Posts Tagged ‘Science Future’

Science Future: Harking Hugos

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Harking Hugos

Each year the Noble Prizes are given out to people who have achieved great things in their life. They is given out to people who have furthered the advancement of the fields of science and the humanities and represent great personal achievements for both the recipients and society. Like science, science fiction has its own award called the Hugo Awards, given yearly to the best science fiction stories. As regular listeners may know, Escape Pod has a tradition of presenting the short stories nominated for the Hugo Awards and keeping in theme with the celebration of the Hugo Awards, Science Future is going to present scientific breakthroughs that relate to the Hugo nominated short stories and novellas presented here on Escape Pod.

Artificial Intelligence is something science fiction has dreamed about since the first computer was built. The story Want of a Nail By Mary Robinette Kowal introduces us to an artificial intelligence that lives as a guardian of the memories of a human family traveling the stars. This artificial intelligence acts the family’s historian, both selecting and storing important events for the family to remember. Modern computers couldn’t hope to perform such a complex task, at least not without a major breakthrough, which it may have created at the University of Exeter. Researchers have created a processor which copies how the human brain processes information. The human brain doesn’t differentiate between processing and collecting information like current computer processors and but this new one  uses phase-changing materials that allows it to both process and store data at the same time.

It is not certain, however, that we’ll ever create a true artificial being but science fiction has presented us with other options for our electronic creations such as implanting them in their own bodies. In the story Plus or Minus By James Patrick Kelly deep space explorers have augmentations which allow them to communicate with simple thought alone. Today we are limited to using external devices such as cellphones to communicate with people beyond the range of our physical presence but the University of Michigan has taken steps to fix that with the BioBolt. The BioBolt is a minimally invasive brain implant which is placed on the skull and is connected to a small film of microcircuits that rests on the brain and listens to neurons. Since the entire device is under the skin with nothing sticking out, the chances of infection are greatly reduced. In order to communicate it uses the electrical field produced by skin to transmit to any other device touching the skin, creating a simple way for the brain to be listened to without wires sticking out of the skin.

An entirely new and wondrous place will open up to us the day we can think at each other and be heard. This world will be full of exciting possibilities like direct knowledge transference, language-less communication, and body hacking! Oh wait, we already have that last one. A joint effort by the University of Tokyo, Japan, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories have created the PossessedHand project which has produced a device which lets someone hijack another person’s hand movements. It does this by directly lightly shocking the muscles in the arm allowing people to program a sequence of specific finger movements. The device doesn’t work perfectly yet it does successfully control the fingers of another human being, which is hauntingly familiar to one of Hugo nominees, The Things by By Peter Watts. In The Things creatures find it easy to control the bodies of the humans they find but like the controllers of the PossessedHand project, they can not fathom their prey’s minds.

The creatures in The Things embodied the idea of self-preservation not by fight or flight but with breeding. The ability to breed is also one of the main themes of the story Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn. In Amaryllis a woman is born to a society where food is strictly rationed and therefore the act of breeding is also tightly controlled. The ability to give birth to a child is something perhaps too undervalued in the modern day except by doctors at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Hospital in Sweden. There doctors are preparing to attempt to complete the first successful transplant of a human womb. Among the subjects under review include a fifty six year old woman who is donating her womb to her twenty five year old daughter.

The miracles and breakthroughs envisioned and brought to us by science  and science fiction all deserve our appreciation regardless of any awards given. Congratulations to all the Hugo Award nominees.

Literature that keeps employing new linguistic and formal modes of expression to draft a panorama of society as a whole while at the same time exposing it, tearing the masks from its face – for me that would be deserving of an award. – Elfriede Jelinek

Science Future: Maintaining Memory

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Maintaining Memory

One could say that in reading and listening to science fiction we are, in a way, remembering the future. The future we remember from these stories is often wrong and full of holes, just like our memory of the past. Memory is a fickle thing, as anybody who has lost their keys or forgotten their homework, can attest to. In science fiction, memory is often even more unreliable. Take some of our recent stories here at Escape Pod. In EP284: On a Clear Day You Can See All the Way to Conspiracy by Desmond Warzel and EP292: In The Water by Katherine Mankiller memory is something that is easily modified and manipulated.

Thankfully that isn’t the case, right? Yes and no.

Recent studies into computer aided training have yielded mixed results when it comes to expanding the mental capabilities. The study focused on a popular theory that taxing a person’s working memory can lead to an increase in mental capacity. Basically if you’re forced to hold more numbers or words in your head while performing calculations with them, you’ll find it easier to hold that many, if not more, thoughts later. The results were mixed. Some of the participants showed marked increase working memory and some showed little to none at all. What was found was that there was a significant correlation between how much the participants enjoyed the training, with the people who enjoyed it the most showing the most improvement.

This is great news, except that we can’t always trust what we remember. A study, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, shows that visual advertisements, such as happy scenes involving prominent product placement, actually trick our brains into forming memories. We believe we’ve actually experienced what we see. A study managed to convince a group of students that they had eaten a particular brand of popcorn and remember enjoying it when they were asked about it later.

A group of pyramidal cell axons in the brain.

Thankfully this stuff isn’t really mind control it is just creating new, if false, memories. Like hacking the brain except the individual has ultimate control over how the memory forms. We haven’t figured out how to really control this process but scientists are making strides in understanding how the brain makes a memory. For example nueroscientists in University of California, Berkeley, have figured out how heightened emotion, like fear, helps us to remember events. It seems that in fearful states, the amygdala, the part of our brains that controls emotion, talks the hippocampus, a relay hub for memory, into generating new neurons. These new neurons are fresh and ready for imprinting with your most recent experiences which how you remember that last near collision with a fellow driver but can never remember what year Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia. Next time try studying while listening to Psuedopod!

Understanding how we create memory will help us lead to actual memory creation, not unlike what happens in EP288: Future Perfect by LaShawn M. Wanak or keep our memories after everything around us changes, like in EP287: A Taste of Time by Abby Goldsmith. Movies like Inception and Total Recall will be that much closer to reality. With it I expect we’ll see more tales that touch upon the implications behind memory altering technologies and Stories speculating on what it means to have your memory altered, willingly, or unwillingly.

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” – Aeschylus

Science Future: Searching Space

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Searching Space

NASA (CC BY 2.0)Space. The future will grant us access to what is beyond that big blue sky we see surrounding that bright thing that hounds us out of bed every morning. Space and science fiction have become so intertwined that even the mention of it will sometimes push a fantasy novel into the science fiction genre. Science fiction even has sub-genres specifically devoted to space based stories: Space Opera and Space Westerns.

We, as a race, are still taking our first steps into space; sending people out into space and peering out into the sky. We know there is a universe out there full of stars, planets, nebulae, and maybe even something called dark mater or dark energy but really, those are all just names. Our actual knowledge about those celestial objects is still very small and the only way we’re going to really find out is to send something out there to get a really good look at it.

The bad news is, it may be getting harder to go out there to see them. The common theory, up until two years ago, was that the universe was expanding but that the expansion was slowing. That there was a big bang and everything was moving away from that bang but, eventually, the universe would slow, stop, and then begin to collapse in on itself, perhaps leading to another big bang. That has all been thrown into confusion thanks to two independent teams of researchers who measured the distances of nearby galaxies using the light from Cepheids and supernoevae. They determined that the universe is currently expanding at about the rate of the width of the United States of America per minute, which compared to our last accurate calculation is actually faster. The expansion of the universe isn’t slowing, it is speeding up.

NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)That means if we, as a species, are going to go out there, we’re going to need to hit some pretty fast-moving targets but before we do that, we need to figure out where those targets are. That’s where the Kepler Spacecraft comes into play. The Kepler Spacecraft, named after the famous 17th Century astrologer Johannes Kepler, was shot into space two years ago with a simple mission, start surveying worlds and figure out how many possible habitable planets might be out there. Kepler has been sending back data and, based upon the first four months of Kepler’s searching, there appears to be about 2 billion “Earth Analog” planets out there. Earth Analogs are planted that are roughly similar to earth in size and position within their own part of the universe, giving them some of the best chances of holding life similar to our own. Sadly this is considerably less than what researchers were predicting but those same researchers are still hopeful because Kepler hasn’t completed its survey yet, which means more data to devour!

Hot White Dwarf Shines in Young Star Cluster NGC 1818 (Public Domain via Hubble)And there is plenty of data out there to find. A professor at University of Washington has proposed using ground and space based telescopes to search near white dwarf stars for habitable planets. White dwarf stars are small, dense, cool stars, in the final stage of their life and these aspects might make it easier to spot planets near them. Their relatively low brightness might allow ground telescopes to identify a planet moving between the dwarf star and our telescopes with more ease when compared to brighter stars like our Sol. Another theory put forth is that these cool stars will provide exactly the right heat to a close orbiting planet to allow the planet to have liquid water, which scientists feel provide a huge indication of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. There are about 20,000 “nearby” white dwarf stars that could be observed from ground telescopes quickly and efficiently. So plenty out there for us to look at.

Our first steps into space are slow and shaky but with each day, each probe, and each theory, we are learning more and more about the universe waiting for us. It may not be full of Klingons, Vorlons, or Sith, but with 2 billion possibly habitable planets  out there, stories about what new and interesting beings we will find among the stars will never be in short supply.

Science Future: Portable Power

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Portable Power

Mobile and ubiquitous computing is one of the hot spots of commercial research and it has been slowly invading our science fiction for years. Almost every one can refer to at least one person, if not themselves, who carries the internet around in their pocket and nearly every space faring race seems to have easy access to huge databases of information just by saying or thinking the word “Computer”.  Today, most lunch-break trivia arguments can be settled, if not very quickly, before the bill has arrived. That is until the battery runs out. Even to the most casual user of digital devices, occasionally having to disconnect ourselves from our external memory and constant updates, to let our little glowing boxes recharge, causes anguish.

Batteries by Tomblois (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)What would help alleviate this pain and suffering? Maybe if it didn’t take so long to recharge a battery. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found a way to use nanomaterials to recreate battery cathodes at a nano-scale that can charge up to 100 times faster than current commercial batteries but still power your netbook just fine. It helps explain why we never really see our protagonists pulling out their hyperspace coms and cursing that they forgot to leave it on the charger over night.

You still need to get power from somewhere, however, and some scientists at MIT have delved into biotechnology and developed an artificial leaf that will absorb a gallon of water and bright sunlight and produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing country for an entire day. The leaf works by simulating a form of photosynthesis, where in it breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen and then uses those two elements to produce electricity. Imagine spaceships sailing through the solar system covered in artificial leaves that not only power our ships but also camouflage them in case they fly through a space forest.

If you’re not big into the flora fashion, Doctors at GeorgeTech have created one of the first commercially viable nanogenerators. That is to say they’ve created a flexible chip about the a quarter of the size of a stamp that generates electricity through simple movement. It does this by taking advantage of a nanowire property known as piezoelectric, or the ability to generate electrical fields when mechanically strained. Research suggests that five of these chips can output the same amount of power as a AA battery. Combined with the batteries above, this means that joggers and outdoor enthusiasts never have to worry about being disconnected from the internet ever again! Not a lot science fiction authors saw that one coming.

So does this mean that the lack of plugs, chargers, and batteries in our science fiction has been author oversight or author foresight? Science fiction likes it technological gadgets from laser rifles to portable shield generators to omni-tools but rarely do we see a person of the future angry over forgetting to charge their light sword. Ubiquitous energy seems to be the theme of the future and it’s fiction. But the issue of power has many reprocussions. Science is bringing us a future of full of miniaturized safe energy to help power our increasingly mobile lifestyles in a decreasingly large world. This might lead to stories that focus on the dehumanization, re-humanization, or even digitalization of human society. Either way power will always be an important part of science fiction even if most of science fiction chooses to ignore it.

Science Future

“Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.”J. G. Ballard

Science is not something the we think about day-to-day. As children we’re educated in the ways of biology, chemistry, and physics. We visited museums, planetariums, and wildlife parks. We calculated mass and velocity, dissected animals, and stared at the periodic table of elements with vague comprehension.

Then it all stopped.
Plasma lamp at Kobe Science Museum CCL 2.5 (
But there are many different ways to be exposed to science. One could go re-visit a museum, subscribe to a science news feed, pick up a nature magazine, or go grab a quick doctorate. There is, however, one avenue that is often overlooked even by its regular consumers. You could read, or in our case listen to, science fiction.

Science is the systematic study of the world around us. Science fiction is the exploration of science through the use of story and imagination. Every time we hear a new and amazing tale, we’re being exposed not to present day science but the science of the future. Science fiction takes what we know today and projects it forward, creating a hypothesis surrounded by an entertaining tale. These hypotheses have come to influence not only our popular entertainment but the minds of generations. People across the world now carry hand-held communication devices, once called communicators on a popular science fiction television show and now called cell phones. In Japan robots of all shapes and sizes are being fashioned after the popular stories of giant robots in their science fiction. All over we can see the small influences of science fiction in the science and technologies of our society.

So if we can see the influence of science fiction upon our world now, what science fiction has yet to be written that will inspire our future?

To know that we need to look to what is between science and science fiction. We need to look at Science Future. Science Future is a series of articles dedicated to bridging the gap between science and science fiction by looking at the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and linking it back to science fiction. Each article will present scientific discoveries and discuss science fiction themes related to it  and the possible impacts it could have upon the future of the genre. Together, we will explore science fiction from its roots.

“Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.”Isaac Asimov