Posts Tagged ‘extrapolate’

Co-Dependency, the Natural Way

Species don’t exist in a vacuum. That is, if you go nearly anywhere on this planet, you’re not going to find just one form of life. You’re going to find several, all filling different niches and frequently interacting with each other. (I say nearly because I don’t know whether the extremophile bacteria in the Earth’s crust are one species or several. I’m betting there are a range of them in any given location, given how resilient and diverse life is.)

The most familiar relationship between species is probably that of predator and prey. There’s the lion and gazelle, the wolf and the caribou, the anteater and the ant. We’re familiar with parasitism too—one species feeding off another without killing them first. It’s as easy to cast Earth parasites as villains as it is to cast predators. Parasites are often widely known, affect humans, have historical impact, or get handy evil-sounding names. Examples of the first three categories are fleas, mosquitoes, intestinal worms, ringworm, lice, and insect-born diseases such as malaria. Examples of the last one include strangler figs, vampire bats, and the zombie ant fungi that have been in the news lately.

Stargate’s Goa’uld, Spider-man’s Venom, and the xenomorph from Alien are examples of fictional parasitic antagonists. There’s a list of other made-up parasites on Wikipedia, though it’s probably incomplete. That said, I think we could go further. I’m not sure I’ve seen a bio-apocalypse or bio-thriller with protozoa or insects as a vector, though I’ve seen them with bacteria and viruses. And we shouldn’t forget the parasites that don’t affect humans. Some insects, such as wasps, lay eggs in other animals. A number of vines choke the life out of their supporting plants. Who knows what other kinds of parasites might evolve on other planets? Or if an alien parasite could use the strangling or egg-seeding techniques on humans?

Discussion of parasites leads us into other types of symbiotic relationships. (Yes, parasitism is a form of symbiosis.) There’s mutualism, where both species benefit. There’s commensalism, where one species benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed. There’s also amensalism, where one species inhibits or kills off another but isn’t affected itself. Penicillium mold does this with some bacteria, for instance, and some plants produce substances that kill off competing plant life.

Mutualism can involve trading resources (think of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in plants), trading a service for a resource (pollinators, remora and sharks, animals dispersing seeds), or trading services (clownfish and anemones, ants nesting in trees). Humans are in mutually beneficial relationships with the bacteria in their intestines, and with domesticated animals.

Examples of commensalism include the cattle egret, which feeds off the insects stirred up by grazing cattle; barnacles, which attach to animals and plants as well as rocks and ships; plants that use other plants for support, such as orchids or moss; and hermit crabs, which use shells as housing.

Of course, the plants, animals, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria that engage in symbiotic relationships continue to evolve. They become better parasites, or better killers of parasites, or better nitrogen producers, or better protectors of their symbiotes. They’ll change size or shape or color or biochemistry. A change in one often means a change in the other. Symbiotes may even suffer a disability if their counterpart is removed. Lichen wouldn’t even exist if you separated the fungi and algae that form it, and removing a symbiote from an ecosystem could cause a cascade of species deaths and ultimately destroy the ecosystem.

Some questions that may spark a story or two:

  • What happens if you introduce an alien (let’s say, truly alien) species that becomes a parasite or other symbiote to a native organism?
  • Could you bioengineer a lifeform to enter into a symbiotic relationship with a plant/animal that needed a boost? Could you turn parasitism into mutualism?
  • Could you alter a symbiote’s genes to give it freedom? Would there ever be a circumstance where you’d want to do that?
  • What if one intelligent species was oppressing its equally intelligent symbiote for, say, eating insects instead of plant matter or having a strange physiology?
  • Since symbiotes tend to co-evolve, pick a possible resource or service that a species could provide, the crazier the better, then create a species that would make use of it. Remember that it will likely also be providing a service or resource for the other species. (E.g., a mollusk that feeds off electricity produced by electric eels; a plant that grows on a herbivore’s head and acts as a sound amplifier; an insect that cultivates a particular plant so that its eggs can hitch a ride on the seeds)

The True Nature of Santa

From deviantART

Every December I get this one email. You know the one. It’s supposedly written by a physicist, and states that Santa would have to travel so quickly he’d burn up, no reindeer team could possibly lift a sleigh carrying one doll for every Christian/secular/Christmas-celebrating child in the world, the sleigh would have to be impossibly strong to carry all that weight, etc, etc. I’m always left with a nagging feeling that somebody’s using physics to further their anti-Santa agenda, and that the facts in that email cannot be the whole story.

Fortunately, the internet provides. Here are not one, but two refutations! (You’ll need to scroll down to the second item on that last link.) That’s an awful lot of reading, I agree, so I’ll summarize the key suggestions for you, and explain what they tell us about Santa. Nice of me, no?

• Santa uses an ion shield so he doesn’t burn up. As we currently do not have widely available ion shield technology, this leaves us with four options. 1) Santa has stolen and elaborated on state-of-the-art, possibly classified technology. 2) Santa is secretly a physicist. 3) Santa comes from a civilization that has perfected the ion shield, i.e. Santa is an alien, or 3a) Santa is a time-traveling philanthropist.

• Santa uses the frictionless environment of space to improve his travel time. Santa’s sleigh is equipped with artificial gravity strong enough to maintain an atmosphere, or Santa and his reindeer all wear spacesuits and carry oxygen tanks. If artificial gravity, see the ion shield explanations.

• Santa makes use of more than four dimensions. Again, this suggests Santa is an alien or a time traveller, as we currently have no way of accessing more than four dimensions (consistently, at least. Who knows what the LHC is really capable of?). Alternatively, Santa can do magic, a fact supported by Christmas folklore and literature, and by the fact that he routinely employs elves. The use of 5+ dimensions may also explain why Santa’s workshop is invisible.

• Santa is Einstein. See: time-traveling philanthropist; physicist.

• Santa causes global warming. Unfortunately, this is an argument against Philanthropist Santa. Perhaps he’s trying to make the North Pole warm enough he can save on the heating costs?

• Santa uses wool hats as thought-monitoring devices. This is evidence of a massively advanced technology, as there is nothing about wool that makes it useful for monitoring thoughts. Additionally, there would need to be a way to transmit the information over massive distances (such as radio waves) and again, there’s no evidence of a transmitter in any wool hat I’ve ever seen. Not even the pompoms. See: time traveller; alien.

• Santa’s reindeer use vacuum energy to fly. Further advanced technology. Possibly evidence of a) mutant reindeer or b) alien lifeforms that bear a strong resemblance to Earth reindeer.

• Santa’s reindeer are a new species. This is entirely possible, given that we’re still discovering new species, but is made less plausible by the extent of exploration that’s taken place in the world’s arctic regions, the reindeer’s natural habitat. Perhaps Santa uses the North Pole as a wildlife preserve. These reindeer may have evolved to resemble robots (strong skin, flight, ability to withstand massive heat, weights, and speeds, as well as vacuum). Possibly they are, in fact, robots (or cyborgs).

• Santa’s faster-than-light travel slows down time. This presupposes that Santa can travel faster than light. Since he can’t be teleporting (there’s documented evidence of him and his sleigh flying, landing on roofs, etc.), he must be using advanced technology again.

• There are multiple Santa Clauses. Cloning! Or the theory from the archive, that there’s actually a family of Clauses. This would mean that there are multiple teams of reindeer, which would give support to the wildlife preserve idea.

• Santa realizes all possible quantum states, or exists as one “particle” spread over a great distance. a) alien b) magical c) Schroedinger’s Santa. There’s no other way he’d be able to reestablish himself in one place, at one time, without one of the above. As various people in the archive point out, this also accounts for his invisibility while visiting houses.

• Santa uses guided-missile type technology to drop presents down chimneys without landing. I personally don’t believe this, because there’s too much documented evidence of him going down the chimneys too. However, if you want to go with this idea, think about what parameters Santa would need to key the homing tech to, to land the gifts under the tree without hitting anything? Does the technology lock onto anything green, big, and triangular? Do we even have the ability to guide missiles without using a heat signature as the target? I call advanced technology again.

• Rudolph’s nose is actually red-shifted during flight. Plausible, given the speeds he’d be moving at.

• Santa is dosing his reindeer. Perhaps it’s the hour I’m writing this, but I’d say this is possible. Not particularly nice of Santa in the long run, though. The reindeer would have massive burnout or withdrawal symptoms come Boxing Day. Continuing the routine year after year would also likely shorten their lifespans. This seems to be an argument against the wildlife preserve idea.

• Santa’s reindeer fly in the same way that Arthur Dent flies, i.e., they just forget to hit the ground. This is so silly it has to be true.

• Santa’s workshop is situated at a wormhole nexus. If so, what else is coming through? And how can we make use of this remarkable resource?

I would also like to add that Santa may have a personal cloaking device, a larger one for his sleigh and reindeer, and an even larger one for his workshop, to account of his invisibility. Alternatively, Santa has a TARDIS, which would let him do faster-than-light travel, get into any building, and possibly be in multiple places at once.

Most of these points and suggestions make the case for Santa being either a time-traveller or an alien. However, time travel is pretty much impossible and a civilization that could achieve it on such a scale would be so far in the future I can’t imagine any of their citizens bothering with us folks in our historical backwater. Therefore, Santa must be an alien.

Anyone wishing to track his UFO tonight should go here.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it possible?

I’ve been interested in superheroes for a long time, and not only because I think telekinesis would be useful. It’s not the epic struggles, either, though that certainly plays a part too. No, what really intrigues me is that your average superhero story is a fantasy dressed up as science fiction.

As I see it, there are three basic types of superheroes:

  • The Mutated Hero, who’s undergone a genetic change or five which allow him (or her) to channel superhuman abilities. My pet examples are Spider-Man and the X-Men.
  • The Not-Of-This-World Hero, whose superpowers are of alien, magical, or divine origin. Think Superman and Thor, and possibly Wonder Woman.
  • The Technology Hero, who uses advanced technology and science to achieve his (or her) goals. I always think of Iron Man, though Batman and Green Hornet also fit this model.

How scientifically accurate are the sci-fi elements of these heroes? Generally not very, apart from the Technology Hero. What genetic change would allow someone’s limbs to stretch or contort in the blink of an eye, yet retain structural integrity? How can someone control the weather, or magnetism, or another human’s actions, with only their body and mind? Would an alien physiology really enable someone to fly or see through objects? Not to mention the problems with mind readers, size changers, teleporters, and human bodies moving supersonically under their own power. The only way to make powers like these plausible is to call them magic — which ties in nicely with the superhero-as-modern-god analogy.

I identified the Technology Hero as an exception because the weapons he uses are generally believable and often based on real-world science. I’ll admit to not being solid enough on physics to know if Iron Man’s suit would actually be capable of everything it does, but it looks plausible and I’m willing to bet that if we can’t do all that today, we will at some point. We can or are working on just about everything in a Technology Hero’s arsenal, and if we’re not, we’ll be able to mimic the technology at some point. We might not achieve forcefields or invisibility, for instance, but we should be able to overlap energy fields or use nano-engineering to achieve a similar effect.

The other types of heroes, though? I think if we stretch our minds we can come up with origins and powers that wouldn’t defy the laws of physics (or biology, or chemistry, or…). At least we can if we discount anyone who uses mystical or magical powers.

The alien Not-Of-This-World Heroes, though? As I said above, I don’t see the powers Superman and the Martian Manhunter have as being particularly scientifically accurate, even if they can be darn cool all the same. Why would Kryptonians (or Martians) need X-ray vision and laser eye beams on their home world? And why would Superman, who grew up on Earth, retain the full muscle strength of someone raised in Krypton’s higher gravity (or, for the alternate explanation of his strength, why would specific wavelengths of light affect strength)?

However, I do think that aliens could have what we’d call superpowers. Advanced stamina? The ability to withstand starvation, air deprivation, extreme temperatures, or other similarly harsh conditions? An amphibious respiratory system, or one that runs on methane? Acidic blood or saliva? Infrared or UV vision? Faster reflexes? More mental processing power? Even hovering or flight, if the world was right. Any of those (and more) could convey an evolutionary advantage, or become stronger on our planet. What if the alien was used to a different gravity or their metabolism was kicked into overdrive by a common Earth molecule such as chlorophyll? So, supposing there is intelligent life on other planets, I’d rank this kind of superhero as a scientific possibility.

Now we come to the last category, the least realistic after the magical and divine heroes. What Mutated Heroes exhibit are basically magical powers couched in science babble. To their credit, they were by and large created when DNA was a new discovery and not as well understood as it is today, and when the Cold War was causing mutation to become a trope, but still—how does a mutation based on exposure to radiation spread through the body and become active in a matter of days? I can understand adults passing latent mutations to their kids, and mutations occurring within the embryo, but not adult-exposure superpowers. In other words, the X-Men are more realistic than the Fantastic Four.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the X-Men are believable. They have some of the wildest, least scientifically plausible powers of any superheroes I’ve come across. Manipulation of heat energy, wings, telekinesis, invisibility, metallic skin, psionic armor… The only way I see these being possible is through technology, not through mental manipulation of the environment or what have you. Are we talking new kinds of brain waves that can become almost solid or maintain their strength over great distances? A controllable energy deficit within the body that would allow someone to absorb heat and thereby create ice? I’m racking my mind trying to come up with explanations for Storm, Magneto, and most of their colleagues, and I’m coming up short. This cannot be a good sign.

I think we might achieve “Mutant Hero” powers with judicial application of electronic implants, nanotechnology, and the like, which would turn our superheroes into Technology Heroes (and cyborgs). Can we get the same powers through biology and genetics? I highly doubt it, even when we fully understand how DNA works and can create our own versions of the molecule.

I’d love to see superheroes who fit the Mutant or Alien categories and were scientifically accurate. For that matter, I’d love to see Technology Heroes who were too. (Iron Man might have accurate inventions, but he’s sure not carrying enough power to run them all, even with the arc reactor.) I enjoy the magical aspects of the heroes, absolutely, but why don’t we get more science?

The color of alien pants

On June 4, Peggy Kolm posted her article Red hills of distant planets. Prior to that date, one title proposed for the article was “The color of alien plants”. During a discussion about the article, the proposed title was misheard as “The color of alien pants“. And the idea for this article was born.

Really, what color would alien pants be? And for that matter, would they wear them at all? This isn’t to suggest that all aliens are exhibitionists: maybe they just don’t need clothing.

Human use of clothing dates back (most likely) between 100,000 and 500,000 years. Its main purpose (initially) was protection against environmental threats; as humans evolved and lost natural physical protections like body hair, we needed extra help surviving harsh weather and difficult terrain. Clothing has evolved along with us, growing more sophisticated as we have: sewing needles date back as far as 30,000 years; flax fibers are known to have existed 30,000 years ago; and there’s strong evidence that humans have been weaving for a good 10,000 years or more.

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None of these things is just like the others

In my previous post, I explored convergent evolution: when two different species, usually separated by distance, evolve a similar physical characteristic independently of each other. At the end of the post, I said that I would follow up with a post on the far more common divergent evolution.

Simply put, divergent evolution is when two groups of the same species evolve differently. The environments in which the groups live are the most common cause of divergent evolution – in other words, if two groups of the same species are separated into different environments, they will each evolve and adapt separately to fit the environment they’re in. Arguably the most famous example of divergent evolution is Darwin’s finches, which he described in On the Origin of Species:

“The inhabitants of the Cape de Verde Islands are related to those of Africa, like those of the Galapagos to America. I believe this grand fact can receive no sort of explanation on the ordinary view of independent creation; whereas on the view here maintained, it is obvious that the Galapagos Islands would be likely to receive colonists, whether by occasional means of transport or by formerly continuous land, from America; and the Cape de Verde Islands from Africa; and that such colonists would be liable to modification;—the principle of inheritance still betraying their original birthplace.”

- On the Origin of Species, Chapter XII: Geographical Distribution. Charles Darwin, 1859

The “inhabitants” Darwin refers to in the above passage are the variations of finches. (It’s interesting to note that, since Darwin was developing the very concept of evolution, he didn’t have a word for it to utilize – instead referring to it as “modification”.)

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Extending Medical Nanotech

A couple weeks ago, Calvin Johnson wrote an interesting post on nanotechnology, discussing some of the proposals, current research, and ways to write about it in a more realistic manner. One application he didn’t touch on, however, was the current work being done in nanomedicine.

Most current medical nanotech takes the form of either microscopic drug vectors tuned to open for certain wavelengths of light, or particles designed to identify cancers by infiltrating cells or locking onto certain proteins. These particles are largely organic and often designed to mimic the actions of antibodies. All these methods are being touted as ways to combat not only cancer and infections, but have also been used to repair tissue damage following heart transplants.
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Form Equals Form Equals Function

Why is it that the most enduring, recognized form for aliens to take in our stories is “humanoid”? Walking upright, two legs, two arms, two eyes, etc. The most stereotypical term to refer to visiting aliens is “little green men“. Why do we so often assume that aliens will be so similar to us?

Part of it is undoubtedly because there is a comfort in familiarity; if they look kind of like us, they must be like us, right? (Conversely, we feel more confident when the bad, violent aliens look nothing like us.) A certain lack of imagination on the part of those who craft the stories also plays a role. And let’s not discount the practicality of putting a human actor in a roughly human-shaped costume.

But there’s actually a reasonable scientific justification for an alien life form to have a similar form to ours. It’s called convergent evolution.
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Extrapolative Fiction for Sapient Earthlings

Consider that storytellers are responsible for guiding culture. When it comes to direction, there are three options: Backward, into madness. Inward, into stagnation, redundancy, and relentless self-destruction. Or forward and outward. Of those, only the last supports the survival of our species. It’s also the only option which provides job security for storytellers, and that is no coincidence.

Lately there’s been an alarming trend away from the logical path. A lot of cultural progress has been undermined by zealous ignorance, and recapturing lost momentum can be the work of generations. Fortunately, storytellers have a shortcut at their disposal.
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