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Further adventures in chemistry

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the endochronic compound thiotimoline, first reported by noted biochemist Dr. Asimov. No? His original publication on the subject is a model of scientific writing, as is apparent in this excerpt from “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” (Asimov, 1948).

It has been long known that the solubility of organic compounds in polar solvents such as water is enhanced by the presence upon the hydrocarbon nucleus of hydrophilic – i.e., water-loving – groups, such as the hydroxy (-OH), amino (-NH2), or sulfonic acid (SO3H) groups. Where the physical characteristics of two given compounds – particularly the degree of subdivision of the material – are equal, then the time of solution – expressed in seconds per gram of material per milli-liter of solvent – decreases with the number of hydrophilic groups present. Catechol, for instance, with two hydroxy groups on the benzene nucleus, dissolves considerably more quickly than does phenol, with only one hydroxy group on the nucleus. Feinschreiber and Hravlek in their studies on the problem have contended that with increasing hydrophilism, the time of solution approaches zero. That this analysis is not entirely correct was shown when it was discovered that the compound thiotimoline will dissolve in water – in the proportions of 1 gm./ml. – in minus 1.12 seconds. That is, it will dissolve before the water is added.

Not current on your organic chemistry? Then just read the final sentence of the above excerpt, though I do recommend making an attempt at the full paper linked above.

Dr. Asimov went on to publish several more studies on the subject, including “The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline” (Asimov, 1953) and “The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline” (Asimov, 1957).

Other scientists have picked up the topic, expanding greatly on the potential applications of this compound.

A 1989 letter to the British Medical Journal clarifies the history of thiotimoline research (Croall, 1989).

A researcher at Sun Microsystems has been pursing the use of thiotimoline for debugging computer systems (Davidson, 2001):

We have used thiotimoline to build a silicon debugging platform that works as follows. We apply a functional test to two units under test (UUTs) running in lockstep. When the test system detects an error in unit A, a signal alerts special equipment to add water to a thiotimoline sample. Exactly 1.12 seconds before the water is added, the thiotimoline dissolves. This action triggers the sending of a signal, which travels to unit B and stops its clock after a programmable number of cycles. The 1 s between the addition of water and the thiotimoline’s dissolution is far longer than the error latency.

“Yet Another Application of Thiotimoline” appeared in the same journal, IEEE Design & Test of Computers, in the subsequent year (Nelson, 2002). The author proposes a thiotimoline-based keyboard to help overcome writer’s block.

Dr. Asimov himself returned to the study of thiotimoline in 2007, to propose an application in the social sciences: using a telechronic battery to prevent election fraud.

Rat Telepathy: Let There Be Nuance

The scientists developing rat telepathy have an aim. They want to answer the question: Can mammal brains be trained to communicate with each other electrically? Research shows that it can work in rats, at least. Much remains to be seen: Will it work in other mammals? In humans? For now, the electrical communication is one-way; is ‘telepathic’ repartee possible? Is it possible for different species to communicate effectively brain-to-brain?

We know from other research that some mammal brains can control machines designed for that purpose. But what about feedback – sensory information simulating touch transmitted from prosthetic to brain, for example? Current science seems to indicate it’s possible. It’s certainly an easy leap to make in fiction, but any scientist worth her weight in pipettes will tell you that it’s usually a few orders of magnitude harder to manage in real life.

Navigating the administrative and regulatory obstacle courses between the lab bench and the clinic alone is costly in terms of time and money, yes, but it also takes a toll on the heart. The business of science is hard on people. It consumes researchers in much the same way biologists burn through reagents, and at metaphorically the same rate. It’s dimensions harder for scientists who experiment on animals. Not only are the mountains of paperwork piled higher and the pitfalls dug deeper, the researchers are human. Animal lovers and vegans among their number.

How can anyone tolerate animal testing? For that matter, how can anyone eat meat? It’s all down to our capacity for cognitive dissonance. Hypocrites! Idealists!

It’s complicated. It’s hard and it should be. We should be suspicious of over-simplification, even in our own fiction. We should look close, listen carefully, and imagine with depth. In our writing, we should resist the ‘mad scientist’ trope. For a fun change of pace, avoid pursuing plot devices to their logical extremes. Instead of painting science as the villain, how about shining a light on the tensions that emerge when budget constraints – sequestration, anyone? – force post-docs to compete with their mentors for increasingly limited federal funds? Why not examine the consequences of alowing basic science to languish while throwing money at the few headline-making scientists so adroit at standing on giant shoulders that they achieve celebrity status? What happens to a civilization after a generation of quiet giants is lost?

And what of the tender-hearted scientist? She’s no fool. She would never release lab animals into the wild. Instead, her data is better because she stacks the deck in favor of her furry subjects. They have the best care possible under the circumstances, and it shows in how well her test results stand up to peer review. Her work informs others’ and ultimately, the care provided in her vivarium becomes one high standard to which others’ are upheld. She is loved and hated. As can happen to any normal person, she becomes known in certain circles for something other than what she intended. It’s a pain, but one she knows she’s lucky to have. Her social media presence is trolled by animal rights protesters and zealous novelists alike. In the end, she’s offered few choices: Embrace celebrity or obscurity. Chase research dollars or abide by evidence-based principles… What’s a tender-hearted scientist to do?

There is room in any given story for both technological advancement and, oh, the humanity! We can navigate the inelegant intersection of rat telepathy and animal rights. Why don’t we? We could place blame with ignorant writers, lazy readers, or publishers who aim for the lowest common denominator, but the real answer is beautifully more complex. It encompasses everything from public funding for STEM education through social stigma for being unironically enthusiastic science nerds. It defies gender binaries and thumbs its nose at sterotypes. There is no overly simple answer.

So, let’s look beyond the obvious extrapolations from this most recent piece of sensational science news. Let there be nuance.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Last spring, I put out a call on my public journal for topic suggestions. A friend of mine and traumatic brain injury [Wikipedia] (TBI) survivor suggested I explore what TBI [Mayo Clinic] has taught us.

Like many of the topics I’ve written about here, I had much to learn before I could begin. Once I researched TBI [Neurologic Rehabilitation Institute at Brookhaven Hospital], I had difficulty breaking the vast topic [Open Directory] back down into a streamlined piece. I have my former editor, Kay Holt, to thank for some of the links I will be including and also for the flow of the piece. As usual, the links will take you to articles that explore the main and related topics more thoroughly. Please have a look beneath the surface.

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Playing ‘Red-Light, Green-Light’ in Space

If you dislike insects, then long term space travel is probably not for you. Contrary to the space operas you may have read or watched, wise humans will always surround themselves with creepy critters who love to do our dirty work. For that matter, can we even survive happily or well without our companion animals? Can we remain humans as we know ourselves in the absence of other Earthling species? I suspect not.

Since the start of 2011′s Science in My Fiction Contest, I’ve been tweeting and blogging links to science news items that may prove useful to potential contestants. First, I touched on some interesting technological ideas for use in science-inspired fiction. Then I reminded writers that ecology-based worldbuilding doesn’t end when humans leave Earth behind. This week, I recommend maggots, parrots and molecular ‘traffic lights’ as likely candidates for your far future fiction:

In space stories, there are a couple everyday events that are usually ignored or glossed over as much as possible. Death and poop. These are naturally messy processes and products, and we will need systems in place to turn our losses into something beneficial. We could do as we do now and send low-status humans to clean up and process the ‘waste,’ or we could invent robots to do the work, but I think we can do better than that. Why not save ourselves a lot of inconvenience and bring nature’s cleaning crew with us on our long space journeys? Yes, I’m suggesting we recycle the dead and the digested with the help of fly larvae. Think of it as our descendants’ way of ‘returning to the earth’ without having to make a U-turn in space.

Even after we’re well-settled in space, we may never discover alien life that we can recognize or communicate with. That doesn’t mean humans will ever be alone in the universe. We may dominate the Earth, but we’re hardly the only clever beasts around. We’re not even the only tool-users! In the future, spacefarers may need to choose their shipboard plant and animal communities with even greater care than their human crew, and with that in mind, I would like to recommend brainy birds. It might be tricky to engineer space environments favorable to delicate species, but it might be worth it for the sake of biodiversity. And you never know when a speech-mimicking, tool-using, air-travelling seed disperser might come in handy on a starship.

In the far future, there will literally be sickness like we’ve never known. Along with many of the things we’re familiar with on Earth. There really should be no doubt that various methods of genetic engineering will come in to play – if not before liftoff, then certainly while we’re between-worlds – but not every genetic problem humans (or the species we bring to space with us) have now or develop later will require us to replace ‘bad’ genes with ‘good’ genes. Sometimes the problem isn’t the DNA itself, but the little under-appreciated messengers employed by the genes. Per DNA instructions, mRNA tell cells what proteins to make in order to function, but sometimes the little messengers stop short and deliver only part of the blueprint. The results can be deadly, so it’s a good thing for our fiction (and our futures) that we’re working out how to bring more subtlety to our interactions with genomes.

Now, go! Write! Win! And if you come across a scientific development you’re interested in sharing, leave a comment or ping me on Twitter @sandykidd.

Life, Death, and Water Mythology

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for some time. The movie is loosely based on Tim Power’s  novel by the same name. In anticipation of this event, I talked my fearless editor into letting me celebrate with a post or two.

While chatting about potential topics related to the movie centering around water and the fountain of youth, she mentioned water myths in the context of space travel. I was surprised at first. I so seldom think about such things when I consider space exploration. Sure on alien lands, encountering alien cultures I can absolutely see it. I just don’t think of any kind of belief system in relation to spaceships and travel. The one exception might be John Scalzi’s  The God Engines.

Ok so let’s try an experiment. I am going to share with you locations, creatures, and ideas both real and fantastic that belong to our collective human mythology involving water. They will be direct quotes from various sources.  As you read over them, try and think how they might fit into stories involving space travel. Are you with me? Good. Read the rest of this entry »

Big Speculation – Fat Fiction

 More people on Earth are overweight than underweight. Yet the trajectory of human body size in science fiction and fantasy could be graphed with a line sloping sharply in the opposite direction. Where’s the fat? 

Authors, we’re not doing anyone favors by dodging the facts of life. Fiction’s greatest purpose is to address reality in a way that frees readers to relate to it without suffering it directly. We certainly don’t make our writing any better by preempting the fat (or dark skin, or women, or children). If anything, we sabotage our stories by depriving our characters of experiences that matter to real people living in the real world. 

Of course this problem has complex origins. Western fat bias is going global, and escapism will always have wide appeal, after all. However, I suspect part of the problem stems from a generally poor understanding of what fat is, how it works, and why it’s important. 

Here’s the skinny on fat: Every cell in our body requires cholesterol to function. We need fat to live, so there’s no point demonizing it or pretending it has no place in speculative fiction. Furthermore, fat cells – collectively, adipose tissue – do so much more than store excess calories. Fat behaves like the other organs of the body; it actively participates in metabolism, yes, but it also influences our neurochemistry and immune system

There is more to talk about than weight loss when it comes to fat. Isn’t it curious that different types of fat deposits predict different long term health outcomes? Isn’t it more interesting that one’s sense of satiety, of ‘fullness’, depends more on the brain’s ability to receive certain chemical signals from the gut than it does on how much is eaten? Isn’t it downright fantastic that, once upon a time, being fat was socially advantageous? 

When I browse a bookstore, I see vast expanses of neglected frontier. Even the science fiction and fantasy sections are narrow and homogenous. If our art imitated life, I’d see two covers with ample main characters for every one featuring an athletic lead. It makes me want to write in the gaps. To fill the void in our fiction with fact. And fat. 

Five minutes of speculation later, and I already have more ideas than I have time to develop: 

- Aliens make first contact and assume that the widest person on Earth is our leader. 

- A zombie epidemic starts with an appetite suppressant, and only the obese outlast the horde. 

- Santa Claus trims up and loses his powers, and is nightmarishly replaced by Rumpelstiltskin. 

- It turns out that the fatter one’s body, the greater one’s magic, but because using magic burns calories at a phenomenal rate, nearly all magic is applied to agriculture.

What’s your big speculation?

Fiction: “The Fermi Project” by Edoardo Albert

“We’re spending Christmas in LA next year,” Jeff said.

His younger brother, Brandon, continued to stare out at the snowscape. “You say that every year.”

“It gives me something to say.”

Brandon gave no sign that he had heard. Jeff blew on his hands and stamped his feet against the cold.

“Must be cold for you, too.”

Brandon slipped him a quick grin. “New Mexico nights are chilly,” he said. “But not like here in New York, it’s true,” and he turned back to contemplating a world gone white.

Jeff peered through the door. Inside all was movement and noise, a blur of preparation and excitement as Mom and Mark, Janine and the kids prepared in their various ways for Christmas.

“It’s going mad in there,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Brandon, not needing to look around. “It’s better out here.”

Jeff stepped out of the light streaming from within and joined his brother looking up at the sky. They each had their reasons for staring at the stars.

“Still chasing ET?” Jeff asked, turning from the night sky to his brother.

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