Archive

Author Archive

Crunchy!

One of my favorite topics is speculative agriculture, both science fiction and fantasy. What do people eat? Where does it come from? How is it grown? Answering those questions for a fictional milieu requires a wonderful mix of climate, trade, technology and culture. Sometimes there are real-world sources, like agricultural manuals or cookbooks from a particular time and place (for instance, this wonderful tenth-century agricultural calendar from Cordoba: not only when things happened, but what was important enough to be mentioned).

But this is “science in my fiction,” not “agriculture in my history.” So here’s a really interesting bit of science that if you’re a typical USian or European, you may never have thought about: bugs in space!

Yes, as food.

One of the many challenges that must be overcome if we’re going to leave this planet for extended periods is food. Raising food helps with supply chain problems, and has psychological benefits: would you want to live on preserved food and concentrates for years at a time? But there’s not likely to be room or time for meat animals (maybe fish eventually). So what about insects? They take minimal space and are extremely efficient at converting vegetable matter to protein.

Chinese research has concentrated on silkworms as a source of insect protein, but there are lots of other options, from mealworms to grasshoppers.

Eating insects could help out here on Earth too: raising insects to provide protein is enormously less resource-intensive than beef, pork or even chicken. It’s already an accepted part of the diet in many parts of the world. (And even squeamish Westerners eat plenty of insects in a year.)

Graphic of environmental costs of beef vs crickets

Can’t go into space but want to try eating insects yourself? There are plenty of prepared and packaged options.

Larvets packaged mealwork snacks

See you next year!

We sciency fictiony writery types are taking our customary midwinter break. We’ll be back soon, we promise! We hope you enjoy your own winter activities, whatever they may be (or summer activities, if you’re south of the equator).

Digging in odd corners

I like to explore the odder bits of biology: deep sea worms that get their energy from symbiotic bacteria which in turn make food from hydrothermal seeps without any help from solar energy, photosynthetic sea slugs, mysterious undersea creatures.

But here’s one that was new to me: fungi that eat gamma radiation. No really. We think of fungi as decomposers, if we think of them at all, breaking down dead plants and animals to keep the carrion from overwhelming us. But some fungi have melanin in their cell walls, the same pigment responsible for human coloration. These black fungi grow faster in the presence of gamma radiation.

The initial clue came from observing that these black fungi were thriving at Chernobyl, and trying to figure out why. Scientists tried growing them with and without gamma radiation, and studied the chemistry of melanin to discover whether it could be working kind of like chlorophyl does in photosynthesis. And yes, it might be. Not everyone is convinced: other scientists think the melanin is purely protective.

The idea that fungi could be getting energy from gamma radiation via melanin has a couple of science-fictional implications. First and most obvious is that humans could raise black fungi in space, exposed to radiation. But we have melanin too: what if we too could get energy from gamma radiation? Wouldn’t that be neat?

Is it or isn’t it?

Comet ISON, I mean. It went whizzing around the Sun on (US) Thanksgiving, and fizzled, thus ending the hopes of amateur astronomers like me for a December show.

XKCD comic

Except it didn’t, quite.

This ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory timelapse image shows the bright comet heading in, and something heading back out. (Remember that a comet’s tail points away from the Sun no matter which way it’s going.)

soho_c3_timelapse_new_0

While it looks as if ISON won’t be visible, watching the science unfold over the past few days has been utterly fascinating. Most people don’t get to see data come in and science happen nearly real-time, being exposed only to the articles written after everything is known. This blog post especially highlights the joy and frustration.

Karl Battams writes there:

And I just want to end on this note: not long after comet ISON was discovered, it began to raise questions. Throughout this year, as many of you who have followed closely will appreciate, it has continued to confuse and surprise us. For the past few weeks, it has been particularly enigmatic and dynamic, in addition to being visually spectacular. This morning we thought it was dying, and hope was lost as it faded from sight. But like an icy phoenix, it has risen from the solar corona and – for a time at least – shines once more. This has unquestionably been the most extraordinary comet that Matthew and I, and likely many other astronomers, have ever witnessed. The universe is an amazing place and it has just amazed us again. This story isn’t over yet, so don’t stray too far from your computer for the next couple of days!

Phil Plait has done his usual good job summarizing the ups and downs and ups and downs of ISON-watching, with his post from yesterday offering video and analysis.

David Levy famously said, “Comets are like cats: they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.” Definitely.

Even through my disappointment, I’ve found the real-time science a lot of fun to watch: the data coming in, the changing interpretations, the frantic scientists trying to figure out what to say to the inquiring public. More science-fictional scientists should behave like this!

Seeing the Future

I imagine that very nearly all of the readers of Science in My Fiction are familiar with the Star Trek: The Next Generation character Geordie Laforge and his VISOR.

20131014-194414.jpg

The VISOR scans the electromagnetic spectrum, then transmits its information to the brain of the wearer via the optic nerve. Something very similar was approved for sale earlier this year. The Argus II uses a video camera to capture the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, then processes that information and transmits it wirelessly to an implant on the user’s retina. The device only works for those suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that damages retinal photoreceptors, but leaves the rest of the retina.

The Argus II is extremely crude compared to the VISOR, but nonetheless it allows people with limited or no vision to perceive light and dark at sufficient resolution to find doors and locate objects, restoring basic visual function. The company making the Argus II is actively working on developing improved models with greater resolution and better sensor configurations.

Someday maybe they’ll even come up with something as good as science fiction.

Things we don’t know

This is over a year old, but I just ran into it: alien-seeming life forms right here at home. By which I mean 5000 feet below the surface of the ocean, which is an alien environment anyway.

But see for yourself. This video was taken alongside the leg of a drilling platform.

This image of the seamonster came from a NPR blog about how the creature was identified. The picture is neat enough, but watching the thing move is fascinating.

20130925-191536.jpg

But what is it? After some puzzlement, experts believe it’s a giant jellyfish with the lovely name of Deepstaria reticulum. How could they tell? One sharp deepsea expert spotted and recognized its gonads. (it’s all about sex, as usual.)

I can envision something just like that floating through the dense atmosphere of a gas giant planet, or undersea on an ocean planet far from here. Physics and chemistry are the same everywhere: some aspects of biology must also be familiar, or no more unfamiliar that something that lives so close to us, but nearly unreachably far.

Ka-boom!

Former contributor Monica Young is now the web editor for Sky & Telescope, and she passed along this story earlier this summer, saying “Actually, a lot of our stories bring science fiction to mind, but this one specifically mentions the impact rate currently going on at the Moon and Mars – something that would directly affect lunar and Martian colonies.”

We may get to watch it happen in October 2014.

Got science?

As autumn hits, the SiMF crew needs a little break. We’ll be back soon with all sorts of new science! And of course we’re always looking for new contributors.

We’re looking for people who love science and fiction both, regardless of their formal qualifications in either, love to write, and want to share those enthusiasms with the world. SiMF is an all-volunteer outfit: we do it for love, not money.

We’re most interested in short essays about how current science topics are relevant to speculative fiction, and we’re not particularly interested in reviews. An ideal writer will be able to contribute something every couple of months, but we’re also willing to consider one-off guest posts.

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.

Steal your food

When I was in college, my botany lab instructor had a cartoon on her door about ways to save the world. I don’t remember the other nine, but “Teach your dog to photosynthesize” has stuck with me over the intervening decades. That may be unlikely (though think of the savings in kibble), but some other animals have figured it out.

The sea slug Elysia chlorotica, for one.

Photosynthetic sea slug

If your biology teacher told you that animals couldn’t photosynthesize, she was only almost right. It turns out a few can practice kleptoplasty, the art of stealing chloroplasts from plants and using them yourself. It’s easy, if you’re the right kind of sea slug: eat some algae, digest most it, stuff the chloroplasts into their own tubules, profit.

It gets weirder, though: unlike most other species that steal chloroplasts, these sea slugs are born with algal DNA that lets them take care of their chloroplasts. This podcast interviews some of the scientists involved, if you’re into listening to your science as well as reading it.

Our terrestrial ecosystem is complicated and varied enough that many of the things we think are true are really just mostly true. How much weirder will it be when we finally meet up with non-terrestrial life? Or will it be no weirder than what we’ve already found?

Happy Marsiversary

We here at Science in My Fiction have written extensively about NASA’s Curiosity rover landing on Mars: the terror of landing on another planet, the successful landing and its early results.

Curiosity has been wandering Mars for a year today. What’s new?

We learned this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition that the landing was not as smooth as the public had been told: a vital navigational component was just a few centimeters out of place, and the discrepancy was not discovered until the very last minute. Change the programming and hope that everything works out? Don’t change the programming and hope that everything works out? Science can be full of tension and drama: it’s not just the science itself that can inspire fiction, but the stories of the people who do the science. (Listen to the interview itself, don’t just read the transcript.)

The article accompanying that NPR transcript has a wonderful video about the landing, cominding animations and actual footage. Curiosity has sent back thousands of photos, heaps of data, and demonstrated that Gale Crater once possessed the conditions necessary for life to exist. What’s next, for the scientists and engineers and their rover?