My Passion for Communication about Science

In addition to writing fiction, I write non-fiction, usually about technology-based businesses, specializing in making the science behind new inventions easy to understand to non-technical audiences. I am passionate about making science accessible and often post on this topic on my business blog. I’m even working on a method that non-scientists can use to help them understand scientific news.

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Ruminations from Ad Astra: The Accuracy of Science

I attended a panel at Ad Astra about the use of ‘old science’ in science fiction. Discussion centred on the use of outdated scientific concepts in popular media and how the science fiction literature might contribute to this or remedy it, assuming it needs remedying.

An example of an outdated science is that humans only use ten percent of their brain capacity. Another – right brain functions deliver creative outputs while the left brain is analytical¹. Alpha wolves, faster than light speed travel – these are themes that crop up on a regular basis.²

A parallel topic, the understanding of science by a general audience, is factor that motives me. It intrigues me, plagues me, makes me want to write and renders me powerless all at once. I’m concerned about newer ideas that I find floating around in the social media clouds:

  • vaccines causing disease,
  • the perils of GMO’s,canstockphoto2945220
  • the nutritional value of foods,
  • animal cloning and breeding,
  • allergens,
  • bubbling beakers full of multi-coloured liquids in the lab
  • the exploitation of science by big business.

My pet peeve is the word TOXIN. I often see it used in a vague and sinister manner, all the more horrible because it isn’t defined, as some insidious, painful, abusive, disfiguring, and debilitating thing. This is an accurate definition. A toxin is something that causes some kind of harm. However, there are few universal toxins. Most are very specific. Air, water, oxygen, sunlight are all toxic to something if administered in too great a dose or the wrong way. (Fish can’t breath in air, animals drown if they’re inhale water, oxygen is explosive and will radicalize and damage metal and DNA etc., sunlight causes cancers but is essential for the survival of most things on the planet.) It’s all in the details of dose, method of administration, and biological compatibility.

This could be a war between entertainment and reality. We don’t want to turn all forms of media into infomercials. Maybe I do. But infomercials in their purest sense – no agenda other than increasing knowledge. Okay, I do have an agenda – to help people understand. Misunderstanding of the topics on my list may cause stress and uncertainty.

Take vaccinations – as an example. If we accept that vaccinations help prevent disease, then avoiding vaccinations puts people at risk for pain and suffering. If the people who are concerned about the safety and efficacy of vaccinations could be certain they were beneficial, they could (a) stop worrying if they were doing the right thing, (b) be protected from whatever disease the vaccination prevented and (c) help prevent the spread of disease, if the vaccine protected against something infectious.

Sounds good. All that remains is the small task of creating engaging science fiction stories that accurately portray emerging scientific findings. I’d better get busy writing. And pulling together a list of stories by other authors that I think do science justice. (Coming soon.)

Thanks to the panelists and the audience for stimulating thoughts about the challenge of telling entertaining tales with science fact. Often, there are no simple answers or explanations of how humans function and interact with our environment. Explaining the complexity, the more than fifty shade of grey, is this writer’s challenge.

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1. Mapping of brain activity and function is complex and new knowledge is constantly added. As I understand it, at any given time, there are neurons firing in many parts of the brain. At another time, in different parts. Any complex function, like playing Cards against Humanity, will use many parts of the brain, on the right side, left side and connections between. Certain simple functions, like receiving visual information and limb movement, are associated with specific areas of the brain but mostly, it’s more complicated than that. I’ve always viewed the 10% and right/left ideas as metaphorical. All of us could think more, and there are those of us who are more analytical and those more creative, especially in how they initially approach problems. What I do know, and this may be key – is that I don’t know it all. And wouldn’t pretend to without a great deal of research.

2. Some shows, considered a sub-genre of science fiction called space opera, are not in this category. Shows like Dr. Who and Star Trek don’t pretend to be based on hard science. They are either pure fantasy or based so far in the future that the writers have poetic license to postulate what looks like impossible technology based on today’s standards.

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Isn’t Adaptation a Good Thing?

I can’t explain how I just came across this article posted on the CBC website in February,  but I’m glad I did.

The title and tag-line are evocative : ‘Cities causing genetic changes in plants, animals. Wild things may be changing at a genetic level to survive in modern cities.’ Genetic changes, but not necessarily mutations due to environmental mutagens, or changes engineered by man1. The changes discussed may be old-fashion advantages brought out by the selective pressures of the environment. They could be traits that have existed in a population for generations but are now more prevalent because they confer an advantage. I think this is exciting – a real life example of adaptive evolution. Not just some stuffy theory with no relevance to real life. It’s also exciting to me because it means life will go on. Not that I had any doubt it would, but having evidence of adaptation in several species is great.

Two examples provided in the article are:

  • a variant gene in fish that makes PCBs less toxic to them and
  • shorter wing span in swallows that likely allows them to be more nimble and dodge traffic.

Hooray – the birds and fish are surviving. Perhaps there shouldn’t be PCBs or traffic in their environment in the first place, but, well, there are. We are working on decreasing both of these things, but meanwhile, the birds and fish are doing okay.

One of the scientists interviewed for the CBC article disagrees, and is quoted as saying he thinks it might be a bad thing, because selected new phenotypes are often associated with other changes, such as decreased life span, sensitivity to other stressors or less reproductive capacity. I can see that’s a possibility. As an example, consider primate evolution from quadrupedal to bipedal.

This whole walking upright thing has its drawbacks. Sure, we can now reach to put things in the overhead bin in the airplane, but we might have fewer back problems if we’d stayed walking on all fours. That of course would put many chiropractors and massage therapists out of work and might endanger their offspring’s chances of going to university. But that might allow them to explore career options at the local college and, after one thing leads to another, decrease poor indoor ventilation conditions in many homes and workplaces, thereby lowering the incidence of asthma complications and increasing the prevalence of asthma (by increasing survival of those with it).2

My point? Yes, adaptation, by selected trait, is likely to have associated consequences. I can’t think of a reason they are more likely to be a liability, like decreased life span or reproductive power, than an asset. There are observations that certain drug-resistant bacteria are less reproductively fit than their non-resistant cousins, but I can’t find any reason to believe this is a universal phenomena. The only fundamental reason I can think of for decreased reproductive capacity in multi-cellular organisms is that most creatures are more interested in mating with another creature that is the same as they are, so if the new variant appears different, it may have a problem getting a date.

Overall, the article described great science and made interesting observations on the interaction of species with the environment. But it makes me optimistic, not pessimistic. Don’t get me wrong, these observations in no way justify polluting the environment. However, they do suggest we will survive our errors long enough to right them.

1. It might interest that this is the same kind of genetic change that proponents of genetically modified organisms claim we have been doing for centuries with our crops and domestic animals. Selection of a naturally occurring variant with a desirable trait.

2. Have I mentioned that I believe in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things?

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A Romp* through Science Fiction, Theory and Fact

Wonderful stories about a new theory on menopause appeared in the media yesterday. I first saw it here.

Menopause, as a topic, is about as socially awkward as puberty with saggier skin, but at least the drinking is legal. When faced with this topic, I do what writers do when they wouldn’t be caught dead admitting something directly effects them, I make up stories about it. Two of my published short works were inspired by menopause.

But enough about me. As a scientist, menopause fascinates me. Humans are the only species who lose the ability to reproduce as they age – every other old female animal (and plant, bug, starfish etc.) is still biologically capable of producing babies till the day she dies. From basic scientific theory**, this makes sense for the living world, so why have humans opted out? In order for living things to keep being living things, they must reproduce. The purpose of any given organism is to propagate its genes through its offspring. And, in order to adapt to changes in the environment, certain genetic traits are selected through time – survival of the fittest.

If you accept that these biological theories apply to people, then the question is – Why? Why do 50-ish women shut down hormonally, lose the ability to conceive and all the other nasty physical and emotional consequences that come with it? Evolutionary theory insists there must be some selective pressure for this, some survival advantage that genes dictating the shut down must have. Why would it be better for the survival of the species and a person’s own genes to stop making more of them?

Some theories relate to the ability to raise children. Rather than dying in childbirth at 48, a woman who goes through menopause and survives into her sixties is there to raise her younger children and help with her grandchildren, thereby propagating her own genes. This makes sense to me. The new theory that inspired this blog post suggests that the selective pressure relates to men choosing younger women as the mothers of their children and menopause genes becoming prevalent in humans because there was no resultant pressure to weed them out. But I think there has to be more to it than that. There needs to be a positive selection pressure.

This is where I get to leap into science fiction. Post menopausal women are different, their goals and perspectives on life are not the same as those driven by breeding urges. Maybe the survival advantage older women have is the ability to provide wisdom, to tell good stories. In ancient times, they were protected and revered, ensuring the survival of the post-menopausal.

My stories inspired by menopause appear in :

Twisted Tails III  In ‘Post Apocalypse’, a woman who cannot have children must find her purpose in a small, isolated tribe of people.

In the Amprosia anthology, my story ‘What Ails You’ is about a woman in a future society who tries to retain her youth and the price she pays for imitating the biology of other species.

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*And when I say romp, I mean a tumultuous, random, mostly fun with a few serious bits, kind of brief outing. This video of tigers playing is the perfect metaphor for the way I see science fiction, theory and fact interacting. There’s a lot of weight being thrown around, sometimes the three are going in the same direction, sometimes not. It looks like fun, until someone tries to exert dominance and then the teeth and claws come out. Besides, who doesn’t want a story to end with a cute animal video?

** (For more background on these theories, this is a start  )

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