Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Trope-ing the light fantastic (life-sign detectors)

What is life? How can we identify it?

Those are tough questions. Every time one scientist thinks he's discovered signs of life on, say, Mars, another scientist offers an alternate explanation for the data. The pattern began with the Viking missions in the 1970s and continues to, most recently, the localized methane eruptions recently spotted by both terrestrial telescopes and a current Mars satellite mission.

Fictional life-sign detectors (LSD) have none of these difficulties. Like universal translators, an LSD is a great device for moving along a plot. No need to rendezvous with a derelict ship to see if the crew is living, ailing, or dead. No need to explore a whole freaking planet to find suspected castaways or your missing crew mates.

What, exactly, is the LSD detecting -- and across great distances, and often even across vacuum? Intracellular chemical reactions? Implausible (and wouldn't they be different for every species?). Respiration? Body heat (aka infrared)? Perhaps the coldblooded need not apply. Other electromagnetic emissions? Doubtful: It's not like human bodies transmit radio waves. Motion? Nope, the fictional LSD always manages to detect comatose creatures in need of rescue.

None of the above seems remotely plausible. None seems reliable -- even if I could imagine a sensitive enough detector -- to recognize life forms from a never-before-encountered biology.

Which leaves what? A "life force" unknown to today's science that an LSD may detect. IMO, that's medieval superstition, or parapsychological gibberish, or total handwavium.

Bottom line: The life-signs detector is a trope (or LSD, indeed).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

An evolving picture

February is the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of first publication of his On the Origin of Species. Not surprisingly, the monthly theme for The Year of Science is evolution.

Evolution is, pure and simple, one of the most powerful and elegant ideas in science. That said, the last thing the web needs is more yammering on the meaning and power of evolution. So how, you ask, am I going to eke out a post from this topic?

My pre-authorial background is primarily in physics and computer science. Both disciplines rely powerfully -- if in very different ways -- on the power of abstraction. Knowing when it's okay (and when it's not!) to:

  • leave pesky third-order effects out of a simulation
  • apply idealized conditions ("Friction? We don't need no stinkin' friction.")
  • calculate with difference equations (discrete-valued) rather than differential equations (continuous-valued)
is a key to success in both physics and CS. So: abstraction, approximation, simplification ... but how far can one carry it? Mae West to the contrary, too much of a good thing isn't always wonderful.

Albert Einstein once (apocryphally?) said: A theory should be as simple as possible, and no simpler. A good scientist has the insight to find the right degree of abstraction to make progress on the problem at hand.

Given my background, what most fascinates me about the discovery of evolution by Darwin (and, to be fair and complete, also by Alfred Russel Wallace) is the attendant use of abstraction. Think, for a moment, about random variation, aka genetic drift, and natural selection. Both are extremely powerful notions -- and no one 150 years ago had a clue what physical mechanism(s) might underlie either. Mendelian genetics, its significance unrecognized until the early twentieth century, began to give a clue about how evolution might work -- again, without any notion what the underlying mechanism(s) might be. Crick and Watson did not publish their seminal paper on DNA and its role in cellular biology until 1953. Not so much as an entire bacterial genome had been sequenced until 1995.

My point? How easy would it have been to abandon evolutionary theory in its early stages for lack of complementary theories/discoveries to explain evolution's deeper levels? Knowing how and when to abstract is a wonderful thing -- rarely so well and insightfully done as during the early stages of developing evolutionary theory.

So: Happy 200th, Mr. Darwin. And while I'm at it, thanks for the idea behind -- even the title of -- Fools' Experiments.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Binary stars

This isn't a post about astronomy, but read on -- you'll find that the title is apt. (An author's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a metaphor?)

SFsite's "Novel Delights of 2008" is newly posted. This isn't exactly a best-of list, but rather (in the reviewer's words) offered because "for pure thematic and/or literary variety and entertainment value I'd like to draw some attention to the following six novels." Only six books, fantasy and SF, and -- imagine my surprise -- two of the six titles are mine: Juggler of Worlds and Fools' Experiments. (Of course Juggler is also Larry Niven's.) These are excellent reviews, IMO, informative without spoilers.

The SFsite article is by Dave Truesdale, longtime contributor to the Hugo Award-nominated short-fiction review website Tangent Online and for several years now the "Off on a Tangent" essayist for F&SF magazine.

And here's a second twofer ... Fast Forward: Contemporary Science Fiction is a syndicated cable TV show (with an affiliated website) dedicated to SF. Their December 2008 book review was about Fleet of Worlds and -- back to back -- their January 2009 book review was about Juggler of Worlds. Again, both are my (and Larry's) books, this time one a 2007 release and the other a 2008 release.

The Fast Forward write-ups are also (still IMO, of course) good and spoiler-free reviews. As is to be expected: FF's long-time book reviewer, Colleen Cahill, is, by day, Library of Congress Recommending Officer for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

(Yes, yes ... you caught me vanity-surfing. Two double recognitions were too good not to share.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Alien aliens (AIs)

The case can surely be made that artificial intelligences will be alien -- different in origin and nature from us.

In my earlier look at AI (which concluded that AI can be more than a trope), I opined that our lack of success in achieving AI may stem from anthropomorphism. Never mind that we can't define intelligence, awareness, or consciousness. We characterize intelligence (per the Turing test) as communicating -- hence (much unstated waving of hands) thinking -- indistinguishably from us. And so AIs in fiction often think like humans and even strive to behave like humans.

Consider, for example, Mike (named for Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's smarter brother) in Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Or, more recently, Brittney the teeny-bopper AI in Richard A. Lovett's "Sands of Titan" and sequels in Analog. (I'd love [for a change, no pun intended] to offer a link. Lovett has no personal web page and somehow avoided having a Wikipedia page.) Both AIs simply emerged, bypassing our continuing lack of understanding of how we might implement an AI. Both take humans as role models. I've written stories using a similar premise -- recognizing as I did so that I was committing a trope.

There's much to be said for exploring scenarios beyond our images somehow becoming embedded in silicon. In my latest novel, Fools' Experiments, I showed an AI evolving from very primitive software. Artificial life inside a computer may have some parallels with carbon-based life -- but surely there will also be many differences. Look how much aquatic and land-based life vary. How different might an in-computer entity be from a biological being evolved on a planet?

That's but one type of alien AI. Another is the AI so advanced (think: beyond the Singularity) that it can't be represented directly to mere humans -- the author keeps the AI character offstage. Example: the "Eschaton" of Charles Stross's Singularity Sky.

AIs can be alien even when built in their programmers' image: when the programmer is an alien. That's one theme in my InterstellarNet series of stories, about a radio-based interstellar community. (Physical travel between stars being impractical, the humans and aliens alike transmit AIs to represent them. Surprise! the alien AIs are alien, and follow alien agendas.)

As always, there can be hybrids. In Code of the Life Maker, James P. Hogan plants alien factory automation on Titan -- and it mutates. It evolves, over eons, into a whole AI- and robot-based ecology. Neat premise. Neat story.

So AIs can be alien. Even alien alien.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Heavy on the SF, (hopefully) light on the nonsense

If you ever wondered what an SF author's chat session is like ... wonder no more!

The first (of an occasional series?) of SF and Nonsense chats was held January 24th. Topics included tropes in SF, what makes SFnal aliens interesting, genre and subgenre boundaries, and science popularizations. Along the way, we almost certainly took potshots at something you hold dear.

The whole dialogue, from start to finish, is here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The sky is falling (and that's the least of our worries)

From astronomer Philip Plait, he who brought us Bad Astronomy (the website, the blog, the book -- could a Broadway show be far behind?), a wonderful new book: Death from the Skies: These Are the Ways the World Will End.

In a word ... kudos!

This is an excellent (and highly enjoyable) astronomy and cosmology popularization. It's structured as a survey of the many ways life on Earth, or Earth itself, or the universe itself, has its days numbered. There's a disaster here for every taste, from asteroid strike to the Big Rip, with lots more catastrophes at varying scales in between. Each hypothetical hazard motivates a survey of the related science.

What's your pleasure? Errant black holes? Gamma ray bursters? Nearby supernova? All in there -- and more.

I found glossed-over details here and there over which I could quibble -- but I'll keep 'em to myself. This was a fun, entertaining read.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Tag, you're it

RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are scary things -- a threat to our safety and our civil liberties. I've thought so long enough to write two near-future stories about the topic and a related technology overview article.

How many RFID tags move around with you? There may be one in your passport (there is, if you got or renewed your passport recently), your subway farecard, the tollroad E-Zpass transponder on your car's sun visor, your contactless credit card(s), your Exxon Mobil Speedpass key fob -- even your sneakers. That may be only the start. There's talk, from time to time, of putting RFIDs in driver licenses and even currency, ostensibly to make them harder to counterfeit.

And my concern? The whole point of the tags is that they can be read conveniently from a nearby reader device. But what if a slightly improved reader, or a standard reader with a larger antenna, extends the range a bit? Then muggers will be able to see who's carrying lots of cash. Terrorists will be able to pick US tourists out of a crowd from a distance. And any ID (like your passport) that can be read from a distance can be cloned. And that's only the beginning of the danger ....

If you disbelieve that RFID tags announce themselves to eavesdropping readers, watch this video.

(For completeness: "The Day of the RFIDs" first appeared in the anthology Future Washington, October 2005. The story is available from and in my collection Creative Destruction. "The Night of the RFIDs" and "Beyond This Point Be RFIDs" (the related nonfiction piece) appeared in Analog (in the May 2008 and September 2007 issues, respectively.)

Thanks to Scott for the URL to the video.