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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.


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.


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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.


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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.


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.


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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.


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.


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.


Woolly Mammoth Skeleton.png

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.


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.