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Posts tagged ‘science’

The stories we shouldn’t be telling

I don’t really know how much of a “trend” this is, but in my casual, work-avoiding browsing of current events I sure have seen a lot of stories about “trans” women, i.e. men who have decided to call themselves women, running away with the prizes in women’s sporting events. Apparently the Doctrine of Infinite Sexual Mutability trumps minor considerations of reality, such as the fact that individuals who were “men” up to and throughout adolescence before “transitioning” are going to be bigger, faster, stronger than actual women in later life, regardless of how they manipulate their testosterone levels.

So? What did we expect? Read more

The Doors of Perception

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Payne’s gray, cold gray, pewter, silver, warm gray.

Bronze, brown ochre, burnt sienna, burnt umber, copper, gold ochre, orange ochre, modern brown, raw sienna, raw umber, stil de grain brown, transparent oxide brown, Vandyke brown, yellow ochre.

One of these lists is not like the other, right? Read more

Zapping Writer’s Block Away

Ever wanted to be more creative? Feeling like you just can’t come up with any good ideas? Stuck on ways to throw a curveball in your plot?

How about a jolt to the old brainwaves? Just strap on this helmet, and press that button, and your brainwaves can be remotely controlled to block out the common, dull, familiar associations. You’ll be thinking outside the box! And it takes no effort on your part! Writer’s block is a thing of the past!! Read more

7 Habits of Highly Successful Invaders

 

I was driving home from work, appreciating that the switch has been flipped, and suddenly! Spring. The greens are moving all misty into view, and predominantly among them here in Southern Ohio is the Amur Honeysuckle. I was contemplating this, and how that trait is one of the things that makes it a highly successful invasive species, and it dawned on me that there are more ways to invade than are portrayed in movies about aliens. Sure, overwhelming military force is one way. But what other things have species done here on Earth that enabled them to conquer and victoriously rule the forest field stream continent? Read more

Science Fiction in our Genes

I wrote earlier this week about science fiction, adaptation, and the human species over on my blog. in a nutshell, I’d written earlier about genes and how animals raised in captivity adapt to being in close quarters so quickly that it’s not really a viable option to raise an endangered population up to replace wild populations that are in danger of extinction. So what does this have to do with humans? Well, the conversation went something like ‘people who like to live in cities are weird’ (I’m shortening and paraphrasing) during a discussion about the coasts of the US, and how they have a tendency to vote a certain way. But, if you think about it, and I do, urbaniztion of a population does indeed do things to it. Similar things, I think, to the effects felt on a captive population of, say, butterflies. The butterflies get smaller wings, heavier bodies, and the ability to lay more eggs. So in effect they are going to do well in a cage where they can’t fly far, and would be easy prey for predators if they were put out of their nice safe cage.

Scientists are studying the effect that urban areas (generally defined as >300,000 people) have on plant and animal species. It’s no real stretch to imagine that living in a metroplex would affect humans as well, especially the poorer, less mobile parts of the population. And this is without even moving into the realm of science fiction. These studies have seen the effects of adaptation in as little as two generations – in my original article I was working off the premise that large effects of  captivity were seen in Drosophila in eight generations: in human terms, 150 years. But two? A mere 30-40 years? (yes, thirty. Look at average primapara age for the inner-city populations).

All this is native to our design for adaptation and evolution of the genome, the in-built system to keep a species thriving in changing environments. If you don’t adapt quickly, you die – which was a larger part of what led to the passenger pigeon extinction than human predation on that species. Now, how about human tinkering with our own genes? We can do it – we’ve known that for a while, gentle readers. But a new paper on Crispr tells the tale of genes switched on inside an adult allowing that model organism (a mouse, in this case) to express genes they had been unable to do before, which led to the self-treatment of diabetes, kidney disease, and muscular dystrophy. This is exciting on so many levels, one of which is that this was done without having to completely break the DNA (a double-strand break) which means that the inadvertent introduction of mutations is not a concern.

Now, leap off this mudball and into the realm of science fiction. We see that if we do not maintain genetic diversity and gene flow between populations, we risk extinction. The ability to quickly adapt and overcome has long been a human realm. But what, as our populations grow larger and our urban areas soak up the majority of the humans on this planet, will happen to that diversity? What if we became like the passenger pigeon, and when sudden catastrophe came (a pandemic, an alien invasion, what-have-you) we were unable to adapt? The answer lies in the stars. But to get there, we’re going to have to adapt again and again, and our populations, like the urban rats of New York, will evolve and differentiate. Not enough to become separate species, unless we really start tinkering with Crispr… although as writers and speculators, we know that’s going to happen, don’t we? Humans will experiment, and they will experiment on themselves. I mean, it’s only a matter of a few years since the theorist about Heliobacter pylori decided to prove his hypothesis by drinking a beaker of that pathogen and giving himself ulcers. And another one ingested internal parasites on purpose to prove that they would put his autoimmune disease into remission. We’re crazy, we humans.

Which means that to write science fiction we have to think crazy, like a fox. To imagine the weirdest thing we can, and then take it a step weirder. There’s a whole field of stories that suddenly seems prophetic as we begin to truly understand the tools we have now, and the reality of epigenetics. Lamarck, who proposed the giraffe’s neck had become so long because it was necessary to reach the higher leaves (the ones out of reach of the eland and the gnu, which makes me think of Kipling’s stories), was laughed out of science when Darwin’s theory was all the rage, but in the long run it turns out that he was more right – and our genes more complex – than scientists at the time could possibly have imagined. Now, keep in mind that although we are now able to manipulate our own genome, and we have begun to grasp that natural selection is not always the random pattern once theorized with the epigenetic understanding that we are shaped by our ancestral diet and environment, we still do not fully understand what genes do.  there are a few genes we can point out and say x does y. However, the vast number of them interact in complex and mysterious ways. We can’t just say, snip that gene out and cure cancer! because that’s not how it works.

Which means that in terms of story and speculation, we have worlds of room to draw conclusions and create plots that could be possible, or utterly wrong, but it’s so much fun to take the bleeding edge of science and play it out into what might be. What’s next?

Erdu

I’ve been reading science journals a lot, while I’m waiting for reactions at work. I need something to do, and mostly they are work-related. But I came across an article which delighted me, and I had to share it with you all. There aren’t many places where I can really let my inner book geek hang all out, but this is one of them! 

 

It used to be that in order to test a book for science, you’d have to destroy a little bit of it. Somewhat obviously, museums and collectors reacted to the thought of this with horror. However, with the advances of technology and ability to get down to the molecular level with testing, it’s now possible to use erdu for determining what skins vellum was made of…

 

Well, maybe not vellum. It depends on how you define vellum, versus parchment. In general, vellum was higher quality, formed from calfskin, and was believed to have been most sought after from stillborn or newly born calves (3), which modern science has shown isn’t necessarily true. Instead, through studying the proteins, scientists learned that technology of the Middle Ages was better than we assumed it was. They were able to form onion-skin thin vellum from animal skins, leading to a proliferation of ‘pocket bibles’ in the 13th century. We talk about print runs, in this era of automation and mass production, so to put this in perspective: they postulate that 20,000 of these pocket bibles were produced. That’s an amazing amount of work, and animal hide. Scholars have wondered for years how they managed to sustain that level of production, until they were able to apply science to the books. This disproved both the theories about vast herds of cows being depleted through abortion of calves for making books, and other theories about the use of rabbit or squirrel skins (2).

 

I love that word: erdu. It’s so cool and weird and it means the little bits you have left when you use an eraser on paper. Mostly, the bits are made up of whatever the eraser is made of (they are not India Rubber any longer as they were in the days of Kipling’s schoolboys, which is sad, but manmade polymers like PVC), and whatever was on the sheet of paper the eraser was rubbed across, gently lifting up and encasing in the erdu. That ‘other’ material is what scientists are testing from old books.

 

It’s not that they are erasing anything from the page, simply using what is called a ‘dry cleaning’ method to remove the built-up crud of centuries, by creating an electrostatic attraction with the PVC eraser that lifts away the molecules. The book the article highlights dates back to the 1300’s and that’s a lot of time for stuff to accumulate. From the erdu, they were able to learn that this one book was made up of the skins of two species of deer (the cover), 8.5 calves, 10.5 sheep, and a half of a goat (1). Which is pretty amazing, but also weird.

 

It gets weirder. I was vaguely aware that in some religious ceremonies, you kiss the book. Which action, as you can imagine, leaves a residue of bacteria behind. Can you imagine having the kiss it right after some guy with a snotty nose? Ewww… From these pages, scientists are able to isolate species of bacteria they associate with human hosts, and also DNA (1). However, the pages are ones with oaths on them – you swore, and then you kissed the oath to prove how much you meant it. We don’t do things with that sort of gravitas any longer, do we? Of course, we also know those bacteria are teeming around on the page waiting for the next pair of lips to call home.

 

While they can’t extricate individual DNA from those pages used by many to prove their devotion, they hope to be able to from a book that was owned by only one person. This could help them build a profile of the person, right down to hair and eye color. Other scientists are more interested in sampling worm poop – they want to know what species of beetles bored through the priceless books and left only their droppings behind in neat tunnels (1).

 

We have come so far, in these last centuries. From parchment, papyrus, vellum… to rag paper, and pulp paper, and now to electrons leaving a fleeting impression on screens. Even if you all are kissing your computer screens (I don’t want to know!) or slightly less gross, sneezing on them, chances are some as-yet-unborn scientist is not going to be swabbing it for your DNA. Much less being able to tell what you were reading.

 

For fans of my writing, I’m doing a cover reveal with snippet and blurb for my upcoming novella, Snow in Her Eyes. Let me know on my blog if you like the cover! 

 

Citations:

1. Biology of the Book
By Ann Gibbons
Science 28 Jul 2017 : 346-349
Scientists develop new ways to read the biological history of ancient manuscripts.
2. Animal origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting
By Sarah Fiddyment, et. al
PNAS vol 112 no. 49 08 Dec 2015 : 15066-15071
This study reports the first use, to our knowledge, of triboelectric extraction of protein from parchment.
3. The History and Biology of Parchment
By Robert Fuchs
Karger Gazette no. 67 2004
Skin

Take two aspirin…

It’s been an eventful week, and I found myself lying here this morning thinking. I’m far from home, out of schedule (this post was supposed to be written yesterday) and have a headache. It’s all worth it, though. My eldest graduated from highschool last night. She’s a fiercely independent soul, and will go far in her studies at college.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. Toni Weisskopf shared a photo on Facebook of a computer module absolutely infested with an ant nest, seething with eggs, and her comment was that she’d like to see more stories like that in science fiction. It’s an excellent point. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read ( and written) where the tech performs flawlessly. Which does happen. There are also stories where it doesn’t, but how many can you think of where the characters have to deal with an infestation? How would we prevent that, control it, and what kind of adaptations will we see?

I’d run across an article recently about bacteria which will break down plastics that were formerly thought invulnerable. Then there was another one speculating about why less plastic (by an order of magnitude) is found in the ocean than projected, and the discovery of novel bacteria on that plastic. The concern was focused on reducing pollution, but what happens when bacteria evolve to eat stuff we want to stay intact and functional? The stories about nanotech making gray goo aren’t that far off from what bacteria are already capable of – only fortunately they are not so fast to act.

We can’t escape our invisible (to the naked eye) friends. Microbes cover every inch of us, and our surroundings. We can only culture a tiny fraction of them in the lab, we’re still working on understanding the ecology of our own “inner gardens,” but we are already harnessing the power of their replicative properties for good… With the advances in molecular genetics we can use bacteria to copy/paste stuff we want, like drug ingredients and human proteins. With enough time and development to move beyond ‘we can do that’ to ‘and cheaply!’ the future looks very interesting indeed.

So those two aspirin I want might someday be extracted from bacterial sludge. Trust me on this, if you think that’s gross you don’t want to contemplate where some modern drugs originate. Not all of them are turned out from sterile molecular synthesis. Heparin (an anticoagulant) involves tons and tons of pig guts every batch made. Think about this in terms of going to space. If we don’t come up with highly efficient methods of synthesis, there are going to be problems.

It’s fascinating to extrapolate from current science, to bleeding edge, and beyond. As a science fiction author, it’s an exercise in developing my stories into something approaching hard science. As a baby scientist, it gives me food for thought about my career (and my daughter, who plans to study molecular genetics) path in the coming years.

Will we ever harness the power of Leeuwenhoek’s animalacules? We already have, now we just need to make that more efficient. Will they slip their leashes and turn on us? Well, yes. They already have, many times. The history of pathogens and disease goes back before the dawn of history. We can read it on the bones left behind, long before men scribbled on pages or chipped runes into stone and pressed them into clay. Speaking of which, I found a neat book on KU, for the readers like me who appreciate an in-depth look at science and history – Old Bones: a brief introduction to bioarchaeology.