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Archive for June, 2013

Insert Magic Here

Science fiction is not science fact, and shouldn’t pretend to be, but it should have respect for the laws of science. It’s not that everything within a scifi movie or a scifi book has to be scientifically accurate, only that it’s scientifically plausible. Star Trek is a great example of this, with its vision in the 1960s of handheld communicators echoing our mobile phones, its non-intrusive medical scans being a forerunner of CAT & PET scans today.

Star Trek never pretended to explain its advanced technology, only to predict possible forms in which technology could plausibly be expected to adapt. We don’t have teleporters yet, but we are exploring the idea.

One area in which books have an advantage over movies is they have the time and space to stay true to physics, if the author so chooses. But movies have a strictly limited format of 2-3 hours running time, and this imposes a number of hurdles for script writers, challenges they often overcome with some magical slight of hand instead of following the science.

I don’t mean to be pessimistic or critical of science fiction movies in this regard, as they need to keep the pace and rhythm of the story going, but this often means a disregard for physics because an accurate scientific representation is inconvenient to the plot.

star-trek

Star Trek Into Darkness, as an example, has starships falling from somewhere close to the Moon all the way to Earth in a matter of just a few minutes, instead of going into some highly eccentric orbit covering hours to days.

In reality, covering the 238,000 miles between Earth and the Moon in just a few minutes  would mean atmospheric entry would occur in the blink of an eye, and the craft would either burn-up or plough into Earth like a meteorite rather than crash landing intact in the sea. Ah, but don’t let that deter you from seeing Star Trek, as it’s an enjoyable movie, so long as you suspend your disbelief.

In the same insert-magic-here manner, a journey at warp speed to a distant star dozens of light-years away takes mere minutes in the movie, being comparable to a trip down the road in your car rather than a flight through the vast empty void of interstellar space.

The absurdly large distances involved in space travel present numerous problems like this for script writers, problems they often simply ignore.

There’s a scene in the latest Star Trek where Kirk is on the edge of “the neutral zone” talking to someone on Earth using a portable communicator. As Kirk is in the process of travelling between stars, this presumably happens at a distance of several light years, but the conversation is conducted in real time, something that would be impossible.

Perhaps there could be some kind of quantum-entangled device that allows faster-than-light instant communication (even though current science sees that as impossible), but between that an the ability to teleport instantaneously between planets in separate star systems, it does make you wonder why they bother with starships like the Enterprise at all. Using teleporters and quantum-entangled cell phones, the tyranny of distance would be reduced in practice to that of walking into the next room.

Ah… Star Trek… Once there was a time where if you wanted a little science in your fiction you could look to Kirk, Spock and McCoy to entertain you, even with a little hand waving on the side, but we’re not seeing too much of that these days.

Perhaps in the next movie we’ll see the script writers push themselves to stay within the bounds of physics and explore where science could boldly go.

Gender’s Giving Sci-Fi and Fantasy the COOTIES!

When I was a kid, dresses weren’t the problem. I was. Of all the sticks and stones lobbed in my direction, ‘tomboy’ was one of the kindest. I didn’t help my circumstances by refusing to wear pink or pigtails or shoes that went ‘click’ on the sidewalk.

I wasn’t just a no-frills kind of girl. On school picture day, I rocked a pair of  boys’ Transformers sandals. There was more to me than met the eye. True, I was born with certain genitals and I wore my hair very, very long until I was an adult. But no matter how hard people tried – and sometimes they tried with fists and guns – nobody was able to convince me that my crotch defined my self.

Girl or boy, gender was an imposition as far as I was concerned. I took to it like I took to a beating: With my guard up and my head down. That is, until I grew up enough to ‘fight like a man’. After that, I started hearing a lot of, “Babe, you have to let the boys win.” Why? “Because if you don’t, some guy’s gonna kill you.”

Those were the stakes. Be a proper girly-girl. Accept your role. Take it. Or else.

Pardon me while I carry on answering that threat of violence with a rude gesture of my own.

Ordinary people say a lot of daft things:

  • Gender and sex are the same thing.
  • Gender is innate and never changes (or should never change).
  • Gender determines sexuality (and it should).
  • I’m/she’s a girl, so I/she naturally [fills in the blank like a girl].
  • I’m/he’s a boy, so I/he naturally [fills in the blank like a boy].

When called out for telling lies and otherwise embarrassing themselves, they raise the usual defenses:

  • I can’t help it; I was brought up this way.
  • God says [whatever I say].
  • Science says—

GOTCHA! Science says that all humans are far more alike than we are different from each other, regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, race, or [you-name-it]. In unbiased experiments, the binary sexes (female/male) are effectively indistinguishable from each other. There isn’t a lot of research done which includes the entire plurality of gender (or the many sexes), but given that most people fail to even recognize more than two genders, my educated guess is that science wouldn’t be able to find a significant difference between straight, white, cis-gendered men and asexual, multi-racial, intersex androgynous people. Because there is nothing to find except IDIC.

Writers are human, though, so they sometimes make this noise:

  • My story’s not about that.
  • My characters just formed [white/straight/]cis-gendered.
  • I write for kids, and this ‘subject matter’ is too mature.
  • This is historical fiction, and gender wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the past.

To which I must answer:

  • Maybe not, but while opportunity is leaning on the doorbell, you’re hiding under the bed.
  • Who’s in charge, here? You, or the figments of your imagination?
  • Bullshit. Kids are swimming in this ‘subject matter’ while you’re refusing to write them something potentially life-saving.
  • BWAHAHAHAHA! (Do better research.)

These are usually met with hand-wringing and sham-sincerity: “I’m afraid of screwing it up. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Tough luck, Pinocchio, because, first of all, there is such a thing as offense by omission. Secondly, you’re better off telling the truth: You can’t handle critique, and you don’t want to learn. Finally, if your writing never challenges convention or tradition, it’s probably not important. Deal with that.

This sort of careless writing and non-thinking is why science fiction and fantasy fans can’t have nice things, like a woman Doctor Who. And why the first book in a certain bestselling series wasn’t a stand-alone titled Hermione Granger Kills The Dark Lord With Her Brain. And why writers are still falling over themselves trying to write the next Twilight, of all crap.

Because when we reach for a hero, we keep reaching until we find a dude, and when we need a victim or a dummy, we grab a chick (and put her in the fridge). Those characters who don’t fit the cis-gender binary are ignored completely… Until somebody needs a truly sinister villain. Or a corpse. Then it’s like a pride parade breaks out on the page.

Fortunately, there are some quick and easy shortcuts to avoid being a gender jerk in fiction:

I lied; there are no shortcuts. Educate yourself. Read stories you’re too timid to write. Read blog posts and articles by people whose very identities challenge your notions about what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’. Get uncomfortable. Spend some quality time with a mirror and a microscope. If you examine yourself honestly and find nothing about who you are that’s unconventional, please cast your likeness as the villain in your next story.

You might win an award for giving everybody the creeps.

Recommended reading:

Baggage Check” by Shay Darrach

FINE a comic by Rhea Ewing

Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency

Sourdoughs of Space

lacto-bigI recently read Ferrett Steinmetz‘s short story “Sourdough Station” that as the title suggests involves a sauerkraut-making operation on a space station. That’s not all the story is about, of course, but it did get me thinking about food and fermentation and what that might mean to folks living in space.

Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage and is high in vitamins, fiber, iron, folate and other nutrients.  Combine that with sauerkraut’s relatively long shelf life, and it seems like an ideal food for isolated outposts in space. Astronauts have already been experimenting with growing nappa cabbage and vegetables on the International Space Station, so it looks likely that growing leafy greens in space is within the realm of possibility. Assuming that the fermentation process works as well in space as it does on Earth, sauerkraut could become a space habitat staple as humans spread out among the stars. Or perhaps spacegoers would prefer something more like spicy Korean kimchi, since microgravity can dull the sense of taste.

Lactic acid bacteria  – primarily species of Lactobacillus – are not only involved in the process of fermenting sauerkraut and kimchi, but also the production of yogurt and cheese from milk, and making sourdough bread sour. But not any old microbe will do for optimal fermentation. Different species of bacteria are used in the production of different foods: Lactobacillus kimchii is a unique species found (naturally) in kimchi, Lactobacillus helveticus is used to ferment milk into swiss cheese, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus (discovered in the course of researching the longevity of Bulgarians) and Lactobacillus acidophilus are used in yogurt production, and Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis gives sourdough bread its sourness.

The different species and strains of bacteria vary in their biochemistry and so can significantly affect the flavor of the sauerkraut or yogurt or bread being produced. Often there are several different species of bacteria that are involved in the fermentation process. DNA analysis during the sauerkraut production process has found a number of different bacterial species present during the fermentation process. There may be an entire ecosystem of microbes in every fermentation pot.

So why is this important to my hypothetical sauerkraut-eating spacefarers of the future?

Even assuming there are no technical issues with designing safe fermentation vessels or growing vegetables to ferment, culturing the necessary microbes might turn out to be a challenge.

8344600413_0dd3a38dba_mEven under optimal conditions of temperature and humidity, space stations are unlikely to have gravity equal to that on Earth and that can affect bacterial growth. For example,  Lactobacillus acidophilus has been shown to grow more quickly in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station.

It’s not a stretch to wonder whether new strains of bacteria will have to be developed – or perhaps will arise naturally – for the production of deliciously fermented food in space. It wouldn’t be that far different from the development of new strains of yeast that revolutionized the brewing industry here on Earth.

But the fact that the background radiation levels on a space station or spaceship could be significantly higher than that on Earth could significantly raise the mutation rate in bacteria onboard, and there is always a risk that such mutations could render otherwise harmless bacteria dangerous. And even harmless bacteria could harbor mutations that modify their metabolism in such a way that it affects the fermentation process or the flavor of the fermented product.

At the turn of the 20th century Alaskan gold rush old-timers were known as Sourdoughs because they were reputed to protect their sourdough cultures during Arctic winters by keeping lumps of dough warm with their bodies. Spacefarers would similarly have to carefully protect and maintain any bacterial cultures used in food production.

I can imagine humans spread through our solar system and beyond, with different space colonies developing their own special fermentation cultures. Freeze-dried microbes would be easy to carry and trade, perhaps helping form the basis of a space culture barter system. They could be known for this, perhaps becoming the Sourdoughs of space*. They probably wouldn’t be so grizzled (or as nearly exclusively male) as the Yukon prospectors of a century ago, but like the original Sourdoughs would be living in an environment hostile to humans and they would known for the products of those precious microbes they maintained.

Since food plays such an important role in human culture, I like to think that’s how we’ll refer to ourselves.

Or maybe I’m just hungry …

Top image: Fermented foods made with lactic acid producing bacteria. From “Genomic comparison of lactic acid  bacterial published“, DOE Joint Genome Institute.

Bottom image: Lactobacillus casei uploaded by AJ Cann (AJC1) on Flickr and shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

86 Billion

Science fiction is full of examples of artificial minds. From Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet and Hal, from 2001, (technically, just a computer) all the way to Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons including the hideous (not!) Caprica 6. One of the best known types of robots are the ones imagined by Isaac Asimov. He was one of the first writers that in addition of creating robot characters, also incorporated in many of his stories a mechanism for creating artificial intelligence. He did this by “inventing” a still fictional technology for creating something called positronic brains. We will not go over positronic brains here though; maybe at some other time.

Regardless of the actual physical form that an artificial intelligence may have, the important thing (from the perspective of this post) is that some kind of mind/intelligence is at play. An implicit question is immediately apparent. How complex does a physical system has to be for the emergence of a human-style mind? In other words, what is the minimal number of interacting neurons that we need for consciousness to appear?

When we humans think about numbers, especially if we need to count a big amount of anything, we tend to think in groups of ten. This is most likely a consequence of (usually) having ten fingers. Because of that, people like working with “nice round numbers” usually some power of 10.

What are these “powers of 10”?

Well, you know: 10, 100, 1000, 10000, etc. We also use expressions like “order of magnitude”, which means essentially the same thing. This is, when something differs from anything else by (usually) a factor of ten, we are talking about an order of magnitude. Similarly, two orders of magnitude is a factor of 100 and so on. We just happen to feel comfortable thinking in those terms.

Now, when thinking about nature with that frame of mind, we come across to a lot of very curious coincidences. For example, the best available data suggests that there are close to 100 (maybe 200) billion galaxies in the known universe, each of them with an average of 100 billion stars. A billion, by the way, is a very big number. To avoid any confusion, what we mean by a billion here is 1,000,000,000, and it is a big number indeed. Just to give you some perspective, if you were to count to a billion at roughly one number per second, nonstop, you would need about 32 years.

Yep.

Another famous “100 billion” amount is the estimated number of nerve cells in a typical human brain. Oddly, nobody knows exactly where this estimate came from, even though is THE figure cited in virtually every book, every newspiece, etc. Because of that, a research group stepped up to the plate and decided to do the experiments to actually try and count the neurons in a human brain.

The result of that was the following paper:

Azevedo FA, Carvalho LR, Grinberg LT, Farfel JM, Ferretti RE, Leite RE, Jacob Filho W, Lent R, Herculano-Houzel S (2009) Equal numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells make the human brain an isometrically scaled-up primate brain. J Comp Neurol. 513(5):532-41.

The leader of this group is an accomplished neuroscientist, Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She kindly sent me a copy of her paper as well as many other papers on her research about the evolution of the brain. The paper is very well-written and their conclusions are logical and sound. However, these results triggered a minor controversy regarding the exact number of neurons in a human brain. The controversy was in no way the fault of any of the researchers; rather, I blame the current editorial trend of “byte-size” science that merely throws a flashy headline to get attention. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, except when the headline is not followed by adequate reporting. When this follow up does not happen, it will create deep misunderstandings.

Not so long ago, James Randerson wrote a piece for “The Guardian” titled: “How many neurons make a human brain? Billions fewer than we thought”, based on the Azevedo paper and an interview with Dr. Herculano-Houzel. Randerson’s piece is found here:

Basically, this piece “reports” that the Azevedo paper mainly found that the average number of neurons in humans is close to 86 billion. From the perspective of just this bare fact, yes indeed, we seem to be missing 14 billion neurons. Don’t panic though!

Azevedo’s paper describes how the measurements were done by determining the number of neurons by an interesting cell counting method that I will not discuss here (but it has been described as “brain soup” just in case you are interested in finding out more).

I want to clarify that I am not criticizing the paper. In fact, if find it quite interesting, that is why I read it!

But, back to topic…

There are several factors that immediately come to mind that need to be considered before using this sole paper as a reason to begin rewriting the textbooks to read “The human brain is composed of roughly 86 billion neurons…

**Brains tend to shrink with age; moreover, the rate of shrinking is surely affected by genetics and environmental factors.

**The sample size was only 4 brains, all of them men’s with an age range from 50 to 71 years old.

**Gender.

**General health and levels of physical activity.

And we could keep going, but you basically get the idea, namely that as it is right now, this data is not sufficient to state that the 86 billion figure is the definitive one.

Other scientists have commented on these issues and have urged a more cautious approach. One of these scientists is a collaborator of the Herculano-Houzel group, Dr. Roberto Lent, also a coauthor of the paper. For more information on Dr. Lent’s point of view go here.

Additional details:

The Azevedo paper reports finding and average of 86.1 +\- 8.1 billion neurons. This means that the actual number of neurons (the approximate range) can be as little as 78 billion or as high as 94.2 billion give or take (perilously close to the 100 billion accepted figure, gasp!). Now, the +\- represents the standard deviation, and the results seem to be reliable.

Thus, in my humble opinion, the number of neurons per brain reported in the paper does not seem to be significantly different from 100 billion as a first approximation. To the author’s credit, not a big deal is made of the issue of the number of cells in the paper. Furthermore, the main subject of the paper, explicitly stated in its text (and even in the title) is not neurons, but glial cells, namely that it seems that on average, there is one glial cell per neuron. Now, to me that is the most interesting thing about the paper. Why?

When they were originally discovered, glial cells were thought to play just a structural or supporting role in the nervous system; in fact, the very word glia means “glue”. However, glial cells are much more than that; we now know that they are quite the active partners in brain physiology. They work together with neurons so there is little doubt that glial cells affect many aspects of nervous system function. I am sure that there will be more interesting discoveries down the road!

As I said, I do not hold the authors of the paper responsible for this confusion. Rather, I feel kind of annoyed when I read reports (like the one in The Guardian) that pretend to be factual without the complete, relevant information required to reach a proper series of conclusions. It may well be that the 86 billion figure is significant and it tells us something about our brain or it may as well not, but we will not know which one it is with incomplete information; that”s for sure. Already, several prominent science writers have begun to talk about the 86 billion neurons in human brains as a fact. This is quite premature and a disservice to the public and to science writing as well.

That’s why I tend to mistrust byte-size, headlines-driven science reporting. Science writers have a very serious mission.

It is not that the exact number of neurons that we may have is unimportant, not at all! This piece of information will undoubtedly help us when designing true artificial intelligence, namely by saying, how many neurons do we have? Then again, the actual number may not be as important as how all those cells communicate with each other through chemical and electrical transmission, but that’s a yet another topic for some other time.

The take-home message: Take science-related hyperbolic news with a grain of salt, and whenever possible, go straight to the source to find out what the main point was (it kind of rhymes… ).

In the meantime, I will keep using my neurons and try not to think about whether I have 80 or 100 billion of them.

brainq

Picture credit: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/

This post is based on two posts previously written for my Baldscientist blog, with some updates added and explicitly linking it to science fiction. You can find the original posts here and here.

****Already an update! I contacted Dr. Roberto Lent and he informed me that a follow-up paper with more brains is about to be published! Stay tuned!****

 

If you want to know more:

Azevedo FA et al., (2009) Equal numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells make the human brain an isometrically scaled-up primate brain. J Comp Neurol 513(5):532-41.

Fields RD (2010) The Other Brain. Simon and Schuster.

Fields RD (2004) The Other Half of the Brain. Scientific American 290:54-61.