiply when they encounter nutrients. Slime molds can become quite large, and form branching networks of cytoplasm, allowing the leading edge of the slime mold to stream nutrients back to the rest of the “organism”.

A slime mold branching out and looking for food.

When the going gets tough for a slime mold and nutrients run out, it can transform and form structures called sporangia, which distribute spores. In some cases, separate cells will coalesce into a single “creature” in order to do this.

There are some definite similarities between slime molds and creep. They both come from spores but can also grow across nutrient-bearing ground. They both can transport nutrients to locations within them that need them, and are averse to hot, dry conditions.

There are some aspects of slime molds that would have been very interesting if they applied to creep. Most notably, slime molds have been reported to show some rudimentary intelligence. No, they don’t sit there and ponder the meaning of life, but they have been able to choose the most nutritious food and can “solve” mazes to get to food sources. These aren’t true intelligence, they are actually an example of something called ant-colony optimization, often used in computer programming.

The slime mold starts out evenly spread through the maze, but when food sources are placed at two ends, the slime mold retracts from everywhere but the shortest path.

The idea is that you don’t know what the best set of steps to reach a certain goal is, so you test things out randomly. Some sets of steps don’t give you the goal, but others do. The ones that do give good results are reinforced, while the ones that don’t, are not. The analogy is that ants start off randomly searching for food, but when they find food, they emit pheromones encouraging other ants to follow the same path, so eventually you end up with the familiar narrow stream of ants going from the nest to the food and back. The exact same principle applies to slime molds.

That’s nice, but weren’t we talking about creep? Yes! My point is that creep could behave like this too. There’s not necessarily a need for it to be spread evenly across the ground. It would make more sense for it to have thick branches connecting zerg structures (so that large amounts of nutrients could be provided) while narrower branches near the leading edge of the creep could do the work of absorbing nutrients.

Just to play devil’s advocate though, I can see why it might spread across the ground evenly (other than because it makes the game more intuitive to be able to see a clear boundary to the creep). If it is able to suck nutrients out of any surface, then it wouldn’t have to concentrate on certain areas. And by not coalescing into thick “veins”, the creep is more robust: there’s less chance of a building being cut off if there are many smaller veins feeding it.

Finally, all of this brings me to an interesting point: if creep can extract it’s own nutrients, and if it is the way that zerg structures are fed, why do the zerg have to mine for minerals? They should just be able to engulf a mine in creep and let it do the work! That would certainly make for a different zerg strategy, especially if a “creeped” mine could not be used by other players!

Obviously the creep is still pretty science fictional. I mean, it can grow in space! There are actually some real-world spores that can survive in space, but I think the whole “zerg don’t need spacesuits” issue needs to be tackled in a future post. But from now on, when you see creep, think “slime mold” and when you’re out in the woods and you see a slime mold, be glad you don’t have to watch out for zerglings!

This post originally appeared on the Science of Starcraft blog.

New Worlds: Stranger than Fiction

There’s no better way to fire up my imagination than to introduce me to a cool new place, real or imagined. Something about imagining what it’s like Elsewhere just captivates me. That’s a big part of why I like speculative fiction: fantasy and science fiction are full of exotic new worlds to explore. But it’s also a big part of why I study planets for a living. There are plenty of actual exotic new worlds to explore out there in the universe, and I thought I’d share some of my favorites in the hopes of sparking your imagination too.

I’ll start here on Earth. You might think earth is a bit, well, mundane, but there are some really weird places hidden away even on our familiar home planet that are just begging to be the setting for some fiction. Take, for instance, la Cueva de los Cristales (the Cave of Crystals) in Mexico. The cave is brutally hot and humid, but it is filled with translucent crystals the size of tree trunks, forming a breathtaking natural cathedral.

Another hellish but spectacular place on earth is the Kawah Ijen sulfur mine in Indonesia. I only recently learned about this place from a feature on The Big Picture photo blog, which showed some surreal photos of this volcanic mine where oozing molten sulfur burns with a blue flame and the air is filled with acidic gases. And of course, the ultimate alien locale on our own planet is the deep sea, where entire ecosystems are still being discovered, with creatures more imaginative and terrifying than any fiction.

Burning molten sulfur in the Kawah Ijen sulfur mine.

But really, that stuff is pretty tame compared to the rest of the universe, so let’s take a look at some other awesome places. We’ll start off with Mars. What’s so special about Mars? It’s just a big desert right? Well it has a few claims to fame. You may have heard that it boasts the tallest volcano in the solar system – Olympus Mons – which towers almost three times as high as Mount Everest. Mars is also home to Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system, which stretches for 4000 km and is 200 km across at its widest point. Ok, so it has a couple planetary tourist traps. To get to the really strange stuff you have to head south. The south polar residual cap on Mars is made of frozen carbon dioxide – a.k.a. dry ice – and it is slowly disappearing. As the cap sublimates, it forms some really bizarre features. Take a look at this picture of the “swiss cheese terrain”:

HiRISE image of the "swiss cheese terrain" of the martian south polar ice cap.

Believe it or not, the smooth, fractured areas in this picture are the high ground (the lighting is from the lower right). The rounded pits are formed as the dry ice turns to gas. Even cooler are the south polar “spiders” – dark splotches that can appear on the ice in a matter of days. One of the leading theories for how these form is that the ice acts like a greenhouse, allowing sunlight to pass through it until it hits a darker layer. As that layer absorbs sunlight, it warms up, vaporizing the ice and creating a high-pressure pocket of gas that erupts, dumping dust onto the surface. How about some fiction set on an unstable landscape of sublimating carbon dioxide, where every step could set off a violent geyser or collapse the roof of an icy greenhouse?

Not impressed by swiss cheese and spiders? Then let’s head out to the icy moons of the outer solar system! We’ll bypass Io’s sulfur-laden volcanoes and Europa’s icy ocean because those are pretty well known in sci-fi. Instead I’d like to focus on two of Saturn’s moons. The first is Iapetus, a familiar name to anyone who has read the book 2001: A Space Odyssey. (In the movie the obelisk was re-located to Europa because they had trouble making convincing-looking rings for Saturn) Arthur C. Clarke picked a great location in which to hide an alien artifact though, because Iapetus is decidedly weird and artificial-looking. First of all, it is two-faced. One hemisphere is black as coal, while the other is as white as snow. And it’s not a smooth transition between the two either: recent photos of the dividing line show splotches of pure black and pure white. It’s like looking at a close-up of a dalmation. The leading theory for this abrupt color change is that Iapetus sweeps up debris blasted off the moon Phoebe. Since Iapetus is tidally locked with the same hemisphere facing Saturn at all times, this material always hits the same hemisphere, causing it to darken. Once it darkens a little bit the sun takes over, heating up the darkened areas and causing surface ice there to sublimate away and condense on the brighter areas. Over time this darkens the dark spots and brightens the bright spots.

The dark hemisphere of Iapetus, showing the strange equatorial ridge.

The other weird thing about Iapetus is that it has a 13 km high ridge of mountains running for 1300 km precisely along its equator, and nobody really knows why it’s there! The leading theory is that Iapetus used to rotate much faster and so was fatter at its equator. It has since cooled (and therefore become more rigid) and also has slowed its spin. The ridge might have been formed as Iapetus tried to change shape in response to its new, slower rotation rate. Still, to anyone with a science-fictional bent, that equatorial ridge brings to mind all sorts of more exotic possibilities. As the saying goes, “That’s no moon…

Titan, another one of Saturn’s moons, is even more unusual than Iapetus. Titan is strange because it is the only moon with a thick atmosphere. In fact, its atmospheric pressure is greater than the pressure here on Earth despite its lower gravity! Earth is the only other place in the solar system with a significant nitrogen atmosphere. But the similarities with Earth don’t stop there. The Cassini mission has also found river beds, lakes, seas and thunderstorms on Titan! That would be interesting enough, but the really wild thing is that the surface temperature of Titan is -180 degrees C (-292 F)! At that temperature, water is frozen so hard you can basically think of it as a mineral. It turns out that instead of a water cycle like the Earth, Titan has a hydrocarbon cycle. Methane and ethane take the place of water, condensing to form violent thunderstorms which rain down forming rivers, lakes and seas. The surface is obscured by a smog of heavier hydrocarbons that also gradually settle out of the atmosphere forming great deserts of coal-like sand. There is 1000 times more hydrocarbon locked up as sand on Titan than there is in all the coal on Earth, not to mention all the liquid natural gas that fills Titan’s lakes and seas! What I love about Titan is how it looks so familiar but is so bizarrely different at the same time.  Only nature could be creative enough to come up with an icy moon literally drenched in fuel! I’m just waiting for the first interplanetary expedition led by Exxon and BP.

A false-color radar view of the seas and lakes of methane and ethane near Titan's north pole.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We still haven’t even left the solar system, but to date there are 500 known exoplanets orbiting 421 stars, and new planets are being discovered all the time. If the most exotic places in our own solar system don’t seem science fictional enough for you, then just consider some of the awesome exoplanets that have been discovered:

First of all, we have the “hot jupiters” – gas giants that are so close to their stars they orbit in a matter of hours or days rather than decades. The extreme temperatures drive some pretty crazy weather: Astronomers have detected winds blowing  10,000 km per hour on the hot Jupiter planet HD209458b! Even more mind-blowing is that on some of these planets, instead of clouds made of water and ammonia, there are clouds made of silicate minerals or iron!

Rocky planets close enough to their stars might also have some pretty exotic clouds. Planets orbiting close to their stars are “tidally locked” just like our moon, so the same side always faces the star. That means that on a planet like COROT-7b, a possibly rocky planet with a mass about five times that of earth, the sunlit side gets absurdly hot. Estimates put the sub-solar temperature for COROT-7b at 2600 K (4220 F), which is hot enough to vaporize rock and metal, giving the planet clouds of glowing yellow sodium gas and silicate minerals. If you thought methane rain on Titan was weird, stay clear of the olivine sleet on COROT 7b! Obviously these places wouldn’t be very pleasant places for humans to visit, but the great thing about science fiction is that you can bend some rules. Maybe the higher temperatures make silicon-based life more plausible. Or maybe future post-humans scoff in the face of mere high temperatures and visit these planets to mine the clouds.

Artist's rendition of a hot jupiter, complete with incandescent clouds.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of these tidally locked worlds because even though the day side can be hellishly hot, the night side temperatures would plummet to nearly absolute zero, and somewhere on the terminator (the transition between day and night) the temperature would be nice and comfortable. But that’s only if the planet has no atmosphere. Things get a lot more complicated and more interesting if there is a way to convect heat from the hot side to the cold side.  A couple months ago I heard a very cool talk by Ray Peirrehumbert about the climate on the possible earth-like planet Gliese 581g. (As a side note, the Gliese 581 system, with at least six planets, is just crying out to be the setting for some sci-fi!) He described a whole range of possible climates for this tidally-locked world, the coolest and most-habitable of which was the “eyeball earth” scenario. In this case, the planet is mostly ocean with an atmosphere not all that different from our own. Under the sub-solar point the dark open water absorbs enough energy to stay liquid at a cozy 37 degrees C, but as you go farther away, temperatures drop and the ocean freezes. The result is an “iris” of warm open water on an otherwise icy world. You can tweak the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to vary the size of the open water pool. The only downside is that if the eyeball earth does somehow ice over completely, the ice reflects enough sunlight to prevent the water pool from opening up again. I, for one, would love to read the story of a civilization on Gliese 581g struggling to prevent their world from freezing over. Instead of Martians struggling to survive by building canals, you could have Glieseians building giant CO2 factories!

From Pierrehumbert's paper on the possible climate of Gliese581g

You can get some even weirder planets if you change their composition. For example, the planet WASP 12b is thought to be a “carbon planet”, which as the name suggests, is unusually rich in carbon. WASP 12b is a gas giant, but a carbon-rich rocky planet would be a very interesting place. Instead of normal rocks, you would have mountains made of graphite, diamonds and asphalt. Or if a carbon planet doesn’t float your boat, what about an earth-sized planet made mostly of water? (It would, of course, have to be named Sea World) With oceans hundreds of kilometers deep, the pressures at the bottom would grow so high that exotic forms of ice would form even at high temperatures. Considering the alien life in our own oceans, just imagine what might live in the depths of Sea World!

Artist's rendition of planets around a pulsar.

Finally, if diamond mountains, sodium clouds and eyeball earths still aren’t good enough for you, then take a trip to the first exoplanets ever discovered, orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12. These planets are either the charred cinders left over after their sun went supernova, or they formed from the shrapnel generated by that explosion. They are bathed in deadly radiation from their star, and also are in the interesting position of being much larger than the star they orbit (a neutron star is so dense that it can pack the mass of the sun into a sphere the size of a small city). If these planets did indeed form from the gas produced by the supernova, they are almost surely full of exotic radioactive elements generated in the dying gasps of the star. So not only are they blasted by radiation from the pulsar, but they probably produce plenty of radiation themselves. Probably not a nice place to live, but also a fantastic source of resources for anyone who can survive the harsh environment long enough to mine them.

As you can see, the universe is full of fascinating places that are just begging to be the setting for some speculative fiction. I hope these places have sparked your imagination as much as they do mine. It’s fun to imagine other planets, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from studying them, it’s that our imagination pales compared to what is really out there waiting for us.

Finnegan, Begin Again – New Year’s and Science

Happy New Year! 2011 already has math going for it.  It’s prime, and it is the sum of 11 consecutive prime numbers (2011=157+163+167+173+179+181+191+193+197+199+211)

I knew I wanted to talk about the New Year with you. I spent time trying to figure out what was scientific about the new year. We could talk about what makes December 31st the last day of the year or January 1st the first day. Who made the call and on what basis? The short answer is that Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian Calendar by a decree signed February 24, 1582 as a replacement for the Julian Calendar. (If you follow the link, you will find some interesting information about what this change meant for leap years and lost time.) While the Gregorian Calendar has been largely adopted by the international community as a civil calendar, some countries still follow the Julian Calendar. Many countries, cultures,  and religious groups also utilize an additonal calendar.  (That link takes you to a list of calendars both in use and archaic. It also has a small list of calendars in fiction . Ah ha! My connection is made. Thanks and good night. )

Accepting that this is indeed our year end/beginning, I move forward to discuss my two favorite things abour New Year’s Eve.  I get excited about birthdays; they are personal New Years. I admit that I analyze what transpired during the year.  I look at how I might make the best of my new year. It is deep personal introspection. New Years, be they natal or calendar,  motivate me to push harder towards whatever achievement I  desire. I think this remotely connects to a sense of mortality. Even though I am mindful that we are not guaranteed our next breath, the clicking of years going by does drive it home. 

New Year’s Day is a global birthday. The prospect of a clean slate brings resolutionists out in droves. Neuroscientists have studied New Year’s Resolutions and the people that make them. One study shows that pacing yourself might be the key to success.  My husband reminded me just today that while I want to add exercise to our already tight morning routine, I might want to wait until we have adjusted to breakfast at home instead of on the run via drive-thru.

For those wanting to apply lessons learned in previous years, there is a momentum building in the efforts and resolve of others also hoping that the flip of the calendar year is the perfect catalyst for change. In a way, this is like the writers that join NANOWRIMO for the sense of community. The target is 50,000 words in one month. Take a stroll through the social networking site feed of your choice and you will see resolutionists caught up in the momentum of the new year. Most bundle their goals together and expect to start immediately on achieving all of them.  Others take different approaches to the New Year frenzy. Some remain indifferent while some take time to analyze the failures endured, losses suffered, and successes achieved.

International celebrations of the New Year are just as varied (Click here for a Life Magazine Slide Show).  As this is possibly the largest shared holiday, it offers itself as a subject for social anthropology and sociology studies. On the New Year’s Eve wikipedia page there is a long discussion on how different countries, cultures, and religious groups celebrate the event.  There is a similar list on the New Year’s Day page.

From the prodominant civil calendar acceptance, the leap year calculations, the individual/group resolutions setting and introspection, to the worldwide celebration of one holiday in so many ways representative of individual cultures, New Year’s offers multiple opportunities to put a little science in their fiction.

The Anthropological Science Fiction Wikipedia page has some interesting quotes pertaining to anthropology. It goes on to discuss authors and their works. It isn’t in depth but it offers a starting point. The relevance I find is the opportunity to look at the different ways this holiday is celebrated or dismissed around the world and on your own social networks by the individuals you “know.” Consider the meaning of a global do-over that occurs because an arbitrary page on a calendar is flipped. The people making resolutions haven’t changed in that moment. Perhaps though, the preceeding year has refined them in some way for better or worse and that introspection prompted by the event is the first time they have the perspective to see it for what it is. Consider the value each culture assigns this clean slate as they gather to celebrate it.  Perhaps any of these considerations might serve your fiction in some way.

In the meantime, how did you ring in 2011?