Cyborgs in the making?

March 18, 2014

Yesterday our younger son asked why science fiction so often portrays problems that arise from a mix of the biological with the mechanical. We had an interesting conversation about real-life instances of machines embedded in people’s bodies, such as mechanical heart valves and cochlear implants. Such devices clearly improve a person’s quality of life without raising concerns that machines could be taking over.

Science fiction, of course, is always looking at what could happen in the future based on current trends. Might we someday have implants that challenge our ability to distinguish between person and machine? Or that make the distinction meaningless?

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Turning science fiction into science

March 9, 2013

I read recently about a number of scientific advances in 2012 that would once have been possible only in science fiction. None of them seem especially surprising, considering previous scientific advances I already knew about.

Today, however, I was surprised to read a discussion of the pros and cons of bringing an extinct species back to life. I knew that cloning techniques had continued to develop since it first made big news. But I wasn’t aware that there was serious work on recovering DNA from extinct species for the purpose of creating live animals.

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Books: Frameshift

December 4, 2012

A reader review of one of Robert Sawyer’s other novels commented that Frameshift is probably his best book so far. Having read it now, I am inclined to agree. The main characters are well-developed, believable, and make you care about them. The science fiction scenarios are also believable – so much so that I’m not sure exactly where the science ends and the science fiction starts.

The scientific focus in Frameshift is on genetics. Pierre Tardivel is a geneticist, doing research to discover the function of “junk DNA.” His concern with genetics is more than professional, however, as he learns as a young man that his biological father has Huntington’s disease, and that there is a 50% chance he also has the defective gene that will end his life early – and cause serious problems even sooner.

(One kind of mutation that Tardivel studies is a frameshift, hence the title. A frameshift is “a mutation that occurs when one or two nucleotides are added or deleted, with the result that every codon beyond the point of insertion or deletion is read incorrectly during translation.” Pierre’s wife apparently has a frameshift mutation which results in her being able to read minds (if the other person is in close proximity to her). Her telepathic power plays a significant role in the plot, but it is not central.)

In many ways, the book is as much about ethics as it is about genetics. Is it a good thing to get genetic testing that tells what conditions you are likely to develop – or pass on to your children?  Is it right for an insurance company to be able to deny coverage based on the results of genetic testing? How should society treat people who are “defective” in one way or another? What are the appropriate limits of experimentation regarding human genetics?

At the time Sawyer wrote the book, the issue of insurance companies denying coverage based on genetic testing was – I am guessing – a contentious issue. (I don’t remember now whether I was aware of debates over the issue at the time.) But since then, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act has gone into effect, providing (as best as I understand it) the protection that Tardivel argues for in Sawyer’s novel.

Sawyer also devotes a significant chunk of the novel to efforts to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals – men who callously and cruelly destroyed the lives of those they considered inferior – often based on attributes that are genetically determined, whether or not the Nazis knew or cared about the role of genetics. How well that major subplot fits into the novel as a whole I’m not sure, but as usual I learned something from reading about it.

Ultimately, though, the book is even more about people than it is about science or ethics, which is why I liked it so much. In some of Sawyer’s books, I found the science fascinating but not the people, as though the characters were just there to enable Sawyer to convey his ideas. In Frameshift, I really cared what happened to the people (well, at least the good guys), and for me that’s what makes a really good book.

Books: The Neanderthal Parallax

November 9, 2012

Having previously enjoyed Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, I tackled his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy over the past two weeks. Like Sawyer’s other science fiction, these novels are based on real science, however speculative some of it may be. As in the WWW trilogy, one of these areas of speculation is the origin of consciousness.

In the WWW trilogy, the theory that is explored posits a relatively recent origin of consciousness, less than three millennia ago. In this trilogy, it is set about 40,000 years ago, and is thought to be the result of a collapse and subsequent reestablishment of the earth’s magnetic field. Along with consciousness and therefore conscious choices came the first split between parallel universes.

As chance would have it (this being based on quantum theory), in our universe, it was our ancestors who developed consciousness. In the parallel universe, it was those we call Neanderthals. Our own ancestors, in that universe, failed to develop consciousness and subsequently died our, presumably (according to Neanderthal scientists) due to lower intelligence, our cranial capacity not allowing for as large a brain.

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On seeking newness

February 18, 2012

I did something new recently. When I found a blog I liked, instead of adding it to my Favorites folder, I clicked on “Follow” so that I would get new posts by email. At least I thought that was the way it would work – I didn’t get my first update until day before yesterday, a couple of weeks after I had found and followed it.

The post is about neophilia, which is itself a relatively new word (at first glance I thought it said necrophilia, which is something quite different). According to Merriam-Webster the word was first used in 1932, but I don’t recall having seen it before. Now that the New York Times has published an article about a recent book on our need for newness and change, however, I imagine we’ll be seeing more of it.

I have to agree with the blogger Ugotitwrong that the support given for calling novelty-seeking “the quintessential human survival skill” is weak. The pace of change throughout most of human history has been very slow, compared to recent decades. Obviously innovation took place, but it’s pure conjecture to say that the people with the strongest desire for novelty moved it forward, while more cautious people kept change from happening too fast.

I can as easily imagine a “neophiliac” eagerly trying a new type of berry or mushroom and getting poisoned, while the more cautious “neophobe” observed and learned what not to eat. Without knowing what genes influence this behavior, and what other behaviors or traits they affect, we can’t do more than guess how novelty-seeking affected survival.

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The color of cerumen

December 15, 2011

This post is about earwax. If you have no interest in earwax, or find the idea of a post about earwax repellant, you may wish to stop reading now.

I happen to enjoy learning new things, and what I learned about earwax today was certainly new. To begin with, the medical term for earwax is cerumen. It is a mix that includes shed layers of skin, keratin (the same stuff our hair and nails are made of), fatty acids, alcohols, an organic compound I never heard of before called squalene, and cholesterol. And whatever dirt happens to get in the ear and get trapped by the earwax (that is one of its protective functions).

What got me interested in earwax today was its color. I had used a Q-tip, as usual, to dry my ears after taking a shower. I know, you’re not supposed to put Q-tips in your ears, but I can’t stand the feeling of water in my ears. The Q-tip does a great job of drying them, and if it happens to remove some bits of earwax that’s just fine with me. But what looked so strange this morning was the dark gray on the Q-tip, along with the usual yellowish and brownish residue.

What in the world was in my right ear that produced that gray stuff? I tried another Q-tip – more gray, though by the time I had used the other end of it, either the gray was gone or my ear was too dry for anything to stick to the Q-tip. I figured it was probably nothing, but I was curious enough to do a search on the internet.

I found nothing much about finding gray on your Q-tip when you clean your ears, but I did find out more about earwax. Such as the fact that some people have “wet” earwax and some have “dry” earwax. The dry earwax is often a darker color, and some people do have a mix of the two, but I’m pretty sure I don’t, since I never saw anything like that before today.

However, it also turns out that, unlike many physical traits, the type of earwax can be easily traced to a single gene, which has a dominant and recessive form. The dominant form produces wet earwax, the recessive produces dry earwax. You can learn all about the genetics of it here.

So I still don’t know why my Q-tip is gray. But I know a bit more about cerumen now. And so do you.

Books: Nature Via Nurture

November 3, 2011

Several weeks ago, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal, about how children deprived of the opportunity to learn to speak when they are young are unable to acquire the skill later in life. I had long known that learning a second language is much easier prior to about age twelve, but I had never thought about the significance of that time period for learning one’s first language. Near the end of the article, there is a suggestion that the difficulty that autistic children have with language development may also be related to the “window” for such learning opening too early or too late.

Curious to read more by this author, I googled Matt Ridley and found that he not only writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal but that he has also written several books. Of these, Nature Via Nurture:Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human seemed particularly interesting, and I was pleased to find it available through the local library. It is written as popular science, not a textbook, so someone interested in learning in depth about how genes work would probably be disappointed. But for someone like me with an interest but little previous knowledge on the topic, it is a fascinating book.

My previous knowledge of genes was not much more than what I learned in tenth grade biology. I knew that genes are responsible for physical features such as hair and eye color, as well as a number of other traits that are not as easily defined or traced. I knew about dominant and recessive genes, which explain why I had red hair even though no one else in my immediate family did. I knew that genes are only part of the story, as even identical twins are not identical in every regard. And I knew that there was a great deal of research going on into the genetic basis for a number of physical and mental disorders.

I realized, however, early in the book, that I had no clear idea exactly what a gene was. (Much later in the book I found out that is in part because the word has been used in at least five different ways in the past century.) I asked my husband Jon, since his first career was in molecular biology, and he explained that a gene is the coding to produce a specific protein. That puzzled me even more – what does producing a protein have to do with having red hair or blue eyes? Jon did point out that genes are so small that scientists usually can only trace specific traits to part of a particular chromosome, not down to the level of a particular gene.

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Thank a parasite

October 14, 2011

I considered giving my post a longer title. “Thank a parasite for the existence of sex.” But aside from my dislike of long titles, I didn’t want to give in the temptation to write a title including a word that would probably drive up the hits on my blog considerably, at least for a day or two. I certainly welcome new readers, but I figured the shorter title you see is more likely to get the sort of readers who would appreciate my blog than the longer one I was considering.

In either the short or long form, that line is a direct quote from an article I just read. I first came across the topic in an article by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal. I’m currently reading a book by Matt Ridley, whose writing I became interested in after reading a previous article by him in the WSJ. Naturally I was interested in reading more by him – especially when the article’s title began with the words “Why sex?”

So what do parasites have to do with sex? Well, there are apparently ways that parasites can be passed from one sexual partner to another (I’ll let you Google the topic if you want details), but that’s not what these articles are about. This is about why so many creatures create the next generation through sexual reproduction, rather than by cloning, which is asexual. As cloning is far more efficient in terms of the numbers produced, and evolution assumes that all current life forms descended from those that reproduced by cloning, the question arises as to how life forms producing sexually could have produced the numbers required to win against the asexual competitors in their ecological niches.

Even if you don’t believe evolution is a plausible explanation for the development of species, it is still an interesting question why some species reproduce sexually, some asexually, and some can do it either way, depending on conditions. The two competing theories for why sexual reproduction developed, I learned from Ridley’s article, are both based on the fact that genes are remixed with each new generation of sexual reproduction, whereas the genome remains the same with cloning.

The one that Ridley favors, called the Red Queen Theory, says that the genome needs to keep changing to stay ahead of parasites, which also keep adapting to take advantage of weaknesses in the host. An alternate theory says that the mixing of genes is to get rid of damaging mutations. New research, while not conclusive, strongly supports the Red Queen Theory. This article gives further details on the research.

As one of the researchers explained when asked how he got interested in this topic, “As for being interested in the topic of sex, who isn’t?”


Books: Next

January 1, 2011

Usually I do not enjoy books in which there is not a likeable protagonist, but Michael Crichton’s Next is an exception. I picked it up at a yard sale some time ago but only picked it up to read this week – spurred in part by my older son having been reading several of Crichton’s books for a freshman English class in college (though I don’t know if he read this one).

I took a break from it for a couple days, first to read Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, the fourth and apparently final book in Brandon Sanderson’s hilarious (and sometimes thoughtful) series about Alcatraz Smedry, then to work on puzzles in my new National Observer crossword book (WalMart was out of the Herald Tribune crossword books I usually buy). I was somewhat reluctant to pick up Crichton’s novel again, not having yet found any very likable characters in it.

But I noticed, with some surprise, that I had already read more than halfway through the book, largely without stopping (mandatory time off work gives me lots of time to read). I must have found it pretty engrossing. So I picked it up again, intending to read for half an hour or so, so that it would be late enough to take my Synthroid before I went to bed (among my reading this week was an article about a study showing that Synthroid was more effective on an empty stomach at bedtime).

I finished the novel and headed to bed nearly three hours later, having stayed up almost (but not quite) late enough to see the new year in. My mind was full of the thought-provoking scenarios Crichton had included in his novel, and the recommendations he makes in an Author’s Note regarding the legal environment for genetic research.

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Books: The Coral Thief

August 14, 2010

I enjoy historical fiction, and a book about a young medical student in Paris in the summer of 1815 sounded interesting. Despite having studied French for five years, I never learned much of the history of France between the French Revolution and World War II. But it was the state of medicine – and science in general – during that period that interested me more.

I would have liked it if more of the book had focused on those aspects, though the background on political and social changes in the wake of the defeat of Napoleon were also fairly interesting. For a while, though, I wasn’t sure I liked the book at all. So much of it is taken up with the narrator’s passion for a woman twice his age. I think I mentioned in a previous book review that I don’t care for books told from the point of view of a naive young man, as it’s difficult to find much to admire in him.

His lover, the coral thief of the novel‘s title, is an unusual character. The book takes frustratingly long to get to telling her story, but as it emerges it explores the opportunities and the limitations of a woman in France at the end of the eighteenth century. Lucienne witnessed the horrors of the French Revolution (and narrowly escaped the guillotine herself), then (disguised as a man if I understood correctly) travelled as part of an expedition collecting specimens for anatomical study, and somewhere along the way became a skilled thief. She is also now a devoted (single) mother.

Daniel admires her for her curiosity and knowledge of natural history, as she opens his mind to new ideas that his conservative family and teachers back home would have condemned as heresy. (But even more he is very much smitten with her as a woman, and makes what he himself admits were foolish decisions, which – for good or ill -changed the course of his life.) This is the period when transformism, an idea that would later become known as evolution, was beginning to spread, especially in an intellectual center like Paris, from there to spread as foreign students took these radical ideas home with them.

Naturalists at the time were sharply divided on the issue, and Daniel works for the distinguished Georges Cuvier who dismisses the ideas of Lamarck as poetry and nonsense. (Lamarck was in fact mistaken in thinking that acquired traits could be passed on to one’s progeny.) Daniel’s fellow students, on the other hand, not only take transformism as scientific fact but attempt to turn it into an argument for social reform also.

Having myself visited Paris, I took an interest in the descriptions of the city. Of course it was vastly different in 1815 from the city I saw in 1983, but I can at least visualize some of the prominent landmarks (Notre Dame, the Louvre). I was surprised, however, to learn about the vast subterranean quarries that run beneath the city. As it is forbidden to explore them, however (presumably for safety reasons), I suppose it is not so surprising that I heard nothing of them during my visit.

One other interesting side-note is about the chief of police, Jagot, to whom Daniel reports the theft of his corals and other valuable items at the start of the novel. As Daniel comes to know and then trust the thief and even to help her in a daring heist, Jagot of course becomes a threat to him also. While Jagot is fictional, he is based on a real man, Eugène François Vidocq, a criminal turned director of the Sûreté Nationale (today the French National Police).

While listening to the book, I did not recognize the story of Vidocq in the fictional Jagot. But the author’s afterword gives the name Vidocq, and I remembered reading about him in The Science of Sherlock Holmes. As a matter of fact he was mentioned in several chapters, so significant a figure was he in the history of making a science of police work.