Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Cory Doctorow Coincidentally Affirms Mundane SF Policy

Posted by Trent Walters at 7:06 AM
Over at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow writes:
In an article in the Public Library of Science Medicine, John P. A. Ioannidis, an epidemiologist, argues that more than 50 percent of the conclusions drawn in papers published in scientific journals are false. The money sentence is this one: "The replication process is more important than the first discovery." The popular culture version of science is about labcoats and discovery, the real world science is about publishing, review and replication.

I wrote this up in "Why Play These Tropes and Not Those Others." Much of SF is distilled from secondary sources (reading distillations of someone else's attempt at understanding what the scientists wrote). From here, perhaps taking off on another misunderstanding of the original experiment, the SF writer arrives at a further remove from scientific plausibility, and we arrive at what Stephen Hawking terms the "space western." If we leap off fifty-percent inaccuracies in journals (assuming the above number is true), we fall even further from the tree of science, closer to wish-fulfillment fantasies, which is fine if you're only interested in the entertainment or the thematic matter, but even the theme becomes somewhat problematic if our concern is dealing with what the future may bring.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

You almost couldn't write a story this damn good

Posted by Trent Walters at 3:25 PM
Italy loves its invasion of privacy!

Electronic snooping designed to snare terrorists and Mafia kingpins is trapping some unexpected prey. Surreptitious listening is now so common in Italy that people with little or no connection to criminal cases have found themselves recorded and their private utterings made public in newspapers.

--Yahoo News

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Greener plastics

Posted by Trent Walters at 3:28 PM
Researchers are adapting E. coli to produce succinate, a key ingredient in plastics.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Out of Africa...into America

Posted by A. at 1:50 PM
More ecology news, this little one coming from Thursday's issue of Nature...

Now, during the Miocene era, the great plains of America was virtually a double of the Serengeti. You can even take a trip to ashfall, in Nebraska, where you can observe the ongoing dig that's turning up ancient rhinos, four-tusked elephants, and camels. And believe it or not, that's the way some want it to be again:

But the proposal's supporters say it could help save some species from extinction in Africa, where protection is spotty and habitats are vanishing. They say the relocated animals could also restore the biodiversity in North America to a condition closer to what it was before humans overran the landscape more than 10,000 years ago...

Read the full story here

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Real Reason Why Charles Stross...

Posted by Trent Walters at 10:56 AM
is so excited about the singularity:

Ignoring global warming allows Scotland to rule the world from its empire of new-found wealth!


Posted by Dr Ian Hocking at 4:25 AM

BBC Online reports on new Japanese research into artificial skin, which can sense pressure and temperature simultaneously. The skin is cheap and should help robotic devices operate more effectively in the real world.

Say the scientists:
"It will be possible in the near future to make an electronic skin that has functions that human skin lacks."

Future artificial skins could incorporate sensors not only for pressure and temperature, but also for light, humidity, strain or sound, they add.

Read the full story.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Science Websites

Posted by Trent Walters at 11:57 AM
How does cancer work and how are we trying to stop it?

More than you ever wanted to know about viruses

British Birds

How does amber work?

Evil Non-Mundane Topic (hex, hex, hex): What's it like out there?

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Posted by Dr Ian Hocking at 11:14 AM
Nanotechnology has been successfully used to target and destroy cancerous cells, according to BBC Online. A nanomachine targets a cancerous cell by detecting a vitamin called folate, which coats cancerous cells. The nanomachine then inserts a carbon nanotubule into the offending cell. When the tissue is subjected to near-infra red light, the nanotubules become hot and destroy the cancerous cells. Non-cancerous cells are unharmed.

Read the full story.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Psychological Research: The Eternal Sunshine of the Mundane Mind

Posted by Dr Ian Hocking at 10:31 AM
In this post, I would like to talk about memory and offer some examples of its portrayal in science fiction.

Research psychologists have a great deal to say about human memory, and while we know little about memory in absolute terms, academic psychology (and related disciplines) has, in the last few years, made great progress towards advancing our knowledge about what memory actually is, how it works, and how we help people whose memories have been impaired developmentally or through trauma.

One aspect of memory that attracts writers of fiction for its dramatic potential is amnesia. Note, however, that the type of amnesia most frequently portrayed is properly termed retrograde amnesia. Let's look at some of the types.

Retrograde amnesia:
A difficulty in recalling experiences prior to the onset of amnesia. The character Jason Bourne from the film The Bourne Identity is an example of this form of memory loss.

Antereograde amnesia:
A difficulty in consolidating new experiences. Typically, sufferers of this type of amnesia can recall only those experiences laid down before the traumatic (physical or psychological) event.

Lacunar amnesia:
A difficulty in recalling information relating to a specific event. Joel Barish had specific memories erased from his brain in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (remember the name of the memory-wiping company?).

Global amnesia:
A complete failure of memory for experiences. New experiences are not consolidated and old experiences cannot be recalled or recognised. Leonard Shelby from the film Memento suffered from global amnesia. He could neither recall autobiographical information (instead he had to read it from tattoos) nor lay down new memories (instead he took Polaroids).

These forms of amnesia, while interesting in themselves, have provided clues about how memory works. First of all, the apparatus of memory appears to be divided into a short-term component and a long-term component. We're sure that this is a categorical distinction because short-term memory (STM) can be damaged independently of long-term memory (LTM) and vice versa. For example, in the case of Clive Wearing, hippocampal damage destroyed the 'bridge' between his STM and LTM; he is forced to live in a permanent present.

Secondly, the content of LTM memory appears to be divided into semantic information (Lima is the capital of Peru), episodic (yesterday I had eggs for breakfast), and procedural (how to ride a bike or drive a car). There is compelling evidence that these forms of knowledge are distinct. Thus the portrayal of Leonard Shelby's character in Memento is quite plausible: he has not forgotten some semantic information (he knows how to check in to a hotel) and his procedural knowledge appears intact (he can drive a car), but his episodic memory (of himself and his wife) is damaged.

Science fiction and other forms of literature have concentrated on amnesia-related memory problems, but there is another, rarer memory condition in which the sufferer cannot forget. The Russian mnemonist Shereshevsky was diagnosed late in life with a condition known as synaesthesia, in which his senses would combine. Thus he would 'see' smells and 'taste' sounds. For him, everyday experience was so memorable that he found it almost impossible to forget things that happened to him. Was this such a bad thing? Well, if he read a sentence of prose the sensations blooming with each word would make it impossible for him to read a piece of fiction.

Further links:

Short-term memory: A demonstration

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information

Memory: In Our Time

The Journal of Memory and Cognition

Geoff Ryman and Christopher Priest in The Glasgow Hearld

Posted by Trent Walters at 7:29 AM
Certainly, Ryman argues, SF does seem to want to hang on to some old-fashioned ideas: faster-than-light travel for example. Yet as he points out planet-hopping across the galaxy doesn't make sense when we're about to run out of oil. "It's almost as if we can burn through this planet and go on to the next. What kind of message is that to give?"