Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Scientists Gone Wild

“He had the greatest mind since Einstein, but it didn’t work quickly. He admitted his slowness often. Maybe it was because he had so great a mind that it didn’t work quickly… I watched him hit that ball. I watched it bounce of the edge of the table and move into the zero-gravity volume, heading in one particular direction. For when Priss sent that ball toward the zero-gravity volume – and the tri-di films bear me out – it was already aimed directly at Bloom’s heart! Accident? Coincidence? …Murder?” The Billiard Ball – Isaac Asimov

In “The Billiard Ball”, first published in the March 1967 issue of If, Asimov presents a story in which scientific competition rises to the level of murder. Maybe.  Asimov understood that scientists are human beings, and can be arrogant, petty, cruel, and filled with hatred. These traits, in turn, can make for a compelling science fiction story. And if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s plenty to be found.

Lord Kelvin, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, accused Wilhelm Roentgen, who announced the discovery of X-rays in 1895, of fraud. He argued that the cathode-ray tube, which Roentgen had used in his discovery, had been in use for a decade, and therefore if X-rays actually existed, someone would have already discovered them. True, he eventually came around and apologized, but calling a fellow scientist a fraud is pretty serious.

But Kelvin was actually the least of Roentgen’s attackers. Roentgen had borrowed a cathode-ray tube from physicist Philipp Lenard, who had been exploring fluorescence using cathode-ray tubes before Roentgen, although he failed to pursue its origins or photographically document his findings. Lenard became angry that Roentgen hadn’t acknowledged his work in developing some of the technology that lead to Roentgen’s discovery, and for years he both demanded credit for the discovery of X-rays while simultaneously (and wrongly) arguing that they were just a kind of cathode ray with new properties instead of a different phenomenon. Lenard’s attacks on Roentgen lasted until Lenard died in 1947, and because of the attacks, Roentgen left orders for all his papers concerning X-rays prior to 1900 burned, unopened, upon his death. Lenard went on to be an early member of the Nazi party, an advisor to Adolf Hitler, Chief of Aryan physics, and a fierce opponent of Albert Einstein and “the Jewish fraud” of relativity.

Then there’s English inventor and scientist Robert Hooke. Hooke was a polymath, and is often referred to as the English Leonardo Da Vinci. He discovered Hooke’s Law (the extension of a spring is proportional to the applied force), contributed to knowledge of respiration, insect flight and the properties of gases, coined the term “cell” to describe the individual units making up larger organisms, invented the universal joint and the anchor escapement in clocks and numerous other mechanical devices, his work on gravitation preceded Newton’s, his Micrographia was the first book on microscopy, his astronomical observations were some of the best seen at the time, and he was an architect of distinction and a Surveyor for the City of London after the Great Fire.

But he was also an ass, especially when it came to Isaac Newton.

Hooke and Newton were involved in a dispute over the idea of the force of gravity following an inverse square relationship to define the elliptical orbits of planets, as well as Newton’s theory of light and colors. In 1672, Newton was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and his first letter on Light and Colors was read to the Society. Hooke, at the time a respected senior scientist and Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, attacked Newton’s theory, and also claimed that he had invented a reflecting telescope before Newton (Newton had actually invented it in 1668). Newton fought back, and won, but in In January 1676, Hooke again attacked Newton, alleging that Newton had plagiarized Hooke’s Micrographia, which contained Hooke’s own theory of light.

Despite the attacks, Hooke and Newton corresponded and in private correspondence, Newton had shared calculations that, he believed, showed that the path of a body falling to Earth would be a spiral. Unfortunately, Hooke realized that Newton’s argument only held true if the body were precisely on the equator, and in the more general case the path would be an ellipse. In 1679, just after Newton’s mother had died, Hooke exposed the error to the Royal Society, and after briefly responding to Hooke, he stopped writing anyone for over a year.

In 1686, when the first book of Newton’s ‘Principia’ was presented to the Royal Society, Hooke claimed that Newton had obtained from him the “notion” of “the rule of the decrease of Gravity, being reciprocally as the squares of the distances from the Center”. Only the diplomatic intervention of Edmund Halley persuaded Newton to allow the publication of the final volume of the Principia trilogy, with Halley telling Newton that Hooke was merely making a public fool of himself, and Newton removing every reference to Hooke in the volume.

But before you feel too bad for Newton, don’t, because Newton could be just as much of an ass as Hooke was.

John Flamsteed may not be a name that’s familiar to you, but was Astronomer Royal, and over 30 years had measured the positions of thousands of stars with a precision far exceeding anything undertaken before him. When Newton needed observations on the ‘double’ comet of 1680, he turned to Flamsteed, who provided him with the observations. There were some small errors in the data Flamsteed sent to Newton, and Flamsteed attempted to make amends by carrying out some of the calculations that Newton needed for himself. Newton, however, Newton caustically informed Flamsteed that he needed his observations, not his calculations. Feeling mistreated Flamsteed threatened to withhold his data.

Newton needed these calculations for a new section he was planning for the second edition of the Principia, around 1703, on a “Theory of the Moon”, so using his courtly influence, he persuaded Queen Anne’s husband, George, to commission a royal star catalogue, to be printed by the Royal Society. Flamsteed could hardly refuse this commission from his direct employer; but the moment he handed his draft data over to the Royal Society it was certain to go straight to Newton, who now dominated there. Flamsteed stalled, publishing the data as slowly as possible, and making certain it wasn’t the data that Newton needed. When Flamsteed argued with Newton over an error in Newton’s measurement of the size of stars in Opticks, Newton deliberately excluded Flamsteed from the discussions about the publication of his catalogue, and his request for a £2,000 grant to purchase a new telescope was rejected under Newton’s influence. In 1708, Prince George died, and the star catalogue project died with him. In retaliation, when Flamsteed’s membership of the Royal Society lapsed in 1709, Newton refused to renew it, effectively expelling Flamsteed.

But Newton wasn’t through with Flamsteed. He needed Flamsteed’s data, and by 1711, had persuaded Queen Anne to take up the mantle of sponsor of her late husband’s project. In a  note to Flamsteed in 1711, Newton threatened that “[If you] make any excuses or unnecessary delays it will be taken for an indirect refusal to comply with Her Majesty’s order.”

The matter came to a head with the eclipse of 4 July, 1711. Observations of the eclipse would be invaluable to Newton’s calculations, but Flamsteed refused a direct order to observe it. He was ordered to explain himself before a panel of the Royal Society, and the council that was to stand judgment over Flamsteed was selected by the President of the Royal Society (Newton) and consisted of Newton and two of his most loyal supporters. The council, to no one’s surprise, ordered the immediate publication of all Flamsteed’s hard-won data.

Flamsteed’s masterwork, Historia Coelestis, was finally published in 1712, against Flamsteed’s wishes and without his involvement. The following year, Newton issued the second edition of his Principia, compete with a lunar theory based on Flamsteed’s data.

Scientists gone wild, indeed.


1. Asimov, Isaac, 1986. The Edge of Tomorrow. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Assoc Llc

2. Kevles, Bettyann H., 1998. Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Basic Books.

3. Chapman, Allan, 2004. England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

4. Clark, David H. and Clark, Stephen H. P., 2001. Newton’s Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman

5. Grant, John, 2007. Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science. Wisley, Surrey, England: Facts, Figures & Fun

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Note: This article originally appeared on Starship Reckless

[Re-posted modified EvoPsycho Bingo Card -- click on image for bigger version]

One of the unlovely things that has been happening in Anglophone SF/F (in line with resurgent religious fundamentalism and erosion of democratic structures in the First World, as well as economic insecurity that always prompts “back to the kitchen” social politics) is the resurrection of unapologetic – nay, triumphant – misogyny beyond the already low bar in the genre. The churners of both grittygrotty “epic” fantasy and post/cyberpunk dystopias are trying to pass rape-rife pornkitsch as daring works that swim against the tide of rampant feminism and its shrill demands.

When people explain why such works are problematic, their authors first employ the standard “Me Tarzan You Ape” dodges: mothers/wives get trotted out to vouch for their progressiveness, hysteria and censorship get mentioned. Then they get really serious: as artists of vision and integrity, they cannot but depict women solely as toilet receptacles because 1) that has been the “historical reality” across cultures and eras and 2) men have rape genes and/or rape brain modules that arose from natural selection to ensure that dominant males spread their mighty seed as widely as possible. Are we cognitively impaired functionally illiterate feminazis daring to deny (ominous pause) SCIENCE?!

Now, it’s one thing to like cocoa puffs. It’s another to insist they are either nutritional powerhouses or haute cuisine. If the hacks who write this stuff were to say “Yeah, I write wet fantasies for guys who live in their parents’ basement. I get off doing it, it pays the bills and it has given me a fan base that can drool along with me,” I’d have nothing to say against it, except to advise people above the emotional age of seven not to buy the bilge. However, when they try to argue that their stained wads are deeply philosophical, subversive literature validated by scientific “evidence”, it’s time to point out that they’re talking through their lower digestive opening. Others have done the cleaning service for the argument-from-history. Here I will deal with the argument-from-science.

It’s funny how often “science” gets brandished as a goad or magic wand to maintain the status quo – or bolster sloppy thinking and confirmation biases. When women were barred from higher education, “science” was invoked to declare that their small brains would overheat and intellectual stress would shrivel their truly useful organs, their wombs. In our times, pop evopsychos (many of them failed SF authors turned “futurists”) intone that “recent studies prove” that the natural and/or ideal human social configuration is a hybrid of a baboon troop and fifties US suburbia. However, if we followed “natural” paradigms we would not recognize paternity, have multiple sex partners, practice extensive abortion and infanticide and have powerful female alliances that determine the status of our offspring.

I must acquaint Tarzanists with the no-longer-news that there are no rape genes, rape hormones or rape brain modules. Anyone who says this has been “scientifically proved” has obviously got his science from FOX News or knuckledraggers like Kanazawa (who is an economist, by the way, and would not recognize real biological evidence if it bit him on the gonads). Here’s a variation of the 1986 Seville Statement that sums up what I will briefly outline further on. It goes without saying that most of what follows is shorthand and also not GenSci 101.

It is scientifically incorrect to say that:
1. we have inherited a tendency to rape from our animal ancestors;
2. rape is genetically programmed into our nature;
3. in the course of our evolution there has been a positive selection for rape;
4. humans brains are wired for rape;
5. rape is caused by instinct.

Let’s get rid of the tired gene chestnut first. As I’ve discussed elsewhere at length, genes do not determine brain wiring or complex behavior (as always in biology, there are a few exceptions: most are major decisions in embryo/neurogenesis with very large outcomes). Experiments that purported to find direct links between genes and higher behavior were invariably done in mice (animals that differ decisively from humans) and the sweeping conclusions of such studies have always had to be ratcheted down or discarded altogether, although in lower-ranking journals than the original effusions.

Then we have hormones and the “male/female brain dichotomy” pushed by neo-Freudians like Baron-Cohen. They even posit a neat-o split whereby too much “masculinizing” during brain genesis leads to autism, too much “feminizing” to schizophrenia. Following eons-old dichotomies, people who theorize thusly shoehorn the two into the left and right brain compartments respectively, assigning a gender to each: females “empathize”, males “systematize” – until it comes to those intuitive leaps that make for paradigm-changing scientists or other geniuses, whereby these oh-so-radical theorists neatly reverse the tables and both creativity and schizophrenia get shifted to the masculine side of the equation.

Now although hormones play critical roles in all our functions, it so happens that the cholesterol-based ones that become estrogen, testosterone, etc are two among several hundred that affect us. What is most important is not the absolute amount of a hormone, but its ratios to others and to body weight, as well as the sensitivity of receptors to it. People generally do not behave aberrantly if they don’t have the “right” amount of a sex hormone (which varies significantly from person to person), but if there is a sudden large change to their homeostasis – whether this is crash menopause from ovariectomy, post-partum depression or heavy doses of anabolic steroids for body building.

Furthermore, as is the case with gene-behavior correlation, much work on hormones has been done in mice. When similar work is done with primates (such as testosterone or estrogen injections at various points during fetal or postnatal development), the hormones have essentially no effect on behavior. Conversely, very young human babies lack gender-specific responses before their parents start to socialize them. As well, primates show widely different “cultures” within each species in terms of gender behavior, including care of infants by high-status males. It looks increasingly like “sex” hormones do not wire rigid femininity or masculinity, and they most certainly don’t wire propensity to rape; instead, they seem to prime individuals to adopt the habits of their surrounding culture – a far more adaptive configuration than the popsci model of “women from Venus, men from Mars.”

So on to brain modularity, today’s phrenology. While it is true that there are some localized brain functions (the processing of language being a prominent example), most brain functions are diffuse, the higher executive ones particularly so – and each brain is wired slightly differently, dependent on the myriad details of its context across time and place. Last but not least, our brains are plastic (otherwise we would not form new memories, nor be able to acquire new functions), though the windows of flexibility differ across scales and in space and time.

The concept of brain modularity comes partly from the enormously overused and almost entirely incorrect equivalence of the human brain to a computer. Another problem lies in the definition of a module, which varies widely and as a result is prone to abuse by people who get their knowledge of science from new-age libertarian tracts. There is essentially zero evidence of the “strong” version of brain modules, and modular organization at the level of genes, cells or organ compartments does not guarantee a modular behavioral outcome. But even if we take it at face value, it is clear that rape does not adhere to the criteria of either the “weak” (Fodor) or “strong” version (Carruthers) for such an entity: it does not fulfill the requirements of domain specificity, fast processing, fixed neural architecture, mandatoriness or central inaccessibility.

In the behavioral domain, rape is not an adaptive feature: most of it is non-reproductive, visited upon pre-pubescent girls, post-menopausal women and other men. Moreover, rape does not belong to the instinctive “can’t help myself” reflexes grouped under the Four Fs. Rape does not occur spontaneously: it is usually planned with meticulous preparation and it requires concentration and focus to initiate and complete. So rape has nothing to do with reproductive maxima for “alpha males” (who don’t exist biologically in humans) – but it may have to do with the revenge of aggrieved men who consider access to women an automatic right.

What is undeniable is that humans are extremely social and bend themselves to fit context norms. This ties to Arendt’s banality of evil and Niemöller’s trenchant observations about solidarity – and to the outcomes of Milgram and Zimbardo’s notorious experiments which have been multiply mirrored in real history, with the events in the Abu Ghraib prison prominent among them. So if rape is tolerated or used as a method for compliance, it is no surprise that it is a prominent weapon in the arsenal of keeping women “in their place” and also no surprise that its apologists aspire to give it the status of indisputably hardwired instinct.

Given the steep power asymmetry between the genders ever since the dominance of agriculture led to women losing mobility, gathering skills and control over pregnancies, it is not hard to see rape as the cultural artifact that it is. It’s not a sexual response; it’s a blunt assertion of rank in contexts where dominance is a major metric: traditional patriarchal families, whether monogamous or polygynous; religions and cults (most of which are extended patriarchal families); armies and prisons; tribal vendettas and initiations.

So if gratuitous depictions of graphic rape excite a writer, that is their prerogative. If they get paid for it, bully for them. But it doesn’t make their work “edgy” literature; it remains cheap titillation that attempts to cloak arrant failures of talent, imagination and just plain scholarship. Insofar as such work has combined sex and violence porn as its foundation, it should be classified accordingly. Mythologies, including core religious texts, show rape in all its variations: there is nothing novel or subversive about contemporary exudations. In my opinion, nobody needs to write yet another hack work that “interrogates” misogyny by positing rape and inherent, immutable female inferiority as natural givens – particularly not white Anglo men who lead comfortable lives that lack any knowledge to justify such a narrative. The fact that people with such views are over-represented in SF/F is toxic for the genre.

Further reading:

A brief overview of the modularity of the brain/mind
Athena Andreadis (2010). The Tempting Illusion of Genetic Virtue. Politics Life Sci. 29:76-80
Sarah Blaffer Hdry, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Alison Jolly, Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution
Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown, Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour
Edouard Machery and Kara Cohen (2012). An Evidence-Based Study of the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Brit J Philos Sci 263: 177-226

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

– paraphrasing The Sayer of the Law.

When franchises get stale, Hollywood does reboots — invariably a prequel that tells an origin story retrofitted to segue into already-made sequels either straight up (Batman, X-Men) or in multi-universe alternatives (Star Trek). Given the iconic status of the Planet of the Apes original, a similar effort was a matter of time and CGI.

In The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we get the origin story with nods to the original: throwaway references to the loss of crewed starship Icarus on its way to Mars; a glimpse of Charlton Heston; the future ape liberator playing with a Lego Statue of Liberty. As Hollywood “science” goes, it’s almost thoughtful, even borderline believable. The idea that the virus that uplifts apes is lethal to humans is of course way too pat, but it lends plausibility to the eventual ape dominion without resorting to the idiotic Ewok-slings-overcome-Stormtrooper-missiles mode. On the other hand, the instant rise to human-level feats of sophistication is ridiculous (more of which anon), to say nothing of being able to sail through thick glass panes unscathed.

The director pulled all the stops to make us root for the cousins we oppress: the humans are so bland they blend with the background, the bad guys mistreat the apes with callous glee… and the hero, the cognitively enhanced chimpanzee Caesar (brought to disquieting verisimilitude of life by Andy Serkis), not only fights solely in defense of his chosen family… but to underline his messianic purity he has neither sex drive nor genitals. This kink underlines the high tolerance of US culture for violence compared to its instant vapors over any kind of sex; however, since Project Nim partly foundered on this particular shoal, perhaps it was a wise decision.

As it transpires, Ceasar is exposed to little temptation to distract him from his pilgrimage: there are no female hominids in the film, except for the maternal vessel who undergoes the obligatory death as soon as she produces the hero and a cardboard cutout helpmate there to mouth the variants of “There are some things we weren’t meant to do” — and as assurance that the human protagonist is not gay, despite his nurturing proclivities. Mind you, the lack of a mother and her female alliances would make Caesar (augmented cortex notwithstanding) a permanent outcast among his fellows, who determine status matrilinearly given the lack of defined paternity.

Loyal to human tropes, Caesar goes from Charly to Che through the stations-of-the-cross character development arc so beloved of Campbel/lites. Nevertheless, we care what happens to him because Serkis made him compelling and literally soulful. Plus, of course, Caesar’s cause is patently just. The film is half Spartacus turning his unruly gladiators into a disciplined army, half Moses taking his people home — decorated with the usual swirls of hubris, unintended consequences, justice, equality, compassion, identity and empathy for the Other.

Needless to say, this reboot revived the topic of animal uplift, a perennial favorite of SF (and transhumanist “science” which is really a branch of SF, if not fantasy). Human interactions with animals have been integral to all cultures. Myths are strewn with talking animal allies, from Puss in Boots to A Boy and His Dog. Beyond their obvious practical and symbolic uses, mammals in particular are the nexus of both our notions of exceptionalism and our ardent wish for companionship. Our fraught relationship with animals also mirrors preoccupations of respective eras. In Wells’ Victorian England, The Island of Dr. Moreau struggled with vivisection whereas Linebarger’s Instrumentality Underpeople and the original Planet of the Apes focused on racism (plus, in the latter, the specter of nuclear annihilation). Today’s discussions of animal uplift are really a discussion over whether our terrible stewardship can turn benign — or at least neutral — before our inexorable spread damages the planet’s biosphere past recovery.

When SF posits sentient mammal-like aliens, it usually opts for predators high in human totem poles (Anderson’s eagle-like Ythrians, Cherryh’s leonine Hani). On the other hand, SF’s foremost uplift candidates are elephants, cetaceans – and, of course, bonobos and chimpanzees. All four species share attributes that make them theoretically plausible future companions: social living, so they need to use complex communication; relative longevity, so they can transmit knowledge down the generations; tool use; and unmistakable signs of self-awareness.

Uplift essentially means giving animals human capabilities – primary among them high executive functions and language. One common misconception seems to be that if we give language to near-cousins, they will end up becoming hairy humans. Along those lines, in Rise chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are instantly compatible linguistically, emotionally, mentally and socially. In fact, chimpanzees are far closer to us than they are to the other two ape species (with orangutans being the most distant). So although this pan-panism serves the plot and prefigures the species-specific occupations shown in the Ape pre/sequels, real-life chances of such coordination, even with augmentation, are frankly nil.

There is, however, a larger obstacle. Even if a “smart bomb” could give instant language processing capability, it would still not confer the ability to enunciate clearly, which is determined by the configuration of the various mouth/jaw/throat parts. Ditto for bipedal locomotion. Uplift caused by intervention at whatever level (gene therapy, brain wiring, grafts) cannot bring about coordinated changes across the organism unless we enter the fantasy domain of shapeshifting. This means that a Lamarckian shift in brain wiring will almost certainly result in a seriously suboptimal configuration unlikely to thrive individually or collectively. This could be addressed by singlet custom generation, as is shown for reynards in Crowley’s Beasts, but it would make such specimens hothouse flowers unlikely to propagate unaided, much less become dominant.

In this connection, choosing to give Caesar speech was an erosion of his uniqueness. Of course, if bereft of our kind of speech he would not be able to give gruff Hestonian commands to his army: they would be reliant on line of sight and semaphoring equivalents. However, sticking to complex signed language (which bonobos at least appear capable of, if they acquire it within the same developmental time window as human infants) would keep Caesar and his people uncanny and alien, underlining the irreducible fact of their non-human sentience.

Which brings us to the second fundamental issue of uplift. Even if we succeed in giving animals speech and higher executive functions, they will not be like us. They won’t think, feel, react as we do. They will be true aliens. There is nothing wrong with that, and such congress might give us a preview of aliens beyond earth, should SETI ever receive a signal. However, given how humans treat even other humans (and possibly how Cro-Magnons treated Neanderthals), it is unlikely we’ll let uplifted animals go very far past pet, slave or trophy status. In this, at least, Caesar’s orangutan councillor is right: “Human no like smart ape,” no matter how piously we discuss the ethics of animal treatment and our responsibilities as technology wielders.

The Far Future is Before Our Very Eyes

The second annual Science in My Fiction Contest is on and bedeviling writers! This year, in addition to asking writers to base their short story submissions on recent scientific developments, all contest entries must also be stories set off-Earth.

At a stretch, nearly any scientific advance made on Earth could be applied to the far-future, and authors of speculative fiction should ideally always practice that kind of literary yoga. But while some technological leaps are more obviously applicable than others, many things are taken for granted on Earth to the extent that we need to be reminded that they require re-thinking for all other settings. 

Because of the contest’s secondary requirement, I’ve been tweeting daily links to recent space travel and far future-relevant scientific developments. Not everyone follows me on Twitter, however, so I’ve decided to bring a few examples of SiMF Contest-ready science to the blog for helpful discussion and speculation. 

Wherever else in the galaxy humans are ever able to settle, we will first need to travel there. Everything we take with us may become lighter than feathers once outside Earth’s gravity, but before then, it must be launched. Every ounce of weight correlates to the amount of fuel required for lift-off. Once weightless, all cargo still has volume and mass, so we must also account for how much room is required to store it when it’s not in use, without cramming in the crew like so much ballast. These issues are tricky for short missions and incredibly problematic for long missions, but some far future dilemmas may have answers rooted in ancient arts. I give you Textiles in Space

Essential items like food, water, tools, and people are not the only things we send to space. On short journeys, of course we include materials for science experiments, and satellites to be put in orbit, but we also allow astronauts a few small personal items. For example, several flutes recently circled the Earth. On short missions, these little things are of arguable worth in space, but on long missions they could become hugely important – psychologically, if in no other way. But again, every item aboard ship takes up valuable ‘real estate,’ and so the size of allowable personal items must be carefully reconsidered for long-term space travel. Fortunately, we humans are capable of placing remarkably high significance on our virtual possessions. Talk about space-savers. 

Astronauts are scheduled to within an inch of their sanity. Every moment is carefully planned to ensure that the science gets done, all maintenance is performed, and everyone sleeps and exercises enough to protect their health. Even their so-called ‘free time’ is scheduled in advance. But people are people, no matter how far off-Earth we may travel. Even if we take great pains to send no trouble-makers into space, it’s only a matter of time before somebody starts some shenanigans. Why? Well, rules are all well and good, but rule-breaking is powerful stuff. Eventually, every long space mission will have to deal with man-made mischief. Perhaps if we designate time for it on ships’ calendars we can mitigate the damage… 

Those are just three examples of obvious or easily ignored science that could be useful for writers speculating on the future. I’ll bring up more like these as the contest progresses, but in the mean time, what are your off-Earth science suggestions for SiMF contestants?

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 »

(W)hole Hearted

In preparation for this month’s post, I’ve been reading up on the heart. The post was inspired by my friend, Francesca Forrest’s, recommendation that I read The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the HUMAN HEART by Stephen Amidon and Thomas Amidon, MD. NPR had done a piece on the book discussing the man that toured Europe with a hole in his chest that allowed folks to see his heart hard at work deep within his chest. I was intrigued. Read the rest of this entry »

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

“Nothing is as soft as water, yet who can withstand the raging flood?”
– Lao Ma in Xena (The Debt I)

Being a research scientist as well as a writer, reader and reviewer of popular science and speculative fiction, I’ve frequently bumped up against the fraught question of what constitutes “hard” SF. It appears regularly on online discussions, often coupled with lamentations over the “softening” of the genre that conflate the upper and lower heads.

In an earlier round, I discussed why I deem it vital that speculative fiction writers are at least familiar with the questing scientific mindset and with basic scientific principles (you cannot have effortless, instant shapeshifting… you cannot have cracks in black hole event horizons… you cannot transmute elements by drawing pentagrams on your basement floor…), if not with a modicum of knowledge in the domains they explore.

So before I opine further, I’ll give you the punchline first: hard SF is mostly sciency and its relationship to science is that of truthiness to truth. Remember this phrase, grasshoppahs, because it may surface in a textbook at some point.

For those who will undoubtedly hasten to assure me that they never pollute their brain watching Stephen Colbert, truthiness is “a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” Likewise, scienciness aspires to the mantle of “real” science but in fact is often not even grounded extrapolation. As Colbert further elaborated, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” And therein lies the tale of the two broad categories of what gets called “hard” SF.

Traditionally, “hard” SF is taken to mean that the story tries to violate known scientific facts as little as possible, once the central premise (usually counter to scientific facts) has been chosen. This is how authors get away with FTL travel and werewolves. The definition sounds obvious but it has two corollaries that many SF authors forget to the serious detriment of their work.

The first is that the worldbuilding must be internally consistent within each secondary universe. If you envision a planet circling a double sun system, you must work out its orbit and how the orbit affects the planet’s geology and hence its ecosystems. If you show a life form with five sexes, you must present a coherent picture of their biological and social interactions. Too, randomness and arbitrary outcomes (often the case with sloppily constructed worlds and lazy plot-resolution devices) are not only boring, but also anxiety-inducing: human brains seek patterns automatically and lack of persuasive explanations makes them go literally into loops.

The second is that verisimilitude needs to be roughly even across the board. I’ve read too many SF stories that trumpet themselves as “hard” because they get the details of planetary orbits right while their geology or biology would make a child laugh – or an adult weep. True, we tend to notice errors in the domains we know: writing workshop instructors routinely intone that authors must mind their p’s and q’s with readers familiar with boats, horses and guns. Thus we get long expositions about stirrups and spinnakers while rudimentary evolution gets mangled faster than bacteria can mutate. Of course, renaissance knowledge is de facto impossible in today’s world. However, it’s equally true that never has surface-deep research been as easy to accomplish (or fake) as now.

As I said elsewhere, the physicists and computer scientists who write SF need to absorb the fact that their disciplines don’t confer automatic knowledge and authority in the rest of the sciences, to say nothing of innate understanding and/or writing technique. Unless they take this to heart, their stories will read as variants of “Once the rockets go up, who cares on what they come down?” (to paraphrase Tom Lehrer). This mindset leads to cognitive dissonance contortions: Larry Niven’s work is routinely called “hard” SF, even though the science in it – including the vaunted physics – is gobbledygook, whereas Joan Slonczewski’s work is deemed “soft” SF, even though it’s solidly based on recognized tenets of molecular and cellular biology. And in the real world, this mindset has essentially doomed crewed planetary missions (of which a bit more anon).

Which brings us to the second definition of “hard” SF: style. Many “hard” SF wannabe-practitioners, knowing they don’t have the science chops or unwilling to work at it, use jargon and faux-manliness instead. It’s really the technique of a stage magician: by flinging mind-numbing terms and boulder-sized infodumps, they hope to distract their readers from the fact that they didn’t much bother with worldbuilding, characters – sometimes, not even plots.

Associated with this, the uglier the style, the “harder” the story claims to be: paying attention to language is for sissies. So is witty dialogue and characters that are more than cardboard cutouts. If someone points such problems out, a common response is “It’s a novel of ideas!” The originality of these ideas is often moot: for example, AIs and robots agonizing over their potential humanity stopped being novel after, oh, Metropolis. Even if a concept is blinding in its brilliance, it still requires subtlety and dexterity to write such a story without it devolving into a manual or a tract. Among other things, technology tends to be integral in a society even if it’s disruptive, and therefore it’s almost invariably submerged. When was the last time someone explained at length in a fiction piece (a readable one) how a phone works? Most of us have a hazy idea at best how our tools work, even if our lives depend on such knowledge.

To be fair, most writers start with the best of intentions as well as some talent. But as soon as they or their editors contract sequelitis, they often start to rely on shorthand as much as if they were writing fanfiction (which many do in its sanctioned form, as tie-ins or posthumous publication of rough notes as “polished products”). Once they become known names, some authors rest on their laurels, forgetting that this is the wrong part of the anatomy for placing wreaths.

Of course, much of this boils down to personal taste, mood of the moment and small- and large-scale context. However, some of it is the “girl cooties” issue: in parallel with other domains, as more and more women have entered speculative fiction, what remains “truly masculine” — and hence suitable for the drum and chest beatings of Tin… er, Iron Johns — has narrowed. Women write rousing space operas: Cherryh and Friedman are only the most prominent names in a veritable flood. Women write hard nuts-and-bolts SF, starting with Sheldon, aka Tiptree, and continuing with too many names to list. Women write cyberpunk, including noir near-future dystopias (Scott, anyone?). What’s a boy to do?

Some boys decide to grow up and become snacho men or, at least, competent writers whose works are enjoyable if not always challenging. Others retreat to their treehouse, where they play with inflatable toys and tell each other how them uppity girls and their attendant metrosexual zombies bring down standards: they don’t appreciate fart jokes and after about a week they get bored looking at screwdrivers of various sizes. Plus they talk constantly and use such nasty words as celadon and susurrus! And what about the sensawunda?

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow. I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

SF isn’t imploding because it lost the fake/d sensawunda that stood in for real imaginative dreaming, just as NASA isn’t imploding because its engineers are not competent (well, there was that metric conversion mixup…). NASA, like the boys in the SF treehouse, is imploding because it forgot — or never learned — to tell stories. Its mandarins deemed that mesmerizing stories were not manly. Yet it’s the stories that form and guide principles, ask questions that unite and catalyze, make people willing to spend their lives on knowledge quests. If the stories are compelling, their readers will remember them after they finish them. And that long dreaming will lead them to create the nuts and bolts that will launch starships.

Images: 1st, Stormtrooper Walking from Grimm’s Pictures; 2nd, the justly famous Sidney Harris classic from What’s So Funny About Science?; 3rd, Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, photo by Robert Trachtenberg for Rolling Stone; 4th, The Gate, by Peter Cassidy.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds:

Why Science Needs SF
Why SF Needs Science
Why SF Needs Empathy
Why SF Needs Literacy
Why SF Needs Others

I guess this one might be called Why SF Needs Fiction!

Fully Functional and Anatomically Correct

A few months ago, my sci-fi short, Pieces of You, was published in M-Brane SF magazine. It’s a fairly straightforward coming of age story about a boy and his adoptive android guardian. I knew when I wrote it that I didn’t have everything right about robots, and of course I doubt humans will ever replace existing foster care systems with highly sophisticated machinery. But given recent developments in human simulation, I won’t be shocked to find myself sharing an apartment with a social robot of some kind in the next few years. Even if it is just a cantankerous Roomba.

While doing research for another android guardian story I came across some useful information. As in human colleges, a lot of funding goes toward figuring out how to make better robot athletes, although in this case it’s a good thing because it gives us another reason and perspective from which to consider human and animal locomotion.

But do people really want their appliances to be smarter and more independent than a cat-friendly auto-vac? Yes, especially older people. And if future robots can augment our ability to take care of ourselves, might they also help us take better care of each other? As with engineering robotic football all-stars, developing robots that can simulate emotion is useful because it gives us a new angle for examining how we function.

Maybe house-bots will never amount to more than personal or medical assistants and glorified mechanical pets. And really, if we want much more than that from the machines in our homes, we should probably take the opportunity to re-evaluate the human social structures that make automating our most intimate affairs seem necessary.

Fair warning, the video below is Not Safe For Work!

The World Sings to Me

Calligraphy. Rebel Without A Cause. Heartbeats. Chaos Theory. Predicting heart attacks.

What might these things have in common? The 1/f Fluctuation.

From Wikipedia:

In stochastic processes, chaos theory and time series analysis, detrended fluctuation analysis (DFA) is a method for determining the statistical self-affinity of a signal. It is useful for analysing time series that appear to be long-memory processes (diverging correlation time, e.g. power-law decaying autocorrelation function) or 1/f noise.
The obtained exponent is similar to the Hurst exponent, except that DFA may also be applied to signals whose underlying statistics (such as mean and variance) or dynamics are non-stationary (changing with time). It is related to measures based upon spectral techniques such as autocorrelation and Fourier transform.
DFA was introduced by Peng et al. 1994 and represents an extension of the (ordinary) fluctuation analysis (FA), which is affected by non-stationarities.

Sorry if your eyes crossed about halfway through that, like mine did. That’s not even the formulas or anything!

Here’s the simple version:

The 1/f Fluctuation is a concept from chaos theory. The 1/f fluctuation is a pattern of attention that naturally occurs in the human mind and elsewhere in nature. It appears to be a constant in the universe, showing up in engineering, economics and the human heartbeat, among many other things.

It has been said that the pattern which is characterized by the 1/f fluctuation is a source of pleasant feeling. It is found in classical music (leading one to wonder if perhaps the composers were even more brilliant than we give them credit for!), certain brain waves, Japanese calligraphy, and the human pulse.

Recently, it has been used to break down what makes something attractive to the human eye and ear. There is an extensive study of the mechanics of calligraphy’s beauty, as explained by the 1/f fluctuation, among other theories.

The Science of Hollywood
What makes a blockbuster? Why do new movies feel so different from older movies?

Perhaps due to a natural evolution based on our attention patterns. Movies that miss the pattern might not last, no matter how good their plot or characterization might be, while the blockbusters, lacking depth and brilliance, continue to draw huge crowds.

Scientists have found several movies which have near-perfect 1/f fluctuation patterns, some in almost every genre. The Perfect Storm, released in 2000, Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, and, perhaps not surprisingly, Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, released in 1935.

I have to wonder what would be discovered in analysis of Hitchcock’s works as a whole, or Steven King, or any of the other massively popular authors, movies and music. Is this a determining factor in what makes a masterpiece? Or merely a chart-topping piece?


This is a science that doesn’t apply only to what is within our stories, but perhaps even the stories themselves, and their delivery.

If movies are indeed more successful because they follow this formula, then how long until Hollywood requires its directors to understand the fluctuation, and utilize it in their movies? Will music become a collection of songs based on 1/f? Can this theory be moved from visual and auditory experiences and be leveraged against print audiences? If the fluctuation was mastered, would that be the cornerstone of truly immersive virtual reality?

Anything for another dollar, right? But would this be bad? If the 1/f fluctuation is a fluctuation of pleasure, then would music become art again? Could book pacing be patterned for maximum attention? (I hold no hope for Hollywood, sorry…)

Within a story, the 1/f fluctuation could serve science or magic. Perhaps that is the pattern of Avatar’s Ewa, or a the foundation of mood-music on one of Saturn’s moons. If the world is based on a rhythm or pattern, could we change the future by manipulation of the fluctuation, or, if such fluctuations are fixed, determine the future to some degree.

Granted, this is all speculation based on a science that is, at best, confusing for someone who hasn’t studied it in depth. But any way it is looked at, it is fascinating to think that, perhaps, this is the rhythm, the heartbeat of the world.

LAST DAY to enter the Science in My Fiction contest!

TODAY (Wednesday, June 30) is the final day to get your entries in to the Science in My Fiction contest!

Remember, there are $400 in cash prizes to be won, plus more! And the finalists will be read and voted on by an amazing panel of judges. Each of the top 3 stories will be published: the original cover art will be provided by Julie Dillon, and each of the 3 stories will be accompanied by original black-and-white artwork.

- 2,500-10,000 words
- 1 entry per person
- Only unpublished work
- Authors MUST cite the discovery/innovation which inspired their story, and provide relevant URL(s).

Entries sent after midnight US Eastern time will be discarded without consideration. Now’s the time!

We’ve gotten some great entries already. Wow us with SCIENCE!

Submission guidelines
Entry form