Posts Tagged ‘science’

Science Future: Aggrandize Aptitude

This time on Science Future: Various stepping-stones to human augmentation.

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction have upon each other.

Aggrandize Aptitude

Last month we were treated to a story about human performance. EP318: The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey was about a human with incredible abilities surrounded by transhumans with mediocre abilities. It took place in a world where humans regularly modified their bodies beyond what we consider to be the human normal but focused on one human who hadn’t and might not and yet still had the chance to exceed all of them.

Yet the story was cheating in asense for the protagonist already had a capability that far exceeded that of the standard human template. So much so that he was under constant surveillance for the possibility of actual augmentation. The stealthiest augmentation for one competing in sports today is drugs. In the future, the definition of drugs might be expanded beyond simple chemical concoctions. Rohit Talwar, the founder of Fast Future Research, gave a talk at Intelligence Squared’s If conference about the possibility of digital drugs via direct manipulation of brain chemistry using transcranial magnetic stimulation. One could only assume this kind of manipulation would be extremely hard to detect. No chemical traces and nothing invasive or even ingested. Except that in The Prize our protagonist had his doppelgänger, which was an atomic scale simulation of himself. This copy could easily have been used as both a training and surveillance device.

It is hard to believe the precision needed to copy someone down to the atomic level could be easily done via external sensors and implants would obviously not be allowed for competitive reasons but they likely used a more advanced version of this system. Researchers led by the California Institute of Technology have created a series of microchips that can quickly and inexpensively assess immune function of a human from one single cell harvested from their body. With a device like that, occasionally sampling the body for a drop of blood and building a clone that could forecast the physical changes one might undergo after eating cake seems almost feasible.

The Gift focused more on the possibility of human enhancement. Changing a the body to give one abilities that they could never hope to achieve within a human genetic code. Two of the enhancements referenced were increasing intelligence and empathy. The brain is a complicated organ in charge of many things that we don’t understand and the idea of enhancing seems far off. Repairing it, less so. There is promising research in the field of cybernetics that helps repair brain damage. Created by Theodore Berger and his team at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and researchers at Wake Forest University, a neural prosthesis is able to restore  a rat’s ability to form long-term memories after they had been pharmacologically blocked. This is the first step to augmenting something like intelligence and empathy.

But what if dramatic enhancement was not really what someone like Michito was looking for? Well a discovery by Columbia University Medical Center researchers may lead to a better understanding how to fundamentally change the human body in subtle ways. They have shown that not all traits passed on to offspring without the use of DNA but instead naturally occurring viral agents called viRNAs which modify the creature’s RNA. RNA acts like DNA’s messenger in the body, relaying the code. So if the RNA is modified, then the DNA of the being is effectively bypassed. This kinda of science could be harnessed to create a slightly faster person or creating large-scale immunity against difference diseases.

Obviously research into human augmentation continues, be through a biological, technological, or chemical means. Stories like The Prize Beyond Gold will continue to give us reasons to achieve new and different levels of augmentation. Afterall, most of us will never be Michito but we could possibly be better than him.

There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do – the result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier. – Benjamin Franklin

Myth: Deadly Throwing Knives

The hero is cornered by the bad guys! Thinking quickly, she pulls out a brace of throwing knives. She flips the knives at two of her attackers. They go down, one clutching the knife embedded in his chest, the other lying still with a knife in his eye.

Stop doing this. Writers, moviemakers, everyone — just stop. Unless your hero is also wielding a magical get-out-of-physics free card, thrown knives don’t work that way.

One of the most important aspects of a weapon is its stopping power. That is, its ability to stop your attacker in his tracks and render him incapable of hurting you any more. Some weapons, such as pepper spray, do this by inflicting severe pain and blindness. Others, like a sword, inflict enough physical damage to make further attacks impossible. Thrown knives are usually shown to be the latter sort of weapon. In reality, thrown knives have negligible stopping power because they lack three crucial elements: Mass, velocity, and accuracy.

It takes quite a lot of force to push a knife through skin and muscle and bone. The force with which a weapon hits its target is determined by its mass and its velocity. Knives are relatively light — an alleged throwing knife that I borrowed from a friend weighs only 50 grams (~1.8 oz). The heaviest knife in my collection still only weighs 310 grams (~11 oz). Throwing spears are far heavier. This modern example weighs in at 1134 grams (2 lbs 8 oz). A person who uses a knife in hand-to-hand combat benefits from the ability to put their body weight behind each thrust. A thrown knife, on the other hand, has only its own weight to work with. When you see a thrown knife in a movie that has buried itself up to its hilt in the bad guy’s chest, what you are seeing a cliché with no basis in reality.

Light projectiles, such as bullets, have to rely on the other side of the equation: Velocity. The muzzle velocity of the popular 9 mm cartridge is usually around 400 m/s* (and this round is still not considered powerful enough for self-defense by many experts**). Compare this to a fastball, which travels at around 40 m/s — a speed that is still far above what can be achieved with a thrown knife. In fact, the fastest speed I could find for a thrown knife was only 16 m/s! The essential difference between the thrown knife and other ranged weapons is its lack of mechanical advantage. Bows use the energy stored in the curve of the limbs. Guns use chemical energy stored in gunpowder. Atlatls and slings are essentially big levers, multiplying the reach of the thrower’s arm and thus the speed with which the dart or stone is thrown. A throwing knife, in contrast, relies solely on the velocity that a human arm can give it.

Finally, there’s the question of accuracy. Even a light, slow projectile can be deadly if it hits its target in just the right way. Pointy projectiles — bullets, arrows, darts, and spears — travel pointy-end-first, making them aerodynamic. They often spin on their long axis for stability, like an American football. Knives, on the other hand, spin end-over-end. This creates comparatively large amounts of wind resistance. Thus, a thrown knife will lose what little velocity it has very quickly, making it next to useless at long range. The end-over-end spin also means that a knife spends very little time with its pointy end towards its target. Even a talented knife thrower is more likely to hit her target with the side or the butt of the knife rather than its point when the target is moving, as in a melee. Combine that with the knife’s limited range, and your hero would probably be better off walking up to the bad guy and stabbing him in the face.

My favorite depiction of how thrown knives could be used in hand-to-hand combat is in Steven Brust’s Taltos series. Our hero, Vlad, frequently gets himself into scrapes where he’s outnumbered by people who are bigger than he is. One of his tricks for winning these fights is to throw a knife. The flying piece of pointy steel makes his opponent flinch, giving him an opening. He does not expect the knife to hit the person point-first, and he certainly doesn’t count on the knife to kill anyone. Killing someone with a thrown knife is not impossible. It just isn’t something that a character can rely on in a life-or-death situation.***

Even with years of training, throwing a knife is still slightly less effective for self-defense than throwing a large rock (rocks are cheaper, heavier, and sometimes more aerodynamic). Please, the next time you’re arming your hero or her sidekicks for combat? Leave the throwing knives at home. They’re silly, they’re clichéd, and physics doesn’t work like that.

* This number is a rough approximation. Actual speeds will vary by load and barrel length. However, it’s still way faster than a knife.
** I will not indulge in the fast & light bullet vs. heavy & slow bullet debate here — .45 ACP still goes way faster than a knife.
*** Hunters who use throwing knives are usually after small game, like rabbits and squirrels. They also use very heavy knives.

Podcast Review: Astronomy Cast

Astronomy Cast is one of the most informative and entertaining science podcasts that I have found to date. The chemistry between the hosts would be enough to make me keep listening, even if the subject matter wasn’t fascinating. Astronomy Cast episodes are short and focused, usually on a single aspect of the larger universe in which we live.

The hosts of Astronomy Cast are Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor of Physics at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. Dr. Gay is the kind of scientist that somehow never makes it into the movies. Her sense of humor and her joyful enthusiasm for science make her an easy person to listen to and to learn from. She picks brilliantly gonzo phrases to describe her topics, and she never hesitates to let the audience know where the gaps in current scientific theory lie.

Astronomy Cast’s motto is “Not only what we know, but how we know what we know.” They don’t just recite facts. That would be boring. Instead, Fraser Cain acts as the audience’s stand-in, asking questions and trying to understand the concepts that Dr. Gay describes. He insists that Dr. Gay justify the opinions of modern astronomy. Often they will work through a topic, like black holes, from the first mathematical thought experiment right up to the most recent physical evidence of black holes eating stars. Astronomy Cast highlights the most important aspect of science: That it is a process, and one that inherently self-correcting.

The library of old Astronomy Cast episodes is huge. A new listener could spend days listening to old episodes in order, or pick which episodes to listen to based on subject matter. The Astronomy Cast website is set up to aid the listener in doing just that, with the episodes classified into groups like “Amateur astronomy,” “Planetary science,” and “Space flight.” The episodes themselves are short, usually no more than a half an hour, and are well-paced and edited so as to make it seem that the hosts have stayed on topic the whole time.

As a non-scientist and a science fiction writer, I have found Astronomy Cast to be an inspiration. Dr. Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain have a great time recording the episodes, and it’s easy to be sucked into their enthusiasm. They aren’t afraid to explore the furthest implications of the theories they describe — one of Mr. Cain’s favorite phrases is “but what if?” They make me want to spin science concepts into stories, and they explain the science well enough that I feel confident when I’m staring at a cursor on a blank screen.

I highly recommend Astronomy Cast to anyone who wants to learn about astronomy, or anyone who just wants to listen to two unapologetic geeks talk about the science they love. The content is, I believe, appropriate for both children and adults. Their website is, or look them up on iTunes.

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

I want Science Fiction Magnets

I feel like my first post of the new Escape-Pod-has-a-real-blog era should be full of originality and in no way derivative of prior works, but we just don’t have that kind of time out on this arm of the spiraling blogosphere.

So this morning I read The Guardian’s quite interesting profile of Insane Clown Posse, which I had honestly thought was actually in the vein of Weird Al Yankovic when I first saw the Miracles video (“F#cking Magnets, how do they work?”) oh so many months ago without any of the needed context (actual Weird Al Yankovic-esque version here). The reality is, as it is so often, much worse.

“Well,” Violent J says, “science is… we don’t really… that’s like…” He pauses. Then he waves his hands as if to say, “OK, an analogy”: “If you’re trying to fuck a girl, but her mom’s home, fuck her mom! You understand? You want to fuck the girl, but her mom’s home? Fuck the mom. See?”

I look blankly at him. “You mean…”

“Now, you don’t really feel that way,” Violent J says. “You don’t really hate her mom. But for this moment when you’re trying to fuck this girl, fuck her! And that’s what we mean when we say fuck scientists. Sometimes they kill all the cool mysteries away. When I was a kid, they couldn’t tell you how pyramids were made…”

“Like Stonehenge and Easter Island,” says Shaggy. “Nobody knows how that shit got there.”

“But since then, scientists go, ‘I’ve got an explanation for that.’ It’s like, fuck you! I like to believe it was something out of this world.”

Now, I’ll hazard a guess that if you’re taking the time out of your busy week to listen to a science fiction podcast that you’re probably a big believer in Science as a source of wonderment.  I mean, it’s given us things like CERN and the National Ignition Facility, both of which have to be some of the coolest science happening within a few dozen parsecs of Earth. But really what the profile reminded me of was Jo Walton’s post over at Tor about the Moon landing and a backyard party:

I was at an outdoor party once. There was a beautiful full moon sailing above the trees, above the whole planet. And there was a guy at the party who proclaimed loudly that the boots of the Apollo astronauts had contaminated the magic of the moon and that it should have been left untouched. I disagreed really strongly. I felt that the fact that people had visited the moon made it a real place, while not stopping it being beautiful. There it was, after all, shining silver, and the thought that people had been there, that I could potentially go there one day, made it better for me. That guy wanted it to be a fantasy moon, and I wanted it to be a science fiction moon. And that’s how the day of the moon landing affected me and my relationship with science fiction, twenty years after it happened. It gave me a science fiction moon, full of wonder and beauty and potentially within my grasp.

Which is is an observation that I’ve turned over in my head many times since I first read it so many months ago. Though I’m quite skeptical that the opposite of science fiction is actually fantasy and not a more modern mysticism¹, but the point is that the stars are no more tarnished by our ability to begin to identify the planets among them in than the myths of the great sea monsters of old are tarnished by our discoveries of the real monsters of the deep. But for some the thought that all is not explicable is comforting, and I’ve always thought that part of science fiction’s job is to break down that belief that wonder is only found with a lack of understanding.


¹Overseeing the slush pile here at Escape Pod I know we get a lot of stories that are edge cases between us and Podcastle, and I’d argue that fantasy as a genre doesn’t really tolerate stories where the explanation for events or occurrences is truly lacking, it’s just that fantasy’s toolkit is a spellbook, and ours is a physics text. The explanation still has to exist in fantasy, whereas with these more modern mystics they seem to prefer no explanation whatsoever, merely the end product at which to marvel.