Archive for July, 2013

I do not think that there is an Encyclopedia Galactica, and that makes me sad..

I am a bookworm. There; I just dated myself and I do not care one bit. I am old enough to have experienced the “magic” of a physical library and I am as well the product of a time when to do school research meant to “hit the books” and physically look for any available information at your local town or school library. I am aware that my lament is in big part cultural. The same kind of feelings surely went through the minds of people transitioning from an oral tradition to written forms of information storage like clay tablets or scrolls. The same thing happened when humans transitioned from tablets and scrolls to the printed word and to those of us right in the middle of the transition from the printed word to the electronic word.

Anyway, physical libraries…

Sometimes, a “normal” library was not enough. If you needed specialized information on a topic, you had to go to specialized libraries like university or medical school libraries. Even then, any normal-sized library could contain only so much material, so the “interlibrary loan concept” was invented. You could borrow a book from another library. Also, if you needed a scientific article, this got a little more convoluted because you had to look in the published indexes of the scientific literature, look for the physical journal which may not be available at that particular library it and had to send for it etc., and so on. Furthermore, this only worked for English-speaking literature. If you needed to find a source written in other languages there was an extra layer of complexity…

Got tired from reading last paragraph? If so, I was able to convey the inherent “slowness” of how the process used to be. With that perspective I believe that you just gained a new appreciation of what we have now. Nowadays most information is just a click away.

But let’s go back to physical books for a moment. A traditional source of general information was the encyclopedia. Encyclopedias have been around for 2,000+ years. The main idea is to store a summary of all areas of knowledge, usually organized alphabetically. The word “encyclopedia” itself can be traced to (who else?) the Ancient Greeks and it roughly means “general knowledge” or “general education”. In earlier times, a single author could write the whole thing; philosophers tended to know about all general knowledge as it was understood at the time. In more recent times at least in the English-speaking world when you thought “encyclopedia” what you saw in your mind was some version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for example.

As intelligent science fiction developed it was inevitable that some kind of cosmic repository of knowledge in the form of an encyclopedia would be imagined byt a storyteller. The first example of this Encyclopedia Galactica (EG) seems to have come from the science fiction great, Isaac Asimov as part of his Foundation series. Another great (this one in science), Carl Sagan used the concept in his acclaimed series Cosmos, which by the way, it’s being remade into a brand-new series hosted by (the maybe great someday, but not quite yet in my opinion) Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is a great communicator like Sagan, but at this point Tyson has produced nowhere near the vast scientific output and original contributions to scientific knowledge (as opposed to books) that Sagan authored, but I digress.

The thing is that traditional encyclopedias are rarely used anymore. We of course, have the electronic world, therefore we must “rethink our thinking” if we insist on talking about an EG. It is only logical that in its modern incarnation, we start talking about a Galactic Internet (GI) instead of an EG.

It is very important to realize that the World Wide Web model is different from the encyclopedia model in a very important aspect. A traditional encyclopedia collects the current state of knowledge as provided by people that really know what they are talking about. Now, as we are all painfully aware of, the Internet is rather democratic and not in a good way. Anyone can post whatever they feel like without even knowing what they are talking about. This can be harmless, like posting a very much reasoned argument on why Kirk is better than Picard.

(See? To say that Kirk is better than Picard is a horrible, horrible mistake but it hardly harms anyone)

On the other hand, wrong information in say, science, technology or medicine can undoubtedly cause harm or worse. The tricky part is to figure out whether any web-derived information is true or not-so-true. So you see the problem; instead of an EG that works as a repository of galactic knowledge we could get the Galactic Wide Web (GWW), where anything could go. How can we determine what information from the GWW is correct or even at all true?

There is a second reason why I feel less than optimistic that anything like the GWW exists. I am talking about the speed of light. Let’s suppose that you run a GWW search. Besides earth, the next planetary server would conceivably be at least 4 light years away. You know where I am going with this.

And you thought dialup was slow…

Then again, I an writing this from my limited perspective in terms of my current understanding of the universe and its laws. Some other kind of physics needs to be developed to even begin to imagine faster than light communication, let alone faster than light travel.

But at this point, we don’t know of anything of the sort, so again, I do not think that there is an Encyclopedia Galactica, and that makes me sad…


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Maybe There’s Just One Universe And The Cat Is Just Alive (Or Dead)

Asserting that [Schrödinger’s] cat is both alive and dead is akin to a baseball fan saying that the Yankees are stuck in a superposition of both won and lost until he reads the box score. It’s an absurdity, a megalomaniac’s delusion that one’s personal state of mind makes the world come into being.

Hans Christian von Baeyer, Quantum Weirdness? It’s All In Your Mind, Scientific American 308:54-61.

There are a number of different interpretations of quantum mechanics, but the two most popular (and the ones most found in science fiction) are the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many-Worlds interpretation. In the Copenhagen Interpretation, developed principally by physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1920, a quantum particle doesn’t exist in one state or another, but in all possible states at once. It isn’t until we observe its state that a quantum particle is forced to choose one probability, and that’s the state that we observe. This is still the orthodox and most popular interpretation.

In the Many-Worlds interpretation, first developed by physicist Hugh Everett in 1957, for each possible outcome of any given action, the universe splits to accommodate each one, and everything that could have possibly happened in the past, but didn’t, has occurred in some other universe or universes. This interpretation removes the observer from the equation, and appears to reconcile the observation of non-deterministic events, such as random radioactive decay, with the fully deterministic equations.

But now there’s a relatively new interpretation called Quantum Bayesianism (or QBism) that combines quantum theory with Bayesian probability theory in an effort to eliminate the paradoxes found in previous interpretations, or at least put them in a less troubling form. It does this by redefining the wave function – a mathematical expression of objects in the quantum state. In earlier interpretations, the wave function is a real property of the object. But under QBism, the wave function is simply a mathematical tool and nothing more. The wave function has no bearing on the reality of the object being studied, just as the long-division problem to calculate your car’s fuel consumption has no effect on the gas mileage. Remove the wave function, and paradoxes – particles seem to be in two places at once, information appears to travel faster than the speed of light, cats can be dead and alive at the same time – vanish.

The notion that the the wave function isn’t real goes back to Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who considered the wave function a computational tool: it gave correct results when used to calculate the probability of particles having various properties, but there wasn’t a deeper explanation of what the wave function is. Einstein also favored a statistical interpretation of the wave function. But Qbism’s interpretation began in a short paper published in January 2002 under the title “Quantum Probabilities as Bayesian Probabilities,” by Carlton M. Caves of the University of New Mexico, Christopher A. Fuchs, then at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., and Ruediger Schack of the University of London.

QBism begins with Bayesian probability, which basically says, “I don’t know how the world is. All I have to go on is finite data. So I’ll use statistics to infer something from those data about how probable different possible states of the world are.” (For more on Bayesian probability, see my post “What, Exactly, Is Probability?“) It then applies this to determine the result of the wave function.

Let’s see how this differs by looking at the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. Schrödinger wrote:

One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat mixed or smeared out in equal parts. It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation.

In traditional interpretations, before an observer looks inside the box, the wave function describing the system is in a superposition where the stat of the cat is both “alive” and “dead.” When an observer is introduced, the wave function collapses the cat into one state or another (or the universe splits and the cat collapses into both states, one in each of the universes.) But QBism says that the wave state is simply a description of the observer’s mental state – their experience of the world in which they live in, as opposed the the reality that is that world, and these personal degrees of belief can be described using Bayesian probability.

Is there any evidence to support this interpretation? One of the key principles of quantum mechanics is the Born rule, which tells observers how to calculate the probability of a quantum event using the wave function. The Born rule states that the probability to find a quantum object at a certain place at a certain time equals the square of its wave function. Recently, Christopher Fuchs was able to demonstrate that the Born rule could be rewritten almost entirely in terms of Bayesian probability theory without referring to a wave function. This means that it’s possible to predict the results of experiments using probabilities without and no wave function, providing evidence that the wave function is just a tool that tells observers how to calculate their personal beliefs, or probabilities, about the quantum world around them. Additionally, QBism is currently being used in quantum computer science for Quantum Bayesian networks.


Appleby, D.M.; A. Ericsson; and C. A. Fuchs, 2011. “Properties of QBist state spaces”. Foundations of Physics 41 (3): 564–79. arXiv:0910.2750. Bibcode:2009arXiv0910.2750A

Fuchs, Christopher A., 2011. Coming of Age With Quantum Information: Notes on a Paulian Idea. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Fuchs, Christopher A., 2010. QBism, the Perimeter of Quantum Bayesianism.

Griffiths, Robert B. Measured responses to quantum Bayesianism. Phys. Today 65(12), 8 (2012); doi: 10.1063/PT.3.1798

Gomatam, Ravi Niels Bohr’s Interpretation and the Copenhagen Interpretation – Are the two incompatible? Philosophy of Science, 74(5) December 2007

Schrödinger, Erwin, Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik (The present situation in quantum mechanics), Naturwissenschaften (translated by John D. Trimmer in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society)

Tucci, Robert R., 2012. An Introduction to Quantum Bayesian Networks for Mixed States.

Future fashion

I’ve written here before about the frequent neglect of textiles in fantasy and science fiction, and the use of clothing as a way to understand the ecology and economy of a world a bit better.

Something in the news this week has prompted me to revisit it, from a more science-fictional angle: Japanese researchers have genetically modified silkworms to produce red and green fluorescent silk. It looks white under ordinary light, and colored under UV light.

Wired has pictures and details, and there are more photographs of fancier garments here. (The embroidery! I need some of this to weave with so badly.) Anyway, go look. I’ll be here when you get back to talk about science fiction.

The potential applications of this fascinate me: it’s a combination of advanced science (genetic modification, UV light availability) and very old technology (raising silkworms for textile production and processing their output, even though processing methods had to be modified for the less robust fluorescent silk).

Melding technologies like this is nothing new, but something we take utterly for granted. Most of what we eat is raised in ways not that different from the past centuries or millenia, but the way we process it is the product of advanced technology. (Your great-grandmother and mine would have been shocked and ecstatic with a modern stove and refrigerator, even if the meat and vegetables would have been largely familiar).

What parts of modern/medieval/earlier life and technology are we likely to keep in the future, and what parts would be utterly unrecognizable to someone from our time and place? Mixing together the familiar and the foreign in science fiction both grounds the reader (the familiar) and forces them to recognize that this isn’t quite like what they know (the foreign). That juxtaposition can lead to some of the best and most realistic worldbuilding.

Like a perfectly normal wedding dress that fluoresces in multiple colors during the reception.

What other juxtapositions can you think of? What about examples of SF that do a good job with this technique?

Planet of Haberdashers

Mining planets. Prison worlds. Agricultural colonies. Science fiction seems to be full of planets with only one industry. As a trope, it’s similar to the Planet of Hats, but instead of the aliens all sharing the same single defining characteristic, it’s their economy. Doctor Who features a library planet, and so does the Foundation series – plus the latter has Trantor, a planet that is literally nothing but the capital city. In Dune, Arrakis doesn’t seem to produce anything but Spice, and as a bonus, it’s a Single Biome Planet. Farscape has that planet where everyone’s a lawyer. And so on. The problem is, it’s nonsensical.

An image of two humanoid Edo, from Star Trek: The Next Generation

Star Trek: TNG is full of examples, but the one I’ll never forget is the Planet of Oversexed Aerobics Instructors.
Image via Memory Alpha

The theory behind single-purpose planets seems to be rooted in the idea of comparative advantage – that each planet will specialize in whatever they’re best at (library science, assassination) or have the most of (unobtainium, arable land) or have a monopoly in (drugs, aerobics instructors) and focus on that industry to the exclusion (or near-exclusion) of all others, exporting huge quantities of it and importing everything else in turn. But that’s not even how international trade works on this one planet we’ve got right here. For most countries, trade is a very small part of their economies – under 10% for two-thirds of them, with only a handful seeing numbers higher than 25%. Furthermore, most countries produce more than one thing for export. But the lion’s share of every country’s economy is inwardly-focused – producing and selling goods and services to be consumed by its own citizens. They have to – their workers can’t go on mining unobtainium or producing widgets unless they’re fed, clothed, housed, and someone’s there to fix the toilet when it plugs up. Unless you’re planning on calling a plumber from the Roto-Rooter system, I guess.

A 2008 article in Astropolitics outlines several more problems for our fledgling hairdressing colony. The cost of transporting goods over interstellar distances* means that anything so traded will be either extraordinarily valuable or intangible – information, in other words. And the time it takes to traverse those distances means not only that nothing perishable is likely to survive the trip, but that the price at which you can sell your goods may have changed significantly while you were in transit.

Finally, as Paul Krugman pointed out in his 1978 paper on interstellar trade (highly worth a read, despite its ostensible focus on some rather dry mathematical analysis), the opportunity cost of being an interstellar trader is really high. If you have multiple-year round trips (or up to several hundred years, lacking faster-than-light travel), the potential profits you anticipate need to be equal or better to the money you could have made by staying home and investing the cost of the trip locally. Agricultural exports and common minerals aren’t going to cut it, even if the food did keep until your next port of call.

If you’re writing about populated planets that aren’t Earth, you probably don’t need to generate sector-by-sector industrial reports, or tell us what the unemployment rate is for marginally-attached spaceship hull manufacturers. But it’s good to keep in mind that planets are, well, planets – and that treating them like really big mining towns or farming villages impoverishes your worldbuilding for those places.

*Unless one posits advances that make the construction and operation of arbitrarily large ships extremely inexpensive, ideally at faster-than-light speeds. But in a universe where human technology has progressed that far, why would we bother shipping doodads back and forth?

Living Light

When I was little, most kids marked the beginning of summer by the end of school. I always felt summer arrived with the fireflies. They were a special kind of magic of the same brand as heat lightning. Now as an adult, after a very long day, I am still working on this article as my husband streams the first season “Once Upon  Time.” The last episode was about dreamers and love. A dwarf was invited out on a date with a fairy to Firefly Hill. I think the magic of fireflies transcends age. Even when you know the science behind a thing, sometimes it remains as wondrous.

Bioluminescence is a form of luminescence, or “cold light” emission by living organisms; less than 20% of the light generates thermal radiation. It should not be confused with iridescence, structural coloration, phosphorescence.

By etymology, bioluminescence is a hybrid word, originating from the Greekbios for “living” and the Latinlumen “light”.

Bioluminescence is a form of chemiluminescence where light energy is released by a chemical reaction. Fireflies, anglerfish, and other creatures produce the chemicals luciferin (a pigment) and luciferase (an enzyme).[4] The luciferin reacts with oxygen to create light. The luciferase acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction, which is sometimes mediated by cofactors such as calcium ions or ATP. The chemical reaction can occur either inside or outside the cell. In bacteria, the expression of genes related to bioluminescence is controlled by an operon called the Lux operon (Bioluminscence, Wikipedia)

Why do organisms glow? (complete with a cool video)

How Bioluminescense Works ( a several page How Stuff Works Article with several visual aids)

How Light Works (a several page How Stuff Works Article that discusses many different kinds of light)

Many groups of animals bioluminesce. Various insects produce light-emissions. Some fungi and bacteria also possess this ability. The Milky seas effect is caused by bacteria in the sea and can sometimes be viewed from space. The majority of creatures that are bioluminescent live in the open sea, especially the deep sea.

It must have been during one of those magical summer breaks the first encountered the anglerfish in a deep sea documentary. It might have been something along the lines of this or this or this. The image of that fish left such an impression. It looked sinister and somehow lonely. The strangest thing was not the big gaping mouth that had such disproportionate rows of teeth. There is a long filament that shoots off of the fish’s spine. For the deep sea varieties, the ones featured on that documentary, these filaments not only dangle but they also emit cold light; they are bioluminescent.

With a greater understanding of the how and the why behind the light, I wondered if any research was being done into bioluminescence. It is! Check out this article on oil spill clean-up, Could Color-Coded Bacteria Help Spot Oil Spills?  Also, Lu Fong has a great article on Discovery’s, How Do Scientists Use Bioluminescence in Research? The article summarizes several areas of research and includes links to articles about the projects themselves.

Between my last animal camo article and this one, I tried to think of my own applications of bioluminescence in fiction. I only came up with lighting caves with bioluminescent bacterial culture containers.  As it turns out in something I read today, dried fish skins were used for this purpose ages ago. Neat. Can you think of a place for bioluminescense in your fiction?