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.

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.

A NEW GOLDEN AGE OF SPACE EXPLORATION?

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Unless you keep up with current space news, it may be easy to feel that the Golden Age of space exploration is behind us. After all, the last time humans set foot on the Moon was the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Heady stuff, but really, there hasn’t been much going on since, has there?

Actually, the amount of space exploration that’s been happening in recent decades is astonishing. It’s just that almost none of it has involved human crews. The one major exception is the International Space Station, which recently marked twenty years in space (its first components and first occupants were launched in November 1998). It’s been continuously manned since November 2000, and has hosted 227 crew and visitors, some as many as five times. It’s operated by a partnership of five space agencies (representing 17 countries) and has been visited by citizens of seventeen different nations. I’m not sure which is its most important contribution: the amount of data the ISS accrues every single day about how humans can live and work in space, or what it teaches us about the international cooperation needed to make us a spacefaring species. Nonetheless, because the ISS has been around for twenty years, and we can even watch it go by overhead, the general public probably underestimates its importance and may simply have lost interest.

So what else has been going on?

2004 may seem like a long time ago, but do you remember the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko? We watched its Philae lander drop toward the barbell-shaped object with fascination, and held our breath as it bounced and ended up at a angle that prevented it from collecting solar energy, which spelled its doom. But we did witness comet off-gassing and a snowstorm. Then in January 2005 NASA’s Deep Impact mission visited two other comets, 9P/Tempel and 103P/Hartley.

The Dawn spacecraft was deactivated just one month ago after visiting the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres (in the asteroid belt), producing amazing photos and detailed maps of these remnants of the solar system’s formation (or possibly fragments of a planet that broke up). It was also an important test of ion thrusters for propulsion instead of standard rocket motors.

NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto was a huge success in 2015 when it sent back photo after brilliant photo of the icy world and its moon Charon, after already providing fantastic imagery and data from Jupiter and the Jovian moons in 2007 en route. But New Horizons isn’t done yet. It’s speeding its way toward a Kuiper Belt object designated as 2014 MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule, meaning beyond the farthest horizon) and will reach it this coming New Years Day (Jan. 1, 2019). Such objects are also thought to be leftover material from the solar system’s formation, probably slush and ice balls—after all, that’s the region most comets come from.

Although it met its end a little over a year ago (Sept. 15, 2017), deliberately plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, can we forget the awesomely majestic pictures provided by the Cassini-Huygens probe? It spent thirteen years exploring Saturn, its moons and its rings, and the results were astounding.

Fast forward to this year: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was launched in August 2018 and will fly through the outer atmosphere of the sun, known as its corona, seven times closer to our star than any spacecraft before it. But the big attention this week was the successful arrival of the InSight lander on Mars, which is tasked to penetrate into the Martian soil and probe the crust of the planet for the first time. Because of the high risk of failure, the landing got ‘live’ coverage and lots of media attention when it succeeded.

Yet we shouldn’t forget two more asteroid missions: the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which has dropped a small lander onto an asteroid named Ryugu and is still in orbit there, and the NASA OSIRIS-REx probe that will arrive this Monday Dec. 3, 2018 at the asteroid Bennu. (Both of these asteroids are called “diamond-shaped” but they remind me of those old pressed charcoal briquettes for the barbecue!)

In the meantime, there have been lots of missions within the Earth-Moon system, and the U.S. is working with private companies and other countries toward a return by humans to the Moon by 2023. Closer to home, there have been important advances in rocketry, especially from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is capable of launching satellites, and then landing safely back on Earth, enabling it to be re-used (most recently on Nov. 15th). This is a vital advancement toward making commercial uses of space affordable. And, of course, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle in current use, ostentatiously launched a Tesla Roadster into space Feb. 6, 2018 on its first test flight, carrying a mannequin nicknamed Starman in a space suit at the wheel.

Why is all of this important? What are the benefits?

If you’re reading a blog like this, you probably don’t need a sales pitch. But the more we learn about how the cosmos, our world, and our species came about, the more we can predict where we will all go from here. That’s just good survival protocol. Exploratory missions to comets and asteroids in particular are potential goldmines of information about the early solar system, but also may answer the question of how life arose on Earth, since scientists speculate that life here may have come from “out there”. They could also bring us closer to understanding how to protect ourselves from extraterrestrial microorganisms drifting down onto our planet from the far reaches of space. Not to mention identifying potential collision risks to our home from all of the celestial objects whizzing through the solar system.

The more we can learn about how humans can survive, thrive, and work in space environments, the closer we come to making use of them in ways that will benefit all of us. Conditions of zero-gravity, readily-available vacuum, and deep cold can facilitate the production of medicines and other exotic substances very difficult to make on Earth. Mining of asteroids, the processing of ores, and other manufacturing processes performed in space could bring much needed relief to the stressed environment of Earth. If we can find other places to live, or adapt other places to make them liveable for humans, we can help ease the population pressure on our home planet and, maybe more importantly, ensure that humanity would no longer be at risk of extinction from a planet-wide disaster.

Even the process of all this exploration is beneficial. Partly because of the cost in resources, material, monetary, and mental, large-scale endeavours like these demand international cooperation at government and corporate levels, but also one-on-one between members of space crews. Our best hope of survival as a species is to curb our tendency toward conflict and live together peaceably.

Exploration? Oh yes! And I haven’t even mentioned astronomical endeavours like the Hubble and Kepler telescopes that have peered into the farthest depths of the universe and confirmed the existence of planets around other stars.

A Golden Age? Actually, that’s selling it short. This kind of exploration is priceless.

CAN WE RESTORE THE SPECIES WE'RE MAKING EXTINCT?

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For 20,000 years and more the skies of North America darkened Spring and Fall with the migration of from three to five billion birds. They were called passenger pigeons. Deforestation and hunting through the 1800’s changed that. In 1914 the last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The American bison once numbered as high as 30 million. By 1889 humans had reduced their population to about a thousand animals. Fortunately, some humans found reasons to reverse that trend and there now might be as many as half a million bison living on the continent.

We have the ability to destroy the animals, birds, reptiles, and fish with which we share the planet like no other species in history, but we also have the power to stop the destruction, and are now even learning to bring species back.

There have been five mass extinctions on Earth beginning with the end of the Ordovician Era 444 million years ago that saw the end of 86% of all life forms at the time. You’re more likely to think of the last one, the end of the Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago that saw the demise of the dinosaurs. Most of those extinctions have been blamed on sudden climate change, including the asteroid strike that wiped out Dino and his buddies. It takes millions of years for the number of species to reach pre-disaster levels. And, needless to say, those are replacements—the original creatures are gone for good.

Now, many scientists believe we’re undergoing a 6th extinction event, this time caused by…guess who?

The passenger pigeons and the dodo are just two of the 140 bird species, 34 types of amphibian, and at least 77 mammals that scientists say have become extinct since the year 1500, thanks to human activity, especially the destruction of their habitat. Those are the ones we know about. There are still a lot of species, especially insects, reptiles, and amphibians, that have never been classified and could very well be gone before we ever know about them. Some estimates suggest the planet loses hundreds of species a year. And as our powers to shape the environment grow, intentional and not, the rate of extinctions is quickly rising. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently predicted that virtually all species currently considered critically endangered and more than two-thirds of endangered species will be gone within the next century. Scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark have calculated that it would take up to 5 million years of evolution to return the planet’s diversity to current levels, and 7 million years to return it to what it was before modern humans showed up and began our path of destruction.

Is there hope? Of course there is. We can curb our out-of-control consumption and stop so much habitat destruction, razing of rainforests, scouring the bottom of the oceans, and spewing plastic and pollution everywhere. Will we? Well, that’s a whole other question.

What about the species already gone, and those it’s likely too late to save? That’s where human technology can actually have a positive side. There are a number of exciting initiatives that point the way to a brighter future.

I’ve mentioned the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway in previous blogs. Built ten years ago to preserve and protect the world’s plant diversity from disaster, it’s reputed to contain a million different varieties now. Seeds evolved to remain dormant when required, so they store pretty well. But what about animals and birds? Projects like the Frozen Ark in Nottingham, UK and the Australian Frozen Zoo in Victoria are working to preserve large collections of frozen DNA from the creatures of the world. That has its challenges certainly. So what if you didn’t have to physically preserve the DNA? For some years now it’s been possible to sequence DNA—transcribe the whole chemical code that determines a species (and an individual’s) cellular makeup. The UK’s Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Gardens and Wellcome Sanger Institute have joined together in the Darwin Tree of Life Project to sequence Britain’s 66,000 species of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi. Harvard University and other partners around the world are undertaking similar initiatives in the hope that the genetic codes of one-and-a-half million species will eventually be mapped.

Mind you, all of that is like having the full blueprints of a house without the tools or materials to actually build it. We don’t have the technology to recreate plants or animals from scratch like building a Lego set from the instructions. But one day we will.

In Melbourne, Australia, an American scientist named Ben Novak has been working to recreate passenger pigeons by engineering the DNA of ordinary rock pigeons. A team at Harvard is attempting to produce a woolly mammoth by splicing mammoth DNA into the genome of Asian elephants. The tool they use is called CRISPR-Cas9, a combination of repeating RNA (to use as a guide) and the protein Cas9, which allows scientists to basically “cut and paste” DNA in existing sequences. Inserting DNA from an extinct species into the genome of a genetic relative species is how the fictional dinosaurs were created in Jurassic Park (though if anyone’s trying to do that in real life, they’re not admitting it!)

So with all of these efforts to preserve and some day recreate plants and animals, we could theoretically re-introduce forms of life to our planet after they’re gone, or even take them to a new planet somewhere and reform that world in Earth’s image to some degree. That’s very hopeful. Does it excuse us for causing these extinctions in the first place? Absolutely not!

Surely it would be so much better to get our ravenous impulses under control and actually share our beautiful planet with the other species that belong here just as much as we do.

ARE FOREST FIRES OUR DEFAULT FUTURE?

Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

In my part of the world (Ontario, Canada) we’ve had a summer of devastating forest fires, but we were far from alone in that. The Canadian province of British Columbia has been hit even harder, and the US state of California has been on fire all summer. Siberia has been ravaged, Greece endured a fire that killed 83 people, and Berlin firefighters are now battling a blaze that includes the threat of unexploded WWII ammunition. NASA’s Worldview imagery appears to show “A World On Fire”. Surely this extraordinary heat and drought is the result of human-caused climate change, some will say. But others in my province will refute that, pointing out that this past winter persisted for a month longer than usual (True).

These seeming contradictions are why scientists now use the term “climate change” rather than “global warming”. It’s most likely that the addition of extra heat energy to Earth’s atmosphere is behind these weather extremes, but it doesn’t (yet) mean that we’ll have warmer days all year long. It does mean that weather patterns in the coming decades will be a whole lot different from those of the past century and more.

Earlier this month, William Gibson (@GreatDismal)—author of SF classics like Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the recent The Peripheral—tweeted this:

All imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted. Virtually the entire genre will be seen to have utterly missed the single most important thing we were doing with technology.

It’s hard to argue with that, unless you’re a stalwart climate change denier. Humans have done some big things: inventing the wheel, crop cultivation, electricity, space travel. But we’ve never done anything as momentous as changing the weather systems of the whole planet long-term. To set a story in the future and ignore climate change seems lazy, at best, and irresponsible at worst. A case might be made that to ignore climate change is to deny climate change, and science fiction writers like to think of ourselves as devoted supporters of rationality. The world desperately needs voices of reason, not flat-Earth types. (I speak from some experience: Canadians elected a climate-change-denying prime minister for two terms, and the newest premier of my province has just muzzled all of his government ministries on the subject. Hard to believe.)

We’ll almost certainly see more summers like this one, and worse. Journalist Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future describes the combination of factors that have seen the number, intensity, and size of forest fires steadily escalate and the cost of fighting them soar. More and more people are visiting and building communities within the boreal forest. Plus our very act of suppressing fires produces forests full of tinder-dry debris just waiting for a match or a bolt of lightning. In May of 2016 88,000 people were evacuated from the Canadian city of Fort McMurray when a raging wildfire destroyed more than 2000 homes and buildings, and continued to burn for three months. Experts predict more fires like that will happen. Especially in hot, dry climates such as California’s—that state has been home to seven of the ten costliest wildfires of the US in the past twenty years. Struzik also points out that subarctic and arctic areas of Sweden, Siberia, and even Greenland are suffering huge fires that not only produce lots of smoke and carbon monoxide, but also thaw swaths of permafrost, releasing vast amounts of trapped carbon dioxide, boosting the “greenhouse effect” and raising global temperatures still further. So we should expect a future with even more fires.

But does it have to be that way? And should SF writers be manacled by that outlook when we write about the future? William Gibson seems to suggest that such scenarios are the default future of the planet Earth. But SF writer and futurist Karl Schroeder wrote an insightful blog post for Tor.com recently called “Escaping The Default Future When Writing Science Fiction”. His main point (like a recent post of mine about having kids) is that economic, political, technological, and (yes) climate-related factors will all push the human population downward. And lower population will reduce the relentless pressure toward some kind of human-created apocalypse. We might not ruin the planet after all!

Schroeder doesn’t dwell on climate change per se, but his hopeful outlook includes the kind of post-scarcity society that Star Trek is known for. And, just maybe, the lower demand for fossil fuels and industrial processes that stimulate global warming will come in time to give human efforts to mitigate climate change a chance to work.

I’m not optimistic enough to say that we’ll escape a century or so of very difficult times caused by the way we’ve messed up the atmosphere, but at least it might not be permanent. We might not be forced to undergo an exodus into outer space—it’s still possible that the Earth of a few centuries from now will be a pleasant place to live.

So I hereby give myself permission to keep some hope in my SF.

THE CELL NETWORK INSIDE YOU

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If I tossed out the phrase “cell network” in a conversation, you’d probably think I was talking about your smartphone. But there are plenty of networks among the living cells of your body that scientists are still learning about. I don’t mean the neurons of your brain that network to process thought and other functions, but the communication among body cells to assist each other in development, coordinate immune functions, and even cry for help.

Scientists have known for a fairly long time that cells can pass information and even “spare parts” via gap junctions (like doorways between adjacent cells) and exosomes (small packets or bundles of material that can be floated over distances), but a newer discovery called membrane nanotubes or more commonly tunneling nanotubes (TNTs) are like enclosed skywalks between buildings. They come in various thicknesses and lengths, apparently dependent on what needs to be transported and how far—from simple chemical signals, to RNA, to actual cellular mitochondria (the energy stations of cells). Even more interesting, these TNTs often seem to form in response to an injured or impaired cell’s request for assistance.

The good side is that this can help our cells keep each other healthy. The bad side is that cancer cells and other diseases know this trick too. It appears that a cancer cell under attack by therapeutic chemicals can call for help from other cancerous cells that may have developed a defense against the chemicals, or receive donations of RNA via TNT to help fix damaged parts. Prions or mis-folded proteins involved in degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s can be spread this way, too, and TNTs may also facilitate HIV infection. So finding a way to suppress the formation of TNTs might be a promising means of fighting these illnesses but because this area of research is so new and still poorly understood no one knows what kind of harm might be done to the normal processes of the body if the formation of TNTs is inhibited.

What’s the science fiction take on all this?

The more we understand our bodies’ mechanisms the better we can make them do what we want them to do. Like fight off disease. Or live for centuries without getting old.

We need to figure out how to stop cancerous cells and disease vectors from making use of TNTs for evil purposes and only permit them to be used by the good guys. When injured cells can get an assist from healthy neighbours to repair themselves, that would not only help protect us from environmental cancers on Earth but also give astronauts a much better chance to endure the radiation hazards of interplanetary travel without permanent damage. TNTs might be the best way to disseminate “super-soldier” serums to enhance muscle and bone development beyond normal human levels (think Captain America), or supercharged vitamin formulas, for that matter. With the right tweaking, damaged organs could be assisted to heal themselves, irreparable organs or even limbs might be regrown, the way some lizards are able to do. And it’s not a big stretch to imagine that healthy, younger cells could be stimulated to provide replacement mitochondria and other organelles (cellular machinery) or even RNA and DNA to other cells impaired by the effects of aging. The combination of all these techniques might extend our lifespan until it approaches immortality.

Ray Kurzweil and other proponents of a technological Singularity seem to think it’s inevitable that humans will “upload” at some point, giving up physical bodies and transferring our consciousness into digital form, or some energy equivalent. I’m not convinced. We might someday be able to, but I don’t think we’ll want to—relinquishing the sensual pleasures of a body, along with its ability to directly manipulate things around us. A consistently healthy, nearly-eternal body, possibly with superhuman capabilities, seems like a much more desirable way to go.

Stretching our imaginations still further, these inter-cellular networking and material-swapping systems might provide the means to allow humans to survive in inhospitable environments like alien planets with different atmospheric chemistries, or even underwater. They could be the key to not only escaping the tyranny of disease and time, but breaking the chains that confine us to one single, fragile planet.

Big dreams, thanks to structures only a few micrometres in size!

BEHOLD THE WATERWORLD

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In Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (the 1995 movie) the Earth’s polar ice caps have melted completely, drowning the entire planet. In reality, there isn’t enough ice for that to actually happen (thank goodness, because we’re certainly doing a number on the ice we do have), but that doesn’t mean that a waterworld isn’t possible somewhere else. Even within our own solar system, giant moons like Ganymede and Europa are thought to be mostly ocean covered by ice. Elsewhere in the galaxy, a fair number of near-Earth-sized planets have been discovered that scientists believe could be substantially made of water, including Gliese 1214b and Kepler 62e. (Exoplanets are named after their parent star, with a lower case letter signifying their position among the star’s planets—“a” being the closest. These days, stars are most often named according to the sky survey and/or telescope responsible for their discovery.) A solar system thirty-nine light years from Earth known as TRAPPIST-1 is in a very favourable position to be studied, and is thought to have four waterworlds among its seven-planet roster. One of them might be composed of as much as 50% water! (Earth is only between .5% - 1.0% water.)

How do we know all this?

It’s important to explain that scientists discover exoplanets by noting the dimming of the light as the planet crosses in front of its star. Adding careful timing measurements, they can distinguish how many planets there are in the system and their orbital speeds, and determine from there the approximate sizes and masses of the planets. If the positioning is right, they can do spectrographic analysis of the star’s light passing through the planet’s atmosphere, giving them some idea of the planet’s composition. All of this data is compared to what we know about rocky planets like Earth and gas giants like Neptune. Stir the numbers all together and…voilà, an artist’s rendition complete with colours and swirling clouds and….

Well, OK, let’s just say that there’s still a fair bit of speculation involved. But they’re good guesses. So it’s reasonable to assume that a fair number of planets out there in the habitable zones of their stars (warm enough for liquid water) are really wet. That could be a good thing (on Earth water is always associated with life) or a bad thing (without land, where would life forms get minerals and other nutrients? A really deep ocean would have ice covering the bottom due to pressure, preventing material from leaching out of the ground beneath.)

The science fiction writer/futurist will say, “Aha, but who knows what forms alien life can take? Before we discovered thriving colonies of life around deep-sea hydrothermal vents we thought that all Earth life ultimately depended on photosynthesis. So there!” (We SF writers can sometimes be insufferable know-it-alls.) We’d also point out that a watery planet could be an excellent source of hydrogen for spacecraft fuel, and oxygen for, you know, breathing. Plus humans are pretty good at making floating things. As long as there are some metals and hydrocarbons around, we could readily make floating colonies that would produce food by growing algae and then farming algae-eating sea life. Underwater habitats are also cool—I’ve written about them myself. Comic books and B-movies love whole underwater cities, but there have to be very strong reasons to take on that challenge (maybe mining the materials needed for the floating colonies!) Certainly, advancements in super-strong nano-materials will make those ventures more feasible. Water planets could also provide protection against hard radiation from space, asteroid strikes, or even interplanetary war. And, dare I say it, they’re the perfect setting for pirates! (Though that is wandering across the line into fantasy.)

Even with all of this potential, I’m not aware of many science fiction stories set on or under the water on planets other than Earth, maybe because our own oceans are still enough fertile territory for the imagination. You might set me straight on that. Or you might want to take that ball and run with it yourself.

Just don’t expect anybody to make a movie of your book. Kevin’s was a bomb.

LOOKING AT THINGS IN A DIFFERENT WAY

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Maybe you’ve heard the news about a new organ being discovered in the human body. After all of the centuries that human anatomy has been studied, how can that be? Because of a new scientific procedure that offered a fresh perspective.

While its status as an organ is still open to debate, it’s being called the interstitium, from Latin words meaning “between places”. It’s long been known that there was a lot of fluid between our skin and our organs, around the organs, and sometimes in pockets within them. The human body is sixty percent water, after all, most of it inside cells, but not all. The rest is considered interstitial fluid—liquids in between. But a new way of looking at tissues microscopically in a living body allowed researches to discover that there’s actually a connected network of fluid-filled sacs supported by a structure of collagen fibres (the protein in skin and many connective tissues). It was never seen before because when scientists prepared microscope slides of tissues, the process allowed the fluids to leak out and the sacs collapsed (think of a punctured balloon).

The authors of the new study claim that, because these in-between collections of fluid-filled sacs are connected, they likely function collectively and should be considered an organ like any of the others. It may be that the interstitium acts as a shock absorber to protect the organs from jarring movements. One of the things we know it does is to produce lymph, the fluid associated with our immune system and the source of white blood cells that battle disease. Gaining a better understanding of the interstitium as an organ should help us to better understand how diseases and cancer spread throughout the body.

Surprise! A new organ. Who’d have thunk it?

The lesson to take from this discovery, I think, is just how much can be accomplished by looking at ordinary things in a different way. The Hungarian physiologist credited with discovering vitamin C, Albert Szent-Gyorgi, said, “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.” Take Isaac Newton’s famous apple, for instance. For all of history people had seen things fall down. Newton was the first to wonder if all objects attract one another, and that strange idea led to our understanding of gravity.

Sometimes new technology makes the difference—the invention of the telescope is a perfect example—but even then the minds of Galileo and Copernicus had to make a leap that went against established thought. Dozens of inventions began with some kind of fortunate accident, but it took a flexible human mind to see the potential of the accidental result and turn it into something useful. (According to some, perhaps half of all discoveries involve something completely serendipitous.)

Scientific researchers and inventors may advance knowledge by seeing potential when things accidentally occur, but there’s one field of professionals who deliberately work to see the abnormal in normal things, and follow all of the implications.

Science fiction writers.

We ask the “what if” questions, and “if so, what then” and “what comes next?” It’s called “world-building” and “plot outlining” and just plain “daydreaming”. We’re not crazy, we just look at things in a different way. Properly harnessed, that can be a powerful force for good in the world. SF writers have sometimes been gathered together for temporary brain trusts involving specific subjects, but maybe it’s time for some farsighted CEO’s or political leaders to hire full-time teams of SF writers as advisors and analysts to describe the potential of technological developments or the possible implications of policy decisions.

Although, I guess there is another way to benefit from our specialized outlook.

Take a credit card to your favourite SFF bookstore and stock up.

MAPPING YOUR BRAIN WILL BE THE LAST THING YOU DO

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In my last blog post I mentioned a new company that will sell you transfusions of a young person’s blood in an effort to gain some of their youth. OK, think of it as yet another “out there” rejuvenation treatment, but nobody gets hurt (if you can afford the $8000). But now a company called Nectome is offering to preserve a perfect copy of your brain. All it will cost you is $10,000…and your life.

Actually, the ten grand is a deposit to get on the waiting list—I’m not sure what the final price tag will be because the factory won’t be up and running for a few more years. But the “life” part, that is final. You see, their process embalms the brain with a fluid that preserves it as a glass copy, perfect in microscopic detail down to the last neural synapse (which can be seen with an electron microscope—they've already done it with the brain of a pig). And it has to be done while you’re still alive—the embalming process is what kills you.

Creeped out yet?

They’re counting on getting their business in states that allow assisted suicide, because that’s basically what it is. At least twenty-five people have already forked over the money.

So why would anyone do this? Well it’s like having your brain frozen, hoping some future generation will figure out how to revive you (and want to). Except, in this case, the glassified brain itself can’t be revived—the hope is that future scientists will be able to use the “brain map” to make a perfect digitized copy, at which point (they hope) your consciousness will find new life inside a computer environment. It’s called “uploaded consciousness”: digitizing your mind on hard drive media or the cloud. You won’t have a body, but you won’t have the drawbacks of one either (like dying).

Personally, I give this plan an unequivocal two thumbs down. I’ve been reading a lot about consciousness lately because the newest novel I’m working on is all about that and, the thing is, nobody knows what consciousness is. There are dozens of theories, and in the search for that elusive answer a huge amount has been learned about how the brain works. There’s a broad assumption that there’s a link between consciousness and the complexity of a brain, but that’s all it is—an assumption. There are also many researchers who believe that chimpanzees, cats, dogs, octopuses…even plants have some level of consciousness. And there’s absolutely no definitive evidence that the exact layout of your brain cells’ network connections (called the “connectome”, hence the company’s name) will automatically produce consciousness.

We know that it’s possible to turn consciousness off through the use of anaesthetic drugs, but we don’t even know exactly how they do that. Different anaesthetics work on different parts of the brain, so it seems there are numerous ways to interrupt consciousness, but that doesn’t enable researchers to point the finger at exactly which aspects of the brain make consciousness happen. The only theory I know of that offers an actual mechanism behind consciousness involves quantum theory and proposes that consciousness is a property of the universe as much as gravity and light, and somehow our brains are able to tap into the universal “proto-consciousness”. (It’s called Orch-OR and it’s way too complicated to explain here, but I kind of like it.) However, there’s no proof that any electronic construction could ever become conscious. In fact, the only reason people talk about “uploading consciousness” at all is because of the current popular assumption that our brains are like computers, and once we can create digital computers that can perform as many computational processes as our brains at equivalent speeds, voilà: computer consciousness arises like the Lady of the Lake.

It ain’t necessarily so. People once compared the brain to a telegraph switching station because it was the information processing technology they knew.

A world-wide consortium of researchers has simulated the 302 neuron ‘brain’ of a round worm called C elegans with great precision. Unfortunately the simulated C elegans just lies there—they can’t prod it into doing anything on its own. And even they wouldn’t argue that a worm is conscious. But if, with hugely powerful computers, they can’t make a working simulation of a brain that has only 302 neurons (compared to the hundred billion in the human brain), I have to think that something’s missing. I’m convinced that consciousness requires a whole range of processes, some of which we may never understand. The connectome of the brain is just one piece.

Even if we are someday able to upload consciousness (I am a science fiction writer, after all) Nectome, and the cryo-preservation companies like it, all presuppose that future generations will want to go to the trouble of reviving dead people from 2018. Why would they, except for, perhaps, a little anthropological curiosity about our life and times? Considering the yottabytes of information we’re producing on the internet, I’m sure one or two former-humans would be enough to fill in any gaps. If you’re Elon Musk or Donald trump, they might be interested in you (for vastly different reasons), but just another average millionaire with more money than you know what to do with…? Probably not.

So if endless selfies aren’t enough for you, and you’ve always wanted your grandchildren to have a molecularly-correct glass copy of your brain as a paperweight, then go ahead and spend the money. Just don’t expect it to make you immortal.

IS YOUNG BLOOD THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH?

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We can never know who was the first elder to wonder whether a dose of blood from somebody younger could make them young again, but I’ll bet it was near the dawn of the human race. In those days eating the victim was probably the preferred technique. Vampire mythology linked drinking blood with immortality and, of course, there was the infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory who supposedly bathed in the blood of young girls (though those stories probably aren’t true). But this is 2018—we can get a blood transfusion instead.

A recent episode of the CBC science program “Quirks & Quarks” included an interview with Dr. Saul Villeda, who’s been following up on earlier research into blood-swapping in mice. The process is called parabiosis and there was some promising research in the 1970’s which showed that the vital organs and brains of older mice could be rejuvenated when the mice were surgically joined to young mice and shared the same blood. After waning in popularity, the procedure has had a resurgence in the past decade with equally encouraging results and a strong focus on learning the chemical mechanisms involved. After all, if the blood of young mice can help the regrowth of muscle and liver cells, repair damaged spinal cords, enhance the growth of new brain cells, and even make the old mice’s fur shinier, think of the implications if this could work in humans. A clinical trial involving Alzheimer patients is not yet complete, but you can imagine the excitement a positive result would bring.

Various studies have attributed the benefits to the hormone oxytocin (levels in our bodies naturally decline with age), as well as a protein called growth differentiation factor 11 and, in Villeda’s research, to another protein called Tet2. There are probably others. Most of these substances seem to do their work by activating the body’s stem cells (generic cells that can become specialized cells as needed) and by making changes to cellular DNA. It’s important to note that identifying the active components removes the need to use actual blood to get the benefits. Compounds could be synthesized in laboratories. Studies have already shown that blood plasma is effective enough without using whole blood.

But science fiction writers ask, what if…?

What if it became widely confirmed that young blood was like a fountain of youth for older people? You can get a hint from a San Francisco & Tampa company called Ambrosia—they’re conducting clinical research offering patients blood transfusions from young donors for the price of $8,000 per litre or $12,000 for two litres in an outpatient treatment they say takes about two hours. Their study results haven’t been published yet, but so far they claim, “Our patients have reported improvements in areas such as energy, memory, and skin quality.”

For now, it’s just a metaphor that the ultra-wealthy of the world are “bloodsuckers, feeding on the poor”, but that could literally come true. The rich might buy perpetual youth and longer life from those who need to sell their very blood to buy food. And that’s the rosier scenario. Something tells me that a black market wouldn’t take long to develop. Criminal elements would get involved. Blood “donors” might be unwilling victims, assaulted or killed for their young blood.

SF writers before me have imagined societies where “organ-legging” is a widespread criminal activity keeping the wealthy in replacement organs when their own fail. What if the contraband is blood? Will we have a completely stratified society between a nearly immortal elite and an underclass with venous catheters installed at birth? Will Hollywood depend on a blood ghetto to keep its stars beautiful? What would the long-term effect of such things be on the human gene pool? And how long would it take before someone tried to use such methods to create a super race?

My opinion? Better to give these researchers lots of funding so they can find the chemicals involved and replicate them in factories, rather than wait until the blood of our young people becomes a hot commodity.