Saturday, October 31, 2009

Random Linkage 31/10/09

Symbiosis by Jelte van Abbema
'Dutch designer Jelte van Abbema won the €10,000 Rado Prize at the Dutch Design Awards last week for a body of work including Symbiosis, an experimental project that involved printing with bacteria.'

Detecting Life-Friendly Moons
'Forty years ago, the Apollo astronauts traipsed across our Moon, making it "inhabited" for the first time – albeit for only two and half hours. A bona-fide habitable moon has never been found, but astronomers are considering how we might find one around distant stars.'

Voices of long-dead stars haunt the galaxy
'Mysterious radio blips that come from apparently empty regions of space may be the voices of long-dead stars.'

Novel Evolutionary Theory For The Explosion Of Life
'The Cambrian Explosion is widely regarded as one of the most relevant episodes in the history of life on Earth, when the vast majority of animal phyla first appear in the fossil record. However, the causes of its origin have been the subject of debate for decades, and the question of what was the trigger for the single cell microorganisms to assemble and organize into multicellular organisms has remained unanswered until now.'

Tiny banner ads attached to flies generate buzz
'A company at a German trade show has attached tiny banner advertisements to flies and set them loose on unsuspecting visitors, in a bizarre yet effective marketing stunt.'

Zombie Creatures: What Happens When Animals Are Possessed by a Parasitic Puppet Master?
'From fungi to flies, some parasitic species have figured out how to control their host's behavior to get what they need. See what happens when bugs go really bad.'

Friday, October 30, 2009

Solar Power Footprint

See it? That little black square in the middle of Saudi Arabia? It's 231 kilometres on a side, covering some fifty-three thousand square kilometres. That's the total area of solar panels needed to supply global electricity needs at its current rate of consumption, some 2 trillion Watts. Calculated by Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert of Chicago University, in an open letter that corrects global-warming denying innumeracy in Superfreakonomics.

(via Carl Zimmer)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (2)

At first, when death appeared improbable, because it had never visited him before, Knight could think of no future, nor of anything connected with his past. He could only look sternly at Nature's treacherous attempt to put an end to him, and strive to thwart her.

From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment of a huge cylinder, having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom, which enclosed the cove to the extent of more than a semicircle, he could see the vertical face curving round on each side of him. He looked far down the facade, and realized more thoroughly how it threatened him. Grimness was in every feature, and to its very bowels the inimical shape was desolation.

By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. It was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.
In this scene from Thomas Hardy’s third published novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Knight, a geologist, has just saved the woman he loves and now finds himself hanging from a precarious ledge high on a Cornish seacliff. It's not only the prototypical cliffhanger, dutifully replicated in just about every Hollywood action film; it's also an early instance of another kind of vertiginous thrill: the abrupt contrast between ordinary human life and deep time that creates the famous 'sense of wonder' science fictional affect.

Hardy is best known for his Wessex novels, which mythologise a large swathe of south and south-west England where rural life embedded in landscape and its rhythms and seasons is undergoing changes forced by industrialisation. But at the time of writing A Pair of Blue Eyes, the early 1870s, Britain was in the throes of a scientific revolution too. Darwin's evolutionary theories threatened to displace mankind from the centre of creation; and geology and paleontology were opening up vast backward and abyssal vistas of time. Confronted by the dead gaze of the trilobite, Knight is immediately plunged into a vivid vision of scenes from the history of life on Earth that wouldn't be out of place in an SF novel:
Time closed up like a fan before him. He saw himself at one extremity of the years, face to face with the beginning and all the intermediate centuries simultaneously. Fierce men, clothed in the hides of beasts, and carrying, for defence and attack, huge clubs and pointed spears, rose from the rock, like the phantoms before the doomed Macbeth. They lived in hollows, woods, and mud huts--perhaps in caves of the neighbouring rocks. Behind them stood an earlier band. No man was there. Huge elephantine forms, the mastodon, the hippopotamus, the tapir, antelopes of monstrous size, the megatherium, and the myledon--all, for the moment, in juxtaposition. Further back, and overlapped by these, were perched huge-billed birds and swinish creatures as large as horses. Still more shadowy were the sinister crocodilian outlines--alligators and other uncouth shapes, culminating in the colossal lizard, the iguanodon. Folded behind were dragon forms and clouds of flying reptiles: still underneath were fishy beings of lower development; and so on, till the lifetime scenes of the fossil confronting him were a present and modern condition of things.
Hardy and other late Victorian novelists were concerned with both human individuality and the problems thrown up by industrialisation, urbanisation and scientific revolution. But after modernism overwhelmed the realists, and rejected the authority of science along with that of God and government, SF moved in to take up arguments and themes that have only just been rediscovered by the mainstream.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction

Millions of years may elapse, hundreds of thousands of generations be born and die, but inexorably the time will come when the declining warmth of the sun will no longer suffice to melt the ice thrusting itself forward from the poles; when the human race, crowding more and more about the equator, will finally no longer find even there enough heat for life; when gradually even the last trace of organic life will vanish; and the earth, an extinct frozen globe like the moon, will circle in deepest darkness and in an ever narrower orbit about the equally extinct sun, and at last fall into it. Other planets will have preceded it, others will follow it; instead of the bright, warm solar system with its harmonious arrangement of members, only a cold, dead sphere will still pursue its lonely path through universal space. And what will happen to our solar system will happen sooner or later to all the other systems of our island universe; it will happen to all the other innumerable island universes, even to those the light of which will never reach the earth while there is a living human eye to receive it.
Arthur C. Clarke?
Olaf Stapledon?
Stephen Baxter?
Nope. Friedrich Engels.

Via infinite thought

Monday, October 26, 2009

More Distraction

Sunday, October 25, 2009

51̊28'38"N 0̊00'00"E

To Greenwich and the Royal Observatory on Friday, to take part in a discussion about ‘whether science fiction authors are wasting their time writing about interplanetary travel, space colonisation and the spread of mankind across the universe given everything science has taught us about the realities, possibilities and costs of doing so’. The answer to which is of course no, they are not, but I hope the various ramifications and byways my colleagues and I explored were sufficiently entertaining to the small but perfectly formed audience. The organisers may have been a tad optimistic to expect large audiences for the three panel discussions and the screening of Star Trek which were all running at the same time, but I can’t fault the location: our event took place in the circular library at the top of the observatory - the place where the telescope used to be housed, in fact. The round table at which we sat (with an inlay indicating true north) was directly beneath the dome that once opened to the night sky; there were some fine brass telescopes, astrolabes and other instruments in glass cabinets, and all kinds of wonderful books on the shelves running around the room.

The Royal Observatory is also the location of the Prime Meridian, where longitude is 0̊, the dividing line between east and west. Its location is arbitrary, defined by Sir George Airy in 1851, ratified by the International Meridian Conference in 1884 and observed by international convention (although not by everyone, to begin with; the French continued to use the Paris Meridian for a number of years). Appropriate then, that our panel discussion several times touched on the arbitrary division between science fiction that’s based on what’s possible, and science fiction that uses traditional but implausible tropes such as aliens and faster-than-light travel, reminiscent of a recent declaration by Margaret Atwood that she writes speculative fiction rather than science fiction, defining the difference between the two with her usual laser-like precision:
Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see. We can do the lineage: Sci-fi descends from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; speculative fiction descends from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
I’m sort of sympathetic to Atwood’s need to avoid the science fiction tag (she believes that being defined as an SF writer would be the kiss of death to her career as a literary novelist), but her distinction between ‘speculative fiction’ and ‘sci-fi’ is not only as arbitrary as locating the Prime Meridian at 51̊28'38"N 0̊00'00"E, but is completely wrong-headed.

Obviously, novels about Martian invasions lie on the far side of the improbability, but it’s not always easy to predict what we’ll be able to do in the future. Who, in the nineteenth century, could have predicted that their great-great-grandchildren would be able to teleport photons, calculate the number of universes in the multiverse, or create black holes? These seem fantastical even now, yet they are as plausible as Verne’s deep-ocean submarine - if not more so, given that the Nautilus was coal-fired.

Wells’s The War of the Worlds is a realistic depiction of what we in the twenty-first century know must be a fantastical event - the invasion of Earth by Martians. We know now that the only Martians that might plausibly exist are some kind of bacteria or archaeobacteria because observations of the planet from orbit and from the surface have conclusively demonstrated that it is incapable of supporting advanced forms of life. But when Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, in 1898, there was a strong strand of scientific opinion that Mars was not only habitable, but inhabited. In 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed patterns of lines on Mars which he called ‘caneli’ - channels. Twenty years later, Percival Lowell argued that these channels really were canals, part of an irrigation network built by an ancient civilisation to transport water from the polar caps. He and others also claimed to have observed seasonal advance and retreat of vegetation across the surface of Mars. In the late nineteenth century, then, it was not at all fantastical to write about Martians because belief that some kind of life existed on Mars was commonplace.

Of course, even though some scientists in the late nineteenth century believed that there might be Martians does not mean that, when it was published, The War of the Worlds could have been included in Atwood’s speculative fiction category. There was no absolute evidence that Martians existed; photographing or dissecting a Martian was not something that scientists could actually do. (Although the Martian heat-rays, then fantasy, now are not.) But it’s a trivial exercise to think of novels that were once ‘speculative fiction’ but are now ‘sci-fi’ simply because the science or universally held assumption on which their speculations were based has since been disproved. One of the tropes in Atwood’s latest novel, The Year of the Flood, is the creation of weird new hybrid species of animals and plants by genetic engineering. But while that seems a pretty probable development of current science, we can’t predict with absolute certainty that one day splicing parts of two different genomes together may be routine. We already know that genomes aren’t simple instruction manuals but are highly dynamic and packed with delicate checks and balances, and there’s now experimental evidence that rewinding evolution and deriving ancestral forms from modern genomes is far more difficult than was formerly believed. What was once rock-solid speculation too often melts into thin, thin air.

In any case, defining novels by a single characteristic - how realistic they are, how close they are to things we can actually do - is dangerously simplistic. The War of the Worlds is not just about a war of the worlds; at the heart of its narrative is a lesson in hubris founded on a powerful and unsettling scientific truth. Wells makes a famous comparison in the opening paragraph of his novel:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
Wells studied biology under Thomas Huxley, who rejected current ideas of vitalism and strongly (and correctly) believed that all characteristics of living creatures could be explained by interactions between their constituent chemicals, and was a ferocious and famous supporter of Darwinism (he coined the term). And the idea that most strongly informs The War of the Worlds is not the possibility of life on other worlds, but Darwin’s theory of evolution. If life could evolve on Earth, Wells argues, then why not on Mars? And if there are two separate kingdoms of life, what would happen when one contacts the other?

The war of the worlds is not a war between Martians and men, but an extreme example of the struggle for existence that has shaped the evolution of every species on Earth. Human beings are incidental to the struggle. They are collateral damage. Wells has his Martians land in England when it is at the height of its pomp: the centre of the British Empire, the largest ever known; the epitome of industrial enterprise and scientific innovation. Yet the combined might of the British armed forces is swatted aside by the Martians, English civilisation is swiftly reduced to anarchy, and in the end the Martians are not defeated by microscopic bacilli to which, because they are from another world, they have not evolved resistance.

The epigraph of The War of the Worlds, taken from Kepler’s The Anatomy of Melancholy,* asks ‘how are all things made for man?’ Wells’ answer is that the world and all that is in it is not made for us at all; that the belief that, by divine right, we are masters of the world and the apex of creation is a false and dangerous illusion. That’s the heart of his novel, and we know that it is as true and real as television. Against that, the so-called difference between speculative fiction and sci-fi is trivial indeed.

*EDIT: Oops, actually a quotation from Kepler used by Burton in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, and then borrowed by Wells. Thanks to Cosma for spotting it.
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