Saturday, November 14, 2009

Random Linkage 14/11/09

LCROSS Impact Data Indicates Water on Moon
'The argument that the moon is a dry, desolate place no longer holds water.
'Secrets the moon has been holding, for perhaps billions of years, are now being revealed to the delight of scientists and space enthusiasts alike.
'NASA today opened a new chapter in our understanding of the moon. Preliminary data from the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, indicates that the mission successfully uncovered water during the Oct. 9, 2009 impacts into the permanently shadowed region of Cabeus cater near the moon’s south pole.'
(When it starts to crack really bad puns, you can tell when the group mind of NASA is really excited, and quite right too. How long before some high-end Hollywood restaurant is selling Moon water at $1 million a bottle?)

Spirit Begins Extraction Process
On Monday, November 16, 2009, Mars Exploration Rover Spirit will begin the much-anticipated, weeks-long process of extricating itself from a patch of powdery soil that stopped it in its tracks six months ago. It will begin by driving forward to the north, following its tracks out, even though its right front wheel is broken and immobilized.
(The rover driving team have about four months to get their brave little toaster free of the sandpit before winter comes and its power levels drop.)

Ghostly 'Spokes' Puff Out From Saturn's Rings
Massive, bright clouds of tiny ice particles hover above the darkened rings of Saturn in an image captured by the Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 22, 2009, around the time of Saturn's equinox.

Bizarre Lives Of Bone-eating Worms
'It sounds like a classic horror story -- eyeless, mouthless worms lurk in the dark, settling onto dead animals and sending out green "roots" to devour their bones. In fact, such worms do exist in the deep sea. They were first discovered in 2002 by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), who were using a robot submarine to explore Monterey Canyon. But that wasn't the end of the story. After "planting" several dead whales on the seafloor, a team of biologists recently announced that as many as 15 different species of boneworms may live in Monterey Bay alone.'
(Now imagine them growing bigger, and crawling out of the sea...)

12 claustrophobic space capsules

A joyride through the nanoscale

Friday, November 13, 2009

Science Fiction that Isn't Science Fiction (4)

Arguably the most widely read science fiction of the 1980s, though rarely recognized as such, were the military techno-thrillers that topped the bestseller lists in that decade—novels like those written by Tom Clancy, Stephen Coonts, Dale Brown, Payne Harrison and Ralph Peters. The genre attracted little attention from serious critics in its heyday, and with the decline in its popularity it has received less attention of all kinds. Nonetheless, the place of these novels in a much longer history of such writing, and its connections with the science fiction tradition more broadly, are both well worth a look.
Nader Elhefnawy does a very credible job of tracking the rise and fall of the technothriller, drawing a straight line from Edisonades of the nineteenth Century, though H.G. Wells' The War in the Air, Heinlein&Co, to Clancy and those other guys.
While video games remain a robust market for these tales (partly because of their lesser dependence on credible plots) the fading of the military techno-thriller from television and film roughly tracked the course taken by the novels, up to their even more complete disappearance.
No kidding about video games; they've thoroughly absorbed and reengineered technothriller tropes; the best are sophisticated and melancholy studies of the loneliness of the long distance warrior.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When I Was A Scientist

Last night I dreamed I was in a laboratory again.

We all have a particular anxiety dream that we return to over and again. Mine is about being unable to get together the various things required to maintain the clone I looked after, on and off, for twenty years. It's a natural clone of a simple freshwater animal, green hydra, distant relative of corals, sea anemones, and jellyfish. That's it in the photo above - some of you may remember it from university or school biology classes. It's about a half a centimetre long, and has a simple body plan: a tube constructed from an outer ectoderm and inner gastroderm, both mostly one cell thick and separated by an acellular mesoglea (the jelly in jellyfish). At one end is a mouth ringed by tentacles that contain four different kinds of nematoblasts, cells with capsules that explode when triggered, enjecting prey with poison and wrapping barbed coils around them. At the other is a foot by which it adheres to a suitable substrate. Green hydra are an example of a mutualistic symbiosis. They contain, in gastrodermal digestive cells, populations of single-celled Chlorella algae. The algae supply the animal with nutrition; the animal provides the algae with shelter, and nutrients they need to grow.

Hydra can reproduce asexually by budding, which is what the specimen in the photo is doing; eventually that bud at its waist will develop tentacles and a mouth and pinch off from its parent and take up an independent existence. And that means you can clone up from a single specimen a population of genetically identical individuals, ideal for use in experiments. I used to grow thousands of them for my research, which investigated how the intimate relationship between these two very different organisms was regulated.

Hydra aren't difficult to grow. You keep them in artificial pond water made up with simple chemicals, supply them with light and a constant temperature between 15 and 20 degrees Centigrade, feed them with freshly-hatched brine shrimp, and keep the Pyrex trays in which they grow nice and clean. My dream, the one I return to (or which returns to me) is that I can't quite manage this routine. I've forgotten to hatch the brine shrimp, or forgotten to clean the trays after feeding, or I don't have any artificial pond water and the chemicals to make it are missing, or there's something wrong with the incubator cabinets that keep the trays of hydra at the right temperature . . . And I wake up in that state of unresolved anxiety we all have, from time to time.

Other people dream of missing planes or trains, or being unable to find their way out of or into a building, or of arriving at a concert of business meeting without a stitch of clothing. I used to dream about exams, although not in the way that most people do - of having to take an exam without knowing anything about the subject. No, I used to dream about invigilating exams, another part of my former job. That went away after a while, but I still dream about culturing hydra, even though I quit science more than thirteen years ago. Funny, isn't it, what sticks in the mind?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tranquility Base

Now the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter has settled into its mapping orbit just 50 kilometres above the Moon's surface, it has been returning some spectacular images of the Apollo landing sites. Above is a close-up of an image of the the Apollo 11 site, just released by NASA. It's about 150 metres across, with the LEM landing stage and the pads of its legs clearly visible, as well as the various compenents of the science package. And, of course, the tracks left Armstrong and Aldrin, showing how close they stayed to their home on the Moon in the few hours they spent outside, reminding me all over again of watching them in the early hours of that July morning forty years ago.

More Spaceship Goodness

Hey, it's the cover for the US edition of Gardens of the Sun, scheduled for publication in March 2010. Kudos to artist Sparth and hero editor Lou Anders.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Leipzig, 1989

In 2002, I was one of the guests of honour at a science-fiction convention in Leipzig. I had a fine old time. My hosts took me and the other guests to the top of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal War Memorial, the largest war memorial in Europe, and held a celebratory dinner in Auerbach’s Keller, the cellar restaurant where Goethe is supposed to have received inspiration for Faust. I visited the monumental train station, too, and the church of St Thomas, where Bach was cantor, and where he is buried (a choir was rehearsing one of his cantos: a spine-tingling moment). My hosts also took me to the Nikolai Church, in the heart of the medieval part of the city, and showed me the former Stasi headquarters, partly converted to a nightclub, past which, in the last days of East Germany, candle-carrying citizens had walked once a week, risking their freedom in peaceful protest against the communist regime. The Nikolai Church and the story of the Monday demonstrations and those candle-lit walks left a lasting impression on me, and got me interested in nonviolent protest, something I'd later work into some of my fiction.

The fall of the Berlin Wall didn't begin in Berlin; it began in Leipzig, with those peaceful protestors. In 1989, prayers for peace, a regular Monday-night event in the Nikolai Church, became so swollen by citizens dissatisfied with the Communist government that nonviolent demonstrations began to be held in the nearby Karl Marx Square. Towards the end of October, over 320,000 people gathered in nonviolent protest - more than half the population of the city - and by then similar protests were being held in squares of other cities in East Germany: an inexorable tide of protest that led to the toppling of the wall, the end of the East German government, and the eventual reunification of Germany. Nonviolence doesn't always succeed, of course, but even when it's beaten down by determined and ruthless opponents, it can leave behind the seeds for change. In 1968, student protests in Warsaw and the Prague Spring were swiftly subdued; yet afterwards, as Michel Gorbachev admitted, nothing was the same again. The Soviets and their puppet governments had lost credibility, and the support of the people. When they were challenged again, twenty years later, they fell apart.

Where do science fiction writers get their ideas? Isn't it obvious?
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