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Wednesday
Dec172014

INVASION OF THE CHIMERA CELLS

Perfect title for a cheesy horror movie, right? But I’ve recently seen several articles based on scientific studies which confirmed that many people’s bodies contain cells that come from other people. (Scientific American offered a good overview of an especially interesting 2012 study.) That’s a little creepy, but fascinating.

The studies I’ve read about involved women, and particularly mothers, whose bodies were found to have measurable numbers of cells that must have come from their own male babies. How do we know? Because these foreign cells have both X and Y chromosomes—women only have two X chromosomes in their native cells. That’s also why the studies have focused on women—the male XY cells are relatively easy to find. And these foreign cells have been discovered in many different organs and other tissue, including the brain. (A friend of mine tweeted: “Brings the meaning of ‘mommy brain’ to a whole new level!”)

The phenomenon is known as microchimerism (from the mythical chimera which had body parts from many different creatures). The most common reason this happens is that the placenta is part of both mother and child, and fetal cells can migrate across it and remain in the mother’s body for many years. The migration can also go the other direction, which opens up the possibility that cells from an older sibling that made themselves at home in Mom’s body could then migrate into a new fetus. There are other ways to end up with cells from someone else: cells can pass between twins in the womb, organ transplants and even blood transfusions are an obvious route, but breastfeeding might also do it, and even sex.

What I’ve found most interesting is that these immigrant cells apparently don’t just sit idle. Some scientists are investigating whether there could be a link to autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, because the body may detect foreign cells and respond by going on the attack. But there is also strong statistical evidence involving humans, and study findings involving mice, that suggest such cells provide health benefits. It looks like they could reduce the risk of breast cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, plus help to repair damaged muscle and organ tissue, including the heart (wouldn’t that be fitting: a child healing a mom’s heart?)

Only a lot more research will reveal if these apparent connections are solid, but if it is true that cells from the body of another human being provide us with health benefits, that’s fodder for a whole lot of deep thought.

How would this strange chain of biological inter-dependency come about? I’m a believer in natural selection, but there are times I can’t help but wonder if it had a little help.

Wednesday
Dec102014

TIME AND TIME AGAIN

Science fiction writers love to find a fresh scientific basis upon which to imagine stories. A new theory that was just published in October might fit the bill. It’s a (mostly) new way of looking at Time.

We think of Time as having a direction: from the past into the future. “Time’s arrow” is the metaphor we picture. More scientifically, it’s the second law of thermodynamics—systems always progress from a state of order into greater and greater disorder. Like Humpty Dumpty—you can’t put him back together again. Or a Mojito cocktail that can’t be un-mixed. Or the universe, spreading from one single point to a huge amount of stuff scattered across a nearly infinite space, thanks to the Big Bang. The laws of physics work in either direction, though, so there’s no explanation for why Time travels in the direction it does nor how the matter of the universe got into such a perfect state of order before the Big Bang.

Physicists Julian Barbour, Tim Koslowski, and Flavio Mercati created a computer model of particles influenced by simple gravity (Scientific American has a good, though dense explanation here, or read another assessment here.) They showed that gravity will always bring such systems into occasional states of equilibrium/order, but from that ordered state Time will proceed in both directions, forward and back. That implies that there is a universe evolving as we know it and an alternate universe before the Big Bang that is going in the other direction, expanding farther and farther into what we would see as the past. The state of the universe in the moment before the Big Bang is just middle ground in a larger process.

Granted that Barbour, Koslowski, and Mercati’s idea hasn’t yet been reconciled with the theory of General Relativity or a few other possible objections, but it’s an interesting discovery.

There have been lots of stories about time travel and many more about alternate universes based on Hugh Everett’s Many-Worlds Theory, but what about a time travel story that involves going back to the Big Bang and beyond into a universe where Time itself moves backward, according to our perceptions?

Don’t expect me to write it—the paradoxes of time travel give me a headache at the best of times.

Time for a good, stiff Mojito.

Wednesday
Dec032014

NEW SHORT STORY ANTHOLOGY EBOOKS

 

While I’m working at finding a literary agent to handle my books, I’ve decided to test the self-publishing waters with some collections of stories. If you’ve wanted to read some of my science fiction, here’s your chance. There are two anthologies of three short stories each.

The first is Body Of Opinion and other stories which features some rather dark stories with a kind of noir feel to them. It totals about 10,000 words. It’s available from Kobo and Amazon as well as other online sellers for $2.99 CDN (may be less in USD).

            No Walls: When a man discovers that he has the ability to pass through walls, he thinks it’s more of a curse than a gift, only useful for petty crime. Until a secret intelligence organization gets its hooks into him. Then his real troubles begin. (First published in “Neo-opsis” Issue #18, 2009).

            Lockdown: In a future society, criminals on parole don’t even dare to think about committing a crime or their bodies could go into complete lockdown. So how does a guy get revenge on those who’ve wronged him?

            Body of Opinion: For a dying man, a replacement body is a godsend. Unless the body turns out to be a used model with some serious glitches, and the only solution is to discover what happened to its first owner.

The second is Disastrous!: Three Stories of the End of the World which pretty much tells you what it’s about. The total length is about 16,000 words. You can find it at Kobo and Amazon and elsewhere. Also $2.99 CDN (may be less in USD).

            Tartarus Rising: The most critical business centres of the world are suddenly swallowed into the ground, a chemical explosion devastates New Jersey, and survivors flee the rumours of invaders from beneath the Earth. (First published in the anthology "Doomology" from Library of Science Fiction & Fantasy Press, 2010).

            Saviour: A killer asteroid is headed for the Earth and the defence against it depends on one man. But what if he’s the wrong choice?

            The Cleansing: The people of a far-future pastoral Earth discover that their forbears genetically modified their crops to be protected from mutations by occasional die-offs. Except no-one has a plan when all of the crops start to die at the same time.

No Walls and Saviour have previously been available on my web page, but they fit the themes of the anthologies.

I had a lot of fun writing all of the stories and I hope you’ll enjoy reading them.

Monday
Dec012014

WANDERERS VIDEO

VIDEO: WANDERERS

Some people who aren't fans of science fiction wonder what all the fuss is about. Why would anybody be excited by the idea of going into space when we have everything we need right here on Mother Earth?

This short video called "Wanderers" by uses information from NASA missions and other sources, along with a narration by Carl Sagan, to create a beautiful vision of some of the spectacles that could be waiting for us "out there". Be sure to watch it fullscreen!

Have a look, and recapture your childhood enthusiasm about space travel all over again.

Thursday
Nov272014

INTERSTELLAR: GOOD SCIENCE, OR JUST GOOD FUN?

Now that a large number of SF fans have seen the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar I feel I can chime in and give my two cents worth.

The premise of the movie is that blights have devastated Earth’s agricultural crops, creating dust bowl conditions pretty well everywhere. Humankind needs a new place to live. Enter a team of scientists led by Michael Caine and a crew that includes Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. The spacecraft Endurance will travel through a recently-discovered wormhole to assess and possibly begin colonization of some planets orbiting a black hole in another galaxy. The planets have been surveyed by previous solo missions that were unable to return but have sent data.

I won’t give away any more of the story, but it’s a solid science fiction premise, a whole lot better than the usual “alien monster killing people on a spaceship” that seems to make up most of Hollywood’s SF output. There’s been a lot of praise for the science in Interstellar, and there ought to be, since famous physicist Kip Thorne was a consultant and executive producer. Heck, they had me onside as soon as I saw that the exterior space shots were silent (other than soundtrack music) with no cheesy rocket noises or whooshing sounds. The visual effects are gorgeous, and the plot and setting elements attributable to the influence of the black hole are right on the money. There’s a big metaphysical element to the plot that has little, if any, basis in science. But it does provide a satisfying dramatic structure for the whole exercise.

The Good: accurate science, stunning and yet authentic visual effects, excellent performances from a great cast, and in spite of its space journey premise, it’s a very human story.

The Bad: There’s an extended sequence involving Matt Damon that, in my opinion, could have been chopped and shaved a big chunk off the movie’s nearly-three-hour running time. It’s pure Hollywood, far less credible than the rest of the movie. Watching it, I kept picturing some stereotypical movie producer insisting that a scene like that had to be included or audiences would be bored. That attitude is to blame for theatres being dominated by stuff like Fast & Furious 7.

It might take a few years to know whether Interstellar will take its place among the classic SF films (few as they are), but in the meantime it’s a very worthwhile offering for those of us who don’t want to have to switch our brains off when we go to the movies.