aSOC: Speculative Fiction

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SF vs. SF: what’s the best way out of the werewolves and wizards section and onto the serious shelves?

Friendship and mentorship doesn’t need to be limited to those one has the chance to meet in a given lifetime. Thoughts recorded in the written word and other forms make it possible to take on teachers, fellows, and adversaries across vast swathes of space and time. A friend in a book, they don’t even have to listen, only speak. These can provide a welcome refuge when alone despite the crowd, adrift in a sea of humanity with an unrelenting feeling of solitude. A special case of being surrounded by an intellectual version of water, water everywhere, but not a drop of it to drink.

The back sections of bookstores have long been a strong attractor for the lonely imaginative ones, the awkward and detached (not quite that far back, you don’t need to know a password or ask the clerk to be let in). For those bookstores still standing, this section will be tucked away in a corner somewhere, maybe hidden on the top floor next to the owner’s apartment or sandwiched between the WC and the fire escape. This is the science fiction section.

Typically sci-fi is, ironically in some ways, lumped in with fantasy. One genre describes what might be possible while the other describes what is definitely impossible. It’s true that much of the so called SF genre (particularly the “indistinguishable from magic” variety) carries little to differentiate itself from your run-of-the-mill swords and sorcery. Despite this, the gold standard hallmark of the genre is an  element of science that, if removed, would diminish the story. That doesn’t mean the plot won’t be character driven or relatable, but it does give the writer the chance to experiment with people in an enhanced diversity of contexts. Within a single genre,  science fiction is tops for the sheer breadth of different stories, societal structures, and characters that are possible.

The stereotypical sci-fi enthusiast I describe above are perhaps a bit lonely and awkward, distracted from the normal world as it is and even a bit antisocial. The negative connotation of the sci-fi nerd as a misanthropic outcast is a convenient stereotype and oversimpification. The mindset and nuance that cause one to seek a realm apart is not so much a type of person but an aspect of human experience that we all dip into from time to time, with often creative and fulfilling results.

So unlike the societal myth of the unwashed legions of basement dwelling fandom, we probably all contain some antisocial nerd deep down inside. It’s a part of life with some valuable rewards in terms of introspection and preparing for an uncertain future. So why do some authors, typically literary types with degrees \geq Masters, try so hard to distance themselves from the genre by insisting their work is “speculative fiction,” mutually exclusive to science fiction. Even not considering the continued migration of sci-fi fandom to the mainstream, claiming the spec-fic label distances your work from its obvious target audience while denigrating a useful and enjoyable mindset. It’s a bit pompous, a bit pretentious, and ultimately meaningless? The books may not qualify as hard sci-fi, but I promise not to be offended that they end up in the same section, with or without the accompanying speculative fiction proselytizing. Remember that speculation comes from the Latin specere, to observe, and is based on coming to conclusions about the world through thought. Science, beginning with observation, continues to rending untruth from plausibility based on experiment and exploration. Both begin with observation, where do your dreams stop?

A mimic without a model

Macroglossum stellatarum looks and behaves remarkably like a hummingbird, albeit without the “swordfighting” and high-pitched battle cries of their avian lookalikes. Selective advantage of mimicry is obvious in situations where the imitated organism is less palatable or more dangerous, or when said mimicry furthers the mimic’s own life cycle, but what if the apparent object of imitation is no longer found in the mimic’s range? Such is the case with the European hummingbird hawk-moth, which confuses birders in northern Europe in late summer. Hummingbirds are a purely New World group of birds, so what exactly are the European hummingbird moths gaining from mimicking a non-existent group of birds or, on the other hand, when is a mimic not a mimic?

If you ask your hipster friends you are sure to receive an explanation for why partaking in a trend can be a truly novel act, owing to some small esoteric twist or another. Macroglossum in the Old World may have undergone a mutual convergent co-evolution, rather than outright mimicry as the common name for these insects might suggest. Fossils of largely modern hummingbirds in Europe have been described dating to the Oligocene (about 30 million years ago). Add to that the apparent evolutionary footprint of significant pollination by hummingbirds seen in a number of Old World flowers, and it begins to look plausible that Macroglossum and other Old World humming-moths settled into a niche of pollinating long-stemmed, nectar-heavy and perch-free flowers, alongside but not dependent on hummingbirds. If your mouth-part is longer than the rest of your body combined you might as well use it, whether or not a hummingbirds are currently trending in your area. A 30 cm proboscis never goes out of style*.

This digression was kindled by a few sunny afternoons spent in the company of beautiful hawk-moths in the Tuscan hills.

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*I’m not an expert in long-tongued pollinators, and it’s not clear to me how much of a role mimicry and convergent evolution both may have played in European hummingbird moths. The extremely long proboscis of Xanthophan morgani and the correspondingly deep nectar placement of Angraecum sesquipedale is a famous example of co-evolution that had a strong impact on Darwin’s thinking. To my knowledge, there has never been a hummingbird with a 35 cm tongue, and in many ways hawk-moths may have pioneered the lifestyle of deep-seated nectarivory, before it was cool. The fossil records for hummingbirds and hawk-moths alike are rather spotty.

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Xanthophan morgani with extended proboscis from the London Museum of Natural History, by Wikipedia user Esculapio

Equally remarkable is the visual system. Behold those pseudopupils!

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aSOC: Plant physiology (on Mars?)

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Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars

Several months ago Andy Weir’s The Martian showed up on the feed of personalised advertisements for Kindle books on my account. No surprise, I read tons of sci-fi. Preferably no magic or dragons, as I can only tolerate so much “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So-called “hard” sci-fi tends to be the what I like most, and I gravitate to authors that have a propensity for characters on “the spectrum” or that are artificial intelligences (::ahem::). In any case, I read the sample from Amazon for the ebook, and I didn’t get into it.

Then last Wednesday Randall Munroe mentioned it was a cool story on xkcd. So I read it, and it was awesome. It’s a story about a guy fixing things in space. The flippant personality of the protoganist (Mark Watney, aka Matt Damon) is actually a tried-and-true literary device used to explain technical concepts to readers without being patronising. There’s a specific name for it that my exocortex is failing to bring me right now, but in any case, Andy Weir goes a long way to make sure his story is technically legit.

But this is aSOC, and I have to mention at least one thing I think was a mistake. And that thing is: space potatoes. Watney’s official job description entailed two roles on the mission to Mars: botanist and mechanical engineer. These are bascially the two skill sets most likely to enable someone to survive after being abandoned on another planet, which is a convenient coincidence for our buddy Mr. Damon. He grows potatoes and (oh sorry, spoiler alert starting a few sentences ago) at one point he worries about “suffocating” the potatoes by leaving the space house for a few days, thus not providing the plants with the CO2 they need to “breathe.” One problem: plants don’t breath CO2.

Don’t get me wrong, plants definitely need CO2 to make triose phosphates, sugars, starches and cellulose, etc., but this isn’t what they “breathe” on a cellular level. Plants need to respire just like we do to power aerobic metabolism. Plants need CO2 for photosynthesis, not respiration. A metabolically active plant doesn’t photosynthesize at night, but in general it will still need a low level of oxygen to survive. And I sure would have liked to see an energy balance for his indoor Mars farm. Photosynthetically active radiation on old Terra is about 300 Watts per square meter, and I’d be surprised if the reading lights in his space house are up to the task of meeting that level of output.

In any case, I can recommend that you go ahead and read the book, maybe watch the movie later, and think about space some more.

A Skeptic Over Coffee #1: Starter Kit

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It takes effort and maintained vigilance to become an effective skeptic, with the penetrating mental focus to cut through the misleading. Honing one’s questioning acuity means hardening one’s mental defenses against charlatans, fraudsters, and the merely incompetent in all walks of life. With practice it’s possible to be the infamous “Reviewer Number 3” who gradually gets fewer and fewer invitations to provide peer-review for “paradigm shifting” articles from editors of high-impact journals. It may seem like a grandiose dream, but you too can in fact be the colleague who corrects the university press office’s outlandish claims about their own paper, causing their tenure review to be shelfed for another year (for failure to be interviewed on Science Friday</a<). If this glamourous lifestyle of modest claims and bold negations sounds appealing, read on!

I invite you to join me every once in a while to practice skepticism in these short segments designed to provide about one coffee's worth of skeptical inquiry. My day job pushing things around with lasers both takes a lot of time and requires that I drink a tremendous amount of coffee, so the concise aSOC format should fit right in with my new lab-monkey lifestyle.

Here is your Beginning Skeptics’ reading list:

  • A seminal paper by John Ioannidis runs the numbers on an over-abundance of false-positives in the scientific literature.
    John P.A. Ionnidis. Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLOS. (2005). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

  • Retraction Watch is an important resource for any skeptic. If someone consistently publishes retractable articles and no one notices, does anyone lose their scientist licence?
  • Jeffrey Beall runs black lists of predatory publishers and journals taking advantage of pay-for-publish open access models atScholarly Open Access. Also consider John Bohannon’s misleading report generalising predatory practices by OA publishers and ensuing criticism of his approach.
  • And remember your statistics:
    http://xkcd.com/882/
    Why it Always Pays to Think Twice About Your Statistics
    An investigation of the false discovery rate and the misinterpretation of p-values

  • UPDATE: Recent, interesting consideration of widespread inflation of scientific results.
    Megan L. Head, Luke Holman, Rob Lanfear, Andrew T. Kahn, Michael D. Jennions.
    The Extent and Consequences of P-Hacking in Science.
    PLOS. (2015) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002106
  • The Great Occlusion of 2015

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    Restless apes revel as the eye of Ra blinks.

    The day the great round sky serpent Selene dared to battle the Mighty Ra. A brief and terrible struggle ensued before the hubristic Selene was cast from their occluding path betwixt the eye of Ra and the backskin of Jörð, the home of an excitable and quick-breeding tribal organism related to slime-molds. After, the heavenly entities continued on just about exactly as they were before the manic apes on the skin of Jörð looked up, taking brief notice that they were collectively but a mote in an infinite clockwork.

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    Some of the land-apes, stricken with fear, perform ritualistic ceremonies. By creating small apertures with their bodies or simple tools they restrict the gaze of their sun god to form an image on a clay tablet, stone path, or fibrous sheet.

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    It is known to the masses of naked apes that to gaze directly into the eye of their sun god, even when the Mighty Gaze has been challenged and attenuated by the powerful deity Selene, invites certain destruction of their “Rehtinah”, or life force.