Archive for October, 2012

Sleeping Fiction

Photo by Kay T. Holt

In science fiction, sleep is a pastime. For the sake of continuity, characters are put into suspended animation so the reader can travel with them across vast expanses with neither suffering catastrophic ennui. Sure, sleep facilitates other things, too – vivid dreamers communicate with aliens and sleep-deprived characters make every kind of mischief sooner or later – but SF is really big on sleeping beauties.

Which is a shame, when you think about it. Sleep itself is in many ways still a frontier. We have some interesting ideas about sleep and learning, problem-solving, fat, food, puberty, immunity, blood pressure, loneliness… Name anything to do with the body, and it appears to be affected by sleep in one way or many, yet SF largely neglects to explore sleep past its nearest and most familiar boundaries.

Returning to the idea of character continuity; even that tired old plot device has been only superficially explored. What if the brain activity while we sleep is the process by which we maintain our personal continuity from day to day? How might suspending that activity for the duration of long spaceflights disrupt our capacities or even our identities? Or, if sleep-state brain activity is somehow maintained during suspended animation, wouldn’t the brain develop physiological changes over time? If so, how would they present in terms of behavior?

There are an abundance of dimensions of sleep still open for speculation. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I’m going to navigate a few of them with my eyes closed. But what about the reader? What interesting treatments of sleep have you found in SF? And what other interesting biological phenomena would you like to see better explored in fiction?

Sinking in the Deep Blue Sea

In last week’s news, there was a story about a businessman who dumped large quantities of iron into the ocean off western Canada after convincing the locals that it would improve salmon fisheries. The resulting algae bloom can be seen from space.

Peggy Kolm:
This sounds like a science fiction story all by itself: geoengineering, apparently unscrupulous businessmen, deceit, science. I asked the regular SiMF contributors what they thought: Is this going to be the future: private individuals taking large projects on themselves in hopes they won’t get caught? Or should government or international organizations take over? Or should we not mess with things we don’t understand?

If this were a science fiction story, the guy who proposed the iron dump would probably be the hero, who proves the nay-sayers in the scientific establishment wrong with his bold move.

In real life I think it’s especially a concern when there is potential for long-term damage of the environment on an international scale, like this ocean dump.

My gut feeling is that there should be consequences of some sort if such projects without adequate small-scale testing cause massive damage, but it would be better if they could be stopped before the damage was done.

I’m not sure how that could be managed. Seems like governments are as likely to be complicit in the problem as they are to effectively regulate it.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more stunts(?) like this in the future.

Paul Schroeer-Hannemann:
He was incredibly reckless. Global warming might cause major long-term damage to the environment but algae blooms have been known to cause immediate damage to aquatic ecosystems. One can only hope we don’t get another well-intentioned but foolhardy businessman doesn’t do something worse like spraying sulfur aerosols into the upper atmosphere.

Athena Andreadis:
The other mind-boggling point in all this is that the Haida village did something that 1) they knew would affect the entire area, 2) solely on this con-man’s word, 3) with their salmon restoration fund. Surely they could have spent some of that money to get a second opinion? Notified others in their nation? Spoken to the government? Spoken to scientists?

Ryan Anderson:
I am always extremely skeptical of geoengineering projects because they inevitably claim to solve a problem by changing one single thing. But planets don’t work like that. There are so many interconnected factors that go into determining the climate that you can’t just drastically change one without having potentially catastrophic
consequences when other things change in response. And it’s not a linear system by any means, so you might cause a small change in one factor that is completely swamped by a resulting larger change where you least expect it.

Heather McDougal:
What would be the consequences, for example, if some rich sod decided to start terraforming the moon? Who would stop him? Or other planets — regardless of whatever ecosystems might be there? There is no interplanetary law, and probably wouldn’t be for a very long time — it would be like the old West, only weirder.

Or creating land masses/undersea kingdoms in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Or doing something in the fragile Antarctic? Who has jurisdiction in those areas?

On another note, there is an Ursula Le Guin short story about a planet that some anthropologists land on that is incredibly infantile in its culture — cheap sex, food and drink that are awfully similar to milkshakes and hot dogs — and by the end of the story the anthropologists are beginning to have this uncomfortable belief that the planet is actually the product of an adolescent boy’s imagination (luckily the natives are beginning to move beyond that). Along the lines of individuals doing things in a loose cannon-ish way, what I keep wondering is, what happens if someone with bad ideals, or even simply cheesy or prurient ones, decides to do something drastic, based on those ideals?

What do you think?


In the 1950s, the US Air Force was worried about the survival of their pilots if forced to eject at high altitude. Tests with dummies didn’t go so well, so they worked on developing a new parachute design that wasn’t so likely to kill its wearer. But eventually, a human being had to test it. That was Project Excelsior: get Joseph Kittinger to jump from progressively higher balloons. Kittiger’s final jump, in 1960, set records that lasted for decades: a 102,800 feet (31,333 m) descent and falling for 4:36 minutes before opening his parachute. He came close to the speed of sound, but didn’t quite make it (614 miles per hour or 988 km/h). (It’s worth reading the linked references: Kittiger’s jumps were incredibly risky, and nearly failed.)

Several of those records were broken yesterday. Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a balloon at 128,100 feet (39,044 m), and spent 4:20 in free fall (Kittinger still holds the time record). He hit 833.9 miles per hour (1342 kph) on his way down, exceeding the local speed of sound: it gets complicated because the speed of sound varies with altitude, mostly due to changes in atmospheric temperature. Kittinger was part of Baumgartner’s team.

Dr. Jon Clark was also a member of the prep team. Dr. Clark, a former NASA space shuttle crew surgeon, has become increasingly interested in high altitude human survival since his wife Laurel Clark died aboard Columbia in 2003. One of the fascinating things about this high-altitude human descent: nobody knew what would happen to the human body when it exceeded the speed of sound.

Since Baumgartner landed safely, fears that he would be battered to death as parts of him went supersonic or subsonic at different times were apparently unfounded. It will be fascinating to see what kind of new scientific and medical insights come from his telemetry. Even with all we know about human physiology and all the places we’ve sent human beings, from the Moon to the bottom of the ocean, there’s still plenty we don’t know.

“Usually when a doctor shows up to a press conference, we’re having a bad day,” said mission medical director Jonathan Clark. The data from Baumgartner’s jump has yet to be fully analyzed, but Clark said the data collected “is going to break incredible new ground.”

Incidentally, the first human creation to break the sound barrier? The bullwhip.

(Thanks to Micah Joel for the idea for this post.)

Mind-Control and Instant Skill

optogenetically altered brain

Image courtesy of Protein

Want to turn people into mindless zombies? Try optogenetics.

Optogenetics is a fairly new branch of scientific study, wherein tiny fiber optics are used to deliver light to neural tissue, causing the neurons to fire (or not fire) at will.

The key concept here is that the light be delivered to a fully- mobile animal with the kind of temporal precision needed to keep pace with a functioning, intact biological system. This means control down to the millisecond, both for input and for output — in other words, sending commands and reading the effects on the animal in question, as fast as they can think.

The possibility of using light for selectively and precisely controlling neural activity was first put forward by Francis Crick in 1999, but it wasn’t until a year or two later that scientists were using lasers to turn neurons on and off. Then in 2002, Boris Zemelman and Gero Miesenböck had genetically modified neurons in order to sensitize them further to light. By 2005, scientists were developing “organic photoswitches” — compounds that could interact with genetically-introduced ion channels, while at the same time, other groups were learning to change the behavior of fruit flies via genetically-targeted photostimulation.

In plain English, what this means is that, using a viral or microbial agent that affects the tissue genetically, they make the neurons photosensitive. And not just temporarily: this is genetic tinkering at the basic level. Then, once the neurons are all aware, they drill a hole in the animal’s skull and insert fiberoptics (more or less-deeply, depending on what part of the brain they are trying to reach) to the specific site being studied. The animals are then hooked up to a monitoring device, and their behavior studied.

How it works

Image thanks to Robyn’s rather gleeful blog post

The reasoning behind this is that there are things that can be learned from studying the firing of an animal’s neurons — in real-time, as the animal moves freely — that can’t be learned from other methods, which take minutes or hours, or sometimes days, to get results. They are learning more about brains now than ever before, thanks to optogenetics.

To me, the glaring omission in all this is starting to hurt my eyes: they are learning how to change an animal’s behavior, its emotions, even its personality, and all anybody seems to be talking about is how great it is for research purposes. All this research is very clearly aimed at humans; there is much discussion of how this could help with Parkinson’s, or with autism, or with any number of behavioral disorders and diseases. But no one is questioning the ethics of using genetics to modify human beings. What are the implications? How will this be used in the future? Surely someone, somewhere has been looking at this and saying “Hmm, how interesting: this could be used to modify [the masses/the military/convicted criminals/our enemies].” Why aren’t we hearing about it? Why isn’t anyone questioning it?

As my daughter says, it’s like the Imperius Curse has become real, but no one’s talking about it.

The military, always on the lookout for things to enhance the efficiency and responsiveness of their troops, have already been experimenting with putting electrodes on people’s skulls to increase that elusive mental state known as “flow” – the feeling of effortless concentration that characterizes outstanding performance in an area of skill. Normally, flow comes from long practice — upwards of 10,000 hours — necessary to acquire a skill and become expert at it, doing it over and over until you can execute your skill automatically, without conscious consideration of what you’re doing. Ever notice how you’ve been driving for twenty minutes and don’t remember any of it? How about when you really get into the groove at work, and suddenly you realize hours have passed and you’ve been totally absorbed? Or what about boot camp, which is all about loading and unloading your gun, over and over, until you can do it in your sleep, or running/jumping/crawling in different situations, until you don’t even think about what you’re doing? The military makes their soldiers do those 10,000 hours of practice, so when they send troops into battle, they won’t even think — they’ll just do.

“Flow has been maddeningly difficult to pin down, let alone harness,” writes Sally Adee for New Scientist, earlier this year, “but a wealth of new technologies could soon allow us all to conjure up this state. The plan is to provide a short cut to virtuosity, slashing the amount of time it takes to master a new skill – be it tennis, playing the piano or marksmanship.”

Ms. Adee was in a lab in Carlsbad, California, trying out a new Defense Department project developed by the the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She went there to have her brain hooked up to “what’s essentially a 9-volt battery.”

“[Michael] Weisend, who is working on a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme to accelerate learning, has been using this form of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to cut the time it takes to train snipers. From the electrodes, a 2-milliamp current will run through the part of my brain associated with object recognition – an important skill when visually combing a scene for assailants.”

And lo! When strapped into the electrodes she was able to pick off video attackers one after another, calmly and efficiently, without the hysteria she’d experienced in the same chaotic situation shortly before.

Interestingly, the first study to show the ability to affect primate behavior through optogenetics came out as of July this year, in which “two monkeys were trained to purposefully move their eyes to a target on a screen when given a cue. But when the relevant optogenetically ready modified neurons were stimulated by light from optical fibers inserted into their brains, the neuronal circuit responsible was sped up, and the monkeys were able to complete this task faster.”

And the process of developing the technology should speed up even faster now that Kendall Research is developing a tiny skull-mounted device:

“[They have] developed several prototype devices that are small and light and powered wirelessly. The devices would allow mice and other small animals to move freely. The company is also developing systems to control experiments automatically and remotely, making it possible to use the technique for high-throughput studies.”

Hmm, so let’s see. If you take the studies on primates, and put them together with tiny, skull-mounted devices and the ability for remote control, along with advances in technology for brain interfaces, it begins to conjure up interesting visions of the future.

Oh, and did I mention they’ve found ways to use optogenetics to get mice to lose their memories? And to put light-sensitive muscle tissue into robots?

I’ll just leave you to imagine the rest.


Other Links:

Brain Control
Scientists Control Monkeys’ Brains with Light
Startup Makes Wireless Router for the Brain

The Future of Green Energy?

Switch on treeThe luxuries of our modern life are heavily dependent on having continuing access to a source of electricity. But power generation often requires consumption of limited resources like oil or coal, and generate high levels of pollution. Even “clean” energy sources like solar or hydroelectric power can significantly harm the environment.

Imagine a clean and green source of power that not only doesn’t harm the environment, but helps clean the air. Trees, for example, help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and provide shade that makes use of electricity-hogging air conditioners less necessary. And trees and other plants, it turns out, can generate an electrical current that can be tapped.

The xylem tissue in vascular plants like trees transports water, ions and mineral nutrients as sap from the roots to the rest of the plant. There is a difference in voltage between xylem and the soil, which allows the potential for plants to generate an electrical current that could be tapped into.

Recently a team of Japanese scientists demonstrated that a battery could be created from 10 ordinary potted house plants connected in a circuit. They found their “green battery” could generate 3 volts and 3 microAmps of current. So far it has apparently only been used to power a blinking light.

Another research group lead by Brian Otis and Babak Parviz at the University of Washington has shown they can run a circuit entirely powered by Bigleaf maple trees. Their key to success seems to be the use of “nanocircuits”. These custom integrated circuits have lower power requirements than standard chips. Such low power circuits would have broad applications in wireless devices like smartphones and even biosensor contact lenses.

Current applications for tree-powered devices seem limited to monitoring of the environment and wildlife in remote areas where battery-powered devices would be impractical. Trees and other plants simply don’t generate enough power to run our appliances or smartphones.

But I think it’s possible that devices in the future using low-power chips might be able to run on plant power. And perhaps we could engineer trees to produce more tappable electricity. Perhaps we’ll end up living in real-life tree houses.

What do you think the future could bring?

More reading:

Ferris Jabr “The Shocking Truth: Trees are Electric” ScienceLine (2010)

Love CJ, Zhang S, Mershin A (2008) “Source of Sustained Voltage Difference between the Xylem of a Potted Ficus benjamina Tree and Its Soil.” PLoS ONE 3(8): e2963. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002963 (free article)

Yamaguchi, T. and Hashimoto, S. (2012), “A green battery by pot-plant power.” IEEJ Trans Elec Electron Eng, 7: 441–442. doi: 10.1002/tee.21754 (subscription required)

Himes C. et al (2010) “Ultralow voltage nanoelectronics powered directly, and solely, from a tree” IEEE Transactions on Nanotechnology 9(1): 2-5 doi:10.1109/TNANO.2009.2032293 (free pdf)

Image: Violation by hapal, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.