Friday Sci-Fi: Lostronaut

June 5, 2009

Since marine science and space seem pretty tight these days, check out Jonathan Lethem’s lovely and very bleak short story “Lostronaut.” It’s written as letters home from an astronaut stranded on a disintegrating space station with failing plant-based life support, and shouldn’t be read if you’ve got a space-faring loved one.

If reading the story makes you feel sciencey, Eric explored the science behind using plants for life support on the Science Not Fiction blog. But if reading the story makes you want to kick back and feel mournful, listen to Amanda Palmer’s amazing song “Astronaut.” I’m obsessed.*

*Yes, this entire post was an excuse to post this song.


TGIF: Glowy jellyfish-puppies

April 24, 2009

Why make glowy transgenic jellyfish-puppies? Because…because…SCIENCE!


What the Earth of 150,000 years ago was really like

March 23, 2009

SPOILER WARNING: This entire post is a giant spoiler for the Battlestar Galactica Season 5 4.5 finale, so I’ve tucked it behind the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


Free astronomically-correct science fiction

February 18, 2009

Are you annoyed by faster-than-light travel and sound in space? Check out Diamonds in the Sky, a free anthology of astronomically-correct science fiction stories.

Diamonds in the Sky is a collection of astronomy-based science fiction stories edited by Mike Brotherton and funded under his National Science Foundation grant AST 05-07781.  The purpose of the anthology is to provide stories with ample and accurate astronomy spanning a range of topics covered in introductory courses…Contributions include both original stories and reprints from some of the top science fiction writers working today.

Best Broader Impacts idea ever! I’m downloading it right now, and will report back on whether they’re actually good stories.

Now how about some ecologically plausible alien worlds? They can be both an ice planet AND a jungle planet! Or how about psychic dolphins (my personal sci-fi bugaboo) that behave just like real dolphins and ravage a space station Aliens style?

Via Boing Boing


Where New Yorker short stories and science collide!

November 20, 2008

Check out Eric’s latest column for Science Not Fiction, in which he ponders the possibilities of plant-based intergalactic life support. Pretentious short-story writers and teeny tiny wheat plants collide!

The use of plants to recycle air and provide food for long term space trips is one of science fiction’s favorite tropes. It makes so much sense, right?….In the 1990s, NASA’s Advanced Life Support division  conducted a series of experiments at the Johnson Space Center to see if they could make the system work on a much smaller scale.

You might also enjoy his take on getting a head in cryogenics.

A little research reveals that it’s basic economics: Head-only freezing can cost as little as $80,000, far better than the $150,000 whole-body freezing costs, based on the pricing at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a real life cold-storage non-profit.


Science fiction in science

November 19, 2008

Consider my nerd quotient dialed to 11. I will be attending the Science Online 2009 conference this January, and one of the perks will be the panel on using science fiction as a tool for science communication. The moderators asked for input and to “start an online conversation between science fiction writers and science bloggers.”

Well, I want to talk to science fiction writers! And since so many TOG readers are nerdy nerd nerds (and frequently educators of various kinds) I figured you all might want to weigh in, too. Here are my answers to the “Questions for Science Bloggers.”

What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?

I love science fiction, though I think probably most of what I read falls more into the fantasy camp. I suppose I’m kind of sterotypically girly in that I care a lot about character development and less about speculative technology, though I do love me some space fights. Though I read all kinds of tripe in my callow youth, I now no longer enjoy books without decent female characters. (Though I don’t mind if they’re sexbots as long as they have a personality and actual humanoid motivations – I thought Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children was tons of fun.)

My favorite scifi author is Ray Bradbury. I’m going to count China Mieville in there too, since he kind of writes about speculative (albeit dystopian) biotechnology. I listen to several scifi podcasts, mainly Escape Pod. My favorite scifi show is Battlestar Galactica, particularly the first and second seasons, with their optimal combination of space fights, daring rescues, and interesting, flawed characters. (Please, gentle readers, DO NOT spoil the fourth season. I watch it on DVD so I haven’t seen it yet!) I still pine for Firefly. I found Heroes tedious and derivative, and could never bear any of the Stargate series.

What do you see as science fiction’s role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?

Right now, I don’t see scifi as having much to do with real science. Most of the science in science fiction is so bad that it is either neutral (not associated with real science at all) or harmful to science. I stopped watching Farscape over some nonsense about Aeryn Sun being cold-blooded and how that meant she couldn’t get hot. Hadn’t anyone in LA been to the desert and seen all the lizards scuttling around?

Besides, the science portrayed is so far away from what is possible now. For example, somebody who became a computer programmer to be like Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash would be sadly disappointed.

Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?

I really haven’t. This is probably because I’m a marine ecologist and not too much science fiction is about that type of thing. (Except for the horrible abundance of “dolphins with mystical knowledge” books. I would never use these book as examples because a) people do not need to be encouraged to harass poor cetaceans for Mystical Truths; and b) they are BAD books.)

Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

The science blogs I read are listed in my blog roll. I don’t regularly read any scifi blogs, but if I did, I’d read Io9 and Discovery Magazine’s Science Not Fiction. (Full disclosure: Co-blogger and cohabitator Eric blogs for Science Not Fiction, but that’s only 47% of the reason I’m promoting it.)


Have a vintage apocalypse for Halloween

October 31, 2008

Zombie movies are on the rise, clearly indicating a time of war and social unrest. I09 has a handy chart:

Clearly, the only way to fight the zombies is to go back to an earlier, purer time, untainted by the smell of rotting undead flesh and the moans of the encroaching hordes. Bring on the alien invaders from Mars! Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play, The War of the Worlds, is available as a free streaming broadcast!

I heard a bit of it last night, and I promise you that 70 years has not made it one little bit less terrifying. Had I been around for the original broadcast, there is a reasonable chance that I would have packed the car full of bread and fled.

Fortunately, the Grovers Mill Martian Landing Site Monument provides needed closure to any traumatized by the Martian invasion. How comforting. Until the zombies get you.

Links via Metafilter, chart via Boing Boing


Beagle…in….SPAAAACE!

October 23, 2008

The Beagle Project, which is going to rebuild Darwin’s ship and sail it around the world, is now partners with NASA! From the press release (DOC):

Scientists, teachers and students sailing aboard the 90-foot ship will collaborate with astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to investigate the biology of plankton blooms, coral reefs and other ocean surface and terrestrial ecosystems as the new Beagle circles the world recreating Darwin’s 1831-36 voyage aboard HMS Beagle, which he called “the most important event” in his life and which led to his later discovery of a mechanism for evolution.

This means that the Beagle will be able to do really high-quality science. Satellite images and photos taken from space can provide a large-scale perspective that’s hard to get from the ground, such as sea surface temperatures across whole ocean basins. But space images can’t provide details of what’s happening on the ground, such how ocean temperature affect plankton species. The Beagle’s partnership with NASA means that they’ll be able to have it all – large scale mapping AND detailed sampling. Darwin would plotz!

To celebrate, astronaut Mike Barrett, who brought about the partnership from the NASA side, is taking a tiny model Beagle with him into space this March. The Beagle will (more-or-less) actually be in orbit.

You too can help to build a new Beagle by donating or buying a fetching t-shirt. Remember, every time you don’t support the Beagle Project, Cthulhu eats a kitty.


The Final Frontier not so final for tardigrades

September 9, 2008

Previously on Project Tardis, our intrepid tardigrades were being launched in space, there to experience the Ultimate Challenge of hard vacuum.

Today, I am delighted to report that (some) of the noble tardigrades have survived! Researchers report that:

Back on Earth, tardigrades that had basked in cosmic radiation revived and reproduced at rates comparable to an unexposed control group. Those dosed with solar radiation were less likely to wake — but that even a few survived, wrote Rettberg’s team in findings published today in Current Biology, was remarkable.

Though the TARDIS blog remains defunct, those who want more delicious tardigrade knowledge can check out the peer-reviewed paper in Current Biology.


Slime molds unite! (And also divide.)

August 29, 2008

You’re a slime mold, minding your own business as a little single-celled sluggy creature, crawling about on the forest floor, nibbling on the finest of rotting wood and leaves. Then the signal comes in. You feel an irrepressible urge to join your slime mold brethren. So you crawl over and JOIN THE BORG.

From there, your choices aren’t so great for an individualistic slime moldling. Depending on what species you are, you are either completely borg-ified or you die. If you’re a plasmodial slime mold, you lose your identity completely. Your cell walls break down and you become just one cell nucleus floating about in a vasty sea of cytoplasm. Millions of wee little slime moldlings have merged to become a giant single cell. That cell, called a plasmodium, continues to crawl happily about while having lots of sex with itself and producing spores that will become new little free-living slime moldlings.

But if you’re a cellular slime mold, you get to keep your cell walls and some of your individuality. You glue yourself to your fellows and become a type of multicellular organism. There’s a downside – you don’t get to enjoy your newfound bros for long, since in cellular slime molds, sex = death. About a third of your buddies dry up and form a stalk, and the rest make spores that are pumped out of the stalk to become new little free-living slime moldlings. At least, until they hear the signal and the Borg rises again…

Slime molds are way, way, way smarter than a slimy crawling pancake ought to be. The plasmodial slime mold Physarum (when in Borg form) can find the shortest way through a maze. Researchers grew a slime mold in a maze, and then put food at the opposite openings of the maze. The slime mold sent half of its body to eat at each end but stayed connected by winding pseudopods throughout the maze. The pseudopods were wound through the shortest possible route, leading scientists to conclude that slime molds are smarter than Harry Potter.

Watch a fetching yellow plasmodial slime mold crawl and spawn in this time-lapse video, courtesy of the ever-awesome Martini-Corona and her dad. So that the wrath of the world’s super-intelligent slime molds does not descend upon you, know that slime molds are NOT fungi. They are protists, in the same kingdom as amoebas and single-celled algae and such. In case this makes you sad, this video has real fungi for you to admire right after the live nude slime mold.


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