Friday, April 30, 2010

Sixty Second Science

Scientific American produces a series of podcasts, audio only tidbits, covering a science headline per week day. I love these things. In a minute long (plus a tiny bit of change for titles) podcast, I get an quick, fun overview of a broad range of science. If one of the subjects tickles my creative fancy, it's an easy matter to go do a bit of further research. The podcasts are valuable, too, from a vocabulary standpoint. If your characters are scientists, there's great joy in being able to say 'that gene transfer took place between two entirely different taxinomic kingdoms' and have it actually mean something. (From the April 30, 2010 podcast)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hacking the Brain

An article at suggests that the brain is the next great hacking frontier and contemplates the possibilities for securing neural interface devices. The article focuses on the lack of attention being paid to creating robust security for such hardware as deep brain stimulators used to treat a variety of illnesses, or for the systems being developed that would allow an amputee to mentally control a prosthetic limb. May I just say "story goldmine"? Whether you have a character hacking a cyborg's interfaces in order to commit third person murder, or a futuristic tech shop specializing in security layers for people whose neural implants weren't entirely on the up and up, or whether you character is a hacker who happens , one day, to drop into the wrong brain - there's far too much fun to be had here. In fiction. In reality, I'd rather know that anything wired directly into my brain was safe against some random gold farmer.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Defining Life

A book came out several years ago called Rare Earth. It was written by a pair of scientists arguing that the human race is likely alone in the universe because life as we know it thrives only within a very narrow band of set circumstances. Did you catch the same caveat I did when I first read the book? "Life as we know it". Turns out, since the book was published, life as we know it, and the conditions under which it can and will thrive, has been expanded several times, so, too has the habitable zone - the boundry in a solar system wherein one could assume life forms might be able to survive. What if "life as we know it" is too limiting? The major issue, of course, is that life as we know *is* all we know. It's dreadfully difficult to look for something when you can't describe it. Scientists can't agree on whether or not viruses are alive. How can you search for life that isn't as you know it when you can't even define what you do know? Now, physists are suggesting SETI - the folks scanning the radio frequencies of the skies for an ET phoning anyone at all - is too narrowly focused, that the search for alien intelligence is defined based on human, radio technology that is increasingly being left in our own past. Scientists urged investigators to broaden not only their search, but also their thinking by looking into our future and make some educated guesses about how other living things might give us clues as to their existence. The linked article offers another link to a detailed list of some of the scifi suggestions. For those of us feeding our imaginations, the next obvious question is what happens when your theory pans out and you find signs of an alien civilization? How pleased (or not) is that race about having been seen? And depending on how "life as we know it" they are, how much trouble is your hero or heroine in?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Earthbound Science

The main premise of a science fiction story is that science is in some way, shape or form going to figure into resolving a major plot point. Most of us (I include myself there) assume that requires galactic-scale science. It needn't. In the War of the Worlds, an alien invasion that no human-made power on earth could stop was nevertheless doomed from the moment the first alien ship touched down. Earthbound viruses killed the invaders when nothing else could. (Irony? Viral invaders kill the alien invaders?) It's fascinating to me that some of the most elegant solutions to complex problems aren't always huge, grandiose schemes of technology, engineering and discovery. They're humbler. Simpler. Like viruses, which are so simple, there's considerable debate as to whether they're actually alive. Or like this potential carbon-sink - something that could pull excess carbon dioxide from the warming atmosphere and lock it into the ocean - researched by scientists in Australia. Whether that carbon-sink can have a significant impact on global warming remains to be seen, but the idea itself is a lovely example of being willing to look anywhere and everywhere for a solution to what looks like an intractable issue. It's tempting, when writing on a galactic scale, to believe that big problems require bigger solutions. Sometimes they do. But occasionally, a little virus, or a single flea infected with plague, or a bit of iron-rich whale poop will solve all sorts of problems.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Counting Stars

Every once in awhile during a story, my characters stop and count the stars. It's a way to keep from taking the backdrop of space for granted. Think of your last road trip. Did it really pass in a blur? Or was there something, no matter how tiny, that made you catch in your breath for a second? When I need something for a space-faring hero to show a heroine or other way around, I go to Hubble Telescope site, and to the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day. The Astronomy Picture of the Day isn't strictly photos of celestial phenomena as evidenced by a spectacular shot of lightning generated from volcanic ash clouds. In that photo, you're seeing something that science cannot fully explain, yet. Theory has it that static builds up in the dust, gas and heat, thereby generating the lightning, but research to verify the hypothesis is ongoing. Where am I headed with this? What's out there between the stars? Dust and gas. Suppose your spaceship passes near a dense, dark nebula that's thick with dust. A nearby star has been exhibiting an upswing in radiation emissions, exciting that dust and gas. If lightning doesn't require oxygen in order to fire, a hero and/or heroine could catch a deep space lightning storm. Or perhaps a spaceship cuts through a patch of dust and the static generated by the dust passing over the hull leads to new adventure? Do they glow and give away their position? Does the static blow their electrical grid? Or short their onboard computers? How many ways do you want your characters to survive by the skin of their teeth just after they've paused to count the stars?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Space Weather

Haven't you ever wondered what an ion storm is, much less where one might come from? While't answer that specific question, it provides plenty of fascinating solar weather data - sun spot activity, solar wind, auroral activity and even for the next day or two, the expected trajectory of the space shuttle transiting the continental US on its return from the space station. Still. It's time to find out whether interstellar travel is subject to phenomena that we'd perceive as weather.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Creepy Crawlies

One of the things about being a science geek: It is not for the faint of heart. Worse? Being married to a science geek when you are not one. Feel my husbands pain. I adore all the creepy, gross, hope I never meet that in a dark alley wildlife and critters that run around this planet. Meet Bathynomus giganteus. He lives here. When you vacation in Mexico, it might be this isopod nibbling on your toes when you take a dip in the Gulf. Not really - they don't like the shallows. File this under 'things that make you say 'ew!'' and then forth and create those scifi Bug-Eyed Monsters.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Backwards Planets

Astronomers are revisiting their theories about how planets form after finding evidence of planets that orbit their stars opposite the star's rotation. You've seen the animation of the interstellar dust cloud turning majestically in space. Over time, the dust clouds coalesce and planets form, all following the same path around the central star. It's a lovely idea that has now been called into question given the new data. Personally, I love the image of a planet going the wrong way round its star if only because I suspect most of us feel like that defines us and our lives. Now. How can I work a retrograde planetary orbit into some character's daring escape from overwhelming odds?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Brain Controlled Tech

To further Friday's post regarding the line between human and cyborg, I offer a link brought to my attention by fellow SFR Brigade member Charles. Researchers, in the pursuit of brainwave controlled prosthetics, used EEG to post a Twitter message. No one I know would claim that controlling computer generated speech software with brainwaves qualifies a person as a cyborg. Still, move that development one hundred to two hundred years in the future. No one is wearing a mini-EEG reader external to the skull. Miniaturization has reduced it all to something tiny that can be implanted either into the skin of the scalp, or into the tissue of the brain itself. And then what are you controlling? Computer generated speech? Your car (or hover craft)? Your station on a ship?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Augmenting Senses

For the cyborg fans among us, it appears that science is on the cusp of integrating technology with human information processing. It's on a limited scale, at the moment, but if you're familiar with the D20 gaming system Shadow Run and the novels the game has spawned, then you're familiar with the concept of hardware implants designed to let human consciousness mesh with computer generated visualizations. The questions (and therefore story points) just keep popping up. At what point do technological enhancements turn a human into a cyborg? What happens to the human brain when the admittedly cool tech like that detailed in the article linked above makes it so that our brains no longer have to learn to operate on a spacial basis? Is there inherent mental/physical benefit - beyond being able to find your way from point A to point B - in having to learn how to read a map or visualize your city and your position therein? Can something as simple as a pair of glasses giving directions really influence how humans evolve? In what way? Aren't there at least a thousand stories in this single article? I have mine. The third, as yet untitled, book in the Enemy series (Enemy Within, Enemy Games - from Berkley Sensations in November 2010 and Spring 2011) includes a heroine using technology to enhance and sometimes to compensate for her senses. What's your story?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fluid Morality

Scientists have discovered that magnets can alter a person's perception of morality. Granted, in this limited study, the change was minor and temporary, but we're writing science fiction here and this is the stuff of major bad guy weaponry. Why have Dr. Doomsday get off his evil genius backside when he can apply his magnetic mind altering device to a captured good guy and have said hero do the dirty work? Or does Dr. Doomsday alter the heroine's moral compass enough that she'd date him? If she does date him, how does that alter Dr. Doomsday's morality? Something about wanting a bunch of baby evil geniuses underfoot has a way of changing a man's priorities - if not his morality.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Planetary Rumblings

If you'd read or heard that the Chilean earthquake had knocked the earth slightly off of it's axis, thereby shortening our day by 1.26 milliseconds, fear not. It turns out that, in the long run, the planet has a series of coping mechanisms designed to put everything right again. How interesting would it be to work some of those properties into a science fiction story wherein a planet's changing orbital patterns can be used in some fashion to thwart the bad guys? Or the good guys, depending on your bent.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Imagination Runs on Strange Fuel

One of my favorite video podcasts is "Stuff They Don't Want You to Know". This 3 to 7 minute podcast definitely qualifies as 'weird' and only vaguely as 'science'. It spins off into conspiracy theories and other fun (and story rich) stuff. Past episodes have covered the Hollow Earth Theory, and the end of time (2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar). Scientific? Not so much. Fodder for all sorts of strange and twisted story making? Oh, yes.

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