Posts about science fiction

Changing Life as We Know It

Update: Independent researchers find no evidence for arsenic life in Mono Lake

NASA has made a discovery that changes our understanding of the very makeup of life itself on earth. I think my favorite scientific discipline name is astrobiology. NASA pursues a great deal of this research not just out in space but also looking at earth based life. Their astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

photo of Felisa Wolfe-Simon

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh, but beautiful (see photo), environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

“The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.” This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth.

In science such huge breakthroughs are not just excepted without debate, however, which is wise.

Thriving on Arsenic:

In other words, every experiment Wolfe-Simon performed pointed to the same conclusion: GFAJ-1 can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA. “I really have no idea what another explanation would be,” Wolfe-Simon says.

But Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL, remains skeptical. If you “replace all the phosphates by arsenates,” in the backbone of DNA, he says, “every bond in that chain is going to hydrolyze [react with water and fall apart] with a half-life on the order of minutes, say 10 minutes.” So “if there is an arsenate equivalent of DNA in that bug, it has to be seriously stabilized” by some as-yet-unknown mechanism.

It is sure a great story if it is true though. Other scientists will examine more data and confirm or disprove the claims.

“We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team’s lead scientist. “If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”
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Robot with Biological Brain

The Living Robot by Joe Kloc

Life for Warwick’s robot began when his team at the University of Reading spread rat neurons onto an array of electrodes. After about 20 minutes, the neurons began to form connections with one another. “It’s an innate response of the neurons,” says Warwick, “they try to link up and start communicating.”

For the next week the team fed the developing brain a liquid containing nutrients and minerals. And once the neurons established a network sufficiently capable of responding to electrical inputs from the electrode array, they connected the newly formed brain to a simple robot body consisting of two wheels and a sonar sensor.

At first, the young robot spent a lot of time crashing into things. But after a few weeks of practice, its performance began to improve as the connections between the active neurons in its brain strengthened. “This is a specific type of learning, called Hebbian learning,” says Warwick, “where, by doing something habitually, you get better at doing it.”

“It’s fun just looking at it as a robot life form, but I think it may also contribute to a better understanding of how our brain works,” he says. Studying the ways in which his robot learns and stores memories in its brain may provide new insights into neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Related: Roachbot: Cockroach Controlled RobotRat Brain Cells, in a Dish, Flying a PlaneHow The Brain Rewires ItselfBrain Development

Science and Engineering Fiction

cover of The Ice Limit

We always hear of science fiction. But what about engineering fiction? Well I finished reading a book this weekend that was at least as much engineering fiction as science fiction: The Ice Limit by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. It was a fun read. I enjoy the books those two collaborate on.

I also finished reading another book recently. I recommend Panic in Level 4 by Richard Preston. He wrote The Hot Zone, which is also great. He writes what “literary nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction.” The book includes 2 stories on math, about the Chudnovsky brothers, and 4 on biological science stories. I believe they were all previously stories in the New Yorker.

Douglas Preston and Richard Preston are brothers. It is just a happy co-incidence I happened to read them both recently. I just noticed the last names were the same so I looked online to see if they were related. Here is a nice bit from Douglas Preston’s web site:

As they grew up, Doug, Richard, and their little brother David roamed the quiet suburbs of Wellesley, terrorizing the natives with home-made rockets and incendiary devices mail-ordered from the backs of comic books or concocted from chemistry sets.

After unaccountably being rejected by Stanford University (a pox on it), Preston attended Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he studied mathematics, biology, physics, anthropology, chemistry, geology, and astronomy before settling down to English literature.

Also I read Tyrannosaur Canyon by Douglas Preston a few months ago. I preferred it to Ice Limit actually (but it didn’t have the engineering fiction angle) just a fun thriller with some science fiction thrown in.

Related: Ebola Outbreak in Ugandascience booksWaterloo’s wizards of game theoryThe Best Science BooksMy favorite science fiction author Orson Scott Card

Pynchonverse Science

Mind-Bending Science in Thomas Pynchon’s Mind-Bending Novel Against The Day: Part I

Pynchon takes the science of this period and incorporates it deeply into the language and structure of Against the Day, more so perhaps than in any of his other novels. Against the Day is suffused with meditations on light, space, and time, and often plays with the tension between different perspectives in math and physics – classical physics versus relativity, Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism described with the imaginary numbers of quaternions versus the real numbers of vector analysis. This material is not just filler – it’s critical to the core of Against the Day, a fact which has been underappreciated in early reviews of the novel.

One reviewer claimed that a new generation of writers has a “grasp of the systems that fascinate Pynchon — science, capitalism, religion, politics, technology — [that] is surer, more nuanced, more adult and inevitably yields more insight into how those systems work than Pynchon offers here.” When it comes to science at least, this claim is not true – Pynchon’s achievement in Against the Day proves that he is peerless as a poet who can mine science for gems of insight and set them into the context of the humanity that is the ultimate concern of his novels.

This great post offers a detailed explanation of some of the science related to Pynchon’s writing.

Related: Books by Thomas Pynchon (with online resource links)New Yorker Review of Against the Day