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Posts tagged ‘science’

How to Read: Science Edition

Last week I’d offered to do a full write up of how to read scientific paper critically, and asked if there was any interest in such a topic. No one asked for this, but here you are anyway. I did the research, and I’ve got nothin’ else! Besides which, it’s a fascinating topic to me, and every time I delve deeper into it, I get happier about my career decisions that led me away from the publishing train. Because a lot of the problems in science today stem from the way scientists are evaluated: have you published anything recently? In a serious journal? No? Ok, any journal will do. Did you have positive, real effects? No? No one cares you proved a negative, go back and get me a positive. We want results, or you’re fired! Which, human nature being what it is, leads to… well, it’s not science, unless you’re talking about the study of human psychology when backed into a corner and one’s livelihood threatened. In dire cases when the scientist’s government gets involved, one’s life might be at stake. And that’s even without getting into citation padding, authorial padding (there’s an ongoing scandal in South Korea where researchers have been adding their children’s names onto their papers to pad the children’s academic resumes), and duplication of results. Not replication, which is the gold standard, but using the same results in multiple papers, which is highly unethical and will lead, if caught, to a retraction of the paper. Enough of those, and you will lose your funding, position and have to start over. Read more

Getting the Science Right

I’m tired. How tired am I? Well, I had a moment yesterday where I didn’t look closely enough as I wrote and scheduled a post and I have put my planned MGC post up on my blog. In my defense, the backend of wordpress sites looks remarkably similar. However! I will extrapolate out of my post there, on science giving us a window into the past and how that can spark a story, into something that has come up a few times recently. Namely: refreshing knowledge of math and science for those who have been out of school for a while, or have developed a new interest in it. As writers of science fiction, I would hope that this would be of interest to you, although it’s hard to say where to start, precisely. That you will have to determine! Read more

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?