WILL YOUR STUFF STAND THE TEST OF TIME?

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Global disaster. World destruction. The Apocalypse.

They’re the stock and trade of science fiction writers. After all, when you’re imagining the future, Earth could become the hub of a galactic empire, the gleaming homeworld of a cosmos-spanning race. Or the coin could land tails and our few thousands of years of human history will in some way be derailed, leaving behind wilderness or wasteland. Post-apocalyptic worlds have been imagined hundreds of times, and as I sit at my laptop mulling over one such concept that might form the setting of a novel, I find myself wondering, “If civilization were to hit a brick wall tomorrow, and Earth returned to a world of wild forests and primitive villages, what remnants of our technology would still be useful?” Say a tribal chieftain and his flunkies somehow dug up a long-buried Walmart or Canadian Tire store, how much of what they found would be of any use to them?

It’s easy to guess what would be useless junk. Anything that requires electricity to function.

Without the infrastructure to produce 110V 60Hz electricity, microwaves, toasters and toaster ovens, vacuum cleaners, blenders, hot plates, George Foreman grills, Instant Pots, electric shavers, hair dryers, clothes dryers, washing machines…a long list of items would become no more than shiny doorstops. Freezers and air conditioners would tease with their unfulfilled potential. Televisions, radios, projectors, iPads, cell phones, game consoles and more would not only be inoperable without power, they’d have no content to deliver anyway. Certainly, all of the ‘smart’ fridges, heaters, lights, music players, and security systems would merely mock us with their brilliant—and completely useless—sophistication. Computers and smartphones—the technological darlings we can’t live without (we think)—would be inert lumps of exotic materials.

Gasoline would be worthless after a few decades, so forget about cars (sorry Mad Max). It’s conceivable that some contrivances powered by rechargeable batteries might last a long while, if kept topped up by solar chargers, but that doesn’t make your Tesla a sure bet because synthetic hoses, gaskets, and a host of other parts break down with time. Heck, most roads would crumble thanks to thermal expansion and contraction, and pervasive weeds growing through every available crack.

Another category that would no longer be useful is items that are too specialized for a particular purpose or related product. Forget refills for this or that air-freshening system. Motor oil might still come in handy for lubricating wooden axles or something, but fuel injector cleaner not so much. Not gas stabilizer, not carburetor cleaner, not rad stop leak, brake fluid, or a whole department’s worth of Canadian Tire stock. All those car parts and fancy accessories to pimp out your wheels would be only curiosities. The same with all those star-athlete-endorsed pieces of esoteric equipment for all of the strange sports and recreational activities that somebody has talked us into trying but will leave future generations stumped. Our twelve-and-eighteen-speed bikes might amaze until they hit the first big rock.

Fishing rods would attract some initial interest, though they’re not as practical as nets or spears. Firearms would be treasured marvels, but only while ammunition supplies lasted, if it had never gotten wet. And not assault weapons—or not for long, They might put a warlord at the top of the hill, but wouldn’t keep them there because of their voracious appetite for ammunition. Boring old rifles and shotguns would be the real treasures to a hunter-gatherer society. While camping gear made of advanced materials would be a coveted prize, the use of accessories like Coleman-type stoves would have to be so rigorously rationed as to be nearly useless. Water filters and firestarters, yes. Hiking GPS, nope.

It occurs to me that our far-future descendants won’t much appreciate the fancy-looking and amazingly lightweight plastic gardening tools and wheelbarrows we consider so convenient (and cheap!) once they break after the first hard use. Think of how many of our consumer goods fall into that category, quickly obsolete or broken, meant to be discarded and replaced.

Lightweight, durable, and even dirt-repelling clothing and footwear would be a hit (although eye-stabbing colours might not serve well for hunters stalking their supper). Current styles might well run afoul of the moral standards of tightly-knit rural communities, though. I suspect the swimwear section might well end up in a big bonfire.

You know what I think would be among the most desirable department-store items to a future subsistence society? A good sharp knife and a non-stick frying pan. Seriously, what preparer of food can’t use a knife whose blade keeps its sharp edge and a cooking dish that doesn’t require big muscles and handfuls of beach sand to get the bear grease out? And let’s not forget books! Real, hardbound paper books chocked full of valuable information or entertainment.

Try this out for fun: look around your home and calculate which of the things you see would still be valued in a world stripped of our technological infrastructure. (Voilà! You’re a science fiction writer!) In a way, it’s an exercise to decide which of our clever creations has lasting value because, when you think about it, the more technically advanced an object is, the more likely it is to be rendered obsolete by new advancements too, not just a societal breakdown. I’d love to know what you come up with.

And that’s not even talking about our cultural products—music, art, movies, literature, and games. Those might leave people scratching their heads only a generation or two from now, no apocalypse required.

PASTIMES OF FUTURE TIMES

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Decades ago it was thought that the growth in robotics and an increasing focus on computers, would see most of us only working a few days a week, with way more leisure time on our hands. Hardly! What we found instead is that automation eliminates a lot of jobs entirely, requiring people to shift careers several times in their lives, or hold down more than one job at a time. More leisure hours? Not so much.

From that, I think it’s fair to project into the future that whatever provides us with an income will still occupy most of our week. But that doesn’t mean we won’t want, and need, leisure activities. There’s lots of evidence that hobbies and crafts are important for our well-being. Engaging in complex activity with learnable skills, continual room for improvement, and a concrete reward in the end, can foster feelings of worth and accomplishment and supply important diversion from stress. Researchers compare it to meditation—we can’t dwell on our other problems while doing it, so it calms us, lowers blood pressure and stress chemicals, and provides a range of health benefits from that alone. (Knitting has long been prescribed for soldiers returning from the horrors of combat.) Such activities have been shown to sustain and improve cognitive function (memory, concentration, and problem-solving), and maybe help ward off dementia. They can reduce the likelihood of depression (quilters apparently benefit from working with lots of colours during a drab winter), and provide lots of opportunities for social interaction with all the mental health benefits that go along with that, from emotional support to language skills to mental stimulation. The list of possible benefits from hobbies and creative pursuits is long and most could also be applied to playing sports, too, along with the obvious gains from regular physical activity.

Yet when we picture the future in our stories, TV shows, and movies, leisure activities are rarely mentioned. (There are exceptions: Hollywood seems to be convinced that high-tech gaming will take over our lives, and TV shows like Star Trek have always had more time to indulge in character development, including hobbies. The STNG characters playing out mystery scenarios in the holodeck is a plausible extension of present day game nights and the escape room boom.) Outside of TV series, though, we hardly ever see characters knitting, painting, making music, doing pottery or, for that matter, kicking around a soccer ball. SF novels seem to be especially stingy on this front. And believe me, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I get that we authors are afraid to hold up the plot, but research consistently shows that what makes readers love and remember books is the characters, and that should include (at least briefly) what a spaceship pilot does for fun when he’s not on the bridge. Interestingly, a study of scientists found a connection between their leisure activities and their professional success—their hobbies often helped them discover solutions to puzzling problems in their work, so this could be true for our fictional heroes too. (Lots of potential there!)

Granted, it might be challenging to imagine future hobbies and crafts, but it can’t be harder than figuring out the kinds of controls a spacecraft’s helmsman will use, exotic forms of transportation between stars, or the mating habits of alien species.

There might not be a lot of call for knitted sweaters on a spacecraft with carefully-regulated temperatures, but on planetary colonies or research stations, why not? And people will always want to personalize our living spaces with unique art, crafted items, wall-hangings, you name it.

Men, especially, used to tinker at repairing appliances and small motors. That’s fallen out of fashion—not to mention that it now requires electronic and even computer knowledge as well as mechanical skills because of ubiquitous ‘smart’ circuitry. And woodworking might suffer from a shortage of raw material anywhere but Earth. But it’s possibly to envision a diverting pursuit of useful gadgets, aided by future offshoots of 3D printing or Trek-like replicator technology, and assisted by computers or neural augments.

Constantly-improving music synthesis might seem to make most physical instruments obsolete, but I think that playing a musical instrument (like, say, a spacey miniature harp) could well see a resurgence as we look for ways to reassert our individuality. The same could be said for any number of artistic pursuits. We already feel modern society reducing us to the anonymity of being “just a number”. Creativity and special talents are a way to fight back.

There’s no reason that astronomy won’t remain fascinating for many—the universe seems to hold endless mysteries—we’ll just have much superior instrumentation with which to watch the night sky.

If you want to think on the grand scale, we might someday have the ability to mould clouds, sculpt asteroids, or rearrange space phenomena like Saturn’s rings. But I think it’s more likely that, whether on Earth, fledgling colonies, or interstellar craft, limitations of space will force us to go smaller, perhaps producing ever more intricate models or even subatomic tchotchkes only visible with microscopes. Simply for the pleasure in making them.

I also expect that our current trend toward letting our communication technologies make us more isolated, with less real contact with people, will eventually undergo a reversal and we’ll seek out more in-person social activities. We’re social animals—we’re not meant to only interact by screens.

And let’s not forget that, as a species, we’ve always been storytellers. It’s how we pass on knowledge, relate to other people, and entertain ourselves and others. Maybe we’ll still write books—whatever they might look like—or maybe technology will enable any of us to create games, visual presentations, or holodeck simulations, and participate in them with almost anyone, anywhere. I can’t imagine us ever losing our love of stories. It’s in our DNA.

What hobbies or other leisure activities do you think our future holds? I’d love to see your comments.

HOPE IN SCIENCE

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It’s impossible to ignore all of the discouraging stories in the news these days, but there are also stories of great hope, including in the various fields of science. Here are a few recent ones:

In October 2017 a couple of teenage Cystic Fibrosis patients in the UK who’d been given double lung transplants developed bacterial infections that didn’t respond to any of the drugs available.

A University of Pittsburgh micro­biologist named Graham Hatfull had been gathering the world’s largest collection of bacteriophages—viruses that prey solely on bacteria—more than 15,000 of them, so a colleague at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital called him up. Although Hatfull’s team couldn’t save one of the patients, they were able to identify four phages that would attack the other patient’s infection once they were “activated” via some genetic modification. That patient is slowly recovering. The drawback is that this method is ultra-specific—it involves tailoring a cure for each individual patient. As bacteria and viruses become more drug-resistant, this development offers hope, though it needs to be greatly improved in efficiency to be practical on any larger scale. And there are an estimated nonillion phages that haven’t yet been discovered and catalogued (a US nonillion is a 1 followed by 30 zeroes). Other top-level medical science facilities are now exploring this territory.

With climate change threatening to make some dry areas of the planet even drier, and with industry and agriculture’s voracious appetite for water, the need to reclaim industrial waste water and even produce drinkable water from the oceans will become increasingly urgent. Now some researchers from Columbia University have developed a process called Temperature Swing Solvent Extraction which involves mixing amine solvents with heavily-salted water at room temperature. The solvent-and-water is lighter than the salts and can be extracted, and then higher temperatures separate the solvent from the pure water. Experiments show that up to 98.4% of the salt can be removed, which is comparable to reverse osmosis. But this new process requires relatively little energy and produces very high water recoverability compared to current desalination methods. If it can be scaled up, it could be a real lifesaver in the world of the future.

Researchers who call themselves agroecologists are promoting more natural ways of growing crops. This approach not only nourishes soil, which makes it more productive and its crops more nutritious, but by helping the microorganisms in the soil to flourish, it also helps to absorb carbon dioxide and water vapour from the air at a much greater rate than scientists thought possible. CO2 and water vapour are two of the most prevalent greenhouse gases driving global climate change. Plants soak up carbon and share it with the microbes in soil, which helps the soil retain water. Scientists warn that, although reducing the amount of CO2 we produce is absolutely necessary, it’s no longer enough to ward off serious climate effects. So we need to find ways to remove excess carbon and water from the atmosphere, and the methods of agroecology could be very effective in doing this. Plus it reduces dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides while making food more nutritious. Sounds like a big win in my book.

In a similar story, though on a much smaller scale, astronauts on the International Space Station will be testing an algae bioreactor—a contraption that will use the CO2 the crew exhales to grow algae which can be used as food. On one level, this could be a great help for long space voyages and colonies on other planets, but it has often been proposed that large algae farms here on Earth, perhaps on the oceans, could be an abundant source of food while, again, removing a lot of unwanted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

All of these stories offer much-needed hope in trying times. Science fiction has been coming up with ideas similar to these, and many more, for decades, as authors imagine the exploration and exploitation of outer space. Science is constantly proving that radical ideas can be turned into reality, and I would argue that science fiction provides the fertile imaginative “soil” from which harvests of new scientific developments spring.

Examples like these also reinforce my belief that hopeful and optimistic SF is still not only defensible, but perfectly sensible. We can’t ignore the potential hazards of human technology and growth, but we also have a duty to promote science as a force for good.

It truly is, when we make it so.

WITH GREAT KNOWLEDGE COMES GREAT HOPE

Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Science marches on. It’s almost impossible to even keep track of all the standout new achievements and discoveries, as the search for knowledge shows no sign of slowing.

One of the biggest stories of the past week was the first-ever actual picture of a black hole. We’ve known they existed. Scientists are certain that there’s a supermassive black hole (4 million times the mass of our sun) at the core of our own galaxy. Now we actually have a picture of one that’s 6.5 billion solar masses in the heart of a galaxy called M87, about 54 light years from Earth. Of course, we’re not actually seeing the black hole itself (because they absorb all light and therefore are as black as you can get) but the gases around it. And it’s not a photo as we’d normally think of one, but the result of processing more than 5 petabytes of data from eight radio observatories around the world, an astonishing feat not possible only a few years ago. Let’s call it the first imaged evidence of a black hole. Still groundbreaking.

In other space news, a team has discovered a possible new planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbour, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, only about four light years away from us. More study is still needed to confirm its existence, but Proxima c is probably about six times the mass of Earth and takes about six of our years to orbit its sun, so it’s likely not habitable by our standards. Still, the discovery of any new exoplanet is exciting, and especially when it’s so close in galactic terms. A sister planet, Proxima b, was discovered in 2016 much nearer to its star, and is much more promising in terms of being hospitable to life.

Space technology continues to advance, too. The private company SpaceX succeeded in not only launching a Saudi communications satellite into orbit with its Falcon Heavy rocket (now the most powerful rocket on the planet) but also in safely landing its core booster and two additional booster rockets after the flight. Sadly, the core booster was still lost after high seas knocked it off its ocean-surface landing platform, but the technology worked!

Another new species related to humans has been identified from fossils found in a cave in the Philippines. Homo luzonensis is thought to have lived more than fifty million years ago, so other hominids like Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens existed at the same time, but distinctive pre-molar teeth are among the features that set Homo luzonensis apart.

In medical news, researchers in Tel Aviv have succeeded in 3D printing the first complete duplicate human heart made from material taken from a human patient. Previous efforts didn’t include all of the required blood vessels and other features, and this one isn’t transplantable either—it’s not full-size and it can’t (yet) beat on its own and pump blood. But with the severe shortage of donor hearts available for transplant, this new development is a huge step forward. Also exciting is the news that scientists have isolated several chemical compounds found to be in extra high concentrations in the skin secretions of patients with Parkinson’s Disease. This followed research involving a woman in Scotland who learned how to smell these compounds on her husband, a Parkinson’s sufferer. The finding offers hope of new ways to diagnose Parkinson’s much earlier than now possible, which could greatly improve treatment outcomes.

This is just a handful of the stories I could have mentioned, all reinforcing the fact that the human race is endlessly curious, inventive, resourceful, and determined. We have everything we need to create a bright future for our species. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Well maybe. But what about the many ways in which we’re threatening our very survival by destroying our environment? Climate change and other air pollution, ocean acidification, destruction of animal and fish habitat, and the spread of plastic garbage and microplastics throughout our air and water (and bodies!)

My point isn’t that human inventiveness can find technological solutions to these problems, although it probably could eventually. But it’s always better not to make messes in the first place than to have to figure out how to clean them up. And, really, the problems we’re causing are almost all the result of our addiction to consumerism in one form or another. We consume much more of everything, from raw materials to energy, than we could ever actually need. Our national and international economies are based on it—whole industries exist to persuade us to consume more and more, a road that must ultimately lead to disaster.

The Millennial generation’s movement toward downsizing, simplifying, decluttering etc. is a gleam of hope amid the gloom. We need to fully embrace that philosophy and put our species’ incredible ingenuity into finding other ways to keep us employed, to protect our planet, and to find alternatives to all of the things we’re doing wrong.

We can do it. Knowledge is power.

STIMULATING THE BRAIN

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We live in an age unlike any other, in that someday soon we may need to develop a definition of what constitutes a human being.

The idea of breeding superior human beings has been around for a long time, with notorious results. In Frankenstein Mary Shelley imagined assembling a complete human from its component parts. We’ve also altered our bodies in a bewildering variety of ways for “cosmetic purposes” but also more practical reasons, like the first wooden legs and hand replacements.

These days we not only have increasingly complex prosthetics for those who need them, but research is taking us deeper and deeper into the realm of brain alteration, and if there’s any part of us that truly defines us as human, it’s our brains.

Deliberately altering brain conditions using electricity has been used since at least the 1930’s, but today’s technology allows it to be used with far greater precision than ever before. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves extremely fine wires (electrodes) surgically implanted into specific areas of the brain where they will provide electrical impulses into the network of neurons (nerve and brain cells) that constitute our cerebral “wiring”. These impulses are controlled by a device much like a pacemaker that’s usually placed beneath the patient’s collar bone. So far DBS has been used to treat the symptoms of patients suffering problems with motor control, like Parkinson’s Disease, dystonia, or epilepsy, but is also being tried out to alleviate chronic pain, Tourette Syndrome and, more controversially, schizophrenia and depression. Many of these conditions have long been treated with drugs, and DBS provides similar benefits (though no cures) but much more precisely. Neuroethicist James Giordano of Georgetown University says in an interview, “A drug like Prozac or antidepressant drugs, is basically like throwing water on your face to get a drink of water. Using something like deep brain stimulation is like putting a drop of water on your tongue.” But Giordano does have concerns about the procedure. Maybe we should too, partly for what it now does, but much more for what it could be used to do in the future.

DBS is much more precise than drugs, yes, but when a thought might be produced by the firing of one or two brain cells, leading to a cascade effect of further thoughts, emotions, and moods, the discharge of these electrodes is still pretty crude. An impulse introduced into the neural network can cause effects “upstream and downstream”. New electrical fields affect the cells all around the site. Though patients are often awake during the surgery to help direct the accuracy of the implantation, and the devices are further fine-tuned over the following days, side effects can include memory lapses, pain, sexual impulses, mood swings and wholesale personality changes. Sometimes changes in a person’s tastes and interests. Sometimes worse. Neurology is still not an exact science. And these side effects might be the price of alleviating grievous conditions like Parkinson’s, but they also raise a more troubling question.

What about using DBS to deliberately change mood, tastes, and personality traits?

I’ll never forget the first time I came across the concept of a “wirehead” in the Known Space  science fiction stories of Larry Niven—a wirehead being someone who’s addicted to having the pleasure centres of their brain directly stimulated by current from a device called a droud. The main character in Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man suffers from the same temptation. It’s easy to see how that kind of deep brain stimulation could be extremely dangerous. But using a DBS device to alter mood could surely be just as risky, and it’s already being done. What if we could adjust the controls of a gadget at whim to make us less shy and more outgoing, less fearful, more cheerful, impulsive, creative, or horny? It’s not a stretch. It’s happening accidentally with DBS research, so it’s only a matter of time—trial and error—before it becomes more intentional. What then? If that kind of behaviour becomes widespread and socially acceptable, will we ever truly be “ourselves” anymore, or just the product of our programming? (And hopefully of our own volition, not someone else’s—that’s a whole other area of frightening possibilities.) It may seem like a good thing when wallflower Sue is brought out of her shell and becomes the life of the party. Except if everybody does the same thing, what happens to the diversity and variety we now enjoy among our circle of friends? Personalities could become like clothes, changing with the winds of fashion in vain attempts to copy vacuous celebrities. Wake up in the morning and adjust the settings of your brain like the temperature, lighting, and security system of your smart home.

Even now, when DBS is being used therapeutically to help people with mood disorders become more “normal”, who defines what is normal, and how? Surely a normal set of moods and behaviours is a little different for everyone—that’s what individualism is. It’s what makes us interesting.

If intentional mood and behaviour modification becomes commonplace, will someone be able to blame their DBS device for unacceptable behaviour, or even a crime?

As with so many other areas of human knowledge, as our abilities increase we, as a society, need to get ahead of issues like these and work out their ethical and legal implications before they become a problem. So far, we haven’t been doing a great job of that. And if we’re going to remake ourselves—redefining what it means to be human—we’d better start thinking about what we truly want human beings to be.

QUANTUM MAGIC

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A dual-purpose blog post this time—a science story and a book review—but on a single theme. First, the news.

The headlines read, “Scientists Have Reversed Time In A Quantum Computer” and “Scientists Have Built World’s First Time Machine”.

Well…let’s not get carried away here. The truth is that researchers in Russia working with others in Illinois U.S.A. programmed a quantum computer to return a particle to an earlier state. The quantum computer involved two particles—yes, that’s how small and basic it was. We know that, according to the “arrow of time” things change as time passes. Everything moves and changes, and it should never be possible to return to the exact same place and condition an object was in a moment before. But, first of all, strange things can happen at the quantum level—the smallest level of existence we know about. And secondly, this experiment was essentially a simulation.

Think of shifting your car into drive with your eyes closed (don’t try this at home). After a few seconds of travel it could be in a range of possible new locations (middle of the street, your neighbour’s yard…). These scientists created a simulation to move your car back into your driveway from wherever it got to. Their tiny ‘computer’ was programmed to simulate the return of one qubit (quantum particle) to a previous state, and after thousands of attempts, they were successful about 85% of the time. Did they reverse time? Break the laws of physics? Not exactly. And, lets be fair, they’re not making any of these outrageous claims themselves. Their hope is that this process will provide a way to check the results of a quantum computer by repeating them. They’re not saying they can now transport Marty McFly back to 1955.

Could this lead to a method of time travel for objects and people? It’s hard to see how. The quantum world underlies the world we experience, but particles that small don’t behave like any objects we encounter. They can act like both a particle and a wave. Entangled quantum particles can affect each other instantly over (apparently) any distance. It’s spooky stuff. Like magic.

Which brings me to the second quantum experience of my week, reading the science fiction novel The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken.

With a genetics background (genetically engineering viruses) and worldview experiences that include some time as a Canadian diplomat,  Künsken’s debut novel features hard science and a social conscience in equal measure. The main character, Belisarius Arjona is a Homo quantus—a quantum man—one of three genetically-engineered forms of humanity in Künsken’s far future interstellar civilization. His brain can act like a quantum computer, processing fantastically complex calculations and perceiving a dozen different dimensions, yet he makes a living as a con man. He becomes involved in the biggest con of all time, with interstellar war an almost certain outcome. With a crew that includes a man adapted to live at crushing ocean depths and a miniature human engineered to worship his overlords, Belisarius travels wormholes through space/time in an effort to not only pull off the con but also free himself from his genetic baggage. Unlike so many SF tales that just offer one-darn-thing-after-another, Künsken serves up rich themes and deep issues. While the science is stunning, Künsken is also adept at exploring the social contexts of his imagined species, invoking the whole spectrum of emotions in the reader from revulsion, to empathy, to love and wonder.

A heist story with bizarre human mutations and exotic physics—what’s not to like? (Well, the con sometimes feels a little too complex, and quantum physics makes my head hurt, but those are small quibbles!) With The Quantum Magician and it’s forthcoming sequel The Quantum Garden Künsken has fulfilled expectations from his impressive short story credentials and provided a treasure for lovers of hard science fiction.

You may wish for a time machine so you can go back and read The Quantum Magician for the first time all over again.

LIFE WILL FIND A WAY. MAYBE MANY WAYS.

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

The March issue of National Geographic magazine offers an article called “Life probably exists beyond Earth. So how do we find it?” It’s an excellent overview of current research into the subject, especially the technology scientists are using to hunt for extraterrestrial life. As the article points out, it’s estimated that there are at least a billion stars in our galaxy and possibly trillions of galaxies in the universe. Thanks to the Kepler space telescope, we’ve learned that most stars have multiple planets (Kepler’s findings have helped confirm the existence of roughly four thousand planets beyond our solar system, and it was only able to survey a small slice of the sky). Mainly from information gathered as planets pass in front of their sun—speed of the transit, how much the star’s light dims and, in some cases, spectroscopic analysis of the light—researchers can make good guesses about how close the planet orbits its star, how large the planet is, and whether it’s a rocky world like Earth or a gas giant like Jupiter. A planet is considered a good candidate to host life if it’s a rocky world of a certain size (similar to Earth) and orbits in the so-called “habitable zone”—the right distance from its sun to allow liquid water. About a quarter of Kepler’s exoplanets meet these qualifications, which could mean there are twenty-five billion habitable planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone.

Yet those criteria are rather “Earth chauvinist” as Carl Sagan might have said. They’re the requirements for life forms that we would recognize: life based on the element carbon, using water as a solvent. There are other possibilities.

Carbon is an excellent basis for life-serving (we call them organic) compounds because it bonds to other carbon atoms and many other elements well to produce complex and versatile molecules, and is very welcoming to oxygen which Earth life uses in producing energy. The result of their pairing in combustion is CO2, carbon dioxide gas, which is easily disposed of, for instance in our exhaled breath. Carbon is also very common in the universe. But scientists have speculated for a long time that similar elements like silicon could also form the basis for life (although this Scientific American article makes a good case against silicon). Another possibility is metals like iron, magnesium, or aluminum, which are more common than carbon even on Earth, though not as adaptable.

Although we call water (H2O) the “universal solvent”, it’s not the only solvent that could be used by a life form. Scientists have proposed methane and similar hydrocarbons as a possibility, especially since lakes of methane were discovered on Saturn’s moon Titan. Ammonia is another suggestion, as are other hydrogen compounds like hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen fluoride.

There are arguments against all of these when compared to the biological and biochemical processes we’re familiar with, but who knows what Nature might have dreamed up? What makes these speculations even more interesting is that these different elements would provide an environment friendly to life at very different temperature ranges than are suitable for carbon-based life. So if we accept that there could be creatures made of silicon, or boron, or iron compounds, using methane or ammonia in whatever passes for blood, then the potential “habitable zone” of stars increases a lot. Let’s also not forget that gas giant planets might have habitable moons. So that means many more than 25 billion places in our galaxy that could support some form of life. That’s exciting!

I haven’t even touched on the fact that there are other chemicals capable of facilitating photosynthesis, rather than just the chlorophyll that Earth plants use. And although almost all Earth life uses DNA for the “master blueprint” that determines structure and function, and DNA uses only four chemicals (guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine) as the “letters” that encode genetic information, scientists have now created viable synthetic DNA that uses four different “letters”. This opens the door for even more possible forms of life.

For science fiction writers, all of this is both a blessing and a curse. It’s fun to imagine the different forms that aliens from other planets could take. It’s mostly pleasurable to work out the implications of these imagined features (would a four-legged being drive something like a car? What would a methane-based alien drink to have a good time at a party?) But it’s a major headache to get the chemistry and physiognomy right. Most of us aren’t Biochemistry PhDs or xeno-anatomy experts.

What all of this says to me is that, when we finally do get “out there” discovering new forms of life in all their variety, the universe will be an even stranger place than we can imagine.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE NIGHT SKY

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On this page, I write about scientific events, discoveries, and general science topics from a science fiction fan’s (and writer’s) point of view. I’m not sure someone can be a fan of real science fiction if they aren’t fascinated by science in one way or another. And since the beginning of science fiction, the scientific field that’s inspired a huge percentage of SF is the exploration of space. Unlocking the universe beyond our sheltering home planet.

Space travel is an absolute natural for storytelling—the drama is built right in because of the hazardous nature of the enterprise, not to mention guaranteed interpersonal conflict when you throw high-performing types into peril together. There’s the innate suspense of encountering the unknown, plus the childlike wonder evoked by settings that boggle the imagination.

But why are we so fascinated by what’s “out there” when we have such a beautiful and hospitable home world right here?

For that I think we have to credit our love of the night sky. We can be certain that, from the moment our evolutionary ancestors developed curiosity, they gazed up at the sparkling points overhead in the vast blackness and wondered what they were. Why they formed the patterns they did. Why they moved, some faster than others. What it meant when one streaked across the heavens trailing a tail of fire. And the Moon, mistress of the night: was that a human face she showed? Why did she sometimes hide it? How did she work her magic over the deep waters?

I can’t say that those midnight observations were the beginning of science, but they certainly spurred the drive for knowledge, and they still do.

From identifying constellations, to oohing and aahing at meteorites; from staring in awe at a lunar eclipse, to tracing the craters and seas of the Moon with a captivated eye, a clear night sky always puts on a show. And it’s all free! Of course, many of us live in cities where light pollution obscures these delights, but if you make the effort to venture into the countryside and see the glorious sweep of the Milky Way overhead, you’ll be hooked. Then get your hands on a modest telescope. No matter how many pictures of Saturn I’ve seen, to actually look through a lens and find that glowing donut with a ball in the middle, and know that it’s really hanging over my head, though millions of kilometers away…it’s simply awe-inspiring. Even a pair of binoculars will bring the rugged landscape of the Moon into vivid view.

For some of us, at least, the next natural step is to imagine seeing such places up close. The strange worlds of our own solar system, or possibly even more amazing sights around other stars. You can’t help but become a devoted follower of space news, especially with so many astonishing missions of exploration in recent years (just take a look at this recent post of mine). And for the places that technology can’t yet take us, science fiction will always be there to indulge our cravings.

If you feel the sky calling to you, but are missing out because you don’t know where to begin, the internet offers everything you need. One great site to get you started is Jenny Brown’s '2019 Astronomer's Guide to the Night Sky'. Jenny not only lists the dates and other relevant details of the marquis events of the celestial showcase, like eclipses, meteor showers, conjunctions of the planets and such, but also provides a guide to which planets are visible in the night sky at a given time and place, and the best times for viewing them. Terminology is clearly explained, and it’s all laid out in simple language with plenty of weblinks should you want to dig a little deeper. Jenny’s page is obviously the pet project of a night sky enthusiast who loves to share her passion.

Once you’re ready to plunge headlong into astronomy and space exploration news, there’s a rich feast awaiting you at sites like Universe Today, Space.com, Sky And Telescope, and of course NASA’s own website with details on all of their missions. If you’re bringing a youngster along on your journey, check out KidsAstronomy.com. And there are lots more to be found with a quick online search.

In the end, it’s not about fostering new generations of science and science fiction fans (although that’s a worthy goal in itself), it’s about kindling a deep appreciation of the wondrous universe in which we live. Our existence isn’t confined to four walls, or a few streets, or even a bustling city. It’s a whole cosmos that’s beyond our ability to fully grasp.

But we can have a blast trying to.

FUTURE VISIONS INDEED

FV3 Field Guide.jpg

Since I’m a science fiction writer, you can safely assume that SF is also my favourite thing to read. So when my writing is published in an anthology or magazine, it’s the best of both worlds—reaching new readers, and getting to read the other great offerings in the collection.

I’m pleased to have a short story included in the recently published anthology Future Visions Vol. 3 edited by Brian J. Walton. And proud to have work in the same company as these excellent tales.

My story Elysium is the last one in the anthology (a placement I’ve always been partial to) but there’s no fear a reader won’t get that far. SF short fiction often finds its genesis in exposing the unsavoury underbelly of current trends, teases out the possibilities, and weaves a poetry of its own from the threads of our human frailties. That’s well demonstrated in this collection, and although it would take too long to detail every story, here are a few of my favourites:

Margery Bayne’s Another Life distills a looming moral dilemma down to just two people in crisis as a woman named Dana wakes up, only to be told that she’s been in a coma for 23 years. Exploring love, memory, obligation, and a slippery slope of personal rights, Another Life is, above all, very human.

After All by Bret Carter tells the story of Ben who believes he might be the last true musician because technological developments and corporate greed have warped his beloved art form beyond recognition. But his efforts to fight back unleash a devastating force (and you won’t thank Carter for what he leaves in your brain, either).

In Space Witch Yolande Ryle imagines the first manned spaceflight to Ceres. It’s the most light-hearted tale in this collection, even playing with the line between magic and advanced technology, but it explores a question that’s held my interest for a long time: are we Earthlings being watched? And judged? And what if the judgment doesn’t go our way?

A Lament For Marla by Mike Adamson takes us to the dark aftermath of climate change in a story that deliberately evokes Soylent Green (by name) but the way its conclusion links hope with degradation packs a powerful punch.

Nolan Janssen’s The Running Mill paints the terrible cost of the free market system to a future America where the jobless poor run on treadmills to produce clean power. But when one talented runner is given a chance to make his mark on the world, the shining dream isn’t all it’s made out to be.

A nasty mash-up of social media and the self-improvement mania takes a frightening twist in A Century of Faults by Evan Scott Edwards. And a well-meaning attempt to save the world from a growing shortage of bees veers in a disastrous direction in P.R. O’Leary’s Pollen.

And there are still more engaging stories by Robert Jeschonek. Michael W. Clark, Joseph Aitken, B.A. Paul, and, oh yeah…me. My story Elysium follows ex-cop Gib Thorne as he tries to solve a rash of seemingly unrelated deaths while coping with his terminally ill mother’s “upload” into a digital afterlife. If there’s life after death, can there be murder, too?

Short stories are like tantalizing appetizers compared to the full meal of a novel, so if you’re looking to stimulate your science fiction taste buds with some pungent flavours, Brian J. Walton is a very savvy editor and I’d recommend his whole Future Visions series—new offerings are published about every two months. Future Visions Volume 3 is a great place to start, available in Kindle and paperback editions.

Bon appétit!

BEYOND THE FARTHEST...SNOWBALL?

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

Congratulations to the China National Space Administration for the successful landing of their Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the Moon January 3rd (the first time it’s ever been done), as well as the deployment of the Yutu-2 rover. Its tracks in moondust prove China is now a major player in space exploration.

Other than that, recent space news stories are full of exotic names and exotic places—names like the Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, Ultima Thule, Farout (which sounds more like the expression of an enthusiastic hippy than a scientific designation!)

In the first minutes of New Years Day 2019 the NASA spacecraft New Horizons hurtled past an object identified as (486958) 2014 MU69, a name that doesn’t fall trippingly from the tongue so it was given a nickname chosen by the public: Ultima Thule, an ancient Greek and Roman phrase meaning the farthest of places, beyond the known world. It isn’t actually even the farthest place in our solar system, but it is now the most distant object ever visited by a man-made device. New Horizons is the craft that sent terrific pictures back from Jupiter and then went on to astonish us with stunning images of Pluto, so it’s a little probe with a great track record. Since Ultima Thule is more than 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth, receiving data from New Horizons is a slow process (it will take many months for all of it to come in), but pictures show what’s called a “contact binary”, meaning two objects that formed separately but then fused together into one, and it looks like a reddish snowman about 30 kilometres long. The scientific community has long expected that the so-called Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune consists mostly of objects like slush balls made of water, ammonia, and methane that orbit the Sun as far away as fifty AU (astronomical units—the distance between the Sun and Earth). Learning more about Ultima Thule will increase our knowledge of how the solar system was formed.

The other trans-Neptunian object to get attention recently is one nicknamed Farout, officially 2018 VG18. Discovered in November 2018, Farout is the most distant object ever observed in our solar system. It’s currently between 125AU to 130AU from the sun—about 3.5 times as far as Pluto—though its orbit will carry it farther and closer to the sun at times. As unimaginably distant as that is, our solar system is thought to extend much farther to include the theoretical Oort Cloud, a spherical area that might extend as far as 200,000 AU from the sun and be composed of more slushy iceballs, remnants of the original cloud from which the solar system formed billions of years ago. The Oort Cloud hasn’t been observed directly, but is thought to be the source of many comets with very long orbits. By comparison, the nearest star to ours, Proxima Centauri, is currently about 268,500 AU away (4.246 light years).

Such distances are incredible when considered in a straight line, but to recognize that they apply in every direction, in three dimensions, the sheer volume of space involved is truly beyond our minds’ ability to process. After all, you could fit all of the planets in the solar system side by side in just the space between the Earth and our Moon with room to spare, so a sphere 100 AU across and more is one heck of a lot of real estate!

What could be “out there”? That’s the domain where theoretical astronomy and science fiction thinking converge. A fertile realm for the imagination.

Could there be a super-Neptune “Planet X”, ten times as big as Earth? Or the proposed brown dwarf star ominously named “Nemesis”? If so, why not a whole second planetary system orbiting in the darkness?

Could there be life? We already know of microbes and other life forms that can survive under the most extreme conditions. We have no reason to assume that life couldn’t arise in those dark realms. Even on Earth some forms of life in the deep oceans depend on chemical energy rather than the sun. At the very least, if all those slush balls and hypothetical dark planets don’t support native life, they could still provide waystations (or hiding places) for visitors from other stars. Are there advanced aliens watching us from the shadowy borders of our home system? Fleets of conquering ships just waiting for the order to strike? Maybe one navy with plans to conquer, battling with another determined to save us from enslavement. (Maybe I’ve been reading too many space operas!) Or what if there are giant life forms, planet-sized or larger, to whom we’re no more significant than bacteria?

If comets can be knocked out of the Oort Cloud by a galactic tide and fall toward the Sun and inner planets, could there be larger, much more dangerous threats lurking beyond sight? Vagabond moon-sized rocks? Maybe wandering black holes remorselessly devouring everything in their paths? (Actually, scientists would probably have spotted such powerful gravitational effects. Phew!)

Flights of fantasy aside, I’m kind of partial to the idea of giant forms of life “out there”. SF writer Robert J. Sawyer described mega-beings made of dark matter in his novel Starplex. It just feels right that such vast spaces should be inhabited by something and not simply empty voids. I also think it’s quite possible that alien visitors would bide their time in the dark reaches, observing us before deciding to make contact.

Some people may wonder why we go to such effort and cost to send a machine six billion kilometres to look at an oversized slushball. The fact is, in investigating things we expect to find in the great beyond, we really have no idea what we might find. That’s what makes it so exciting.