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Archive for February, 2011

Fiction: “The Fermi Project” by Edoardo Albert

“We’re spending Christmas in LA next year,” Jeff said.

His younger brother, Brandon, continued to stare out at the snowscape. “You say that every year.”

“It gives me something to say.”

Brandon gave no sign that he had heard. Jeff blew on his hands and stamped his feet against the cold.

“Must be cold for you, too.”

Brandon slipped him a quick grin. “New Mexico nights are chilly,” he said. “But not like here in New York, it’s true,” and he turned back to contemplating a world gone white.

Jeff peered through the door. Inside all was movement and noise, a blur of preparation and excitement as Mom and Mark, Janine and the kids prepared in their various ways for Christmas.

“It’s going mad in there,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Brandon, not needing to look around. “It’s better out here.”

Jeff stepped out of the light streaming from within and joined his brother looking up at the sky. They each had their reasons for staring at the stars.

“Still chasing ET?” Jeff asked, turning from the night sky to his brother.

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Domestication Part 1

The Earth gives us several examples of different animals in a symbiotic relationship. From clown fish and anemone to ants and aphids, each pair has something to offer the other. They form a balance necessary to promote the next generation of both species. Each gets something from the other. But what happens when one partner takes control and begins dictating traits for the other partner?

Domestication of wild animals likely began as a symbiotic relationship between humans and other animals. The change from hunter/gather to a more static lifestyle offered the opportunity for the first wild wolves to get close enough to lose their fear of man. Seeing the wolves as another form of defense, humans likely made the intellectual jump from wolves as food to wolves as protection. As the relationship between the two grew, the first domesticated animal began to arise.

Domestication should not be confused with taming. Taming an animal could be part of the domestication process, but domestication takes several generations for most species.

Domestication of any animal relies on several factors.

First of all diet. If an animal solely relies on the food that humans (or other biologically advanced organisms) eat, it is less likely to be domesticated. Cows for example eat grass; humans do not, therefore there is no direct competition for food. Wolves probably dined on scraps, entrails, rotten food and other things humans had no use of.

Secondly, the ability to breed in captivity and quick growth rate. Some animals have a highly structured mating cycle and interference by captors prevents impregnation. Most birds of prey have a very complex mating performance, that is why any successful matings of eagles and large birds of prey is seen as a huge success. If an animal has a growth rate similar to humans more than likely it will not be domesticated. Elephants, for example, can be tamed, however with their long life cycles (close to humans) any breeding programs would take several Human generations to see results.

Next would be a compatible temperament with humans. Animals such as rhinos are not good domestication material because of their territorial nature. White-tailed deer also are not good candidates because of their highly evolved flight response to danger. Animals which require a tremendous amount of energy to keep calm are not likely to be tamed or domesticated.

Lastly and maybe most importantly, the animals in question must have some sort of social structure.  Dogs and wolves: packs; horses and cows: herds; sheep and goats: flocks. Understanding the social structure allows humans to put themselves on top.

Through the years, humans have desired particular traits in the animals they domesticate. Cross breeding and at times interbreeding brings out recessive genes that would not show up in the wild. For instance there are over 800 different breeds of cattle in the modern Earth. Most of these animals do not look like their wild ancestors the auroch, the zebu and the Bos, yet they still resemble the common ancestor. Different breeds are selected for milk production, transportation needs and meat.

A great example of recent domestication is the silver fox experiment. Breeding red foxes with desirable behavioral traits such as: non aggression, whimpering to attract attention, wagging tails and barking, over 40 fox generations has produced a breed that acts more like a dog than a wild fox. Experiments that began in 1958 have shown that selective breeding can produce not only behavior changes but physical and biological changes as well.

World building offers unique opportunities for writers of all types to explore different species and how they would evolve on their world. What some writers don’t explore enough is the involvement of domestication in these unique worlds. Sure we see things like Tribbles from Star Treck or a Bantha from Star Wars but where and how did these animals come about? What sparked the benefit of having this creature around in the first place? And how much has the evolved species changed from the original?

Mad Science on a Budget: Genome Sequencing

It’s hard to find good help these days. Minions come and go like valence electrons; as soon as you get one of them trained to handle the radioactive waste disposal they end up frying themselves with the Death Ray and you have to start all over again. What a waste of time! Get too many of them together and they start talking about ‘benefits’ and ‘occupational hazards’ and you have to dump the lot of them in the Acid Pit…and who is going to clean up that mess?!?

But imagine if you could screen potential minions for certain…desirable traits before going through the tedious process of hiring, training and eliminating anyone who knows too much? What if you could determine, from just a small sample of genetic material, whether your applicant has the right mix of ability, ignorance and lack of motivation to make the perfect minion? Have a look at their genome and see for yourself!

‘Hold on a tick!’ You may be thinking. ‘Genetic sequencing is a big plorking deal! The Human Genome Project took over ten years and cost a metric butt-ton of cash! I am suspicious of you and your claims.’

And what an informed consumer you are! When the Human Genome Project set out to map the genetics of Homo sapiens sapiens in 1990, the project was expected to take 15 years and cost around $3 billion dollars. They did it in ten (mostly). Sequencing technology continued to advance as the project went on, allowing the researchers to progress at an unanticipated rate. That advancement has continued unabated. The scientists working on the HGP broke the human genome up into chunks of DNA about 150,000 base-pairs long, sequenced the chunks, and then reassembled them into the complete genome. To put this into perspective, the human genome contains 3.3 billion base-pairs. Making things even more difficult, the human genome also contains more segmental duplications than any other mammalian species. These are basically sections of DNA that are nearly identical and are repeated over and over again. Imagine trying to put together a puzzle when you don’t know what the final picture will look like. Then imagine that a sizable chunk of the pieces you do have are identical and are repeated again and again throughout the puzzle. You could be missing pieces, or you may have duplicate pieces, and oh yeah…the pieces are the size of molecules and there are thousands of them. You can see why that might be a wee bit difficult.

But lo, the future is now! We have many advantages that were unheard of in 1990. Next generation, high-throughput sequencing techniques have been developed to produce thousands of sequences at once. And they do it cheaply! The cost of sequencing has plummeted in recent years, dropping from hundreds of millions in 2001 to thousands in 2010. Not only can we generate the puzzle pieces faster and at significantly reduced cost, we now have a picture to look at while we are assembling them in the form of the groundbreaking work performed by the HGP. This moves things right along.

But the HGP didn’t stop there! They have continued to sequence the genomes of other organisms, as well as collect information about the function of the genes identified in the human genome. This information is available to the public online through GenBank. The HapMap project collects differences between individual human genomes. Changes as small as a single base-pair, if observed consistently, could explain why patients react differently to the same medication or why one person is more prone to a certain type of cancer. If you know what to look for, you don’t even need to sequence an entire genome to diagnose a patient…you can just check for these specific sequences.

What? Oh, you don’t care if your minions are prone to diabetes or whether they might have an allergic reaction to your mind-wiping drugs? Well an intelligent customer such as yourself must realize that human traits such as personality, athletic ability and sexual orientation simply do not correspond to specific genes being present or absent. Our genetic make-up is a rather mind-bogglingly big and complex thing. Not only do the genes themselves matter, but when and how they are turned on matters as well, and so does how they are processed and translated into proteins. The proteins themselves, once generated according to the genetic blueprint, can be processed in several different ways and can also be involved in turning other genes on and off. And don’t get me started on the role of the environment! External factors can also affect how genes are expressed, really making it impossible to pin down a single element responsible for just about any one trait. Many human diseases, such as cancer and lupus, are generally the result of several small things going slightly wrong. Rather than having a single smoking gun, you have several different paths that lead you to the same place.

But the power of genome sequencing is undeniable! The potential as a diagnostic tool alone could dramatically affect medicine and how pharmaceuticals are administered. In terms of agriculture, it can revolutionize the way farmers select for specific traits in their crops. It can even make chocolate better! And as the cost of sequencing decreases and more data becomes available, who knows where it will take us? So you see why this is a prime investment opportunity. Why don’t you put away the Death Ray and we can discuss the figures over coffee?

Love and Brains

Wikipedia goes into a very long definition of love; it has a series of topics revolving around the main one.  Some of these overlap with the other kinds of love, but since this is Valentine’s Day, I am focusing on the love generally related to dating. In anthropologist Helen Fisher‘s book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, she breaks love down to three overlapping stages. These are lust (I am tossing an additional link for libido in here for your reading pleasure),  attraction, and attachment. Most of my research after browsing the main topic included the chemical aspects of interpersonal love.  Based on the neuroscience studies the list of chemicals involved in love include: nerve growth factor, testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin.

The Biology of Love - Calamities of Nature by Tony Piro

The Biology of Love - Calamities of Nature by Tony Piro

If recent neuroscience research into love is any indication, the biologist above is ready to talk commitment. “Couples who have been together for several years show increased brain activity associated with (the hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin) these chemicals, when they look at pictures of their partner. Oxytocin is produced when couples have sex and touch, kiss and massage each other – the hormone makes us more trusting, helps overcome “social fear” and is important for bonding.” (Pickrell, John, Middleton, Lucy, and Anderson, Alun, “Introduction: Love.” New Scientist (Online). September 2006. 04 . Web. February 2011. 14.0)

Crazy In Love:

In the brain, romantic love shows similarities to going mildly insane or suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. Studies show that when you first fall in love, serotonin levels plummet and the brain’s reward centres are flooded with dopamine. This gives a high similar to an addictive drug, creating powerful links in our minds between pleasure and the object of our affection, and meaning we crave the hit of our beloved again and again.

Lust is driven by sex hormones such as testosterone, which can go off-kilter too. As can levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and the amphetamine-like chemical phenylethlyamine, increasing excitement. (Pickrell, Middleton, and Anderson)

Love and Hearts:

I did not want to leave the heart out on Valentine’s Day.

“Does the heart fall in love, or the brain?”

“That’s a tricky question always,” says Ortigue [assistant professor of psychology and an adjunct assistant professor of neurology, both in The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University]. “I would say the brain, but the heart is also related because the complex concept of love is formed by both bottom-up and top-down processes from the brain to the heart and vice versa. For instance, activation in some parts of the brain can generate stimulations to the heart, butterflies in the stomach. Some symptoms we sometimes feel as a manifestation of the heart may sometimes be coming from the brain.”

Love and Pain:

Researchers in the pain center at Stanford University Medical Center recruited a group of students in the first nine months of a relationship to test the pain relieving effects of love when dealing with mild pain stimulus. The students brought pictures of their significant other and an attractive acquaintance. Their brains were scanned as the pictures were alternated while a computer-controlled thermal stimulator placed in the palm of their hand was heated to cause mild pain. Word association tasks were included to test a non-romantic distraction against the pictures.

Results showed that both love and distraction did equally reduce pain, and at much higher levels than by concentrating on the photo of the attractive acquaintance, but interestingly the two methods of pain reduction used very different brain pathways.

“With the distraction test, the brain pathways leading to pain relief were mostly cognitive,” Younger said. “The reduction of pain was associated with higher, cortical parts of the brain. Love-induced analgesia is much more associated with the reward centers. It appears to involve more primitive aspects of the brain, activating deep structures that may block pain at a spinal level — similar to how opioid analgesics work.

“One of the key sites for love-induced analgesia is the nucleus accumbens, a key reward addiction center for opioids, cocaine and other drugs of abuse. The region tells the brain that you really need to keep doing this,” Younger said.

“This tells us that you don’t have to just rely on drugs for pain relief,” Aron said. “People are feeling intense rewards without the side effects of drugs.”

While I was exploring this topic for today’s post, I mentioned my quest for knowledge to my LiveJournal readers. I asked two questions. What did they know of the effects of love on the brain, and had they read any fiction that used this particular area of science for plot points? Ayoub Khote, Sophy Z. S. Adani, and Patricia Esposito get credit for sending me links and giving me an overall reminder of what chemical production is stimulated by love. Please do check out the links in this post. I am sure you will find some interesting reading material.Feel free to discuss any of the linked articles here.  Speaking of reading, none of my friends could offer fiction recommendations. I was disappointed. You can help, though. Have you read a story involving this topic? If so, please share a name or a link. A

Science Fiction: The Musical?

If you want to make the world a smarter place, it’s not always enough to create an image, post to a blog, or even write a book. Sometimes, if you really want to get inside people’s minds, you have to set your message to music. That’s right; it’s time to send in the earworms!

Disclaimer: The following playlist may or may not make the world a smarter place, but at this point, we’ll take all the help we can get…

The Magic of Nanomaterials

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I always keep this quote in my mind when reading science fiction and try to spot where things become indistinguishable from magic. They always do. One of the most popular ways in modern sci-fi to get away with magic is to invoke nanotechnology. It seems that if you just wave your hands and say “nanobots” you can get away with anything!

With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some real-world nanotechnology. What is actually plausible and what is still truly magic?

First let’s get this out of the way: I don’t think we’re going to see swarms of tiny robots doing our bidding (or reducing the world to a seething gray goo) any time soon. The reason? Well, aside from the fact that it’s just really hard to build things so tiny, and even harder to tell them what to do and how to do it, there’s the minor fact that we already live in a world crawling with molecular machines of such stunning precision and elegance that we will never be able to do better. Turns out that instead of a doomsday scenario of gray goo, a planet-enveloping swarm of fully-functioning microscopic self-replicating entities leads to the spectacular and rich biological ecosystems we see all around (and in) us.

I’ve written before about the idea of biotech and nanotech merging to lead to a sort of biological singularity, and biology as nanotech has also been discussed before here at SIMF, so rather than rehashing it again, I’ll just point you to those two posts and move on.

Instead of nanobots, some of the most successful applications of nanotechnology are actually in designing new materials at the molecular level. It turns out that you can get some really startlingly cool materials when you have great control over their molecular structure. Even within the subfield of nanomaterials there is a lot to cover, so I decided to focus on two types of nanomaterial in particular: aerogels and carbon nanomaterials.

Aerogel is an almost perfect insulator. Here a thin slab of aerogel is able to protect a box of matches from a blowtorch! Phot0: NASA/JPL

Aerogel is the least dense solid substance known – the record-holding aerogel has a density of 1.9 milligrams per cubic centimeter. That’s just slightly more than the density of air! The most common aerogels are made of silica particles that are put into suspension in a liquid and allowed to form a gel. Then the liquid is removed, leaving an airy structure of nanometer-sized silica spherules bonded together into branching fractal chains. Even though silica aerogels are the most common, other materials such as carbon, aluminum oxide and various metals have also been used.

Because of their extremely low density, aerogels are almost perfect insulators, so as they become more affordable to produce they are making their way into extreme cold-weather clothes and blankets and thin slabs of transparent aerogel are being used in windows. NASA loves the stuff: it has used aerogel to capture dust grains from a comet in the Stardust mission, and as insulation on the Mars rovers and in space suits. Aerogel also has some very useful chemical properties: since it has an enormous surface area, it can be used to absorb chemicals such as heavy metals very efficiently, making it great for cleaning up pollution. Its surface area also makes it useful as a catalyst for chemical reactions, such as in fuel cells.

Another class of nanomaterials with a seemingly endless list of useful properties are carbon allotropes. Picture chicken wire made of individual carbon atoms bonded together. This mesh of carbon is graphene, a molecule 200 times stronger than steel yet transparent and electrically conductive. It was originally isolated by using scotch tape to remove single layers of carbon atoms from graphite, but in the last few years scientists have finally figured out to produce large sheets of graphene, and the 2010 Nobel prize in physics went to researchers studying this amazing macromolecule. As it gets easier to produce and manipulate, you can expect to see graphene making an appearance in everything from touchscreens and compact electronics to high-strength composite materials and solar panels.

But graphene is just the beginning. Take these sheets of carbon and roll them up and you get carbon nanotubes. These tiny cylinders of carbon have the highest tensile strength of any material known, are harder than diamond, and as of 2010 can be up to 18 cm long. And of course they conduct electricity just like their relative graphene.

An animated view of a carbon nanotube structure. Source

Sci-fi readers are probably most familiar with nanotubes as the key component in building a functioning space elevator: their extreme tensile strength for their weight makes them ideally suited for the ultra-strong cable that would be necessary. But nanotubes have more uses than just building long, strong cables. In fact, they may have been used thousands of years ago, before anyone knew about atoms or molecules, let alone nanomaterials! Anyone who knows a bit about swords has probably heard of the famous “Damascus steel” that caused the Crusaders such grief. Well, it turns out that the alloy Damascus swords are made of – called “wootz” and originating in India – might actually contain nanotubes grown when impurities in the ore catalyzed the growth of carbon from smoke in the forges.

But fancy swords and space elevators aside, there are an almost endless list of modern uses for carbon nanotubes. For instance: bulletproof t-shirts. Mats of nanotubes have been made into incredibly strong and thin sheets. A stack of 100 sheets, about a millimeter thick, can stop a bullet. That doesn’t mean that if you’re wearing nanotube fabric being shot won’t hurt, but it stops the bullet and that’s not bad for such a thin fabric!

Another surprising use for carbon nanotubes is in paper batteries. That’s right, by combining carbon nanotubes and cellulose fibers like those in normal paper, researchers have created a material that stores energy like a battery but looks and feels like black paper. The nanocomposite paper batteries store energy at temperatures ranging from -100 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit – much better than typical batteries – and work if they have been folded, rolled or even cut!

An electron microscope image of carbon nanotubes being extracted for use as synthetic muscles. Credit: Mei Zhang

Carbon nanotubes might even be used as artificial muscles! Nanotube muscles are actually based on carbon nanotube aerogels, and can expand to three times their original size in one direction when a voltage is applied, and then shrink back to their original size when the voltage is released. By combining the lightweight properties of aerogel and the electrical properties and great strength of carbon nanotubes, these synthetic muscles could be ideal for space exploration, where weight and energy are at a premium and temperatures can be far too hot or too cold for other synthetic muscles or more traditional mechanical systems to work. So far, nanotube muscles require too high a voltage to be practical for human prosthetics, but that’s a pretty minor detail for sci-fi.

Of course, it’s impossible to cover all of the awesome new materials that are the result of nanotechnology research, but I hope I’ve made it clear that even if swarms of nanobots are not likely, there are some really amazing developments coming out of nanotechnology research. There’s plenty of material that is ripe for the science fictional picking without resorting to clichéd nanobots. And even though things like paper batteries or artificial muscles or bulletproof t-shirts sound suspiciously like technology that is advanced enough that it is “indistinguishable from magic”, they already exist and even more exciting applications are right around the corner.

Now, let’s get to work on that space elevator.

Orbital Mechanics for Werewolves

So you’ve been bitten by a werewolf? Congratulations! You’ve joined a long line of shapeshifters going back centuries. You may be noticing certain changes, perhaps improved eyesight, or greater strength, or a sudden craving for raw steak.

We aren’t going to talk about those here. You should ask your new packmates about the changes you’re experiencing.

Full moon
(Full Moon image by Luc Viatour)

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