Archive for February, 2012

Arctic Rising: climate change and science fiction

[Ed: I’m very pleased to be inaugurating Science in My Fiction’s new irregular series of guest posts by noted scientists and authors today. Our first guest is Tobias Buckell, who blogs regularly about science and writing. Buckell’s novel Arctic Rising, about the effects of global climate change on the Arctic, came out yesterday. I asked him to write about climate change and science fiction for us, and he was kind enough to oblige.]

Several years ago I was lamenting the fact that few science fiction writers seemed to be writing stories about climate change with Karl Schroeder, one of my favorite writers. He was also a bit gobsmacked. We were, after all, science fiction writers. Here was this vast area. We’d each admitted to holding off writing stories playing with any ideas there because we expected some of the field’s greats to be rushing in on it… any day. And after a year or two passed by, we decided to co-write a short story called Mitigation that explored the polar north after the ice had melted.

The idea wouldn’t let me go, though, even after finishing a story. I wrote a few more stories set in the near future, and enjoyed the debates and reactions they created. So somewhere in and around early 2008 I began sketching out the ideas for a novel called Arctic Rising.

I also picked up another friend who was doing just what Karl and I were hoping to see more of. Paolo Bacigalupi blew my mind every time I met him with more fascinating stuff that was going on. While Karl was a bit more of a techno-optimist than I am and Paolo a bit more worried about the negatives of what was around the corner, I began to think about my novel threading the difference between the two.

Basically because I find climate change fascinatingly complex. You get more access to oil after the ice goes away. Temperature rises, but as a result of melted ice caps, dumps more snow in areas. It looks like there’ll be more arable land in Canada and Siberia. These things will rearrange global power, patterns, focuses, and create land and resource rushes and booms.

And conflict. Which is of course something a writer enjoys. Conflict powers plot. So all that stuff makes for interesting stories. As I pulled all the pieces of research together from the US Navy, climate change reports, and basic newspaper and science articles that I’d been clipping for three or more years, the broad elements of Arctic Rising locked into place pretty easily.

YouTube Is The New Substitute Teacher

School, like most of everyday life, is at times boring and occasionally a waste of time. We can place blame for that squarely upon the education system and teachers, or share it with parents if we’d like to keep diplomacy in the PTA. But although it’s true that the adults who shape and deliver education as we know it are largely responsible for what we learn and how well we learn it while we are children, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for allowing ignorance to persist after we grow up.

No matter how dreadful your education experience was as a child, if you reached adulthood literate enough to use the internet, then you should find developing a passing acquaintance with basic science concepts both convenient and entertaining. The idea that learning should be fun and easy is so compelling that YouTube is positively swarming with video bloggers enthusiastically sharing knowledge.

Because I am a science enthusiast and a lifetime devotee of independent study, I’ve compiled a video playlist of some of my recent favorites in that genre. To eliminate some common misconceptions, the playlist opens with the definition of science. From there, it builds from some interesting basics about water and carbon, covers some of the science frequently botched by Hollywood and in other fiction, and demonstrates that girls plus math equals win. Then follows a musical interlude, but it’s all science, so it’s all good. The last few are a sampler of videos posted by universities and science publishers for viewers who prefer productions with bigger budgets.

Now all you have to do is watch and learn.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Last spring, I put out a call on my public journal for topic suggestions. A friend of mine and traumatic brain injury [Wikipedia] (TBI) survivor suggested I explore what TBI [Mayo Clinic] has taught us.

Like many of the topics I’ve written about here, I had much to learn before I could begin. Once I researched TBI [Neurologic Rehabilitation Institute at Brookhaven Hospital], I had difficulty breaking the vast topic [Open Directory] back down into a streamlined piece. I have my former editor, Kay Holt, to thank for some of the links I will be including and also for the flow of the piece. As usual, the links will take you to articles that explore the main and related topics more thoroughly. Please have a look beneath the surface.

Read the rest of this entry »

Got science?

Science in My Fiction is looking for writers, people interested in sharing neat science topics with the science fiction community. The ideal topic is of interest to both readers and writers in our genre, and presented at a not-too-technical level. While many of our writers have formal scientific training, that is not at all necessary.

We are not interested in reviews or non-science topics, nor are we currently soliciting fiction.

To apply, please email sarah.goslee at gmail dot com with a brief description of your qualifications and why you’re interested in SiMF, and either a link to relevant online articles you’ve written or a sample of your work that would be appropriate for SiMF.

Even the Sun Needs Its Beauty Sleep

After hitting the snooze button a few times, the sun has finally woken from its slumber, yawning and stretching its way into the biggest space storm in more than six years.  (The graphic below shows a similar solar eruption from 2001, taken with the SOHO spacecraft, which blocks out the sun’s light so that only the corona can be seen.) Such storms have potential for destruction, such as power outages or damage to communications satellites worth $200 million a pop. If the perfect storm were to hit our unprepared electrical system, some argue we risk entering another dark ages unless we become better prepared.  This storm was relatively mild, limiting its power to some colorful aurorae, but it is the first of many, stronger storms to come over the next few years.

A 2001 coronal mass ejection imaged by the SOHO spacecraft

The sun goes through cycles of activity, typically peaking every 11 years, but during this past cycle, though, the “solar minimum” was 15 months longer than usual.  Space meteorologists are still arguing over the cause, though one plausible theory is gaining ground.  The sun is due to peak in activity again in May 2013, but whether the prolonged quiet will make this peak more or less active remains to be seen.  Bronson Messer, computational astrophysicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, keeps a healthy respect for what the sun can do.  “The sun is a gravitationally confined fusion reactor that holds 99.8 percent of mass in the solar system,” Messer told the Tennessee Journalist. “That is a formidable object that should be respected accordingly.”

Anchorage Aurora

Still, in the grand scheme of things, pretty night lights and a lost satellite or two are small (ok, very expensive) collateral compared to the enormous power unleashed in such coronal mass ejections, equivalent to the energy released from 200 million nuclear warheads.  And our sun is a wimp compared to its smaller cousins, K and M stars.  The smaller the star, the larger the convective zone – dwarf stars are entirely made of gas rising and sinking like bubbling water on the stove.  The boiling motion of the gas creates a strong, unpredictable magnetic field several thousand times that of our sun.

The smallest dwarf stars, M stars, are less than half the size of the sun.  These shrimps are the most common stars in our galaxy, and they sizzle with magnetic energy.  At times, gigantic starspots smother the stars’ surface, dimming the light by up to 40%.  The same star might also emit flares that double its brightness across the spectrum (including deadly X-rays) within minutes.  These characteristics, along with the stars’ small size and faint light, would make life around a dwarf star difficult, and certainly different (like plants with long, sturdy, black leaves).  But maybe not impossible.

A solar prominence as seen by the Solar Dynamic Observatory



Building the Dragon

Part I (Part II is here)

Everybody loves dragons. And while wingless ones built along the lines of Komodo dragons or alligators can be a viable part of your fantasy ecosystem, let’s admit it. We want them up in the air and breathing fire or electricity or something fun.

A quick survey of existing flying creatures: the flying fox can get as large as 2.5 to 3 pounds and a wingspan of nearly four feet. The harpy eagle‘s wingspan can be 6 to 6.5 feet and they top out at 20 pounds or so.

Mind you, I would not want to meet a 20-pound dragon with a 6.5-foot wingspan, or be on the wrong side of its talons. And a hero would look really bad-ass when his pet swooped down to land on his (steel-reinforced) falconing glove.

Quetzalcoatlus scale comparison, by Matt Martyniuk (Dinoguy2), Mark Witton and Darren Naish, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In green, the Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a human for comparison. Modified from a diagram featured in Witton and Naish (2008).

Let’s aim higher.

Quetzalcoatlus is the largest flying dinosaur discovered so far. Estimates vary, but it seems safe to assume a wingspan of 30 to 35 feet (9-10.5 m). Weight estimates have varied from as light as 150 to over a thousand pounds (68-453+ kg) (in a 2010 estimate generated mathematically). The first question is, of course, can this creature get into the air? Ostriches are the only current birds of similar weight — and they top out at 300 pounds.

Will it fly?

The issue was addressed by Witton and Habib in a 2010 paper on giant pterosaur flight dynamics. Their analysis of existing fossils and reconstructions of musculature led to some interesting possibilities. For their analysis, they settled on a Quetzalcoatlus of 32-36 foot (10-11 m) wingspan and 400-550 pound (180-250 kg) weight. Witton and Habib assert that these giant pterosaurs had sufficient bone strength and muscle for flying — with some mild caveats.

  • Assisted launching. The pterosaurs may have launched themselves with a strong jump followed by vigorous flapping. You can find a wide variety of birds using this strategy, especially larger ones like eagles. Others have suggested that pterosaurs may have used the running-start approach to launch or jumped off cliffs to get that initial burst of speed. Witton and Habib lean toward the jumping method, though.
  • Soaring. Rather than flapping constantly, pterosaurs may have done most of their flying by finding thermals and winds to soar on. Albatrosses and vultures do this a lot — it saves a great deal of energy, and when you’re big you need to save energy.
  • Moving on land. Pterosaurs were not built for it. But the authors theorize that they may have been able to get about by hopping/jumping (saltation, as sparrows do) and possibly bipedal walking (many birds do this — ducks, robins, hawks…).

What does it eat?

Witton and Naish wrote a 2008 paper on morphology, in which they addressed some of the questions of the morphology and ecology of giant pterosaurs, including Quetzalcoatlus. It’s good reference material, but chances are you aren’t building a dragon with a stork-like beak and a neck that’s long like a stork but less flexible — like a lizard. They lay out some reasonable options for such creatures, but a traditional dragon with a shorter muzzle, teeth, and greater neck flexibility will have more predatory options.

Bearing in mind the three rules of predators as formulated by me (and only me): 1. Don’t get hurt. 2. Don’t work too hard. 3. If it gets you food, do it. Also bear in mind that while an earth-bound predator can gorge on a kill and then slink away to digest, a flying predator can’t eat so much at once that he can’t fly away if threatened. Many small meals throughout the day are probably the best strategy.

  • Fishing. This is a perfectly good way to acquire a relatively large amount of calories with a reasonable amount of work. Given the general structure of a Quetzalcoatlus-based dragon, I would think that divebomb-style fishing (as done by ospreys and eagles) could work.
  • Carrion. It’s not glamorous, but it fulfills rules 2 and 3.
  • Traditional airborne hunting. This could be hunting birds, other dragons, or earth-bound prey, as falcons and hawks do. But bear in mind the stipulation about over-eating and the fact that it’s easier for a rabbit to hide in a forest than for a fish to hide in a lake. Hunting animals that congregate in large groups in meadows (or other open terrain) will make hunting easier… but also remember that we’re talking about a 30-foot wingspan dragon blotting out the sun. It’s difficult to miss that flying overhead, one would think. Or can you find a work-around for that?

Will it breathe fire?

Scientifically, the problem with breathing fire has always been the question why does it need to? Anne McCaffrey came up with one of the best answers (we bred them to do it) but in strict ecological terms, teeth and talons are quite sufficient for all your hunting needs. And if a feature isn’t useful to a creature’s survival, it isn’t done. Right?

Well, except for things that the opposite sex finds attractive. Such as peacock tails, silly dances, and the ability to compose sonnets.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: imagine fire-breathing (or lightning bolts, what-have-you) as a mating display. We will get back to this in Part 2.