Archive for December, 2012

Winter hibernation

Science in My Fiction is hibernating for a bit. We’ll be back in 2013 with new science to inspire and fascinate you.

Ballgown to beret

The science news last week featured this ugly customer and its disgusting slime.

A disturbed hagfish can produce large volumes of slime. Once the mucus is removed, the remaining protein fibers can be reprocessed into something like silk. That’s even weirder than a sow’s ear, I think.

But it leads neatly into one of my favorite worldbuilding concepts: where stuff comes from, and one of my particular favorite areas within that, cloth and clothing. Clothing fits so neatly at the intersection of climate and culture, and comes in such variety, from the raw materials on up.

So about those raw materials. Let’s start there. Do they come from plant stems, like linen, or seedpods like cotton and kapok? Or bark, or roots? What about animal products: skin, hair, fur, wool? Or fish slime? Fibrous minerals like asbestos, which can be woven?

If the raw materials are collected wild, who collects them? If cultivated, whose job is that aspect of agriculture?

Who processes the raw materials, and with what level of technology? Early medieval European cultures processed linen and wool with drop spindles and simple but effective looms. It was slow, and even the simplest clothing was incredibly valuable.

The wool must be washed, combed and spun into yarn. For linen, the stems of the flax plant are rotted slightly (called retting), and the fibers combed away from the straw. Then again they must be spun into yarn. Then the yarn can be woven into fabric, and cut and sewn into garments.

(Dyeing is a whole separate issue, and a complicated process.)

Or is it entirely mechanized, the processing and the weaving and the making of garments? That’s largely the situation much of the world today. Our clothing is incredibly cheap, often nearly disposable, while at the same time of a fineness hard to duplicate with hand tools. (Except for the finest Egyptian linen: we just plain can’t reproduce that with machines.) Industrialization offers up more possible materials: fibers processed from cellulose (rayon), or from petrochemicals (nylon).

What is done with the finished product? Which aspects of clothing are needed for protection from the elements, and which are fashion? A culture that lives entirely in climate-controlled environments may only need the fashionable aspects.

Who does the work, from procuring the fiber, to processing it, to spinning, weaving, tailoring? Is is low- or high-status, or variable across the tasks? (Raising sheep is much lower status than fashion designer.)

Where do people/aliens/whoever get clothes? From a custom-manufacturing robot? From a shop? From a tailor? Make them at home?

You get the idea. I find this kind of thing endlessly fascinating. Where stuff comes from is often ignored or not thought through in worldbuilding, especially in medievaloid fantasy, but thinking about it a bit can lend depth to even a highly-advanced spacefaring culture.


One of the missions of SiMF is to present new science that’s interesting to science fiction and fantasy readers and writers. But with a weekly schedule, rarely do we get to bring you breaking news.

Today, though, I’m writing this while listening to the NASA briefing about the Curiosity Rover’s latest findings (live from AGU, Noon EST, 3 December 2012). A few weeks ago John Grotzinger told NPR that Curiosity had provided some exciting new results.

Wild speculation ensued, of course, forcing NASA to backpedal: “not really earthshaking.” Which is what I’d figured: it would be something that makes scientists really excited, and bores the general public.

So what did they find?

Curiosity sampled soils that are much like those sampled by Spirit and Opportunity. This is important to check, to make sure that what they’re looking at is usual rather than something odd.

NASA soil samples on Mars
(Curiosity’s soil samples; image courtesy of NASA

SAM data: that’s what I’ve been been waiting for. Paul Mahaffy is describing the SAM results, and says right up front that they haven’t found any definitive organics in this sample. Curiosity takes the soil sample and heats it, then measures what gases come off. Mostly water vapor, followed by carbon dioxide, some oxygen gas (O2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

The deuterium to hydrogen ratio in the water was higher than it is on Earth. Deuterium is heavier than the regular isotope of hydrogen, so water molecules are too. My guess is that lighter water molecules would be more easily lost to space, so Mars ended up with more heavy isotope. (Ah yes, this was addressed in the comments.)

Oxygen and sulfur dioxide, plus other sulfur compounds were observed, and were also seen by the Phoenix lander. SAM did find organic chlorine compounds, but they can’t definitively state yet that the carbon is Martian rather than terrestrial. Mars is a harsh environment, and lots of things can break up organic compounds.

So: simple organics, but not conclusively. Signs of complex chemistry, including perchlorates. As Karl Schroeder pointed out on twitter, this has direct relevance to figuring out whether the Viking experiments did or didn’t find evidence of life. Perchlorates can break down organic molecules. The SAM instruments are much more sensitive than those on the Viking lander, and scientists have a better idea of what they’re working with and looking for, plus much better control of experiment planning. The ability to modify experiments based on previous experiments? Invaluable.

John Grotzinger ended the panel by reminding everyone that this is a slow process, and patience is necessary. The equipment is working well, and mission scientists are working to figure everything out.

Here’s the official NASA summary, and screenshots of the graphics presented. What do you think?