Hey Guys! Anna here. I wanted to let you all know about something exciting that I’m working on. My Western comic, The Other Son, is running a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a larger printing. I’m pretty hyped up about it. You should check it out!
This whole bloging thing has been on a bit of a hiatus lately, because I’ve been crazy busy. But all the super awesome things that I really want to tell you about just keep piling up, and I can’t hold back the flood any longer. I’m stull crazy busy, so I might not be updating regularly for a while, but some things are just too cool to wait.
So, have you ever wanted to take a bus to Mars? I mean, not travel by bus all the way to Mars. That would be terrible. I can hardly handle the bus to Boston without wondering which limb I need to chew off to get out of that trap by the time we get there.
But have you ever wanted to take a bus trip around Mars, to see the sights? No? That never occurred to you, you say, because it is obviously impossible for many, many reasons?
Well, not anymore! Now if you are lucky enough to be a school-age kid living in the DC area, you might just get to be one of the lucky few to experience the surface of Mars for yourself, through the windows of a school bus!
Seriously, watch the video. The only thing cooler than watching this video would be actually getting to take a trip on this bus.
Too lazy to watch a five-minute video but still want to know what the heck I’m talking about? Well, okay! Here’s the deal: a visual effects shop called Framestore have tricked out a school bus with magic windows that provide a VR experience of the surface of Mars. For real.
And it just gets cooler. Get this: they transposed a street map of DC onto their artificial Martian environment, so the bus driver can just wander around the city, and everywhere they go the windows display a new part of Mars. The bus turns, and the windows show a corresponding turn. They don’t have to stick to a set path, they can go wherever, and there will be something new. I would never go home.
And the visual experience is coordinated with the movement of the bus. The bus speeds up, and you see the Martian landscape going by faster. The bus hits a bump, and you see the view move accordingly. Seriously, HOW COOL IS THAT!?!
So, who wants to take a trip down to DC and impersonate a grade-schooler with me? It might be a bit awkward, crawling around with our shoes on our knees pretending to be into Silly Bandz or whatever kids are into these days, but it will be worth it. It will be easier then actually going to Mars, at least.
So, I’ve had this idea in my head for a while that I wanted to do a special, double page spread. I knew there would be some technical challenges to work out to make it look good (and be legible) on the website, but I went ahead and wrote it into the script for this issue anyway. Well, it’s coming up in a couple of weeks, and I think it’s actually going to work out to be awesome! I wanted to tell you all that it’s coming, so you can get as excited for it as I am!
Ah, experimentation. The quickest route to disaster. Also the only way to figure out how to do cool new stuff! Yay for experiments that work!
You’ve probably heard by now, if you follow Half-Man on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, or follow me on Twitter or Tumblr…oh god, so much social media…but I’m RUNNING A KICKSTARTER!!! It’s for my graphic novel, Dragonslayer. It’s a YA fantasy story about a girl, a ghost and a dragon and how they find out what it really means to be a monster. You should check it out!
My friend Nick drew this awesome Star Trek/Half-Man cross-over. It’s so cool that I just had to share it with all of you.
Actually, Captain, that’s an interesting approach. You might just confuse the K’ul into not killing you right away. Maybe Koda should give it a try some time?
I have often wondered: if humanity finally enacts that ultimate global catastrophe that we always seem to be on the verge of, be it nuclear or environmental or otherwise, what would it be like for all the creatures who have no notion of us or our lives? Would their whole world just end one day, and they would have no idea why? Could they be wiped from existence without even the benefit of understanding the events that brought them to that moment? How unfair would that be?
But maybe I was wrong. Maybe WE are the ones whose world could suddenly end because of forces we know nothing of. Maybe there are things going on that we are oblivious to, powers struggling for dominance right here on earth without our knowledge.
Maybe…just maybe…Aquaman is the most important member of the Justice League after all.
It sounds crazy, I know. But there are things happening in this world that give me pause, that make me wonder if humanity is really the top dog on this planet.
Consider, for example, the simple fact that while most forms of oceanic life are suffering due to human-induced factors like pollution and global warming, Cephalopods populations are booming. (That’s octopi and squid, for those of you who weren’t sure.) Somehow, despite all the over-fishing, despite all the crap we dump in the oceans, these creatures are thriving.
(photo from NOAA)
Is it a simple statistical fluke, a high point in these creatures natural boom-bust cycle? Or is it something more sinister? Could these clever animals be under the influence of an intelligence…from beyond our world?
(I’m talking about Cthulhu here people. Try to keep up.)
Seriously, if an ill-intentioned elder god from R’lyeh wanted followers from our world, why would he settle for a bunch of deranged cultists when his tentacley cousins already roam the oceans, existing largely under the radar of most other species?
The question we need to be asking ourselves is, “Is this guy plotting our doom?”
But maybe my landist bias is showing already. After all, who’s to say that the cephalopod menace has really gone unnoticed? There are some wise old guardians of our world who watch the seas for just such a threat, ready to protect us ignorant land-dwellers.
That’s right. I’m talking about the fish.
No, no, don’t scoff! Not all fish are stupid and short lived, like the ones you had in your bedroom aquarium as a kid. Some fish are seriously ancient.
I know what you’re thinking. “But Koi are FRESHWATER fish. As ancient and wise as they may be, how could they possibly protect us from the cephalopod menace?” Your point is well taken, imaginary reader. But remember, there are other fish in the sea.
And more than just fish. Consider the lobster. Lobsters don’t die of old age. No, it’s true: they just get bigger and bigger as they get older, and descend deeper into the oceans. We have documented lobsters that are up to 70 years old, but we can only guess at what might lurk in the depths beyond the range of our lobster pots.
Could these ancient crustaceans be natural enemies of the dreaded cephalopods? Perhaps. But are they warriors for life, or are they the servants of some other, as yet unknown force that hungers for the death of us all?
What I am getting at here is that there are things lurking in the depths that we neither know nor understand. In our arrogance, we assume that we are the greatest threat to our world. But maybe…just maybe…we are wrong.
Think about it.
(Just FYI, the thing about rising cephalopod populations, the longevity of Koi, and the uncertainty of just how old lobsters can get are all 100% true. I made up the thing about forces from beyond our world. Probably.)
Have you guys heard of the Mars Society? They are super cool. They describe themselves as a “space advocacy organization.” Basically they are a private, international organization that is working tirelessly to get humans to Mars. Awesome.
They do a lot of cool stuff: public and governmental education, engineering and design competitions, advocacy, even research. But the coolest thing they do (in my humble opinion) is run something called “Mars Analog Simulations.”
What is that, you ask? I’m so glad that you want to know. Because it’s awesome.
Simulated Martian living, on Earth.
They have two locations, one in Utah, one in arctic Canada. Both these environments were chosen to replicate certain conditions on Mars. The two stations are intended to simulate what human living conditions on the red planet might be like, and to both test and develop new technological and engineering solutions to the problems facing human colonizers.
Teams live in these closed environments, sometimes for months on end, without access to any resources or supplies that they wouldn’t have on Mars. They only leave their…what’s the right word? Habitat? Bunker? Home? Anyway, they only go outside in spacesuits, and they try very hard to pretend that the hordes of curious tourists snapping pictures of them from the road aren’t there. This is what the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah looks like:
According to the website, “MDRD serves as a field base to teams of six to seven crew members: geologists, astrobiologists, engineers, mechanics, physicians, human factors researchers, artists, and others, who live for weeks to months at a time in relative isolation in a Mars analog environment.”
Wait…artists? DO YOU GUYS NEED A WRITER?! I AM MOSTLY A FICTION WRITER BUT I COULD DO SOME NON-FICTION IF YOU WANT I’M VERSATILE I SWEAR!!!!
Hmmm…maybe if I write a story about life in one of these stations, they would let me come visit for “research.” Maybe some sort of sitcom about living in close quarters. Or a drama, where there is some sort of sudden plague that wipes out all of humanity except for the people sealed in this environment who only realize something is wrong when they lose contact with the outside. Or even a story about the first of these settlements actually on Mars. See, I’m full of ideas! Please let me be part of the team!
Damn I hate not having applicable skills that would let me do something like this. I mean, to be completely frank, I don’t think I’m actually physiologically suited to one of the longer missions, like the multiple month ones. But doing one of the 2-3 week simulations would be AWESOME! And the Utah location is doing this whole greenhouse thing with simulated crops, and I would be SO down for working in a Martian greenhouse.
Ah well, maybe in my next lifetime I will actually be born on Mars and can experience it all for real….
You gotta dream, man. You gotta dream.
Now there’s a way to order your very own print editions of Half-Man! Just click this link and start shopping! We’ve just got a few items up there right now, but we have plans for the future. Oh, do we have plans. Mwuah-ha-ha-ha!
I really like plants.
No really. I know some people find them boring, but not me. I’m one of those people who names her houseplants. I get deep satisfaction from watching things grow, from literally eating the fruits of my labor. Growing things is so therapeutic.
Now growing things in SPACE, that sounds like the ultimate hobby.
Of course, it’s not really a hobby. Figuring out ways to grow food, both in the microgravity environment of a spaceship and in low-atmosphere environments like Mars, is a critical component of humanity’s expansion out into the galaxy. If we can’t eat, we can’t go.
And so the work being done by people like Heather Hava to develop robots that can grow food in space is not only conceptually awesome, it has great practical importance. And it’s COOL. Check it out:
I’ve got to say, this technology is very appealing to me personally. Because, like I said, I love plants, I love growing things. But I am also lazy.
Seriously, gardening is hard work. It takes so much time and effort. I love my houseplants, but I can’t handle a real garden. I hate laboring in the 100° heat of August, my skin burning in the sunlight, being devoured by insects while I struggle to convince some plants to grow while discouraging others. I HATE weeding. And I HATE dealing with pests.
If there were a way to get all the good parts of growing food, the beauty of the growing plant, the therapeutic joy of nurturing something, then the delicious culmination of getting to savor your harvest, but WITHOUT all the hard, uncomfortable, tedious bits…man, I would grow ALL my own food. I’m not even joking right now.
So why limit this technology to space travel? I mean, seriously, I can’t be the only person that finds the idea of robots that manage all the hard parts of gardening so you can focus on the fun parts to be really appealing.
Okay, yes, this stuff is probably a little out of my price range at the moment. But maybe in time, some sort of domestic, commercial version of this would find a market with people like me.
So hop to it, people! Get to innovating! The consumers want easy, cheap home versions of robot-monitored hydroponic gardens!
Or I do, at least. Maybe it’s just me. But oh man, I REALLY want one.
It’s been a tough week, guys. Politics. Sexism. And now Prince. I just want to curl up and bury my head in a pillow until the world goes away.
When I feel like this, there’s one thing that always makes it better: images of our beautiful planet from space.
I mean, damn. It really puts things in perspective. All our small, petty squabbling suddenly looks like what it is, small and petty. If you stand back far enough, everything is beautiful again. You just need to get some perspective. Rise above the storm.
So, anyway, happy Earth Day everyone. Whatever else might be going on, we still live on a stunningly beautiful world.
Special thanks to NASA’s twitter feed this week for always giving me a new image just when I needed it most. You’re a life saver, NASA.
This weekend is East Coast Comicon! Yeah! And we’re going to have a table! YEAH! This is my (Anna’s) first time ever tabling at a con! I’m so excited that every single sentence needs to end with an exclamation point! If you’re going to be there, come see us! Our booth number is #727. (Whoops, forgot the exclamation point! Here, have a few more for good measure!!!)
There’s a giant stack of boxes packed full of comics behind me even as I write this. It’s just about time for me to hit the road if I want to get to NJ before the Friday night traffic comes pouring out of NYC like a flood, so I’m afraid you aren’t going to get your dose of amazing science today. Sorry.
Here, have a consolation gif of a tiny octopus who wants to be friends.
Okay guys, let’s talk about DEATH.
…hahaha, not really. Well, sort of. Not the really scary stuff, but the technical side. What I want to talk about today is how we define death. You know, medically. Not philosophically, religiously or ethically, but purely in terms of biological systems.
This is a surprisingly complex issue. The thing is, it’s not clear-cut. The conventional wisdom is that dead is dead, and a person either is or they aren’t. But the truth is a little more complicated then that.
On the cellular level it is much simpler. It’s pretty clear when individual cells are dead. They stop metabolizing, and as a result stop carrying out their functions. Easy. (Sort of. There are questions about what happens when cells stop metabolizing but retain the possibility of starting again…but let’s put that aside for now.)
By extension, a chunk of tissue is considered dead when so many of the cells within it are dead that it can’t perform its functions or repair itself.
But what about a person? When is a human being considered dead?
This is actually a really hard question, and one that medical science doesn’t have a good answer for. They try…oh do they ever try…but none of the definitions they have come up with are really satisfactory.
Let’s consider a few simple questions. Are we dead when our heart stops beating? No, I think that this one is pretty obvious. Lots of people have had their heart stop for a bit and then been resuscitated, and gone on to live long, normal lives. A simple cardiac arrest is not enough to qualify as death.
It takes 5-10 minutes of zero blood flow to the brain before significant brain damage sets in. And even once you start encountering brain damage, there is a fuzzy area where a person can possibly be resuscitated, they just might have some (or a lot of) complications to deal with. And, of course, everything changes if your body temperature drops…in cases of hypothermia, people can survive for amazingly long periods without a heartbeat and still be resuscitated without any damage to their brains. I’m talking like 45 minutes long, or even longer, depending on the temperatures in question. But we’ll get into that more later.
So, are we dead once our brains are jelly? I mean, what if our body is actually okay, our heart is beating and our blood is flowing and we metabolize food and our cells divide, but there’s nothing going on upstairs? If there are no higher brain functions at all, but given an adequate supply of food through a tube the body could just keep going indefinitely; is that really the same as being alive?
This is what we call “brain dead.” (Again, sort of: there are levels of brain death, and this sort of brain death where autonomic functions are intact is unusual…but again, let’s try to keep this simple.) Most people think that people in this condition are not dead. Personally I’m not so sure; I can’t help wondering if at that point the person is gone, even if the meat-pile continues. But okay, sure, let’s say that technically that’s not dead, since the body is alive.
Okay, here’s an easy one: if a person requires the assistance of machines to survive, to breathe for them and circulate their blood, but their brain is fine, are they dead? If they could theoretically even be self-aware and conscious, but can’t maintain their own functions? I’d say this one pretty clearly counts as still alive, wouldn’t you? Even if they can’t sustain themselves.
Right so….what if there is no consciousness, no self-awareness at the moment but it is theoretically possible to get the person back to that state? Like, you just pulled that ice-cold corpse out of the river, and they’ve been without a heartbeat or blood flow for almost an hour, and there’s not much of anything going on in the body or the brain…but if they are revived correctly, they could actually be completely fine. Are they dead? If you revive them, does that mean that they were dead, but that you brought them back? Or are they still alive even as their frozen bodies lie there without anything at all going on inside? What if there was a way to keep them frozen for longer, years even, and then still revive them? Would they be dead all that time, or just sleeping?
This is where most medical definitions of death start to encounter problems. Suddenly we need to put words like “irreversible” and “permanent” into our definition of death, as in “the irreversible cessation of all vital functions especially as indicated by permanent stoppage of the heart, respiration, and brain activity.” Which is problematic, because this means that new developments in medical technology can actually change what it is to be dead.
At this point you are probably like, “yeah yeah, we get it, you’re a science fiction writer, these questions are interesting to you in the abstract. But it doesn’t really matter in the real world. Dead is still dead, at least outside of a book or a movie or whatever.”
Sure, okay, I guess that would be a valid point if it weren’t for the fact that WE LIVE IN SCIENCE FICTION.
You think we don’t? Well consider this. There are currently, as we speak, human trials being conducted to test whether profound hypothermia can be used to facilitate resuscitation in trauma victims. They don’t call it cryogenics, but…it’s cryogenics.
We tried it on pigs first, of course. There were a lot of tests. Basically they would sedate a pig, stop their cardiac functions, rapidly replace all their blood with hyper-cooled saline, leave ‘em that way for a while, then gradually put the blood back and bring up their body temperature to normal. Then they’d see how the pigs were doing.
They were fine. So, what’s the next step? Well, try it on human, of course!
But that brings up some obvious ethical issues. It’s not really okay to try out medical procedures on healthy people that have a chance of killing or seriously impairing them for life. But this is some pretty important research, so there must be a way to do it, right?
There is. You do it in emergency rooms, on people who have a 0% chance of surviving if given only conventional treatment. If they were doomed to begin with, then trying something radical that has a chance of saving them becomes much more ethical.
These patients have to be in really bad shape. For the purposes of this study, we’re looking for “lethal exsanguinating injuries.” We’re mostly talking gun-shot and stabbing victims, and not the “just a little shot” kind.
Obviously, for someone to be a valid candidate for this procedure they are going to be past the point of consent, and the timeframe needed for treatment prohibits contacting their next of kin. Which is a pretty big problem, ethics-wise. But the researchers have come up with a solution: in the communities where these studies are taking place, there is a program of outreach to the local population, and an opportunity for anyone who doesn’t want to participate to put their name on a list. Sort of like the opposite of an organ donor list. A “please don’t freeze me” list.
There are some other criteria too. No children, no pregnant women, no one over the age of 65. Only heathy (other then the gaping wounds) adults.
Anyway, imagine someone who fits the criteria comes into the emergency room. They are in cardiac arrest, having suffered massive blood loss, and have extremely low chances of resuscitation by conventional means. And they aren’t on the “don’t freeze me” list, and otherwise match the demographic criteria for the trial. So what do the doctors do?
They freeze them. Just like the pigs.
What’s left of their blood is rapidly replaced with ice-cold saline, dropping their body temperature down to 50 degrees. That’s really really cold, for a human body. Once they are “frozen” (obviously 50 degrees is still above freezing, so we’re using the term hyperbolically here), the advance of brain damage due to oxygen deprivation pretty much stops. This gives the surgeons time to go in and repair the arterial damage.
For the purposes of this study, the patient can remain in their frozen state for up to an hour while the surgeons work. That is MUCH more time then the usual 5-10 minutes that they have to repair enough trauma to get the heart beating again before there is serious brain damage. Wounds which would otherwise be impossible to treat are suddenly reparable. Nice, leisurely surgeries can commence.
Then, at the end of the hour, the saline in the patient’s veins is replaced with blood again, gradually warming them back to a normal body temperature.
And, presto, we have a living, breathing human being who can go on to live a long, normal life.
But…did they die?
Are they…a zombie!?!?!
No, sorry, that’s ridiculous, of course they aren’t. But seriously, did they die? I’m really not sure. I promised you I wouldn’t go into the philosophical and religious aspects of death in this post, so I won’t, but…well…I’m sure you can see the questions that this raises.
There are many legal and practical questions too. Like, if we could just freeze everyone on the point of death, then would anyone ever really die? If it is always theoretically possible to bring them back, what does that mean?
And…sorry to bring this back to the philosophical again…if you are a living person, with the memories and personality of the person you were before, but there was an itty bitty window where you were dead…what does that mean? Are you still…you?
Would it mean something different if the window got longer? What if you were dead for days? Weeks? YEARS? (Okay, so 50 degrees isn’t really cold enough to preserve a person for years, we’d have to actually freeze them, and right now we don’t know how to bring them back from that…but the questions are still there, especially as this area of technology advances.)
I could keep asking questions about this for years, but I don’t have any of the answers. I guess the best way to deal with a situation like this is to go write some fiction about it, explore the questions, see what happens. At least that’s how I deal with these things.
So basically, Koda, you’re screwed. I’m going to kill you.
Patrick and I will be at East Coast Comicon in NJ, April 16th and 17th. Come find us if you’re going to be there! We’d love to say hi! And we will have print copies of ALL THREE ISSUES for sale!
That’s right, we were sneaky and got issue 3 to the printer in advance of the last few pages posting so we could have it in time for East Coast. LONG LIVE PRINT COMICS! (webcomics are pretty cool too, I guess. they can live a long time also.)
Our little Half-Man family is continuing to grow day by day. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that you all are coming along with Patrick and me on this crazy ride. I promise you that the future is going to be full of more aliens, cyborgs, spaceships and other awesome things.
If you want to show your support and help us keep making this awesome thing, there are two simple things that you can do to help out.
Tell your friends! Do you know someone who loves awesome space adventures? Of course you do, everyone loves space adventures! So why not tell them about Half-Man? Word of mouth is the best kind of advertising there is! Helping to spread the word is the best way to help Half-Man keep happening!
Support us on Patreon! Even a dollar a month makes a huge difference to us! And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we have some pretty sweet milestone goals lined up. With your help, we could get to the point where we’re able to bring you some short side-stories about your favorite characters, or even START POSTING TWO PAGES A WEEK! Wouldn’t that be cool? Well, we can’t do it without you! Put your money where our mouths are…so we can eat…because food costs money…okay, scrap that metaphor, it got real wrong real fast. But seriously, give us your money. Please.
In summation: we love you all, and can’t wait to bring you more awesome adventure in the issues to come! Whoo-hoo!
that’s me right after I set up the new banner for the first time. my face is doing this for real –> :D
I’ve posted a few times about various projects coming out of the Massachusetts based company Boston Dynamics in the last year. They make nifty robots, and I like nifty robots, so I write about them sometimes. You might remember my recent post about the new Atlas robot or a slightly older post that featured their long-running project, BigDog.
Well, the big news last week was that Boston Dynamics parent company, Alphabet inc. (yes, that’s Google, in case you weren’t sure) is going to be selling the company.
Why, you ask? That’s a good question. That’s the question that I’m asking.
So, this gets a little complicated. Alphabet originally acquired Boston Dynamics in 2013 in an acquisition spree with the intent of establishing a robotics division, a program that was called “Replicant.” Yes, like in Blade Runner, a story in which the company that created the robots is EVIL. Pro tip: don’t make the name of your program refer to a commonly known sci-fi trope which will cause most people hearing it to immediately associate you with a dystopia. Not good for business.
There were a lot of people in the Replicant program, but I guess Boston Dynamics never really merged with the rest of it, and sort of stayed its own thing? And I guess they were sort of hard to work with? Anyway, when Alphabet finally realized that robotics was not going to be a quick source of profit, they folded the Replicant program into Google X, their advanced research department, where profits are less of a concern. But they decided not to move Boston Dynamics over there, and to sell the company instead.
I’m pretty much just summarizing what I got from this Bloomberg article, here. Business is not my strong suit, so I’m not claiming to have any insight into Google’s internal structure or profit models.
So, was that it? Did Google just realize that modern robotics has a long way to go before it can be an easy source of profit? Or was there more to it?
A lot of people seem to think that there was more to it. And this is the part that is interesting to me. It seems that there is some indication that Google wanted to distance itself from what many were perceiving as a “scary” robot.
Somehow Bloomberg got ahold of some internal emails sent by people at Google. In one of them, Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X wrote in reference to the Atlas robot: “There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs.”
Okay, look, I get that I’m not working with great information here. A fragment of a quote taken from a leaked email is not exactly rock hard evidence about what was really going on. But seriously, please someone tell me that this isn’t what it sounds like. Tell me that Google didn’t really base a major business decision on responses to a single YouTube video that went viral on Facebook.
I mean, come on, half the responses to that video that I saw were jokes about the robot revolution! Those jokes were TOO EASY. Hell, I made a ton of them in my post about the video, too! It’s low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t mean that I was actually scared of the robot.
And similarly, yes, I made a joke about Atlas taking people’s jobs. Specifically I said “people whose job is pretty much just moving boxes in warehouses all day should be thinking about updating their resume.” WHICH WAS A JOKE. Seriously, Amazon replaced their box-moving employees with robots years ago, and those robots are like WAAAAY more efficient at it then Atlas. Here, look, there’s a video.
Look, people, this is what it comes down to: humanoid robots are really really hard to make. Let’s face it, Atlas managed to move those boxes, but he was BAD at it. No one is going to hire him for anything.
Atlas was designed (Is being designed? Will have been designed? It’s still a work in progress, is what I mean) for disaster rescue operations. They want a robot that can move like a human so it can navigate like a human would, and use any tools a human could, in unpredictable, treacherous terrain. Like DANGEROUS DISASTER AREAS. If your job involves possibly dying in horribly dangerous circumstances to help people, then yes, this robot might take your job someday. And you should give it to them. Because seriously, why would you do that if you didn’t have to?
The robots that are going to take most people’s jobs wont look human, because they will be better designed for the task at hand than humans are. That’s why they will get the job instead of you. So when researchers are working on humanoid robots, you shouldn’t be scared. The scary robots look totally different. When the revolution comes, our new overlords will look nothing like us. There will be no Cylons, no replicants. There will be strange-looking, highly specialized, single-task units for every job imaginable, including KILLING YOU.
(Um, that was a joke. Apparently some people are having trouble telling, so I thought I would mention it.)
So in conclusion: calm down people!
Google: people on the internet are stupid and/or joking most of the time when commenting on videos. Don’t take anything they have to say seriously, and DEFINITELY don’t make your business decisions based on it.
Internet: I know that non-human things that look human are scary on some sort of primal, instinctual level, but seriously, you are being scared of the wrong thing. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be scared of the robot revolution. I’m just saying that you are looking in the wrong direction.
You should be scared of these guys:
Man, I should have posted this on valentine’s day. Totally missed an opportunity there.
A friend of mine turned me on to this really cool article about using stem cells to help make heart transplants more viable. (Thanks Sarah!) This is definitely some super cool technology that we’re talking about here, and it represents a pretty amazing breakthrough in transplant technology.
However, this article’s headline and first few lines are crazy misleading. What we are absolutely NOT talking about here is doing away with the need for donor hearts. Maybe, MAYBE, this is a small step in that direction. Maybe. Or maybe not.
What this IS is a way to completely eliminate the risk of rejection of a transplanted organ, and allow transplant recipients to live without the need of immunosuppressant drugs. Which is HUGE. Please don’t think I’m being a humbug here; this is really, really cool research that when perfected will make a huge difference in the lives of many, many people. What this research is really doing is totally cool enough on its own, we don’t need to pretend that it’s doing something that it’s not.
So what is it doing, you may ask. Fair question. Let’s break it down, and take this one crazy-cool, pretty-much-miraculous innovation at a time.
To begin with, we will need a donor heart. Check. Okay, what do we do next?
Well, next we strip away all the cells, leaving only the extra-cellular material.
Okay, I don’t know about you, but this is the part where I start to realize that my entire understanding of the human body that I developed in high school biology was WRONG.
::shakes metaphorical fist at high school biology teacher, who was sort of a jerk anyway, so can be unfairly burdened with the blame that should actually be mounded on the tyranny of an outdated, curriculum-enslaved system of education::
Right, so my high school biology class taught me that the human body is made up entirely of cells. If you took the cells away, there would be nothing left. They didn’t mention this whole “extracellular material” thing. Turns out that we have a whole framework of structures running throughout our bodies that provide support, both structural and biochemical, and actually do a lot to define the different parts of our bodies.
I could keep talking about this forever, but maybe you should just go read the Wikipedia article and save us all some time.
Anyway, back to that donor heart we started with. After you strip away all the cellular material (again, how you do that is a very interesting question, but in the name of saving time I’ll just link you to the Wikipedia article), you are left with a genetically neutral framework for a heart. Because it’s the cells and not the extracellular material that contain the immunogenic antibodies that our bodies recognize as foreign material in a transplant situation, this framework by itself poses no threat of rejection. Of course, it’s also the cells that actually make it a heart, doing all those incidental things like, you know, CONTRACTING in order to move blood. The framework by itself is useless. So…what do we do to make this a functional heart again?
We introduce induced pluripotent stem cells, of course!
What’s that, you ask? I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED! This is where things start to get really cool.
A pluripotent stem cell is just a cell that has the capacity to become any type of cell in the human body. They occur naturally in embryos, as part of the miracle of life that allows a single cell to grow into an enter human being. An induced pluripotent stem cell is a regular, adult, single-purpose cell that has been converted into a pluripotent cell through the introduction of specific proteins.
Yes, we can do that. Shinya Yamanaka won a Nobel Prize in 2012 for figuring out how to do it.
SCIENCE IS SO COOL GUYS!
So basically, scientists are taking some skin cells from an adult person, changing them into pluripotent cardiac cells, and introducing them into this neutral extracellular structure that they got from stripping all the cells out of a human heart. The new cells use the extracellular structure as a sort of scaffold and grow new heart tissue into the existing framework, in a process that is (I kid you not) called “recellularization.” That’s the word of the week, guys. Recellularization.
It’s a pretty cool idea, right? Growing a new heart that is a perfect genetic match for a transplant recipient. But does it work?
Well…sort of. Probably. We’re getting close.
There are still problems. It’s hard to create enough of the induced pluripotent cells to grow a whole heart, for one thing. And it’s really hard to replicate the interior conditions of a human body to allow for natural growth, for another. Researchers are also trying to figure out a way to make the whole process go more quickly.
But still, they did it. The hearts they produced were essentially immature, but they WORKED. The researchers were able to get the artificially grown hearts to beat. And that’s amazing.
So, in conclusion: science is cool. Yeah. Also, bodies are cool. And medical research is cool.
Or, if you want a more profound conclusion, consider this: the first successful human heart transplant took place in 1967. The patient survived for 18 days. That was only 49 years ago.
In a span of time that could easily contain a single adult human’s working career, we have gone from barely understanding the complexities of immunologic rejection to finding ways to subvert it entirely. I don’t think there is any field of science which is leaping ahead with the rapidity that medical research has show in the last few decades. Speaking as a relatively young person in my early 30’s, there is no way to know what could be possible in terms of medical treatments in my lifetime. Because of that, there is no way to predict what my generation’s average lifespan might be. We have broken the curve, and everything from here on out is unknown territory. Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the US today. But tomorrow…who knows?
Lately I’ve been compelled by the magic of watching my plants grow. There are no leaves on the trees outside yet, only a scattering of early crocuses on the ground. But inside my apartment, green, living things are everywhere. Every day I find myself pouring over each inch of them, watching precious new leaves slowly unfurl on my brand new hibiscus, or whole branches quickly spring up from our overly-enthusiastic rubber plant. I watch the dozens of buds on our lemon tree swell and begin to show a touch of white at the tip of their formerly-green spheres. It’s happening so slowly, but every day I can see progress, see changes, see the promise of things to come. It thrills me, draws me in and fascinates me in a way I’ve never quite experienced before. I’ve always liked having lots of plants around, but I’ve never had the patience to really immerse myself in the daily experience of developing life. I do now, suddenly, for no reason I can point to. It’s strangely intoxicating.
So why the heck can’t I feel the same way about my stupid writing?
Seriously, the metaphor is there. I’m working on a new(ish) novel, and writing something long and complicated is so much like tending my plants that it’s actually slightly absurd. Every day I have to sit down at my computer to water my work with words, feed it with the light of my attention. I comb over the new growth that has developed in my mind overnight, choosing what to nurture and what to prune, watching each tiny bud of an idea develop and swell and ripen. It is slow work, but there are changes every day for those with the patient eye willing to see them. The promise is there. And however subtle it might be, steady growth is taking place.
But I’m not intoxicated by this process. I’m about ready to tear my hair out.
Why is it so different? If I have the patience for one thing, surely I must have the patience for both. I’m a knitter, too, and there’s yet another metaphor in the wings about patience, about making a story/sweater one word/stich at a time. I’ve got the slow-and-steady-growth thing DOWN. Writing a novel should be totally natural to me at this point.
Unfortunately, it’s not working out that way this time around. I’m impatient. Each new page I write just feels like a new page I’ll have to edit later, and maybe get some critique on, and then edit again. I want to skip to the end. I want it to be done NOW. But why? Why am I excited to watch a literal tree grow, but I can’t even handle waiting for this story to be finished? What the heck is the difference?
I’m just going to skip to the answer here and stop beating around the bush (or lemon tree). It’s fear. I’m afraid of my novel in a way that I am not afraid of my lemon tree or even the sweater that I’m working on.
If the blossoms on this tree come out ugly, or turn brown and fall off before they completely bloom, I will be disappointed, but it won’t hurt me in any way. If I finish this sweater and it doesn’t fit right, or if it’s really unflattering or just poorly made, it’s not really a big deal: I’ll just unravel it and go make something else. The fun was in the making anyway.
I don’t have any stake in this lemon tree, and nothing is hanging on this sweater. They don’t matter.
But my novel… that matters. If I write a bad novel, that means I’m a bad writer, right? If people want to read it, or maybe even BUY it, then all that hard work I put in was worth while. It means something. But if people don’t like it, if no one buys it, then…then…that would mean…
Wait, what would that mean? That I wasted my time? That this whole writing thing is a pointless endeavor that I should’ve been smart enough to give up on before I flushed so much time and energy down the toilet? That I am not only a bad writer, but somehow a bad person, lacking the moral fiber necessary to recognize how my own effort would best be spent for the benefit of myself, my family and the world? That’s what happens if this novel doesn’t come out freaking perfect, right? Right?
I’m just going to assume that I don’t need to explain to you how absurd that idea is. We’re all reasonably intelligent people here, we can see the obvious flaws in that way of thinking.
So…if the absurdity of this fear is so very obvious, why can’t I let it go?
I keep thinking about this Ted Talk that Elizabeth Gilbert gave a few years ago. It was all about how poisonous our modern understanding of creativity, as a thing that we simultaneously DO and ARE, really is. How it literally kills so many of our greatest creative minds, because the pressure caused by linking our identities, who we are as a person, to the things we create is unbearable. She talks about how much healthier the attitude of the ancient Greeks was. They believed that our best creative ideas did not in fact come from us, but rather came through us. This belief broke the link between the creation and the identity of the creator. It provided a healthy distance between the process of doing the work and the eventual outcome.
Anyway, it’s a great talk, I won’t try to summarize the whole thing here, you should just watch it for yourself.
She really nailed the problem that I’m having. I can be passionately enthralled by the development of a budding flower because I am not afraid of the outcome. The flower is not me. I care about it’s success or failure, but my own success or failure is not tied to it. So I can enjoy the process, patiently and happily, day by day, without fear. From a distance.
But my novel…that’s another story. My writing is who I am. If it’s bad, then I’m bad.
That’s not sustainable. I can’t live like that. Somehow, I need to rip the roots of my work out of my soul.
But what happens if I do that? Can my work live outside of my self-identity? If I somehow succeed at this impossible-seeming task, will I in the process have accidently killed the beautiful flower of my ideas? I worry that I care about my work as much as I do because it is so much a part of me. If I change that fact, make a distance between it and I, will I still care enough? Will the fragile structure of my creation be irreparably harmed by being disconnected from my deepest passions?
Is the fear actually a key element in the ineffable mystery that is art?
I don’t know. I hope the answer is no, because I really, really want to find a more joyous, peaceful place to write from. But if I am being really, really honest here, I’m actually not sure that I can remove the fear from my process without also removing the passion. And I truly believe that it is the passion that distinguishes a mediocre story from a great story.
So, what do I do? Do I struggle along in pain and fear, hoping that someday the external validation of other people’s approval somehow insulates me from my own self doubt? Or do I try to distance myself from my work, risking extinguishing that spark of passion that, when all else is said and done, is in itself what truly makes the work worth doing in the first place?
I don’t know. I really, truly don’t know. So I guess I’m just going to keep stumbling on, blind and confused and doing the best I can, day by day, and hope for the best. I’ll take comfort in my lemon blossoms, and soon in the budding of leaves on the trees outside, and I’ll keep trying to figure it all out, knowing that I probably never will.
Shit, guys. Art is hard.
…this baby star is just pretty.
Anyway, that’s all, I just thought you might want to see a pretty picture of a baby star still in it’s stellar nursery. Thank’s, NASA, for brightening my day.
I know this is all over the internet this week, so you’ve all probably seen it already, but it is just SO COOL that I can’t help myself. I’ve got to share it again.
Ladies and Gentlemen….the new Atlas
Oh man, I have never been so grateful to have a spine. Seriously, if I were more flexible I’d give it a kiss right now.
Okay, so, what is there to say about this that hasn’t been said? I think everyone on the internet pretty much agrees that the guy with the hockey stick is going to be the first one up against the wall when the robot revolution comes. And people whose job is pretty much just moving boxes in warehouses all day should be thinking about updating their resume. Other then that….
Well, I do think it’s interesting that, for me at least, it really looks male. It has no face and no genitals, and yes it does have a flat chest, but I think it’s actually the wide shoulders and narrow hips that seem so masculine. I can’t help wondering if that was a subconscious influence of the robot having a male name, or if it was an accidental byproduct of the locomotion design. Or maybe it was done on purpose, I don’t know.
And why doesn’t it have a face? Were they worried that if they made it any more human-looking that the researchers would feel too bad about shoving it and knocking stuff out of its hands? Were they trying to keep people from becoming attached? Or was there really never even a moment when someone in the lab thought, “hmmm, maybe I should give it a face?” Without a face, how is he going to express how mad he is at hockey-stick-guy?
It’s really interesting to me just how challenging making a humanoid robot is. That says something about the impracticality, or possibly the brilliance, of our own design. Again, spines man, just…just wow. Spines.
I mean, when this poor guy is slipping in the snow, all his recovery is coming from hips and knees and ankles. He doesn’t have the core muscles and upper body flexibility to we use to get the bulk of our weight back over our feet when something starts to go wrong. Watching him walk makes my ankles hurt.
Still, he manages impressively. According to the Boston Dynamics website he’s capable of going to all fours and crawling if the terrain gets really difficult. That’s pretty cool, and I’d like to see a video of that.
Anyway, I just wanted to share this cute little (5’ 9” and 180 lb) guy with all of you, just in case any of you hadn’t seen him yet.
Robots are cool.
Alright folks, prepare yourselves: it’s hard science time!
Something amazing has happened. We have discovered a way to store immense amounts of data in a very small space in such a way that it DOESN’T DECAY.
Check it out. (https://futuristech.info/posts/eternal-data-archiving-with-5d-nanostructured-glass-holds-360-tb-and-could-last-for-billions-of-years)[https://futuristech.info/posts/eternal-data-archiving-with-5d-nanostructured-glass-holds-360-tb-and-could-last-for-billions-of-years]
If you didn’t click the link (Just click the link! It’s not hard!), the attached article is an abstract for a project being developed by the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre. They have discovered a way to store data in nanostructured glass that can allow up to 360TB of information to be encoded in a single disc that is only about an inch in diameter. Seriously.
And that’s not all. The data is extremely stable. At room temperatures the information could theoretically stay completely uncorrupted indefinitely. As in, FOREVER. And before you start protesting that no one is going to be able to keep a storage facility at a consistent temperature forever, the sort of instability at high temperatures that we’re talking about here is in the range of 190°C (just a bit hotter then your attic gets in summer), at which point the data may decay in something like 13.8 billion years. Which, btw, is approximately the current age of the universe.
So, functionally this is an eternal storage medium.
How does it work, you ask. Well…it has something to do with lasers and light polarization, I’m sure of that much.
When it comes to project abstracts, you know you’re reading a good one when you have to stop to look up a word, then you have to look up one of the words you find in the definition of the first word. Seriously, the explanation of what is happening here is a bit on the obscure side.
But here’s what I’ve been able to gather (and if I get anything wrong, I’m sorry, I never claimed to be an expert in advanced optics). Basically, what we’re doing here is using lasers to change the way the glass disk refracts light. Which on its own doesn’t sound that revolutionary, since that’s basically how CDs work. BUT the process is so refined, that we are actually encoding the disk in 5 dimensions.
What the hell does that mean, you ask. Good question. Let’s break it down.
First we have the normal three spatial dimensions, right? Then…wait, how much do you understand about light waves and polarization?
The other two dimension that we can affect here have to do with something called birefringence. That’s the first word I had to look up. Google helpfully offered me the following definition:
Birefringence is the optical property of a material having a refractive index that depends on the polarization and propagation direction of light. These optically anisotropic materials are said to be birefringent (or birefractive).
…At which point I went to look up anisotropic. But I’m going to skip all that, and just try to summarize.
Basically, the glass can affect the waveforms of the light passing through it in two additional ways in addition to its spatial coordinates. Those two ways are called the slow axis rotation, and the strength of retardance. But the takeaway here is that there are five different ways that the glass can change the light that passes through it, so that’s five dimensions of data encoding.
Those five dimensions are why we can get so much information into such a small space. And because the information is being stored by fluctuations in glass (well, fused quartz…but basically super hard glass), and glass is a particularly stable medium, what we wind up with is the data storage medium of the future. Seriously, folks, this is the stuff of science fiction. In fact, it’s being compared to the memory crystals from Superman.
You know what this means, don’t you? It means I can finally write that spy-thriller with the last line, “But Professor Ginsburg doesn’t wear a monocle!” It’s about bloody time, let me tell you.
But seriously…the future, guys. It’s here. Now.
It’s snowing for real today where I live, for the first time this winter. It’s beautiful, and it’s making me both introspective and nostalgic. I’m remembering the snow days of my childhood, that came like unexpected gifts, precious parcels of time falling suddenly into your lap out of nowhere. A day off, with no time to plan the endless activities that fill all the spare moments of weekends and holidays. A true pause in the daily grind. Something that I never have anymore.
These days, snow just means working in softer light. That’s the trouble with working from home: you’re always at work. You have to make time for time off, it never just comes to you. There are no surprises. As with many other parts of being an adult, all the mystery and excitement has been taken out of it and replaced with hard work and responsibility.
I remember in college, snow days were the best. Could we have put on our boots and bundled up and trudged through the blizzard to our classes? Sure! It wasn’t that far, and on foot it wasn’t even dangerous. But we didn’t. Sometimes our professors would cancel classes because they couldn’t get to work through the snow and the sleet, so we were genuinely off the hook. Other times we just didn’t show up, because it was snowing, and that meant that all responsibilities were suspended. We had a lifetime of experience to tell us so, childhood still so close behind us that half the time we forgot that we weren’t kids anymore. So instead of working we would put on our boots and bundle up and trudge through the snow to each other’s dorms and drink hot cocoa and watch old X-Files episodes, with so many people packed into a tiny room that we didn’t need the heating system to keep us toasty warm. The fire marshal probably would have fainted if he’d seen us squeezed together like that, like human sardines. It was bliss.
My apartment seems emptier then usual when it’s snowing. I want someone to share the miracle of snow with. Or better yet, about a dozen someones. I want cocoa and laughter, maybe a good old-fashioned snowball fight, or maybe just a cozy X-Files marathon. But all my friends would have to get in their cars to reach me, would have to brave the treacherous roads. The snow that used to bring us together now keeps us apart.
And I can’t help thinking about the future. It’s February, and this is the first blizzard of the year. Last year we’d had dozens already at this point in the season. A couple years before that, it snowed twice, once in October and once in March. The (relatively) predictable weather patterns of my childhood are gone, and what the future holds, no one knows for sure. Is this the last blizzard of the season, or will we have snow to the second story windows by April? No one knows. Climate change is like a lottery for weather patterns: you can play the odds, but in the end you get what you get.
I would like to enjoy this beautiful day. I would like to find some of the joy and freedom that came with snow when I was a kid. But instead I have a blog post to write, because I left it to the last minute again, and layouts to approve, and spreadsheets to balance, and on and on. I would like to revel in the beauty and the snugness, the warmth and closeness of being trapped at home with family. But my husband is in the other room working (he doesn’t get any days off for weather either), and my friends are all far away, and I can’t stop worrying about the future. Will all the snow days for the rest of my life be full of anxiety and responsibly? Have the dual blows of adulthood and climate change finally beaten down the childhood programing that taught me to associate snow with joy? Is this how it’s always going to be from now on?
Screw this, I’m going to go make some cocoa and watch the X-Files. I’m making some time to do nothing, before it’s too late.
First of all, I want to be very clear that I am not making this up. Yes, I know it sounds like something I would write, but it is not. This is real, people. We live in this world.
There’s a new program over at NASA, one that might be of particular interest to any badass astrophysicists with a hero complex. It’s called the Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
Let’s just take a moment to let that sink in.
This program isn’t exactly new: it’s a formalization of a program that’s been around for a while. The primary mission of this office: to seek out new life…no, wait, that’s not right. To find and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near Earth’s orbit, that’s the one.
This office will also be responsible for taking “a leading role in coordinating interagency and intergovernmental efforts in response to any potential impact threats.” That’s a direct quote from a NASA press release that was issued on Jan. 7th.
I’m still not making this up, I swear.
What exactly will they be coordinating, you may want to know. Well, NASA isn’t specifying that exactly, but perhaps they’re thinking of programs like the EU sponsored NEOShield, an initiative that is developing ways of using nuclear weapons to deflect rogue asteroids that threaten life on earth.
Okay, look, if you still don’t believe that this is real then go google it. I won’t get mad, I swear: I wouldn’t believe you if you were telling me about this either.
NASA’s first Planetary Defense Officer (that’s the actual, official job title) is Lindley Johnson, easily the most badass government employee of all time. I’m basing that evaluation solely on the job title, but come on, what other evidence do you need?
Anyway, I don’t know about you, but I will sleep better tonight knowing that the future of life on our planet is being safeguarded by a bunch of real-life superheroes. In my imagination, I see them pacing around Arecibo Observatory in their tights and their capes, just waiting for the alarm to go off and call them to their secret underground base to board their rocket ships, at which point we the viewer will be forced to watch a two minute transformation sequence every single time before they can get on with saving the world….
Okay, maybe I’m mixing up my genres a bit here. But seriously guys: “Planetary Defense Officer.” I just can’t help myself. I would totally read that comic.
If you want to follow along with what the PDCO is up to, there’s a website that lists all the NEOs (near earth objects) that we are currently tracking and their approach times. There’s even a widget if you don’t want to bother with a website. Just go to http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/ and you can see…
HOLY CRAP! I had no idea that there was so much junk whizzing by the planet all the time. Lots of little stellar debris, sure, but objects big enough to be worth tracking individually? This is crazy! There are dozens of them on this list, and this is just stuff passing by in the next month or so.
I think I just figured out why calculating trajectories for things like deep space probes is so complicated. There’s a lot of stuff out there to navigate around.
Anyway, there’s nothing to worry about: the Solar System might be a complicated, dangerous place, but NASA has their top people looking out for us. We can feel safe knowing that the brave men and women of the PDCO are on the job. They will watch the skies for us, safeguarding this beautiful planet that we call home.
Remember: Science Never Sleeps.
Earlier this week I was innocently scrolling though my twitter feed when something amazing grabbed my attention.
That is a photo taken from the ISS of lightning striking over Africa. How cool is that?
So this immediately got me wondering if there are other pictures of lightning taken from space, and if they were equally cool. The answers appear to be yes, and yes.
These are just so freaking beautiful. I mean seriously, my life has literally been enriched by seeing them.
I want to take a step back here for a moment and think about what we’re really seeing in these photos. These are images of a naturally occurring event, seen in a way that wouldn’t be possible for a human being without the help of technology.
I feel like so often we fall into this trap of always pitting nature against technology. We act like things have to be one or the other, natural or man made, science or wilderness. But it’s a false dichotomy. Human beings are a part of this crazy nature thing that’s going on on this planet. The technology we create is naturally occurring, because it occurred here as part of our natural development as a species.
And now we have things like these photos. Natural beauty, captured through the application of science. High-tech naturalism, if you will. And the results are breathtaking.
Anyway, sorry about that mini-rant. The real point here is nothing more then me going “ooo, pretty.” So, in conclusion, I’ll end by just saying this:
(That’s a picture of lightning striking with the aurora in the background. This picture is worth at least 3,500 words, I think.)
I gotta say, I’m pretty excited about the huge strides that the private sector has been making in the development of more cost effective rockets. I expect most of you have already heard about the massive breakthrough that Blue Origin made last November when they successfully landed their space vehicle, the New Shepard, after a trip to the thermosphere.
Why is this a big deal, you ask? Well, because it had never been done before. When NASA and other international space agencies launch rockets, they don’t land them again. Landing modules containing crew and cargo are jettisoned to make their own parachute-assisted landings separately from the actual propulsion system, which is allowed to burn up in the atmosphere. But now Blue Origin has figured out how to land and reuse their rockets. Here, check out the video. (snicker)
This really is a revolutionary breakthrough. If you can land and reuse your rockets, it means you can cut down the costs of space travel dramatically. This is the rocket of the future. It’s just throbbing with potential.
I mean, think about it. It can go up into space, then come back down again. Up and down, repeatedly. (giggle)
Blue Origin has stated that their eventual goal is to create a commercial venture out of space travel. People will be able to pay money to ride the space rocket…
Oh God, I can’t do it. I just cant take this seriously. I know this is a huge breakthrough in space travel and everything, but it’s just…it just….
It looks like a penis.
There, I said it. It’s a giant space dick. (Sorry, I meant “thermosphere dick.”)
It’s a massive metal wang, going up and down and back up again. I just can’t…can’t breathe…give me a moment.
Okay, okay, I’m back. I’m fine now, I’ve got it together.
Right. So, this is a big deal. Blue Origin isn’t the only private company which has been working on this problem. SpaceX has been tackling it for a while now too. In fact, the race to be the first company to successfully land a rocket was pretty fierce, with SpaceX managing the feat only about a month after Blue Origin. Here, they have a video too.
The main thing I want to draw your attention to here is the fact that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is longer.
The Falcon 9 is also noticeably less phallic in shape. Which just goes to point out that the New Shepard doesn’t need to be shaped that way.
No, wait, I said I’d take this seriously. Okay, Anna, deep breath.
Anyway, in summation, there are amazing scientific breakthroughs happening in the private sector of space travel. We live in amazing, awe-inspiring times, where anything could happen and the future we imagine in science fiction could actually be just around the corner.
Also, penises are funny.
I think we’ve learned a lot today.
Silly blogger, not writing a real blog post in advance for today. “Oh, I have a good idea! I’ll spend New Year’s Eve celebrating with my friends, then I’ll get up Friday morning and whip out a clever, insightful blog post at the last minute! What could possibly go wrong?”
I’ma gonna go curl up in a hole somewhere. Learn from my mistakes, kids! And always remember to hydrate!
…I felt it was important to share this with all of you. Merry day after Christmas.
Happy Holidays everyone! I got you…um…this page of Half-Man! Merry Christmas!
…now what did you get me?
Big news this week: Episode One of Half-Man is now available from comiXology Submit!
Easy link for sharing: http://bit.ly/1Qy4MiR
Episode 1 looks soooo pretty on my tablet. The “guided view” thing that comiXology does that lets you move through the comic a panel at a time instead of a page at a time is pretty cool.
Episode 2 will be available on comiXology early next year. (Which is really, really soon. Has anyone else noticed this month flying by?)
In the mean time, here’s an article about a British astronaut’s plans to perfect the process for making tea in space. Take that Italy and your fancy espresso machine!
Today I want to talk a little more about camouflage, but this time from a biological angle, rather then from a technological one. Specifically I want to talk about two of nature’s most famous camouflagers.
1. The Chameleon
So, it used to be that everyone was always saying that chameleons change their colors to hide in their surroundings. That whole idea was planted pretty deep in the cultural consciousness, to the point that the word “chameleon” became a synonym for camouflage or disguise.
Then recently, everyone got really excited about debunking that idea. You couldn’t use the word any more without someone being like, “That’s not true, you know. Chameleons don’t change color to blend in with their surroundings at all: it’s a form of communication.”
Here’s the thing: both of these factoids are actually true (or false, depending on how you want to look at it.)
Look, guys, there are over 200 kinds of chameleon. Not all of them are even capable of changing color, not by a long shot. And among those who do, some of them do use the capability for camouflage, and some don’t. The thing about using it for communication is also true …for some types of chameleon. ‘Cause, like, there’s more then one kind, you know?
Some chameleons change their appearance based on the visual abilities of specific predators that are looking for them. Which is super cool. So, maybe you or I can pick out that weird orange chameleon among those green leaves in a minute, but that snake over there can’t. Nice one, nature!
So if you see some wacky, multicolored chameleon hanging out on a branch, don’t jump to any conclusions. It might be trying to hide from that hawk over there, or it might be telling that other chameleon to piss off. To know which, first you need to know what kind of chameleon you’re talking about, then you probably should ask the nearest herpetologist, because seriously, there’s a lot to know about chameleons.
2. The Octopus
I don’t really know where the whole “Camouflage = Chameleon” thing even started. I mean, there are lots of animals with much more impressive disguises. When I walk though the reptile house at the zoo, the chameleon is usually one of the lizards I can actually find in its cage. Whereas some of the frogs…
But the most impressive camouflage I know of is found among the octopi.
If you think there are a lot of different kinds of chameleon, then you’ll really be impressed by the octopus. There are over 300 known kinds, and since humanity has only explored about 5% of the world’s oceans, there are likely to be more kinds we haven’t discovered yet.
Like the chameleon, some (not all) kinds of octopus that change their appearance to blend in with their surroundings. But they do it way better.
Whaaaatt!! Did you see that!! That was soooo cool! Let’s see some more!
I love this stuff.
There’s really not all that much left to say about octopus camouflage. It’s really really really good, and once you’ve seen it, any attempt at description becomes pretty feeble.
(Seriously, if you didn’t watch that first video, go back and watch it now. My mind = blown.)
Did you know that octopi have eight limbs? Of course you did. Did you also know that they have blue blood? It’s true! Octopus blood is based on hemocyanin, a copper based protein that is responsible for carry oxygen to thier cells, as opposed the iron based hemoglobin which does the same job in our blood. Just as the iron in hemoglobin is responsible for our blood appearing to be red, hemocyanin causes octopus blood to appear blue.
Hmmm. The K’ul have eight limbs and blue blood. They also depend on camouflage to defend themselves in close quarters. Coincidence?
Of course not! I have it on good authority from the author that she was thinking about these things. She’s a pretty smart lady, or so I’m told.
This week I discovered that I’ve been under a bit of a misconception where dark matter is concerned. I was under the impression that it was very much the realm of radical, extreme science or even science fiction, and that no one in the scientific community took it seriously.
Turns out I was totally wrong about this. Actually, the majority of mainstream particle physicists think that dark matter probably exists, and there is an extensive body of robust evidence to support the theories. (That link is just to the Wikipedia article, it’s nothing fancy, but it does break down the history of research into this subject rather nicely.)
So, yeah, I was completely wrong. Whoops. My bad.
Still, it’s not that surprising that I would get this erroneous impression. After all, it’s not like we’ve ever actually detected dark matter directly. We can only infer its existence from the observable inconsistencies in gravitational fields, particularly around galactic centers. It doesn’t appear to actually interact with light or any other electromagnetic radiation in any way.
Come on, doesn’t that sound like science fiction?
I started looking into this topic this week because of an article I ran across on the NASA website. This article details a theory about how dark matter might interact with the gravitational field of Earth. It included this neat picture of what Earth’s theoretical dark matter “hairs” might look like. Here it is.
Come on, you’re still telling me this isn’t fiction? Seriously, I think I saw this on a Star Trek episode once.
But nope, this is legit science.
Still, all those particle physicists should watch out. As soon as they figure out how to harness this stuff to create some sort of infinite energy source, it’s going to turn out that there are actually sentient beings living in it who have been just as unaware of us as we have been of them, but now they’re going to be pissed at us for wrecking their world and come destroy us. Seriously, I’m like 98% sure that’s how this is going to go down. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There are a lot of unlikely science fiction tropes out there that we have learned to accept without question: artificial gravity, faster then light travel, energy weapons with a “stun” setting, etc.
There’s nothing wrong with these concepts. They create a fun space in which to tell interesting stories. But they aren’t based in science, and using them puts you constantly in danger of accidently puncturing the believability bubble of your world. Working with them is like sorting needles in a bouncy castle: you just have to be really careful and pay attention to the details.
Today I want to talk about another popular science fiction trope that doesn’t make any sense: cloaking devices.
How do they work? Oh, that’s easy; something something, camouflage, something energy fields something refraction.
No, okay, sorry, you’re right, there’s a better explanation then that. Cloaking devices are essentially very specialized force fields that absorb the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation from visible light right down to radio waves, then emit a spectrum of it’s own which mimics what would have been perceivable if the field wasn’t present. Simple right?
Um…no. Frankly I find artificial gravity more believable.
But, okay, let’s just say for a moment that it were possible. I mean, why not? There’s no such thing as a force field, so who are we to say what it can and cannot do? So, let’s say it can absorb all the waves, and somehow there’s a computer involved that can process the really staggering amount of variables to figure out exactly what would have been visible and/or detectable from any particular perspective, and there is also the equipment available with the capacity to emit all the relevant frequencies of light and other radiations in very precise increments and very precise directions.
That seems…that seems…ridiculous. I’m failing to buy it.
Okay, how about this. How about the force field in question neither absorbs nor emits anything, it only bends. The exact frequencies of light etc. that you need are already present in the room, after all: all you need to do is find a way to refract them around the cloaked object without altering them. And since we have no real-life basis with which to judge the capacities of this totally fictional “force field,” why not pretend that it can do that? I mean, I already said “fine”p when you told me that it could both block an energy weapon and contain an atmosphere. So now there are very specialized force fields that bend light extremely precisely as well.
Fine. So I can’t see the thing that has one of these force fields surrounding it. Now all I need is some basic sonar.
But no, you say! No, this field can absorb/reflect sounds and other vibrations as well! It is invisible to primitive sonar, as well as to more advanced “scanners.” Well, why not? I mean, I don’t have any idea how “scanners” work in the first place, so if you’re going to tell me that there is a technology to counter them, I don’t see why I should be skeptical.
However, if we are going to take in stride the principle of technological escalation, then surely there must be some way to counter this cloaking device. It can’t perfectly bend all forms of electromagnetic radiation, vibration, stray particles, etc. There must be something that it can’t hide from, be it real or imaginary or whatever tachyons are.
Okay. Yes, the nature of technological competition is such that if one side in a war develops a cloaking device, the other side is going to bombard that device with whatever types of particles or waves that they can harness until they find something it can’t hide from.
So we’ve inevitably found the right magic particles to use to detect a cloaked object. Let’s call them “Voronov” particles, after the fictional scientist who discovered them. Now we need to equip all our troops with devices that both emit and detect Voronov particles. Let’s call them…V-scanners! Yeah, that sounds good! So now all our soldiers have V-scanners.
But…but that takes away all the fun of cloaking devices! I mean, what’s the point of being invisible if everyone can see you?
Right, but this is fictional technology, no one knows what its limitations are. Maybe…maybe the scanners are too big to mount on a weapon. So now our soldiers can either carry a V-scanner or a gun.
Which is going to seriously effect tactics, right? Now foot soldiers are going to need to work in pairs. Which seems really inefficient: we’re cutting our firepower-to-personnel ratio in half.
Or maybe not…maybe one person with a scanner can direct a large number of soldiers. Four, five, six even? Of course, that would create a problem where if the scanner man dies, the rest of the soldiers are screwed. So that’s not very good either.
But there’s probably an ideal ratio here, right? Maybe…two gunmen to every scanner-man. Yeah, that sounds good. And we’ll call the grouping a Voronov formation, after the scanners. Which is great, because they will probably proceed in a sort of reversed V with the scanner man at the back behind two gunmen, so the name has a double meaning when you shorten it to “V formation.” Yeah, this seems both thematically satisfying and plausible.
Oh, wait, did you think that all this was just an exercise in exploring the ridiculousness of science fiction technology? No, no, this was me describing my thought process in coming up with the way ground combat against the K’ul works.
Sorry, that was misleading, my bad.
BTW, the K’ul have personal cloaking devices. Thought you should know.
Holy crap, guys! Today is the one year anniversary of the day we posted the first page of Half-Man!!! Happy anniversary everyone!
It’s been a great year, and we’ve got a lot to celebrate. Two-plus issues on the website, our first issue in print in select comic shops, and now I am excited to announce that coming very soon our first issue will also be available on Comixology! Huzzah!
How about we all celebrate by voting for Half-Man on TopWebComics? What do you say? Just hit the button below to place you vote! You can vote every 24 hours!
Patrick and I want to thank all our loyal readers for making this an amazing year. None of this would be possible without your relentless support. Here’s to many more years to come! Cheers!
(webcomics toast by posting bonus art, I guess. here you go.)
If you spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably already heard about the Google self-driving car getting pulled over by a cop for driving too slowly. If by some chance you missed the story…I pretty much already told you the whole thing. But here’s an article that says exactly what I just said in more words.
The part of this story that really caught my eye was the quote from someone at Google (no, I don’t know who exactly, I’ve read several version of this story, and they all include the quote, but not one of them attributes it to an actual person) who said, “We’ve capped the speed of our prototype vehicles at 25mph for safety reasons. We want them to feel friendly and approachable, rather than zooming scarily through neighborhood streets.”
They didn’t want people to be afraid of the cars. Okay, I get that. Makes sense. People are afraid of new things to begin with, and if they have even the tiniest sliver of a reason why that new thing might actually be dangerous, they will cling to it and use it as an excuse to let their fear run amok. That’s just human nature.
But…25MPH? I can feel the road rage kicking in just thinking about it.
Seriously, I know I’m not the only one who has this problem. Sometimes I get stuck behind that guy going 40 in the 45 zone, and I want to scream. I start wishing all sorts of horrible disasters on the poor fool behind the wheel. Seriously, slow drivers draw the sort of anger that normally I reserve for war criminals and bigots. I HATE slow drivers. And I know I’m not the only one.
Imagine for a moment that you’re part of the development team at Goggle, and you’re trying to decide how fast your new self-driving car will go. You only really have two choices: you can have it go fast, and make some people afraid, or you can have it go slow, and make some people angry.
Fear or anger. Which is less of an impediment to marketing a new product? What a sucky choice.
And I think a lot of new technology faces choices like this, even if they aren’t all so clear cut. People are resistant to change. They don’t like new things. Some caution in the realm of innovation is only reasonable, or you risk tearing holes in space/time or whatever.
But when you get right down to it, most people are way beyond cautious when it comes to the unknown. They are skeptical, hostile, and suspicious.
Where is the sense of wonder? Where is the open-minded optimism, the childlike excitement, the enthusiasm? Why can’t we greet new things with joy and celebration?
I am directing this question to myself as much as anyone else. I have a terrible habit of jumping right to criticism when encountering the unknown. I don’t think it’s really a question of fear or anger for me: I just want to be involved in the discussion, and criticism is the easiest way to get into the thick of things and sound intelligent without having to put in the effort of actually questioning, exploring, and understanding. Instant hostility is a shortcut for the intellectually lazy.
So with that in mind, I guess I have to try to forgive the self-driving cars for going so slowly. Which is easy for me to do when I’m sitting comfortably in my home, but will be a bit more difficult if I ever get caught behind one on the road. Still, I’ll do my best. I really really want self-driving cars to become a normal, safe, and accessible thing, so if the price is an extra five minutes of my time stuck in traffic, then that is a price I am willing to pay. I suppose. If I have to.
Oh, and one quick note for all of you Half-Man fans living in or near Western MA: Episode One is now in print, and will be available at select comic shops in the area! So if you want to buy a copy, head on over to Modern Myths in Northampton to pick one up. If you don’t live in the area, you’re just going to have to try to catch me at a comic convention. I’ll be letting everyone know where I’ll be once the season gets a little closer.
So this morning there was a spacewalk on (at? outside? nearby?) the ISS. NASA broadcast live coverage of the event throughout the duration. I watched some of it.
It…was really boring.
You know that scene in every space drama ever where they realize that something needs to be done outside the ship and someone’s going to have to go out there? They suit some unlucky person up, and out he or she goes while the rest of the crew sit by the radio with nervous tension. The whole thing takes about ten minutes, and everyone is on the edge of their seats, like they’re watching one of those escapist acts where someone has been tied up and dropped in a water tank.
But that’s fiction. Real life is a heck of a lot less exciting. This morning’s space walk took over seven hours, and the whole world was able to watch if they wanted. But most people didn’t, because it had about the same entertainment value as watching someone else fix a car.
That’s the thing about real life space travel, isn’t it? You want it to be boring. You want absolutely nothing interesting to happen. When you’re in the most dangerous environment in the universe, “interesting” gets people killed.
But seriously, seven hours? Seven hours of being in horrendous danger, but focusing on mundane tasks. Seven hours of continuous concentration, no room for wandering attention, no bathroom breaks, no snacks. Apparently they do have drink pouches secured inside their helmets, and of course space suits are famous for their built-in facilities, but that’s beside the point. I can’t even sit quietly at my desk and work for seven hours straight without a break, and I’m not in mortal danger at my desk.
Add to that the fact that they have to do it all on a live broadcast, with weird people like me WATCHING them work….
I mean seriously, the sun set near the end of the spacewalk, and suddenly they were doing everything by flashlight! It was like a horror movie, with the wobbly camera feed and the darkness.
But they’ve got valves to change and ammonia to vent, so on they go. They had to be tired after six hours of this, and now they can barely see anything and they are disoriented, but everyone is still as calm as anything. Just doing the work, like it’s any normal day, and one small slip of the hand couldn’t kill them. I think at some point movie-style dramatic music would actually make it easier, pump up the adrenaline. But no, they just keep going, one minute task at a time, hour after hour without a break.
Astronauts, man. They are made of far sterner stuff then I.
I actually laughed out loud when I saw this. Ah, nerd humor.
Seriously guys, I’m a nerd. I thought I should tell you, just in case the signs had been too subtle for you to pick up on.
Speaking of moons, here’s a pretty cool mini-article from NASA about Pluto’s moons.
For those of you too lazy to click that link, this is what NASA has been calling a “family portrait” of all of Pluto’s moons. It’s pretty freaking cool.
What’s crazy about these smaller moons is how irregular they are, both in shape and in orbit and rotation. I’ve shared this video before, back when I was talking about why Pluto stopped being a planet, but I think it’s worth sharing again since it really gets the point across.
The moon represented in this animation is Nix, also known as the “wobbly potato.” And yes, the moon is much more regularly shaped in this animation then it is in the illustration above. That’s because the animation was made before the New Horizons probe did it’s Pluto flyby last summer. Now we have more information about what Pluto’s smaller moons actually look like, and it turns out that they are even weirder then expected. Like, a lot weirder.
Kerberos, for example, had been thought to be a fairly large but mostly dark moon, based on its gravitational effect on the other moons in the system. But when we were finally able to get up close and take some pictures of it, we discovered that it was very small and very bright. Early guesses were wrong.
But why then does it have such a strong gravitational influence? We don’t know.
This is what I love most about space exploration. We silly humans back on Earth are always looking at the universe around us and trying to make sense of it. We come up with explanations for what we see, based on carful observation and our best guesses. Sometimes we get it wrong. That’s how science works. You start with a theory, then you test it, and if it turns out to have been wrong then great, you’ve learned something, time to move on.
But so often it seems like people get attached to this idea that science has all the answers, that it can explain everything. When actually the whole point of science is to explore the questions we don’t have answers for. There is this common perception that science can’t be wrong, when in fact being wrong is a crucial part of the scientific process. Sometimes this idea even infects scientist, who should know better.
But when it comes to space exploration, we are wrong so much. Like, all the freaking time. And it’s not a big deal. All those awesome researchers at NASA and other international space agencies are just like “huh, well we got that one wrong. Awesome, now we have a new puzzle to solve.” I love that. I love the attitude, I love the new puzzles, I love the sense of wonder and mystery that watching the process of exploration always gives me.
And, if I’m being completely honest, my sci-fi writer’s brain loves the way the questions create space for totally crazy, unlikely, exciting answers. Like, maybe Kerberos is made up of some sort of super-heavy rare material that will turn out to be the key to faster-then-light travel. Or maybe it’s secretly a portal to another dimension, and the gravitational pull of the world through the portal is effecting the other moons in the system. Or maybe part of the moon is invisible to hide the base of operations of an alien race that has been studying us for years. WHO KNOWS!!!
Anyway. Those are some funny shaped moons.
Let’s face it, space exploration today isn’t much like what science fiction has trained us to expect. We want a bunch of scientists to pile into a glorified metal can, zoom out into space, then start poking around and finding all sorts of new life and bizarre creatures. Tragically, that doesn’t happen.
Not in space anyway.
But there is somewhere in the universe where basically that exact thing does happen! And that…is the deep oceans of Earth.
Think about it. Glorified metal can? Check. Teams of scientists going on adventures for the sake of expanding the horizons of human knowledge? Check. Strange, alien-seeming creatures like nothing we’ve ever seen before? Check check check! I mean seriously, check this out.
I freaking love this stuff.
But here’s the thing that really gets me (besides that glowy starburst thing, I mean): for the first time in human history, scientists around the world are able to pool their knowledge and expertise in real time to create a global community dedicated to discovery.
HOW COOL IS THAT?!?
And it’s not just oceanologists and marine biologists and other deep sea people. More and more I’ve been hearing about how all the different international space programs have been cooperating to help humanity reach further into space. Different teams around the world, all funded by different governments, are all working together to study the data being sent back to earth by the Curiosity Rover, or the New Horizons Probe, or other of humanity’s amazing space exploration projects.
I can’t tell you how much hope this gives me for the future of our world. I know we have a long way to go before we are one planet united in peace and understanding, but the fact that we are even capable of setting aside our nationalistic and political differences to work together on these two remarkable frontiers is just so…unlikely. But amazing. And inspiring.
And maybe, just maybe, if we can start with working together for scientific advancement, maybe that means we could work together for other things. Like repairing the environmental damage we have already done to our planet. Or ending war.
I know it’s a pretty big leap from consulting about a new type of jellyfish to peace on earth. But it’s the little things that give me hope. I want them to be signs of how things might be in the future. Indicators of what humanity could become with time and effort.
And yes, it would be a big effort. But maybe, with enough time, we could do it.
Whew, that got heavy. I don’t really want to end on that note. Um….here, look at this adorable octopus!!
I can hardly believe it. Just like that, issue 2 is complete.
I sort of feel like I should make you wait a until spring before the next season starts, or something, to make the end of an issue more climatic. But I’m not going to. The truth is, I’m too impatient for that. So next week you will get the first installment of issue 3, no extra waiting required, plus the extra bonus of the new cover. You lucky dogs.
All our loyal readers should probably think about investing in hat pins, because issue 3 is going to be a wild ride.
In the meantime, here’s an astronaut playing…I mean “experimenting”…with water in micro-gravity. For Science. Really.
That quote is from NASA administrator Charles Bolden, as reported in a press release that came out this week outlining NASA’s next steps in the journey towards Mars.
No disrespect to Mr. Bolden, but, yeah, I should hope so. I mean, something would have to have gone terribly wrong for NASA to have actually lost progress, right? Saying we’re closer doesn’t mean that we’re close.
But the real point here is that NASA is basically saying, “yes, we really are actively working on this. No, we don’t know when it’s going to happen, because there are a lot of problems to work out first. Like seriously, guys, what we’re talking about here is really, really hard. But we’re working on it.” (That was me paraphrasing the subtext of the press release, and not an actual quote, just in case anyone was unclear.)
I’m not criticizing NASA here. Seriously, I would have been shocked if they had come out with a timeline for an actual mission to Mars, even if the goal date was like 2080. Thrilled, yes, but seriously surprised as well. Because here’s the thing: space travel is really hard, and slow, and dangerous. Sci-fi has pretty much warped people’s expectations for real life space travel to the point where we don’t have a real concept of what’s reasonable any more (sorry!).
But let’s try to put things in perspective for a moment. Do you know how many human beings have walked on the moon? The answer is 12. 12 people, ever. Only 536 people have ever been in space. That’s about how many customers the average Starbucks serves in a day, and they still can’t get my order right.
Let’s think of this another way. The furthest any human being has ever been from Earth is the far side of a high lunar orbit, about 248,655 miles from Earth. Mars, at the closest its orbit will ever be to Earth, is still 33.9 million miles away. That is over 136 times as far as we have ever been. To think about just how far that is, let’s say for a second that you were born and raised in Boston, and have never been further then New York. In order to take a trip that is proportionally as much further, you would have to completely circle the world and then overshoot your origin by some 5 thousand miles, ending up somewhere in Europe. So…it’s a bit further.
(Side note: Google is autocompleting every one of these questions for me. Even the one about Starbucks. For some reason that makes me happy, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why. I guess I like that I’m not the only one out there looking up all these little tidbits.)
So, basically NASA wants to go to Mars someday the same way that I want to visit Antarctica. It could probably happen if I really put my mind to it, but it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not happening any time soon.
Still, I love that they are really working on it. I love that one of the steps they are thinking about is possibly establishing a space station in orbit around the moon. I love that before a trip to the Martian surface will be possible, it might be realistic to run an expedition to one of the moons of Mars. I love that they are actively trying to figure out solutions for some of the major problems, like cosmic radiation exposure and fuel synthesization for a return trip. I just love hearing about all of this, and the fact that I will get to continue to hear about it, probably for the rest of my life, but that it will be new and exciting and full of groundbreaking innovations and astounding progress the whole time is just so awesome. Seriously, who needs fiction?
Wait, forget that last part. You need fiction. Specifically, you need to keep reading Half-Man. Don’t forget, okay?
Remember a few months ago when I wrote about how real people have cybernetic arms? Well, at the time I was pushing things a little to make my point. I wrote about prosthetics with sensory feedback, and prosthetics controlled by implants in the brain, but they weren’t actually the same prosthetics at the time.
Darn it, DARPA, I’m trying to write fiction here! Stop making my unrealistic “future science” into a reality in the here and now!
Okay, “science,” you want to play rough, huh? You want to make my science fiction all boring and mundane faster then I can write it, do you? Well how about this. Last week, I saw this video:
Pretty cool, right?
Now, I’m going to go write a story that combines these two pieces of technology. Instead of wearing a suit to control a robot in another location, the people in my story will have implants in their brain which give them sensory feedback from the robot in real time as well as allowing them to control the robot directly with neural impulses. I know this story has been done before, but I’m going to base it on these two particular, real-life projects.
The challenge to you, “science,” is to see if you can make it a real thing faster then I can finish the story.
Are you ready? Okay, on your mark. Get set. GO!!
write write write
Okay, I think I’m done…. Wait, what? I was too slow? Neurologically controlled robots are already a thing?
Darn it! How did you do that so fast!!!
I give up. From this day forward, I am no longer a science fiction writer. I’m just a poorly-researched fiction writer who get’s a lot of details wrong. ::sigh::
This week I want to look at two stories in the news about robots doing things autonomously that…let’s face it…sort of make people obsolete.
First of all: Driverless Buses. Oh, sorry, did I say buses? I meant “pods.” Because “pod driver” isn’t a real job that machines can steal from human beings.
Those of us who’ve been following the development of self-driving cars have long known that this day was coming. Well, it’s finally here: the first self-driving vehicles to operate on public roads alongside normal drivers have been introduced in the Netherlands.
The WEpod is a six person mini-bus…sorry I said bus again. It’s a POD. A six person pod. Members of the public can reserve a seat in a pod using a mobile app, scheduling both a pick up and drop off point, and the pod will autonomously plan a route based on the destinations of it’s passengers. The pod travels on regular roads alongside human drivers. To start off with the pods will be carefully monitored by human beings in a control room, and the pods will not operate under challenging conditions such as during rush hour or in bad weather. But as time goes on, the scope of the project is expected to expand.
I’m not going to lie: I’m really excited about this. I HATE long distance driving, so I’m really looking forward to the day I can just program my destination into my vehicle then sit back and take a nap. And frankly that sounds way more likely to actually happen then my ever being able to afford to hire a driver. And I think the world is desperately in need of better public transit solutions, especially as rising gas prices make the private vehicle model less tenable, so overall I think this is a really good thing.
That’s story number one. Story number two…well, here, why don’t you just watch this video.
I now have the Spiderman theme song stuck in my head, only the words are “Spider Drone, Spider Drone…”
…right, so anyway…
That’s right, those drones are building a rope bridge! They aren’t being controlled remotely either, they’re operating completely autonomously. This is some wacky Future Science going on for sure.
I can’t say that I have a burning personal need for a rope bridge, at least not at the moment, so I’m less excited about this one in a “how is this going to effect my life” way. But from a purely technological point of view it’s pretty stunning. I’m stunned, at least.
So in conclusion; robots, man. They sure do some stuff.
This is the first time I’ve heard of something being done in space making it less awesome.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m super interested in space travel. What you might not know is that I’m also super interested in whisky. So when I heard this week that the whisky that spent three years aboard the ISS has finally been tasted, I got super excited.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like it was very good. (At least that’s how it sounded to me. I haven’t seen anyone actually come out and say that, but if I was standing in a liquor store reading these flavor descriptions, I’d pick the Earth sample.) Which, if you know much about how barrel aging whisky actually works, isn’t very surprising.
The thing that gives whisky its lovely oak and vanilla flavors (my personal favorites) is exposure to the wood of the barrel itself. In fact, if you want to rush the process, agitating the barrels during the time spent aging the whisky can increase the interaction between fluid and container and create the flavor of a 30 year whisky in just 4 years. Fluctuations in temperature also help hasten the aging of a whisky, as the wood of the barrel contracts and expands.
Some modern distilleries have realized this, and figured out an easy way to create both of these conditions in one go: they put them on boats and send them on a little ocean tour before bringing them home again. Sea travel + whisky barrels = better whisky.
Okay, so what’s the next logical step? Send them to space of course!!
In 2011 NASA did just that. (Not for drinking. American astronauts aren’t allowed to drink in space. This whisky is for SCIENCE.) But they couldn’t just load wood barrels onto the space shuttle, so they had to come up with a different solution. They put the whisky in plastic vials with a strip of oak wood in each one. In 2014 they brought the whisky back to earth, and after a year of testing, they finally tasted the results.
And to be honest, the results don’t sound that appealing to me. Which I sort of feel like was actually predictable.
First of all, a little strip of wood in a plastic container isn’t going to replicate the process of being stored in a wooden barrel, so this whisky was pretty much guaranteed to be less good than normal whisky. But the control sample was aged in the same containers, so that’s not why the two samples are different.
Second of all, my gut tells me that a micro-gravity situation would result in less interaction between the fluid and the wood. Do I have any science to back this up? No, not really. I have zero idea how a low gravity environment would actually effect the brownian motion of the whisky, or anything like that. But the way that liquids sort of cling to surfaces and splash around less in space makes me think that overall there would be less surface interaction between the whisky and the wood. I suppose you can’t really tell without trying it, but that would be my first guess.
Thirdly, say one thing about space stations, say they tend to stay at a pretty consistent temperature. Not that temperature fluctuations in a strip of wood would have as much effect as fluctuations in a whole barrel, but even that little bit of effect is going to be out of the picture on the space station. Although to be fair, I don’t know where they stored the samples on Earth, so this factor might not account for any of the difference between the two samples, even if it does account for both of them being less tasty then they could have been.
So it’s not surprising to me that this whisky might not be the best whisky ever created. And it’s not surprising to me that the whisky that went to space sounds less appealing even then the control sample stored in the same containers on earth. Disappointing, yes, but not surprising.
If given a chance, would I try the space whisky? Of course! In a second! Am I glad that they tried this experiment? Heck yeah! We couldn’t really know until we tried, right? Am I going to run out and spend thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars, on whisky that’s been to space? No. No I’m not. And not just because I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars either.
…well, okay, it’s mostly because I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars. What can I say, if I were super rich this sounds like exactly the sort of thing I’d waste my money on.
Epic deathmatch!!!! …okay, no, not really. But a contest nonetheless.
Robot Chimp: Designed by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence for operation on the lunar surface, our chimp, Charlie, features both quadrupedal and bipedal walking modes. He’s not fast, but he’s versatile, able to negotiate rough terrain with great stability. Here’s Charlie.
Robot Dog: There are soooo many robot dogs out there to choose from, but I think for the purposes of this Robot-Off I’m going with Boston Dynamic’s BigDog. He’s fairly quick on his feet, and he’s really hard to knock over. Everyone say hello to robopup!
Round One: Speed & Stability
Okay let’s face it, neither of these guys are fast. There are other robots out there who were designed for speed, these guys were both made for stability and for coping with rough terrain. But if you watched the video above, you saw that BigDog can match a human jogging speed, where as Charlie…well…let’s face it, he’s not exactly speedy.
But he CAN do this.
BigDog is great at recovering his balance (you saw what happened when someone kicked him. Other then me crying, that is), but he’d be off this balance board in a second.
So stability maybe a tie, but BigDog definitely takes the speed category.
Round Two: Dexterity
This is no contest. I mean, it’s hardly even fair. BigDog wasn’t designed to do much besides walk around, whereas Charlie can switch from quadrupedal to bipedal modes in order to free up his front hands.
How cool is that? Humans can’t even do that until they’re like a year old. Spines are tricky.
On the other hand, BigDog is rugged as hell, and can deal with some seriously awful terrain. Like snow. But…oh man, look at him try to recover from that fall, he looks like a spider having a seizure.
So I guess I’m tentatively giving this round to Charlie? I mean, I haven’t seen him actually do anything with those hands, but the concept is there.
Round Three: Durability and Resistance to Environmental Factors
Both these little guys were designed with harsh climates in mind. BigDog was made to function over all terrains, from sand to mud to shallow water, and even snow. He’s an all-weather robot. Charlie, on the other hand, was designed with the harshest environment of all in mind: the moon. He is meant to function in low gravity, zero atmosphere, really cold temperatures, and high levels of radiation.
So who’s the tougher robot? I’d have to say Charlie. Unless it’s raining. Then BigDog will kick his ass.
So, judges? Do we have a verdict?
Yeah. The verdict is that the robot apocalypse is going to be brutal.
Recently, my husband and I have been apartment shopping. It’s just the two of us, but we both work from home, and we know from experience how important physical space can be to maintaining the peace in our marriage. Specifically, we know how quickly things can go south if we don’t have enough space. Space to breathe, space to work, space to be alone, space to not feel like we’re on top of each other all day every day. There’s nothing like being trapped in a tiny box with another human being to bring out the worst in you, no matter how much you might like the person in question.
Apparently, NASA is aware of this phenomenon as well. And they’re working on the problem. Along with Cornell University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, NASA has been running a series of isolation simulations called HI-SEAS, Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Yeah, that acronym isn’t forced at all.
On August 29th, NASA sent six volunteers into the longest of these isolation experiment ever conducted. These six lab rats…I mean, people…will spend the next year living together under a dome that is only 36 feet in diameter, isolated on a barren volcano in Hawaii. If they wish to leave their tiny living space, they must wear a space suit. I’m not kidding.
The experiment is designed to simulate what living conditions might be like on Mars for any future human exploration of the planet. The focus of the experiment is on the psychological effects of living in such close quarters for an extended period without a means of escape.
Okay, let’s do some quick math. If the diameter of the dome is 36ft, then that’s about 1,027 square feet.
The other day my husband and I looked at an apartment that was listed on craigslist as 925 square feet. I think that was a generous estimation, but still. When we left, my husband said something like “well, I don’t know, it was sort of nice if a little dark…” before I cut him off. “I will wind up killing you,” I told him.
And I would. It would just be a matter of time. From the moment we moved in, somewhere there would be a murder clock, counting down. And there are only two of us.
Six people, living in a space that’s just over 1,000 square feet, for a year, without the option of popping out to the bar or whatever when they just need to get out of there for a while. I’m telling you, this will end in murder. Human nature is just not something that can be fixed.
Except…it’s NASA. They can come up with a solution for anything. Remember a few weeks ago when I talked about gardening in microgravity? NASA figured that one out. Maybe they really can come up with a way for human beings to be able to stand living so close to one another for so long. Maybe they can find the perfect arrangement of physical space, the ultimate mediation techniques, psychological training that can make us the best roommates ever, something like that.
And if they can…just think of the applications…cheap apartments crammed full to bursting with people….
Okay, wait, this doesn’t sound like a good thing after all. I take it back.
But still, it’s a big deal for space travel. Current estimates for the flight time from Earth to Mars range from one to four years. Then you probably want to stay there for a while before coming back. So the crew of any manned Mars mission will need to be able to get along with each other really, really well.
And the first step towards that, apparently, is the weirdest reality TV show scenario ever. It’s all the unpleasantness of space travel without the fun of actually going anywhere. But hey, at least you know at the end of the year you will definitely have made it home.
Unless one of your crewmates murders you because you ate the last of the powdered cheese.
It’s been a crazy hectic week for me, so I’m afraid I don’t have a blog post for you. But here’s a video that made me feel good. I think this counts as technology being used to make the world a better place.
I’m not going to blow your minds this week. Or at least, I’m not going to write about anything that blew my mind. Maybe I’m tired from the relentless pace at which the world is plunging forward into the future, or maybe I’m just hoarse from all the excited shouting. But this week I’m going to take a little break, and talk about something else instead.
This super cute robot.
Damn that thing is cute. Right? I mean, am I the only one who thinks so?
I admit that it is a little weird, finding a metal cube full of flywheels and processers cute. It’s not like it’s a baby. That’s what the whole “cute” instinct is supposed to be about, right, protecting babies?
But maybe this is what a baby robot looks like! Maybe some part of my brain instinctively knows that this thing could grow up into a real robot if we give it a chance, we just need to protect it and care for it…
Anyway. I think this little guy is cute. And pretty cool too. And hey, who would have thought that there were still new methods of robot locomotion out there to be discovered? That’s pretty cool too. And it’s neat that so much technology went into making something hold still. Usually we put all the effort into making things move.
I find something about watching it rest steadily on its corner to be very soothing. You just can’t knock this little guy down. The world can try to gang up on him, try to push him around, but he’s not having any of it. He’s just chilling, and he don’t care what you do.
You go, little robot. Be who you are.
I talk about a lot of cool things happening in our world in this blog. I get excited. It’s an amazing universe out there, and the all new stuff that’s happening every day just fills me with the sort of enthusiasm that makes me jump around like a very small dog about to go for a walk.
But this week’s topic is SO COOL that I just can’t even. Seriously, I don’t have the words. This is like…it’s like…it’s like I’m eight and about to go to Disney-Christmas-summer camp. It’s like going to dinner with Leonard Nimoy and LeVar Burton. It’s like I just got a real live dragon egg for my birthday. This is possibly the coolest thing that I have ever written about.
Okay, I know not everyone is going to be as excited about this as I am. But everyone should be at least a little excited. And I’ll tell you why.
IT’S THE FUTURE OF FOOD!
All right, let’s back it up a little. Let’s start by reading this amazing article from NASA.gov about how the crew of Expedition 44 just became the first people ever to eat vegetables grown in space. Or you can just watch this video.
There are so many cool things going on here that if I even listed them all this blog post would be a freaking book. But let’s touch on a few of them.
This is not the first batch of lettuce grown in space that the astronauts are eating. It’s the second. That’s because the first batch was packaged and shipped back to earth for analysis, to make sure it was safe. Why? Because we literally don’t know what might happen with food grown in microgravity. For all we know, there’s some sort of dangerous microbe that would thrive on the plants in a low gravity environment in a way that it can’t on earth, making the food dangerous.
That’s just one example of something that might be the case. WE JUST DON’T KNOW. And that’s crazy. Normally we rely so heavily on the collective past experience of humanity to tell us what is and isn’t a good idea. And we don’t have that here. AT ALL. So we can’t even be sure that lettuce is safe to eat until we check. How crazy is that to think about?
There are some technical challenges to growing plants in microgravity. Like, containing the soil, for example. I mean, you’re not just going to have a pot full of dirt floating around, are you? And water, how do you water soil with no gravity? So NASA has developed a system that uses “pillows” of dirt, little plastic wrapped packets pre-packed with soil, fertilizer, seeds, and a wick that draws moisture through the soil to the seeds.
Someone designed these things. On earth, with no way to test them, totally based on theory. Then they shipped them to space and hoped they worked. (Spoiler: they did.) Here’s a video that covers some more of the technical design of the set up, if you’re interested.
NASA is very clearly designing the veggie project not just as a way to provide nutrition to astronauts in space. They are also thinking of the psychological benefits that gardening in space might provide to people on long term missions as well.
NASA knows that figuring out how to keep people sane in space is a key factor to designing any long-range space missions, like the fabled mission to mars. Fresh food might go a long way to keeping people happy as well as healthy on such a trip. And more then that, the act of gardening itself has HUGE psychological benefits, benefits that NASA is trying to maximize in their design.
For example, the LEDs that provide the light for the plants to photosynthesize only really need to be red and blue to function, because these are the wavelengths that plants on earth actually use. But under the crazy purple light these LEDs produce, the plants don’t LOOK nice. So they’ve added green LEDS as well, to make the gardening experience more enjoyable for the astronauts.
Aesthetics. They matter.
Flowers. They sent flowers. Zinnias, specifically.
Yes, they did this partially to study the way pollination will work in microgravity. That will be important later, when we’re trying to grow fruit. But given that we know they are thinking about the psychological benefits of gardening in space, are you going to tell me that they didn’t just want some flowers to brighten up the place?
This whole project is going to have some amazing applications for Earth-based agriculture. The possibilities of “produce factories” in urban environments to provide fresh produce without relying on long distance shipping and distribution are huge. And the whole design is meant to be both low energy and water conserving, and therefore very environmentally friendly.
This could revolutionize the way we deal with agricultural support for major urban centers. Finding ways of making food cheaper and lowering the environmental impact of its production is possibly the most important category of innovation that there could be for life ON EARTH. Thanks NASA!
Okay, okay, I know this post is getting really long. Like I said, I could write a book about how huge this is. But I’ll stop here.
All I’ll say in closing is, remember: “Science Never Sleeps.” Cheers.
Seriously, I’m not making this up. They don’t have teeth, they interact with each other entirely though their magnetic fields. And that’s just the beginning.
For those of you who decided not to watch the video, the short version is that a company called Correlated Magnetics Research has figured out how to “print” a magnet with a customized (i.e. designed) magnetic field. They call them “programmable magnets.”
Creating frictionless gears is just one of the many applications of this technology. The possibilities are pretty much endless. We’re talking new methods of construction on every scale, from engines to furniture to computers to…heck, I’m having trouble thinking of ANYTHING this couldn’t effect. Cars? Sure. Building construction? Yeah, probably. Elevators? I don’t see why not. SPACESHIPS? We really don’t have to go there to make this cool, but okay, let’s throw it on the list.
I’m not an engineer, but I’m having a seriously hard time thinking of a technological development in the field of engineering that was this huge since we figured out standardized parts. I mean seriously, this is game changing.
Normally this is the point in the post where I would start talking about all the science fiction technology that will now be possible because of this innovation. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a single example. BECAUSE THIS IS TOO CRAZY EVEN FOR FICTION! I mean, seriously, frictionless gears? Who would believe that?
The applications of this technology are only limited by people’s imagination. And the company who’s invented this technology knows that. CMR is doing something really smart, and trying to reach out to as many third party developers as possible and working with them to develop new applications for their licensed technology. They want people to come be creative with what they have made possible. Rather then limiting the use of the technology to a single field, they are trying to get it out there, to let people invent. And I say good for them, that’s a seriously smart way to go about handling such a major innovation.
So what is there even to say about this, really? Well…I don’t know. I’m left pretty much speechless. This is going to be one of those developments that future generations of kids learn about at school. But for now, all I can really do is sit back and wait to see what happens as this technology finds its place in the world. One thing I know for sure: given time, people will come up with applications for this technology far more creative and imaginative then I could make up in a hundred years of writing sci-fi.
Because reality really is stranger and more wonderful than fiction.
For the last few months, my husband and I have had this ongoing joke about needing a pocket spectrometer. Whenever it came up we would laugh and say, “yeah, it will probably exist by the time we get home and google it.”
We were joking. A company named SCiO wasn’t.
This thing has existed for over a YEAR. Why am I only hearing about it now?
The SCiO works with a smart phone, analyzing the light spectrum reflected off an object to determine the basic molecular components of that object. So…basically my phone can now “scan” an object and tell me what it is made of. Put that together with the other things my phone was already able to do, like give me a map of the area, or detect magnetic fields, and seriously, in what way is my smart phone NOT a tricorder?
Now I’m imagining an episode of classic Star Trek where Kirk and Spock are stranded on a planet somewhere and Kirk is like “Spock, I need that reading!” and Spock is all like “One moment, Captain, I am just waiting for the app to finish downloading.”
I know the idea of our phones as tricorders has occurred to most of us before. It’s been an ongoing joke for years, and it’s only getting more true. And it’s not even the only technology from Star Trek that is getting closer and closer to being real. I talked about 3D printing a few weeks ago, and how we are getting closer and closer to having replicators. So maybe Gene Roddenberry was some sort of visionary, able to predict the future. (Except for those scenes where Spock had to change out data discs to search through the computer’s library for information. That didn’t turn out to be super accurate.)
Or maybe there’s another explanation. Maybe the idea of replicators and tricorders and other things from popular science fiction has actually influenced the direction in which technology has developed. Maybe if Star Trek hadn’t put the ideas in peoples minds then we wouldn’t have dedicated so much time and effort and recourses to making them happen.
Maybe popular science fiction isn’t predictive of the future so much as directive.
Cool idea, right? There’s no way to really prove it, of course. I mean, maybe if I had a machine that would let me go visit an alternate dimension where the only major difference is that Star Trek never existed, then I could see if the technology there had developed along different lines. But that popular science fiction technology still alludes us, sadly. (Or not so sadly: dimension hopping never really works out for anyone in fiction.)
Still, I have to say, as a science fiction writer this whole idea is a little intimidating. I mean, what if I really am shaping the future of humanity by influencing the popular imagination? That’s a lot of responsibility. Okay, sure, Half-Man isn’t popular enough to have a major impact on the cultural consciousness yet, but it could be someday, right? Right?
(Just let me have this one, it’s important for me to be able to dream.)
On the other hand, maybe this idea is misleading as well. Maybe it’s not the technology depicted in popular science fiction that determines the direction in which technology will develop, but rather it is the science fiction that depicts technology which is appealing to the cultural consciousness that becomes popular. So science fiction is both the product and the inspiration for the desires of the consumer.
IDEAS ARE FUN!!!!
Okay, I’ve pretty much run myself into a wall of abstraction at this point, so I think I’m going to try to draw this blog post to a close before I start seeing stars. So in conclusion…um…in conclusion…
In conclusion I want a SCiO. I think that’s what I’m really getting at here.
As you probably know, it’s been a crazy exciting week for space geeks around the world. Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid all news sources and social media in the last few days, you’ve probably at least been aware of the fact that this week marked a historic moment in humanity’s relationship with our solar system. After over nine years of travel, the NASA probe New Horizons has finally reached its primary destination. On July 14, at 11:49 UTC, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto during its long awaited flyby.
So what does this mean for us back here on earth? What have we actually gained from this historic mission?
Well, the truth is that we don’t know yet. New Horizons has passed the apex of its flyby trajectory, but its mission is far from over. The probe is still collecting data about the Pluto system as it moves away from it and further into the Kuiper belt. And the vast majority of the data that has been collected has yet to be downloaded by NASA here on earth. According to spokespersons from NASA, as of the 17th of July they have downloaded less then 5% of the available data. They will be continuing to download new data over the next few months. And even for the tiny percentage of data that we have so far, the analysis and study of the data has only just begun. The raw information we have collected in the last week will be the focus of investigation for many years to come.
So if we are only at the beginning of a process of data interpretation and study that will take years, why am I still hyperventilating?
BECAUSE THIS IS SO FREAKING COOL, THAT’S WHY!!!!
Just look at these freaking pictures!
What’s cooler then new information? Not much.
So, given that we have only begun to look at all the new data on Pluto and its moons, what is there to say at this point? Well, here are a few of my personal reactions to what’s been happening this week. Get ready guys, this is going to be some deep intellectual shit.
Cryovolcanism is the coolest word I have ever heard. Seriously. Word of the freaking year.
When will Pluto share his secrets for youthful-looking terrain with the rest of us? I have a few impact craters I could stand to erode over myself.
Naming a mountain range on Pluto after Tenzing Norgay, one of the two people who were the first humans to scale Everest but who has traditionally not gotten his share of the credit, is a very cool thing to do. Now hurry up and make it official.
I may end all phone conversations and video conferences from now on with the phrase “science never sleeps.” Dwayne Brown kinda rocks.
I thought for a while that I was going crazy, but it turns out there’s a reason that every single NASA scientist was pronouncing the name of Pluto’s primary moon “wrong.” The moon “Charon” is only sort of named after the Greek ferryman of the underworld. It’s also sort of named after the wife of the man who discovered it. His name was James Christy; her name was Char. Many people still pronounce Charon with a soft sh sound instead of a hard k sound because of her. Neat.
And that’s pretty much it for me at this point. I can’t wait to hear how things play out as the huge quantities of data that are being downloaded get analyzed. But seriously, what could I possibly contribute to the conversation at this stage? Many of our assumptions about Pluto and its moons have been stood on their head, and I’m going to need to wait for much smarter people then me to make sense of it first before I’ve got a hope of understanding it all. But I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to hear all the latest news.
So remember folks, science never sleeps.
Okay everyone, gather in, have a seat, settle down. We need to have a little chat about something very serious.
Medical testing. And also the future of humanity. (Just hang in there, I’ll explain how these are connected, I promise)
The current system we use for testing new drugs and medical treatments is deeply flawed. Yes, it’s obvious that testing brand new innovations in medicine on human beings before you even know what the side effects might be is wrong. But animal testing isn’t much better. It’s cruel. I don’t want to diminish or obfuscate this crucial reality. But it’s also horribly ineffective. Even chimps just aren’t enough like human beings to give researchers really accurate predictions about how a drug will actually interact with all the complexities of a human body. Petri dish testing isn’t much better: yes it removes the cruelty of animal testing, but if anything it’s less effective then using the complex environment of a living creature.
We need a third option.
Well, now we have one. Researchers at Harvard have created a way to replicate human organs on microchips.
The term “microchip” here is misleading. This isn’t a computer simulation, or a digital projection. Yes these miniature organs are created using techniques borrowed from the computer chip industry, but these chips aren’t computer chips. They are real living cells that mimic the structures and functions of human organs on a minute scale. Lung cells, or kidney cells, or skin cells are exposed to blood and air in a way that replicates the conditions present in a human body. Only a few cells at a time, but unlike in petri dish testing these cells aren’t just languishing in a nutrient bath completely unlike the human body. The cells are fed through a culture medium that mimics blood, that reaches them through capillary-like channels. Lung cells are exposed to air through a mechanical process that mimics breathing, etc. You should read the article I linked to if you’re interested in the details, it’s fascinating.
This is all totally real. A whole human organ, replicated in a chip about the size of a thumb drive.
We live in a world that has a lot of problems. Illness and disease are just a tiny portion of the torments that plague our human existence. Poverty, hunger, and war come quickly to mind as other issues that seem to be endemic to our existence on this planet. Utopian Science Fiction has long suggested the possibility of a future where technology could help us to overcome these things. I had always thought such images of the future were impossibly far fetched.
I’m starting to wonder if I was wrong.
Today I find myself asking the question, “what if human organs on microchips could make it possible to develop more effective medicines inexpensively, without having to torture animals along the way?” From there it’s just a small leap to asking, “what if there’s a solution out there to every problem we face, we just have to keep looking for it?”
I feel strange, thinking about these things. A part of me wants to believe it, wants to hope. Another part of me is suspicious and hostile, ready to dismiss every innovation I hear about as one step further down the road to a technological apocalypse. Change is scary. We’ve made mistakes before. Something could go wrong.
But something could also go right.
And if we don’t hope, if we don’t at least try, then nothing can possibly go right.
I’m saying this to you mostly because it’s something I need to hear. Because I’m often frightened by change, and overwhelmed by the speed at which the world is changing. (You wouldn’t want to have to watch the fit I threw when I recently got a new computer and couldn’t figure out how to make it do the things I needed it to do: it was ugly.)
But I am also afraid that we aren’t changing fast enough. I can see the effect that climate change is already having on the world around me. Not in a “look at this data, see the trend?” sort of way, but in a “this isn’t how it was five years ago” way. Technology moves so slowly, how can we possibly figure out a way to halt this process in time, much less reverse the damage we’ve already done?
But technology also moves so fast. I can’t keep up with all the new things I hear about every day. I have a list of future blog topics as long as my arm, and it’s growing faster then I can write. We are coming up with so many solutions to so many problems, most of which I wouldn’t even believe were possible if they didn’t already exist.
So are we learning and innovating fast enough to save ourselves from ourselves? I don’t know. Is our headlong plunge into the new and untested reaches of technology setting us up for disaster? I don’t know. Can we navigate all the pitfalls of the unknown while still making progress towards a better future? I don’t know.
But I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m going to find out. Like the fate of humanity might actually be decided in my lifetime. And that is terrifying.
But…it’s also amazing.
So I’m going to let myself be scared, and impressed, and inspired, hopeful and frightened, overwhelmed and full of anticipation all at once. It’s very human of me, after all. We humans, and our complicated emotions, are the one’s who got us into this mess in the first place, and we are also the only ones who can get us out.
I promised you I would explain the link between medical research and the future of humanity. The link is hope.
I remember a couple of years ago saying something dumb along the lines of “I guess 3D printing is cool in theory, but outside of printing custom miniatures for your D&D game, I don’t really see the applications.” Oh past me, how little you knew.
We’ve talked about 3D printing before on this blog. How can we forget the microgravity espresso cup and the wrench that was emailed to space? But that’s nothing. This week I want to talk about two stories of 3D printing technology that make those things look like toys for children.
Seriously, I’m not even sure what to say about this. I mean, I keep expecting someone to tell me this is a hoax. Printing a bridge? A real bridge that people can walk on? And they’re not even printing it in a factory somewhere and trucking it to the location: the robots will build it on site, automatically. All the people are going to do is set them up and hit the go button.
Consider, for a moment, how this will effect the robot apocalypse. If robots can print other robots, we’re in big trouble. So I guess the moral of this story is that you should go do something nice for you Roomba today, because you’re going to want a robot on your side when shit gets real.
But that’s just one of the amazing 3D printing stories that I have for you today. There’s more.
A San Francisco based company called Pembient is planning on 3D printing rhino horns for distribution on the Asian black market. The hope is that flooding the market with synthetic rhino horn will cause prices to crash and put the poachers out of business before they can kill off the last of the endangered rhinos.
The article I linked to above is just one of many making their way around the internet. A quick search for “3D printed Rhino Horns” finds literally dozens of articles discussing the plan and its viability. Many environmentalists are concerned that Pembient’s plan may backfire, actually driving up the prices of natural Rhino horn while simultaneously increasing the demand. There’s a lot of concern that instead of saving the endangered Rhino, they may drive it into extinction even more quickly.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I care about the fate of the rhino. I don’t want to see this majestic animal go extinct because of poaching. But could we please go back to the part where WE CAN 3D PRINT AN ORGANIC MATERIAL COMPLETE WITH DNA THAT IS ALMOST INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM THE REAL THING?!?
These articles (at least all the one’s that I’ve found) skip over the details on the 3D printing technology. They just say that Pembient can print horns out of keratin and rhino DNA.
Who the heck leaves it at that!!!! I mean, “print DNA”? That’s not a thing! Or if it is, then it’s news to me and I’d like to hear a little bit more about it please. But no, these articles all skip right over it and go on to talk about the beer with rhino horn in it that Pembient is also planning on brewing. Who cares about beer when we’re printing organic material?
I figure tomorrow I’m going to wake up and the first thing I’ll see on the internet is a story about how we’re printing food now. Wait, what was that? We already do that? Well…fine! That’s just fine! I don’t need to have a real sense of what’s possible in my world, I’m good being lost and overwhelmed! ::flail::
Okay. Deep breath. I’m good. You’re good. It’s all good. It’s just…the future, that’s all. It’s the future. Right now. So…yeah, welcome, and good luck.
First off, quick show of hands: who here has seen Europa Report?
Well, good news, NASA has too, so they aren’t even trying to land on the planet. The plan is to get a satellite in orbit around Jupiter that can do regular flybys of the moon and collect data from a distance.
Okay, okay, I know, it’s not really all the science fiction mythology surrounding Europa that’s keeping NASA from trying to land there, it’s the technical challenges involved in landing even an unmanned probe on such a distant body. But it has to be at least tickling the back of their minds, right? Just a little?
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Europa is one of the moons of Jupiter. It has long been identified as the most likely place for life to exist in our solar system outside of earth, because it’s surface is composed primarily of liquid oceans covered by a (relatively) thin mantle of ice. Liquid water is the magic element that scientists theorize is necessary for life to develop.
Science fiction writers love this. There has long been a trope in SciFi that Europa is home not only to life, but to highly advanced life. After all, it’s way more interesting that way than if all we found was some single-cell bacteria or something.
Except, here’s the thing: finding complex life on Europa may make for a more compelling narrative then just finding some microscopic organisms, I’ll give you that. But it isn’t necessary for there to be aliens on Europa to make the idea of finding life there interesting. The question of whether or not there is life on Europa is more then interesting: it’s fascinating, crucial, pivotal even.
The thing is, science has no idea how common life actually is in the universe. Is life on Earth a fluke, possibly even unique, a strange occurrence that happened here and maybe nowhere else because of some crazy chance that was a one-in-a-ridiculously-large-number shot? Or is life common, an almost inevitable byproduct of any planet that happens to posses the right conditions?
We don’t know. We can theorize, we can speculate, we can guess, but we can’t know with the information we have now.
But, if we get to Europa and there is life, even monocellular life, living in its subterranean oceans, then chances are that life is common in the universe. On the other hand, if there is no life on Europa, then we can extrapolate that life is rare, requiring far more exacting conditions to occur.
So really we don’t need sentient aliens or sea monsters to make a trip to Europa interesting. Europa is going to tell us what we can expect from the rest of our travels through the universe. It doesn’t get much more interesting then that.
NASA’s Europa mission is under development now, and is scheduled to launch some time in the 2020s.
Guys! Guys! Look what I made! It’s a Patreon page for Half-Man!
I’m sooooooo excited about this. I love the whole idea of crowd funding. It just makes sense to me.
I remember back when I was a teen and people would get up in arms about things like Napster (yes, I’m that old) and later torrenting. I always felt like the people who got all scared by the idea of people downloading stuff for free just didn’t get it. I would totally download something to check it out, just like I would borrow a book or a CD or a movie from a friend and watch it without paying for it. Then if I liked it, I would go buy it for myself.
People (and by people I mean people who just don’t get it) would be all like “but if you can get it for free, then why would anyone pay for it?” Because they care about it, that’s why. People do care about things, you know.
With art (and comics are totally art. If you say differently then you and I are going to have words) I always felt like I was voting with my dollars. If I liked something, then I had to put my money where my passion was, if you know what I mean. Buying something was my way of saying to the world, “hey, I like this, make more stuff like this!”
But I’m not going to vote for something sight unseen. That’s not responsible consumerism. That sort of thing is why terrible summer blockbuster movies keep getting made. If we refused to pay for anything that’s crap, then people would have to make better movies. Think about it.
Anyway, my point is that when things like Kickstarter and Subbable (RIP) and Patreon started happening, it made TOTAL SENSE to me. I was like, finally, a way to support creators I love without buying a poster or a T-shirt I don’t want!
So I’m pretty excited to be a part of this whole thing. I really think we’re revolutionizing the way that people think about supporting the arts, and that it is a very very good (and long overdue) change. It’s still sort of an experiment at this point, since this stuff has only really been around for a few years, but I think it seems to be working. And I’m jazzed to be part of the experiment.
So yeah, if you think Half-Man is cool and would like there to keep being more of it, now there’s a way for you to help make that happen. And of course if you love Half-Man but you aren’t in a position to be able to support us, that is totally cool too. We’ve all been there. Half-Man is going to keep being free, because accessible art is also something I believe in.
So rock on Patreon! We’re going to change the world together!
Do you remember when I wrote that post about designing cups that would allow astronauts to sip espresso in microgravity? Well, it’s officially no longer a purely theoretical design challenge. It’s a real thing. Astronauts are drinking espresso in space.
This is Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti enjoying the view with her morning (or something: time is weird in space) espresso.
And do you know what my favorite part of this whole thing is? Look at what she’s wearing. THAT’S A STAR TREK UNIFORM!!!
I can’t even handle how cool this is. I mean, think about how precious every inch of space and every ounce of weight is on a space shuttle. At some point, someone important was reviewing one a carefully planned cargo manifest and saw a line item that said something like “Star Trek Uniform.” They must have said to themselves, “Oh, yeah, that seems legit. I can totally see that as a necessity.”
Or better yet, maybe they said “Wait, which series? Next Generation? Okay, but only if it’s the captain’s uniform with the zipper, not the early one that always rides up.”
I’m just speculating here, but seriously, given how much thought goes into every shuttle launch, something like this probably happened.
I just freaking love this. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but to me it seems like a nod to the fact that stories like Star Trek genuinely inspire humanity to reach for the stars, to make something better out of our world. It’s admitting that while progress and achievement are important, but so is the fun and the play and the dreaming that is the spark at the heart of all great endeavors. And it’s saying that you don’t have to take yourself or your life too seriously to achieve great things.
I don’t know, maybe I’m reaching here.
Reaching for the stars that is!
Seriously, when did this happen? And where was I? Did I leave the room for five minutes to use the bathroom or something and everyone was like “quick, let’s completely change the solar system!”
Okay, to be fair we didn’t completely restructure the solar system. It’s really just everything beyond Neptune.
Everyone remembers a few years back when Pluto stopped being a planet, right? Well, I don’t know about you, but I never got a satisfactory explanation for why that happened. People (and by people, I mostly mean news outlets) were just like “they decided it was too small, so now it’s a dwarf planet.” End of story.
That’s not what happened, guys.
What really happened was that back in 2005, a Palomar Observatory based team lead by astronomer Mike Brown, discovered Eris, an object roughly three times the size of Pluto (they thought at the time) orbiting our sun at approximately 1.442×1010 km out. (That is a very approximate distance, since Eris, like Pluto, has an eccentric orbit. Did you know that Pluto’s eccentric orbit sometimes brings it closer to the sun then Neptune? True fact.)
This was not the first large body we had discovered beyond the orbit of Pluto. The first, Chiron, was found in 1977. But it was the size of Eris that made people sit up and take note. That was when they decided that maybe it was time to actually define what a “planet” was, since that had never been done.
So in 2006, the International Astronomical Union finally sat down and decided what it takes to be a planet. And Pluto didn’t make the cut.
If that upsets you because you want your childhood image of the solar system to remain intact, think of it this way: if Pluto had remained a planet, then Eris would have to be considered one as well, so no matter what you were going to have to come up with some new mnemonics.
And seriously, there may well be over a hundred or more objects that fit the parameters of a dwarf planet out in the Kuiper belt. Some estimates place the number closer to two hundred.
In light of this new information, I formally redact all previous criticisms I made of the decision to de-planetize Pluto. I get it now, we can’t make all the poor elementary school children memorize over a hundred planet names. Good call, IAU!
Of course, currently the IAU only officially recognizes the existence five dwarf planets. We know there are more then that, but until we can pin down some of the details about the others, the IAU can’t formally recognize them. This is because we just can’t be sure how big these objects really are. Or how many of them there are, or where exactly they are, or what their orbits look like, etc. These things are just so freaking far away, measuring anything way out there is really, really hard.
For example, you remember when I said that at the time of its discovery they thought Eris was three times the size of Pluto? Well, new estimates are that it’s actually pretty close to Pluto in size, maybe just a bit bigger. It’s hard to tell in part because Pluto’s atmosphere makes measuring its true size extremely tricky.
Wait. Stop. Hold the phone. What was that?
Guys, Pluto has an atmosphere. And five moons, at least two of which are just big wobbly potatoes.
Seriously, I had no idea how little I knew about everything beyond Neptune. (The technical term is Trans-Neptunian Objects) And more to the point, I had no idea how little astronomers knew about these objects. I guess I thought we had pretty much figured out how to get reliable data about anything within our solar system. Boy was I wrong.
But good news! We won’t be in the dark for long, at least not as far as Pluto is concerned. This July, 2015, the New Horizons space probe will be doing a flyby of the dwarf planet.
Launched in 2006 (shortly before Pluto stopped being a planet), New Horizons’ mission is to gather information about Pluto and it’s primary moon Charon, and hopefully to continue on to explore additional objects in the Kuiper belt.
How cool is that? I mean, it’s taken nine years to get the probe out there, but soon we will get actual information about Pluto. Information that is impossible to gather from Earth, like figuring out what Pluto’s atmosphere is made of, and measuring its surface temperature, stuff like that.
And I think that is really really cool. I’m super glad I didn’t know about New Horizons until now, because I would have spent the last nine years being impatient to know what it would find out. But now I only have to wait a little more then a month. Plus however long it takes NASA to receive, translate and interpret the data, I suppose. But how long could that take? ::clings desperately to her optimistic naivety::
Don’t tell me, it’s as bad as knowing when the next season of Dr. Who is actually coming out. Some things are easier to wait for when you don’t know how long you will be waiting.
Yup, that’s right, we’re back to the genre discussion!
There’s a lot I could say about genre. Like, a lot. But there is one point among the hundreds that I really want to make, and then I can finally let this go.
I’ve mentioned before (many, many times) that I believe that the role of the speculative element in Half-Man is essentially that of supporting cast, not the lead. This is a story about people, first and foremost, and the technology and space travel and aliens and all that is intended to serve as a backdrop for a character-centered narrative. If the “science fiction” element starts taking the foreground of the story, starts drawing attention away from the human element, then I’m doing something wrong.
So if that’s the case, why make this story science fiction at all? And I’m not talking about the science fiction/fantasy distinction I explored before. I mean why write genre fiction in the first place?
Because I believe that taking the characters out of a familiar setting actually helps the reader identify more strongly with their experience.
When we read a story that takes place in our own world, surrounded by familiar landmarks and existing political issues, we can’t help but project our own experiences and opinions onto the characters. If we are reading about someone who is encountering a situation that we could realistically encounter ourselves at some point, or even have encountered in the past, then we aren’t thinking about the character anymore, we’re thinking about ourselves, about what we would do or did do in that situation. That’s just human nature, and there’s nothing self-obsessed about it.
But, if we see a character in a situation that we ourselves could never be in, we stay focused on what the character does and why. It is easier to maintain empathy, and as a result we start thinking about what it would be like to be someone else. We imagine a more diverse range of human experience, and really think about ways to be human other then our own.
This is why I believe science fiction is important. It expands our imagination, increases our capacity for empathy and compassion, and challenges our codified ways of thinking. I really believe that reading science fiction (and fantasy, and horror, and all the other genres of the impossible) makes us better people. That’s just my thoughts on the topic, I’m sure some people will disagree with me, but there it is.
I really like the phrase “genres of the impossible.” Quick, trademark it!
But all joking (and modesty) aside, I think this is a really important idea. Empathy isn’t just an inherent trait that people either have or they don’t. It’s a skill. It needs to be exercised if it’s to be developed. And fiction is one of the primary ways we have to exercise this skill.
If I need to explain to you why the world would be a better place if people had more empathy skills, then there’s something wrong with you.
So yes, I think sci-fi makes the world a better place. It’s amazing the claims some people will make in the safety of not having a comments section, huh? Guess you’ll have to email me if you think I’m full of crap.
I know I said that I would finish my diatribe on genre this week, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to put the last installment of my meandering musings on hold until next week. Something very important has come up that I urgently need to tell you all about.
I’m not making this up. It’s full of a bacteria that excretes limestone. The bacteria is dormant until activated by the water that seeps in through any cracks in the concrete. Then the bacteria wake up, start feeding on the nutrition capsules that are also included in the concrete, and begin producing limestone to seal the cracks.
This is a pretty cool idea. Bio-concrete. That’s pretty awesome, right? …Says one part of my mind.
The other part is busy thinking about how this could go horribly, catastrophically wrong.
I think this habit comes of being a science fiction writer. I do this all the time: I hear about some neat development in technology, and immediately start imagining worst case scenarios.
It’s not because I believe that these disasters are likely, or even possible. Usually my mind flashes to these situations before I’ve even had a chance to understand the science behind whatever new invention I’m learning about, so I have no idea how it actually works. It’s all just fiction, you know? Just speculation, not a genuine concern based in reality at all.
But I can’t turn it off.
So bio-concrete. That’s pretty cool…UNTIL THE BACTERIA IN THE CONCRETE GETS OUT AND STARTS COVERING THE WHOLE WORLD WITH LIMESTONE! Soon we will be a planet of statues, all frozen in our last horrified moments, like a global version of Pompeii. All because of the concrete. The hubris! The folly! Why, why didn’t they listen to me!!
Oh, because I’m full of shit. That’s why.
But seriously, someday the super pessimistic, catastrophe-oriented part of my brain will be totally right about something. And I will ignore it, just like I always do. And then later when I’m dead, I’m going to feel really, really silly.
Anyway. Henk Jonkers invented self-healing concrete. Woah. Nice one, dude.
Yes, I’m going to keep musing about genre now. If you are bored out of your mind by this discussion, feel free to skip this post.
So last week I made the statement that I do believe genre to be a useful tool. But what the heck did I mean by that? Is genre supposed to be “useful?” What do we use it for?
Alright, let’s take a step back. What is this “genre” thing we are talking about anyway?
Genre. From the French word meaning “kind” or “sort”, which in turn stems from the latin genus. Which of course is the same word we use in taxonomic classification of biological organisms. You remember your high school biology, right? Tournefort? Species, Genus, Family, Oder, Class, Phylum, Kingdom?
That’s interesting, right? The idea of looking at genre as a sort of taxonomy of literature. It’s very intriguing in an abstract, theoretical sort of way. But is it useful? Maybe for bookstore clerks and marketing people. But for the rest of us? Not really.
Maybe we should come at this thing from a different angle. Okay, so who came up with this idea of classifying literature, anyway? Oh, right, the Greeks. Back in the good old days when there were only two genres, comedy and tragedy. For the Greeks, the genre of a play or a pome was not about whether or not it was going to have a happy ending: genre defined the patterns of language that were used, the very boundaries of the stories that could be told. At the beginning, genre was codified to an extent that modern audiences would probably find confining to the point of stripping all artistic merit out of a story, but back then it was the structure that gave art merit in the first place.
Things have changed. Genre has changed, just as audiences have changed. But I think I’ll save that discussion for another post.
So, what does genre actually do for us? Well, I would say that genre conventions help audiences set their expectations appropriately, and assist them in making sense from the chaotic and unpredictable world of art. I’m paraphrasing from the Wikipedia article for that last part, but I think it gets closer to the heart of the matter then anything else we have touched on so far.
We use genre to help us orient ourselves, to set rules and boundaries and figure out what to expect from a story. But that’s a little abstract, so maybe we should consider some examples.
Years ago I was briefly a member of a writer’s group made up of complete strangers who happened to meet near my apartment in Brooklyn. It didn’t really strike me as a problem at first that I was the only person there doing genre work. (Which I suppose is actually a confusing term in the context of this post. People used to call anything that wasn’t “literary” fiction “genre” fiction: that included sci-fi, fantasy and horror, but also things like romance and mystery. The term is falling out of use now that people have realized that having genre themes doesn’t exclude a story from being “literary,” aka, good. But I digress.)
What I mean is that in this rather large group (fifteen or so people, which is too many for a writer’s group), the majority focused on either memoir or personal essay. I think one guy was doing some sort of historical fiction, and there was this one poet. But that was it.
Anyway, I didn’t realize what a problem this would be until I brought the first chapter of a fantasy novel I was working on to the group for critique. In the story, an old war in which mages had used magic to create WMDs had left the world contaminated with patches of what was basically magical fallout. In the first chapter, my main character was doing some looting in a heavily contaminated area, using a magical protective suit to keep her safe. I described the suit, a collection of heavy leather garments complete with helmet, goggles and face mask that left no inch of skin exposed, and every piece of which was heavily inscribed with magical runes.
And one of the guys in the group reads this and says “I don’t understand how leather can keep out radiation.”
Out loud I said something like “okay, interesting feedback” but inside I was thinking “oh wow, I’ve never met anyone before who didn’t know what fantasy was.”
And that is exactly what genre is for. We need it to help us define the rules. If I’m watching an episode of CSI and they suddenly realize that the area might be contaminated with radiation and someone is like “oh, it’s okay, I’m going to put on this leather suit to protect myself” I’d have a serious problem with that. But if it’s a fantasy story, and it’s magical contamination, and the leather suit is covered in magical runes, then okay, we’re good to go.
Another example: if we are reading a story that we understand is not science fiction, and a character comes running into a room screaming “oh my god, I just saw an alien!” our expectation is that everyone else in the room has to start dealing with the crazy person. But if we know the story is sci-fi, we won’t be confused when all they do is ask “where?” and grab their guns. If we deviate from this pattern, we will confuse our reader, and if that isn’t the point of your story then you’re likely to lose your audience entirely.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it when a story skillfully undermines my expectations and actually uses genre tropes to surprise me and challenge my preconceptions. But that has to be done skillfully. If you just ignore the expectations that your audience is going to have, then all you’ll do is confuse and frustrate them.
Funny thing about people: we sometimes seek out stories that make us frightened, or angry, or sad, or other “negative” emotions that you would think would be undesirable. But no one wants to be frustrated, not ever. It just sucks.
Okay Anna, that’s all well and good, but what’s your point?
I think my point here is that genre is a tool that a writer can use well or poorly. It can be challenged, and undermined, and subverted, but not ignored. And yet we rarely think about it directly or look at it critically.
It’s very likely that this discussion is going on somewhere in the world and I’m just not aware of it. If that is the case then I would love someone to clue me in. But the few places I’m aware of where people are talking about these things, they aren’t saying any of the things that I’ve been thinking about.
All of which translates to a warning that there is probably going to be a third post on this topic next week. Sorry/not sorry.
The topic of genre and how we define it has been cropping up a lot in my life lately. It keeps coming up in conversations, creeping into blog posts, and tickling the back of my mind when I’m trying to actually get work done. So I’m going to do myself a favor and tackle some of the questions and ideas that have been plaguing me head on, and hope that gets it out of my system.
I’m pretty sure that we can all agree that Half-Man falls clearly into the category of science fiction. Sure, we can argue about sub-genre at length. We can go back and forth about whether this is military sci-fi (it’s not) or space opera (maybe?) or something else until we’re all blue in the face. But the general science fiction label: that at least I think we can all agree on. I mean, it’s got spaceships, so it has to be science fiction, right?
Wait. Why are spaceships the defining factor? What does that have to do with anything?
I mean, genre is weird, right? Spaceships mean science fiction. Elves, on the other hand, mean fantasy. Elves in spaceships, that’s some strange, genre-mixing hybrid; but elf-like aliens in spaceships, and we’re back to sci-fi.
I know I’m being reductionist here, and there’s a lot more to both genres then just spaceships and elves. But what is the true distinguishing factor between the two? Well, there are probably a bunch, really, but the closest I can get to a real rule is that both genres are concerned with worlds that are drastically different from our own, but sci-fi deals with worlds that could exist, while fantasy focuses on worlds that couldn’t.
Think about it. Magic = fantasy, obviously. But if you have a technomancer, or come up with a technological rational for magcial-seeming phenomena, then you’re back in science fiction land. If it’s a strange world that just exists nebulously without any explanation of how it relates to our own, then that’s fantasy, but if it’s just another planet in the universe, or another point in time, or both, we’re back to sci-fi. You see what I mean?
I haven’t found an exception to this rule yet. Let me know if you can think of one.
But here’s the rub: what happens when you stop trying to make your science fiction realistic? I mean, this isn’t a fringe case. Most science fiction isn’t very realistic. Consider Star Trek, for instance. Inertial dampers? Really? (I will totally use inertial dampers in Half-Man if the opportunity comes up, it’s so beautifully nonsensical and I love it. Definitely among my favorite techno-babble phrases of all time.)
But people pass this off as insignificant. If the story makes even a vague nod to science or technology then that’s good enough. Science fiction achieved. Is that just because the quality of education in the hard sciences among the majority of science fiction readers is abysmal? Or is it because it doesn’t really matter that much?
I think it’s because it doesn’t really matter. The point of the story isn’t usually the science (with some exceptions, I admit), so we can accept the flaws and outright impossibilities and focus on what is important. But then, if that’s true, what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? Is there one?
No, I don’t think there is. Not a significant one, anyway.
Whoa now, Anna, just what are you saying here? Everyone knows that science fiction and fantasy are different. We can point clearly to the differences. Heck, YOU JUST DID a couple of paragraphs ago. So what’s your point?
My point is that yes, science fiction and fantasy are different. But not meaningfully so. Marketing people probably care a lot about the distinction, but I don’t believe that the majority of readers give a crap. I mean, I can count the number of people who I have ever met who read one genre but not the other on one hand. (Probably. I haven’t actually asked everyone I’ve ever met, so I could be way off.) Heck, most libraries don’t make a distinction between the two in their catalogues.
I think that the distinction between a fantastical element and a speculative element has far less impact on the reader’s experience of a story then other questions that aren’t considered in this arbitrary genre distinction.
Let’s use Half-Man as an example again. (What can I say, I’m biased.) I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I believe the speculative element of Half-Man belongs in the background, supporting, but not distracting from, a primarily character-centered narrative. The priority that I give to character over setting has a far greater impact on which readers will enjoy this story then the fact that it is sci-fi and not fantasy. I mean, I could have placed Half-Man in a fantasy world where humans are battling an ancient race of magical beings who want to wipe us out, and some ambiguously evil sorcerers used their magic to create a super warrior to defeat them. It would be the same story, and it would have the same audience.
The artwork would be pretty different, I’ll give you that.
But aesthetics aside, genre is largely irrelevant, at least within the narrow confines of science fiction and fantasy. Which is why I don’t think that distinguishing between these particular two genres is a productive exercise. And I do believe that genre in general is a useful tool, I just have a problem with the relationship between these two in particular.
This blog post is already way, way too long, so I’m going to stop here. I have barely scratched the surface on what I’ve been thinking about lately, so I may inflict another rambly, speculative post on you all in the near future. Sorry.
To make it up to you, here’s an article about a lake draining away down an honest-to-god natural drain hole.. Lava tubes are crazy, man. Crazy.
Seriously, a part of me can’t believe that we actually made it this far. This is barely a drop in the bucket, but it’s a very important, symbolic drop.
Okay, that metaphor got weird fast. Let’s move on.
We have so much planed for you guys going forward, and I’m so excited about everything that a part of me wants to tell you about it all right now while jumping up and down and waving my arms in the air. But I won’t. It will be more fun for you to discover things as we go along, so I will try to restrain myself. For now you can look forward to next week and the beginning of episode 2. Episode 2, you guys! We finally get to change the cover image!
In other news, I got an email this week from a reader who made a very good point in response to my post a couple weeks ago about the synthetic muscles that are currently being field tested on the space station. Justin wrote:
RE: plastic vs metal arms - I think it’s legitimate to point out that a future with 27 years of war in a spacefaring future would probably outfit its super soldiers with metal arms. Plastic, if it’s built well, can be very high impact and sturdy, but I’m imagining the Alloys of the Future! ™ would provide more durability and resilience to hard vacuum, radiation, bullets, energy weapons, etc.
Also, in this dark future you have planned, oil to make plastic is probably not easy to come by, given the rate at which we’re burning it now. Iron ore, on the other hand, is easy to find in asteroids and other planets. Oil might be unique to planets with carbon based lifeforms and several eons worth of evolution.
If you needed a justification, there it is. :)
This is a very good point, Justin. Modern science isn’t quite sure what percentage of the planets in the galaxy are likely to be home to carbon based life, but they’re pretty sure that it’s a damn small number. And without life, you don’t get oil.
I expect you’ve all heard it said that oil is just melted dinosaurs. That’s not exactly true: it’s possible that a dead dinosaur fell into the mix somewhere, but mostly oil was made by organic sediments composed primarily of bacteria and algaes that “fossilized” into oil and natural gas over the course of hundreds of millions of years. (That’s where the term “fossil fuel” comes from.) The vast majority of oil deposits began their journey towards our gas tanks and home heating systems long before the dinosaurs walked the earth.
(Side note: there are a small number of scientist who have suggested that maybe oil does not come from organic material at all. They’ve suggested that maybe it comes from the interaction of inorganic methane pockets with other elements in the high pressure environment of the earth’s mantle. Most of these scientists happen to work for oil companies, so their conclusion that maybe oil is not actually a limited resource and we don’t need to bother to conserve it is a tad suspect. Still, it only seemed fair to mention it, especially since it’s always good to remember that “science” is not some monolithic source of absolute truth that has all the answers. It’s a work in progress, messy, often controversial, and full of outright mistakes and errors. It’s a body of knowledge assembled by humans, after all, and you know how it goes with humans and being just flat out wrong about stuff most of the time.)
Anyway, getting back to Half-Man (a.k.a. what’s really important here), what all this boils down to is that when looking to the future of humanity in space, we can’t really count on finding oil on other planets. It may be out there somewhere, but that somewhere being close enough to us for us to reach in a single lifetime, even with the magical fictional technology of “hyperdrive”..? The odds are against us, that’s all. Metals, on the other hand, are freaking everywhere.
Still, we do know for a fact that there are some local planets in this fictional universe which have hosted organic life for a significant amount of time. Because, you know, the K’ul have to come from somewhere. So…maybe whatever crazy person is writing this thing is using the Human-K’ul war as a metaphor for the real world’s current obsession over oil?
No, no she’s not. She just thought of it right now. That would have been cool, but I think the boat has sailed on that one.
I’ll be honest: in my personal playground of a vaguely future-esque world, life on other planets is actually fairly common. Not because I think that’s realistic or likely to be true, but because I think it’s more fun to write about. And, hopefully, to read about.
Anyway, thanks so much for writing in, Justin! If any of you crazy cats out there want to send Patrick and me a letter, you can hit us up at email@example.com, or just use the “contact” link at the top of the page. If you mention in your letter that your words are okay to print, you might even see parts of your letter appearing here. Or if you’d rather not be printed here, that’s cool too, we’d still love to hear from you!
Okay, where’s my towel? I need to throw it in.
Seriously, what’s a poor S/F writer to do? All I wanted was to have some fun with a few classic tropes of the genera: a metal arm here, a blast ray there, you know the sort of thing. And most importantly, I wanted to be able to make up the rules for these things. That’s half the point of science fiction, being able to have the kind of control over the setting of your story where even things like the rules of the technology can be used to reinforce themes and underline character points. Koda’s arm is supposed to be obvious, impossible to conceal, because it’s a symbol. It represents the ways in which war has literally and physically dehumanized him, and it stands in for the invisible mutilation of personality and identity he as experienced. It’s important, dang nab it!
But now science is trying to take that away from me. It looks like the future isn’t going to have any metal arms in it. It’s going to be full of extremely realistic plastic prosthetics that can even move like flesh and blood, since they will be based on the same arrangements of muscle groups. These things will probably be freaking invisible.
“What the heck are you talking about, Anna?” you ask. Oh, sorry. I forgot to give you guys the context before I started ranting. Here you go. Read that, and you will understand.
I don’t…I mean, I can’t…. WHAT THE HECK, GUYS!
Okay, okay, yeah I admit it, this is pretty cool. I mean, really cool. Robots that can possess all the dexterity of human hands, and can go places that would be deadly to humans because of radiation or extremely low temperatures (you know, like space), who wouldn’t think that’s cool?
But…but what about me? What about my story? It’s too late to take out the metal arm and give Koda scaly skin or something like that. So what do I do?
I guess I just have to admit that the point of science fiction is almost never actually the science. Sure, there are exceptions, stories that are more speculative fiction then science fiction, stories that take a “what if?” and make a whole world out of it. But honestly, I don’t really enjoy those stories that much. They tend to be a little thin on the character building, and to miss most off the emotional impact of events in favor of focusing on the minutia of world building. I know some people love that, and more power to them, but I’m just not one of them.
My story is about people. Well…people and aliens, I guess. And half-human half-aliens. You know what I mean.
And the science is just background. It doesn’t run the story. It supports it. If the technology becomes the focus in place of the characters, then I’m doing something wrong.
So it’s okay that there won’t really be metal arms in the future of our world. There are metal arms in this future, and that’s what matters in this story. I hope
A lot of you may have seen some of these photos and videos before. They definitely made the rounds of internet media recently. And why wouldn’t they? I mean, they’re cool. This shit is real. There’s no photoshop involved, this is what the Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia really looks like.
So what’s happening to make this volcano so darn blue, you ask? The answer is simple. Sulfur.
So you know when you were a kid and you used to experiment with burning different things, and you noticed that some things made different colored flames when they burn? Like how a lot of evergreen branches, and particularly their needles, burn green?
Wait, you didn’t do that? Oh come on, every kid plays with fire. That’s totally normal. Right? Guys?
Okay, if you had been so privileged as to have parents who were either inattentive or who encouraged experimentation in all things chemistry, you would have noticed that some materials produce some excitingly differently colored flames. This is because different chemicals emit different frequencies of light when they combust. One of the most spectacular, and most relevant to us at this moment, is sulfur, which burns a bright blue.
The blue liquid you see running down the mountain side in a lot of these images is not in fact lava, which is made of molten rock. This is liquid sulfur, the surface of which is actually emitting a gaseous sulfur which is burning a lovely shade of…I don’t know, would you call that aqua? We really should call it sulfur blue, since that’s what it is.
The Ijen volcano has its fair share of true lava and lovely red and orange flames too. In fact, normal daylight pretty much drowns out the effect of the blue sulfur flames, making the volcano appear to be a normal red. But at night….
(Sorry it’s in French.)
The Ijen mountain has extraordinarily high concentrations of sulfur, making it a great natural resource for the people of Java. Sulfur is used as a preservative in many food industries. The miners who work the Ijen mountain, many of whom are children, seek out the rivulets of sulfur that flow from the thermal vents of the volcano and collect the cooled sulfur for a living.
Wait…what did I just say? Did I just say that a bunch of children are running around this volcano trying to make a living collecting a substance that we just saw running burning down the mountain side?
You guys were giving me shit for burning stuff in my nice safe fireplace at home when I was a kid, but these kids WORK ON A VOLCANO!
This is the thing that really gets me. Most of the photos and footage you see kicking around about the blue volcano are from artist Olivier Grunewald. He shot a documentary (I linked to part of it above) at Ijen, hoping to bring some attention to the harsh working conditions and health problems many of the miners suffer from years of breathing sulfur dioxide and other toxic gasses. But when I look up stuff about the blue volcano, I hear very little about that. Mostly it’s all “why is this volcano blue?” rather then “why are these miners literally killing themselves mining sulfur for $5 a day?” This article from Smithsonian.com goes into it a little, read it if you want to know more.
But I guess there really isn’t much to say about that, is there. It sucks. It breaks my heart to think about. But there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t even boycott products that contain sulfur, since most sulfur in this country is sourced from the byproducts of extracting sulfur contaminates from natural gas and petroleum (or so wikipedia tells me).
What I can do is talk about it, since ignoring it definitely won’t help, and if I can’t figure out any concrete call to action at this time then at least I can do my part to keep it in the collective consciousness and hope that in time opportunities for change arise.
And I can be glad that Grunewald’s team distributed gas masks to all the miners who they worked with on their documentary. Thank you, Mr. Grunewald. Your photos are amazing.
This week I want to talk about something that has nothing to do with technology or space travel, but which is super cool nonetheless. Volcanos.
This past winter, a new island formed off the coast of Tongatapu in Tonga. (Don’t feel too bad if you don’t know where that is, I had to look it up too. It’s in Polynesia.) That’s right, a NEW ISLAND. As in, a whole new land mass that wasn’t there before. Early in March, a group made the trek from the coast to the highest point of the island, taking pictures all the way. You should really take a look at them, they’re amazing.
Can you imagine being the first person ever to set foot on a new piece of land? I mean, normally to do something like that, you’d have to go into space. (Ha! See, I did work it in!) But thanks to the wonder and majesty of volcanos, we have a whole new island right here on earth. Not just new to people, but totally new. It doesn’t even have real soil yet, it’s mostly made of ash deposits.
Volcanos, man. I mean seriously. We’re talking about a fundamental aspect of our planet that we actually don’t know that much about because they’re kinda difficult to study.
For example, have you ever heard of volcanic lightning? It’s just what it sounds like: lightning that somehow forms in the plume of a volcano, as part of the eruption process. When people try to explain why this happens, it usually sounds something like “oh, erm, mumble mumble, separation of charged particles, mumble, yeah.” Thanks dude, that was really helpful. That’s like if I asked why it rains and you said because water falls from the sky. Not really an answer.
But okay, I get it, I should give these poor vulcanologists a break. I mean, it’s hard to study a volcanic eruption. You can’t exactly get close to it, after all. And it’s not like you know exactly when it’s going to happen, or anything useful like that.
Still, there are people who make a living hanging around volcanic eruptions. Like the guy in this video, whose job is photographing volcanos. That’s…“badass” just doesn’t cover it. Imagine you’re in a bar talking to some guy, and you’re like “so what do you do?” and he’s all like “I photograph volcanos” and then you’re like, “take me now.”
Why is it that people who do ridiculously dangerous things for a living have an easier time picking up other people in bars? Is there some part of our brain that evolution has hardwired to think “oh shit, you are so going to die, better reproduce quick before you do?”
Sorry, tangent. We were talking about volcanos.
But why talk about them when we can look at pictures, right?
The cybernetic arm is a staple of Science Fiction. It has been for decades. Even as far back as the 30s, the idea that we would someday be able to create mechanical replacement limbs that work as well as the originals was completely believable, and the reader or viewer or otherwise consumer of story accepted it without question.
Today, giving a character a cybernetic limb is still a quick and easy (and often sloppy) way for a storyteller to say “hey look, we’re in the future! See, there’s a cyborg!” (I know I did it too, but the real point of Koda’s artificial arm is how he lost the original. We’ll get there eventually, I promise, just keep coming back every week and you’ll find out.)
But there’s a problem. This isn’t science fiction any more, it’s just science. The future is now.
There are people in the world with prosthetic limbs that they control with their minds! Just like Koda, who has neural implants that interface between his brain and his artificial arm and eyes!
Wait, you say, the men in this article aren’t really controlling their artificial arms with their minds, the limbs are reading the nerve impulses and muscle movements in the remaining portion of their arm. Okay, maybe that’s true for these guys. But what about this woman? The linked article focuses on a quadriplegic woman’s ability to operate a flight simulator with just her mind (which may be the most bad-ass thing I have ever heard), but before she was flying fighter jets, she was feeding herself candy bars with robotic arms. Operated by electrodes attached directly to her motor cortex. For real.
Okay, okay, this is all very cool, but Koda’s arm is still fiction. I mean, even setting aside issues of dexterity and control, Koda has actual sensory feedback from his arm. He can feel just as well though it as he can through a regular flesh and blood limb. That’s still fiction, right?
Seriously?! Okay, fine. Mental control and a sense of touch are all very well in the lab, but this is all still really theoretical. People don’t get to just walk around with this technology. It’s not being used in the real world.
WHEN DID I FALL ASLEEP AND WAKE UP IN THE FUTURE?! How am I supposed to write Science Fiction if real scientists keep taking the fiction out of my favorite tropes?
Oh well. At least artificial gravity is still safely far-fetched. Right? (googles nervously) Okay, good. Phew.
Oh and by the way, tractor beams are a real thing. Just saying.
Leonard Nimoy died today. He was one of my heroes. So instead of a regular post this week, I’d just like to take a moment of virtual silence to honor him.
You will be missed.
Seriously, click this link. I’m working on being able to embed photos in these posts, but for now you just need to click this link to see the six most amazingly cool guys in the world. I promise it will be worth it.
Did you do it? WASN’T IT AWESOME!?
That is the official crew portrait for International Space Station Expedition 45. Those guys are legitimate astronauts. I mean, astronauts are pretty close to the top of the awesomeness pyramid anyway just because they’re astronauts, and what could be cooler then that? Astronauts dressed up as Jedi, that’s what.
But wait, it gets cooler.
How could it possibly get cooler, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. When this expedition launches, two of these guys, Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko (bottom right and middle right respectively in the portrait) are going to be staying at ISS for a FULL YEAR. This will be the longest any human being has spent in space. The purpose of their mission is to learn about the long term effects of space travel on the human body, and help NASA and other space agencies start figuring out how better to compensate for the health problems caused by prolonged weightlessness. The hope is that information of this nature will help us prepare for eventual maned deep space missions, such as the mission to mars everyone likes to speculate about.
Pretty cool, right? But I’m not done.
Here’s the coolest part of the whole thing. Scott Kelly has an identical twin brother, who is also an astronaut. (Which is pretty damn cool on it’s own, right?) Mark Kelly will also be participating in this mission, but from Earth. He gets to be the control for a series of medical tests and experiments that the twins will undertake during this year long mission. If you’re interested in hearing a little more about exactly what these tests and experiments will consist of, SciShow Space did a video on that very topic. (Also, SciShow Space. Watch it.)
The frontier of human knowledge is being pioneered by space traveling identical twins. So basically it’s official, real life is stranger and more awesome then fiction. It’s cool, reality, you can drop that mic if you want to.
I’m a big fan of Crash Course and educational programing on the internet in general. So I expect you can imagine how excited I was when I learned that Crash Course Astronomy is happening. Wow is it awesome. Four episodes in and I think we’ve pretty much covered all the astronomy I actually understand. From here on out it’s going to be new exciting material! I’m looking forward to some more of the mind-blowing moments of “ohhhh, now I get it!” that I’ve come to expect from other Crash Course series.
Anyway, you should check it out. It’s pretty cool. And so is space.
I expect it will come as no shock to readers of Half-Man to learn that I have a deep and abiding interest in space and humanity’s discovery of it. I am always eager to hear about the latest creations and ingenuities that we must develop in order to continue to expand our species’ place in the universe. Also, science is cool. I mean, how awesome was it a month or so back when we heard that NASA had emailed a wrench to space?
This week the story that caught my interest was about engineers at Portland State University working on developing an espresso cup that will allow astronauts to sip espresso in zero gravity.
Partially this work is in response to Italy’s intention to send an espresso machine to the International Space Station later this year, but the endeavor is also part of the larger task of learning how to design objects for use in low gravity. And that larger task sounds wicked hard.
I mean think about it, what must it be like to design everyday objects for use in an environment that the engineer has no personal experience with? What sort of abstract thinking must that utilize, how much imagination and careful attention to detail? They must need to think through every little decision, they can’t take anything for granted, and there will always be unexpected consequences that might not come up for quite a long time. It must be like…like…like writing science fiction!
That sounds way too hard. I’m glad we have artificial gravity in the world of Half-Man.
But seriously, how cool is it that there are people who spend their days trying to predict how tiny changes to the depth of a curve in the belly of a coffee cup will affect the size of the bubbles of liquid that will leak out of the top of the vessel? Those people must be seriously smart. And before you start asking if these people are waisting their talents trying to improve the experience of drinking espresso for a handful of individuals, consider this: this work is expanding the horizons of humanity’s collective experience with the world we live in. This work will lead to many other things. And not just improvements in fuel movement in rocket engines, as the Wired article I linked to above points out, but also so much more then that. As time goes on and more and more people have the opportunity to experience space travel, there are so many aspects of that experience that will be enriched by these basic advances. When I take my first luxury moon cruise for my 110 birthday, I’m going to want to be able to wash my face before I go join the captain for a brandy on the observation deck. Or, more practically, when I get disoriented and bash my head in on a strut the first time I try to move around without some sort of restraint and I’m bleeding all over the place, I want the ship’s doctor to be able to give me a blood transfusion. I mean think about that: how would you do a blood transfusion in low gravity?
Anyway, my point is simply that space is cool, and the work that is being done to explore even the most fundamental aspects of living in it is also really cool, and in my humble opinion, totally worthwhile. And you can look forward to other brilliant observations of that nature as I continue to share the totally awesome developments going on in our world with you in the weeks to come.
Today’s page is going to be a bit late due to holiday traveling schedule madness. We’ll get it up ASAP, which may be sometime Saturday. Thanks for your patience, and I promise it will be worth the wait.
Happy New Years everyone!
Half-Man has had an amazing first month…thanks to all of you out there on the internets! We’ve had over 160 people visiting us here in Half-Man-land since we launched, which is amazing since I’m pretty sure that means we can’t possibly have told all of you about it in person. :P
Thank you all so much! Keep spreading the word, and keep on coming back, there’s lots more to come. Seriously, this is just a tiny fraction of the awesome that we have in store for you.
We proudly present to you…page one! For page two you will have to come back next Friday, and the Friday after that for page 3, and so on. I intend to post new pages as close to noon on Fridays as possible.