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.

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.

GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT PRESERVING SPECIES

I’ve mentioned more than once that Earth is a fragile place. Precarious would be an appropriate description of life here. Scientists believe there have been five mass extinctions of life forms over Earth’s history. The worst one took 96% of marine species and about 70% of land creatures. But species are going extinct all the time, and that sad state has only grown worse as humanity has grown more powerful. We also lose great numbers of crop species as plant breeding and genetic modification, along with the trend to giant corporate farms, drastically decreases the variety of our food crops being planted.

We could do a lot to prevent this just by cleaning up our act—producing less pollution and curtailing our ravenous appetite for the environments other species call home. It’s bad enough that living entities face danger from droughts and other weather fluctuations, predators, pests, and disease, without humans adding to the toll. There’s always the chance, too, that some large disaster will wipe out species on a vast scale. It could be a nuclear war, nanotechnology run amok, an asteroid strike, or even malicious action by an alien force from beyond our atmosphere, whether sentient or microscopic. Earth is still the only place in the universe that we know is home to living things, and that’s a heritage too precious to leave at risk.

There are many efforts to protect life forms here on Earth, including wildlife preserves and parks, but also many seed vaults and gene banks around the world. A reader of this blog named Mike reminded me of them, and has written on his own website about what is probably the most famous: the Svalbard International Seed Vault, a so-called "doomsday vault" on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway. There are upwards of 1400 seed vaults around the world, but other facilities preserve genetic material from both plants and animals, and sometimes actual specimens. Some of the very largest are in the UK, US, Russia, and India. All of these efforts are to be commended, yet since they’re all on Earth they still face risk from earthquakes, storms, floods, human conflict, and even rampant industrial development.

Isn’t it time we took a longer view and made efforts to preserve species from Earthbound hazards by creating real “offsite” storage sites—meaning off-planet? Whether on the frozen spaces of the Moon, in a hallowed-out asteroid, or even in the far reaches of the solar system like Pluto, there’d be no worries about weather, oxidation, or corruption by germs. With any luck, it’ll be a while before human conflicts get that far out, too. Yes, we’d have to protect the samples from cosmic radiation and possibly extremes of temperature, but that would mainly be a matter of picking the right sites. Of course, it will be even better when we can take actual living creatures beyond the Earth, but genetic samples are better than nothing.

Since I like to tie my science in with science fiction, I have to admit the scenario sparks my imagination too. Imagine the story potential of sending Earth life out into the void.

Survivors of a planet-wide holocaust could, of course, use the contents of the gene vaults to reproduce Earth life on a new colony world, or maybe even time travel to a prehistoric Earth and seed it with familiar species they know can survive there. Alternatively, they could try to rehabilitate the Earth in their present-day or at a key moment in the apocalypse that would prevent complete destruction.

By happenstance, the contents of one or more gene vaults might end up on another hospitable planet far away and eons in the future, and become exposed to the local environment in such a way that Earth life spontaneously regenerates.

A powerful being or beings might create a duplicate Earth for reasons of their own with a variety not seen in human history.

There are also endless “B” movie possibilities. Radiation, alien microbial life, or tampering by extraterrestrials could mutate our animals, insects, or plants into monstrous forms we wouldn’t recognize (until they suddenly appear in some remote outpost and start eating the crew!)

Invading aliens might use the genetic material to disguise themselves and infiltrate Earth without us ever being the wiser. At the very least, they could learn the most efficient ways of attacking us long before getting close enough to Earth to be detected.

Oops, those examples may have undermined my argument a little (especially the “B” movie ones), but the truth is that every life form is precious and deserving of preservation (OK, mosquitoes are on the borderline) and as the only species on Earth capable of doing anything about it, that task is up to us. Let’s not put it off until it’s too late.

COULD ALIEN LIFE FORMS BE HIDING UNDER ANTARCTIC ICE?

Photo credit -   Subglacial aquatic system. By Zina Deretsky / NSF (US National Science Foundation), via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit - Subglacial aquatic system. By Zina Deretsky / NSF (US National Science Foundation), via Wikimedia Commons

First let me say that the word ‘alien’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘not-of-this-planet’. Under the kilometres of ice on the Antarctic continent there could be forms of life that have a better claim to belonging on Earth than we do, having been here millions of years longer, yet are entirely foreign to our experience.

In central Canada, where I live, the landscape is dotted with thousands of lakes where ancient glaciers ground hollows in the rock, and water has accumulated in the lowest points. The land surface of Antarctica is shaped by moving ice as much as four kilometres thick. Naturally, there are bumps and hollows and, thanks to the immense pressure of all that weight, and possibly the heat of the earth beneath, there are lakes of liquid water. Nearly four hundred of them, in fact, with more still being discovered, and good evidence that water flows among many of the lakes through rivers and streams. You may have read about Lake Vostok, Antarctica’s largest such lake, which made headlines in February of 2012 when a team of Russian researchers managed to drill down to the lake’s surface and collect samples. News came this week that a new sub-glacial lake, just a little smaller than Vostok, has been found near the eastern rim of the continent. If confirmed by penetrating radar, the site is bound to draw a lot of new activity because it’s only about one hundred kilometres from an existing research station—a lot more accessible than remote Lake Vostok.

These lakes get scientists so excited because they may have been hidden away from the world for twenty-five million years. That doesn’t mean the water is that old—there’s evidence that a constant process of old water freezing while new ice melts refreshes the lakes every thirteen thousand years or so. But the lakes could contain life that old—life that’s been sheltered from all of the changes on the Earth since then, and especially sheltered from we humans. Not to mention life capable of surviving under tremendous pressure, isolation from new sources of nutrients, and serious cold (actually about -3C, but kept liquid by the pressure).

Very alien life, from our perspective.

Unfortunately the Lake Vostok samples from 2012 were contaminated when lake water rushed up the bore hole and mixed with kerosene used to keep the hole open. Scientists still checked it out and found forms of microscopic life that appeared to have DNA different from anything we’ve seen before, but those results are suspect. The Russians made a new, cleaner hole in January 2015 and collected more water, but there hasn’t been much news about the analysis of that sample (dang secretive Russians) and the funding for more research there has dried up. This new lake, if confirmed, should be easier to study, and the world at large might finally get some meaningful results. Considering that we’re still learning new things about the history of our planet by constantly-improving analysis of fossils and geologic deposits, a body of water containing life that’s been isolated for millions of years could be a real treasure trove of knowledge.

Of course, with a science fiction writer’s imagination, we can speculate about any number of sensational outcomes:

  • New drilling releases a deadly organism that threatens the whole human race.
  • An ancient life form is much more efficient and prolific than modern Earth life and begins to take over the planet.
  • A life form is discovered that can’t have originated on Earth, proving that space aliens have visited here in the distant past.
  • Live aquatic aliens from another world are hiding out until other members of their species return for them.
  • Elvis is found alive and well! (OK, only if he’s become a mer-man).

And that, my friends, is how a new lake under four kilometres of dense ice has the potential to affect your world. Never let it be said that there’s nothing left to be discovered. Otherwise some of us wouldn’t have anything left to blog about.