Strange Survivors


Strange Survivors is a non-fiction book by Professor Oné Pagán from West Chester University, and examines the way natural selection has lead to an astonishing variety of attack and defense mechanisms in the game of life.

Strange Survivors is an example of scicomm—a book designed to communicate science in a clear and interesting manner. It’s designed for the general public and could be read by anyone from Grade 10 upwards. It’s easy reading. Professor Pagán has a light, breezy style of writing that is conversational. You get the feeling he’s chatting with you over a cup of coffee in a university cafe between lectures.

At first, I thought this book would be about the oddities of life, focusing on obscure examples that are interesting curiosities, but don’t really resonate as I’m unlikely to ever see any of them in anything outside of a book or a nature documentary. Professor Pagán, though, shows us that we’re ALL strange survivors in that, after 3.8 billion years we’ve survived. Every species on Earth has survived against the odds to reach this point in time, eclipsing every other extinct species. Even you, personally, are here against all odds. I won’t steal his thunder, but the odds of you being the child of your mother and father are stupendously low. In this way, Professor Pagán uses Strange Survivors to enrich our appreciation of the wonder of life.

Strange Survivors is a guided tour of modern biology, looking at the surprising role of physical properties like electricity in producing and sustaining life. Professor Pagán makes the point that no single molecule in your body is actually alive. They’re just molecules—of water, various salts, chains of carbon forming things like DNA, but none of them are actually alive, no more so than if you were looking at them in a petri dish under a microscope—and yet, here you are—a survivor!

Confused about quorum sensing among bacteria? Professor Pagán’s answer is, “Let’s imagine a hockey team. Their ultimate objective is to get the puck into the net. To do so…” And with that he reduces a complex subject to a sports analogy, making it easy to follow.

Enjoy milk in your coffee? Or on your cereal? So do ants, but not in the way you think. They domesticate and raise aphids in a similar manner to how we raise cattle, and they milk them for their sugary excretions. See? Us and ants—we’re both strange survivors.

Strange Survivors is technically accurate and isn’t shy with scientific terms, but never in a manner that’s intimidating or overbearing. This isn’t fiction—you have to think as you read, but the reward is an increased understanding of the astonishing variety of life on Earth and the strategies species use to survive.

The thing I enjoyed most about Strange Survivors is its desire to impart a sense of awe about the natural realm. We’re time poor in modern life, accustom to sound-bites and sensationalism, but more than ever there’s a need for books like Strange Survivors as they remind us that science is the foundation of modern society. Science isn’t some new high priesthood, carried out behind closed doors by people in white coats chanting scientific terms in a strange tongue. On the contrary, science is the pinnacle of human achievement and should be accessible to all—and Strange Survivors shows us that science is merely a means of understanding the world around us. It gives us a glimpse into the weird, wonderful and strange world of biology that we’re all a part of.

Strange Survivors is available in ebook, paperback and hardback from the end of February 2018, and can be preordered now.

Disclosure: I received an advanced copy of Strange Survivors in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Book plates


Being an Australian author, it’s horribly impractical and horrendously expensive to sign books for readers in the US and the UK, so I’ve done a limited print run of book plates for fans of my writing.

Book plates are A5 size stylized stickers I can sign and post anywhere in the world. They can then be stuck inside any of my novels to give you a unique personalized book.

Rare Titanic Artifacts From Lifeboat No. 1 & Other Historic Autographs - Auction Sneak Peak

Signed copies of The Great Gatsby have sold for US$90,000

My autograph will never be in high demand, but while researching this I was impressed to learn that signed copies of J.K. Rowling‘s first edition of Harry Potter are worth $24,000, while her hand written copy of The Tales of Beedle The Bard sold at auction for an astonishing $4 million!!

Rowling

J.K. Rowling clearly had a LOT of fun with this

If you’d like a book plate, please leave a message on this page with…

  • your postal address
  • and the name of the book you have

I’ll write something about that book and mail the book plate to you. Your comment/address will not be made public, and will be deleted once I’ve popped your book plate in the mail.

All the best,

Peter

Retrograde by Peter Cawdron [The Best Sci-fi book I’ve read this year]


Here’s a review of my latest novel RETROGRADE

Raven & Beez

Retrograde’s blurb caught my attention quicker than cake and that’s saying something. It’s about a colony of humans from all walks of Earth settling on Mars for research. But how will things turn out when nuclear war devastates everyone back home?

This book revolved around such an interesting concept. A far as I know, The Martian by Andy Weir deals with a short-term journey to Mars gone wrong but this book deals with the long-term situation with not one but a whole group of 120 scientists, astronauts, medical staff, and engineers. 

PSX_20171022_142941.jpgThe story is told from the POV of Liz, a US colonist. The book doesn’t shift POV’s and despite that, we were able to get a perfect idea of the situation in all the 4 modules on Mars, which included the US, the Russians, the Eurasians and the Chinese. I was amazed at how well this was done. To…

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Did life arise before Earth formed?


How did life arise on Earth?

It’s a good question and one that has intrigued people for thousands of years.

Every major religion has an origin story, but they’re not based on scientific evidence. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species explored how the variations within species arose, but stopped short of talking about the origin of life itself.

Even now, over a hundred and fifty years later, we’re not much closer to understanding how life first arose as the evidence is scant. There is, however, an interesting theory that life may be older than Earth itself.

The oldest evidence for life on Earth is trapped in rocks over four billion years old.

Graphite deposits found in Zircon. Image credit: E A Bell et al, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 2015.

Tiny graphite deposits trapped in zircon diamond fragments reveal carbon-12 ratios that suggest life existed 4.1 billion years ago, which is astonishing given the planet itself is only 4.5 billion years old. How could life arise so quickly in the hostile environment of early Earth?

We’ve looked at the phylogenetic tree of life and assumed the point of origin from where all species emanated occurred shortly after the formation of the planet, but the genomic evidence suggests otherwise.

The phylogenetic tree of life shows the relationship between all species on Earth

The human genome contains roughly 23,000 genes, being built up from six billion nucleotide pairs, the biological alphabet of G, A, T & C (guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine). As impressive as that sounds, the humble tomato has almost 32,000 genes, far more than we have. Over billions of years of evolution, DNA has grown to astonishing levels of complexity.

When scientists look at the complexity of non-redundant functional nucleotides, an interesting relationship emerges between genome size and the evolution of various organisms.

The complexity of organisms as measured by the length of functional non-redundant DNA in the genome increases with time. Image credit: Shirov & Gordon (2013), via https://arxiv.org/abs/1304.3381

On the surface, it’s not surprising to see genome complexity increase over time, but if we run the tape backwards, we find this relationship suggests that life is older than Earth itself, originating somewhere between nine and ten billion years ago.

There are some interesting implications to this finding, as discussed in a research paper published on Arxiv.

  • Earth was seeded by panspermia, where life arose elsewhere, was blown into space with the death of a star, and eventually arrived here on comets and asteroids
  • Life took a long time (almost 5 billion years or longer than Earth has been around) to reach the complexity of even simple bacteria like prokaryotes
  • The environments in which life originated and evolved to a pre-prokaryote stage may have been quite different from Earth
  • As the universe is 13.7 billion years old, carbon-based DNA life arose within 4 billion years of the Big Bang and may have spread remarkably wide
  • The slow progression of genomic complexity suggests there was no intelligent life in our universe prior to the origin of Earth, thus Earth could not have been deliberately seeded with life by intelligent aliens (Sorry Prometheus fans, no engineers)
  • The Drake equation for guesstimating the number of civilizations in the universe is likely wrong, as intelligent life would have only just begun appearing in the universe

Is it really such a surprise that life could have originated beyond Earth, billions of years before the planet formed?

Every element on Earth came into existence outside our solar system. The formation of our Sun simply dragged together the debris and detritus left over from a previous generation of stars.

All stars end their lives by throwing off their outer shells, and destroying their solar systems, suggesting a natural mechanism for panspermia (the seeding of life throughout the universe).

We’ve known for decades this process included inorganic material, like gold, silver and platinum, but now it seems it may have also included the frozen remnants of microbial life on other worlds.

If this theory is correct, then we may well find evidence for life on Mars, and perhaps living organisms on Europa and Enceladus, as they would have been seeded at the same point in time as Earth. Such life would be distantly related to us, having branched away from all terrestrial lifeforms before prokaryotic bacteria evolved on Earth. Also, it means other stars that formed from the same stellar nursery some five billion years ago, may harbor distant DNA cousins.

It’s a speculative theory, but based on an interesting observation, and accounts for the astonishingly quick rise of life on Earth. Regardless of whether it’s correct, the challenge we face when it comes to abiogenesis is in understanding how sub-prokaryotic life developed in the first place. The advantage of this theory is it gives life plenty of time to develop, which is actually more plausible than the rapid development necessary if life first arose on Earth.

In billions of years time, the Sun will blow off its outer shell and decimate Earth, and panspermia will begin again. Will other lifeforms arise from our celestial ruins? Will they develop intelligence and figure out the genomic path that lead to their formation, and perhaps gain a glimpse of life on this planet?

As much as I love writing science fiction, it is science itself that is often stranger and wilder than anything I can imagine.

 

 

Bareboat sailing in the Whitsundays


My wife and I both turned 50 this year, so to celebrate, we thought we’d do a combined birthday bash in the Whitsundays with the kids.

Bareboat sailing is exactly what it sounds like. You hire a bare boat and sail yourself around the Queensland Whitsunday islands.

As a close friend will attest, my previous sailing efforts during my teens resulted in capsizing and sinking a training yacht (something I probably should have disclosed to the rest of the family beforehand). In all seriousness, though, I undertook a basic sailing course a few months before our holiday, and we then opted for an additional half-a-day sailing refresher before heading out on our own (something I highly recommend).

We were sailing an 11 meter catamaran (36 feet), which had plenty of space for the six of us. Downstairs in the sleeping quarters, galley and toilets was cramped but comfortable, while the deck area in between was spacious and well sheltered, and quickly became the hub for our activity.

We flew in the day before, stayed in a local motel, and went shopping for groceries and beer. Our plan was to divide the trip in two, with a stop on Hamilton Island to restock supplies, which worked really well for us. There’s an IGA grocery there that’s reasonably priced considering everything’s shipped from the mainland.

At first, sailing was a bit stressful, but soon became comfortable, and by the end of the journey, we were quite competent with the catamaran. Cats are the Winnebagos of the sea. They’re easy to work with, very forgiving, and quite relaxed even in high winds. Our toughest day at sea was the second day when we crossed the main channel between the islands, where the seas were at 1.5 meters and winds gusted up to 28 km/hr (18 mph). In these conditions, the cat performed wonderful, riding the waves with ease.

The key sailing skills needed are:

  • Understanding tacking (into the wind) & jibing (away from the wind)
  • Confidence in raising & lowering sails in rough conditions
  • Map reading and understanding how winds/tides impact sailing
  • Checking your GPS and depth finder constantly when in shallow waters (entering bays, waiting outside Hamilton Island, etc)
  • Anchoring and mooring

The rigging was set so there were only a few lines we had to work, and once we became comfortable with that, sailing was smooth. There was no need to adjust the sails while tacking, with only a little work required when jibing, and we had a blast sailing along with the wind in our hair.

Early in the journey it was apparent to all of us that we weren’t old salts. We had a choice to make. We could madly sail around the Whitsundays trying to see all the key spots, or we could relax and enjoy ourselves. We opted for the latter, which was especially prudent as from weather forecasts we knew had at least 24 hrs of rain to deal with.

The hire company conducted ‘skids’ each morning and afternoon, where they provide information on weather, and ask about our plans, any challenges we had with the boat, etc, so we were always in contact with someone.

Each morning, we’d roll out the map, check the tides and catch the weather report, and then discuss our options and what could unfold that day and the next. We chose a conservative, relaxed holiday, and spent a lot of time snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, playing cards and drink a few brewskis.

Our itinerary was:

  • Day 1 – sailing training in the bay by Airlie Beach, anchoring in Funnel Bay (windy, but only light waves, no swell at night)
  • Day 2 – Up to Blue Pearl Bay on Hayman Island, then down to Nadia Inlet for the night (astonishingly calm anchorage)
  • Day 3 – Rainy, had to choose between heading East around Whitsunday Island (more scenic, but rough weather), or a short run to Cid Harbor (which turned out to be idllic even in a storm)
  • Day 4 – Short sail to Hamilton Island (showers and laundry day)
  • Day 5 – Whitehaven beach (stunning), and moored overnight in Tongue Bay (amazing snorkeling, great walk to Hill Inlet)
  • Day 6 – Esk Island. Moored offshore, took the inflatable in, walked around the island. Water was astonishingly clear. Would be beautiful to snorkel.
  • Day 7 – Spent the sixth night at Hamilton again, as one of the crew cut a finger with a knife and required a tetanus shot. No one complained about staying at Hamilton again as it’s very relaxed. Headed back to Airlie Beach via Daydream Island

Cyclone Debbie hit the Whitsundays back in March of this year, and the devastation was obvious. Hayman Island was covered in dead trees, as was Whitehaven Beach, and a lot of the corals were smashed. Although we missed sailing the eastern sides of Hook Island and Whitsunday Island, we heard from others they were pretty badly battered by the storm. Even so, there was a rugged beauty to the Whitsundays, something that can’t be manufactured. Seeing the Milky Way from pitch black darkness of Whitsunday Island was astonishing, and we even caught sight of a few meteorites.

If you want to snorkel, time your arrival at places like Blue Pearl Bay or Tongue Bay with a low tide as the tides vary by up to 3 meters (10 feet), putting the reefs out of clear sight.

If you get the chance to sail the Whitsundays, go for it.

10/10 from me.

The value of books


Happy Birthday to me… All my ebooks are now free.

I turn 50 this weekend, and to celebrate, I thought I’d give away all of my books for free. Well, not quite all of them, as there are some where I can’t influence the price because they’re in anthologies, or with Kindle Worlds, or have been developed by a publisher, etc, but I think there’s roughly twenty that will be free this weekend.

I rarely do book giveaways, because all too often, books are undervalued, but this is a nice milestone for me so I thought you’d like to celebrate along with me. It got me thinking, though, about the actual cost of a novel.

Don’t underestimate the real cost of a book, as it is not found in its price, but in the investment of your most precious commodity—time.

The independent writing revolution spearheaded by the advent of eBooks and platforms like KDP (Kindle Digital Press for Amazon), Smashwords and a host of others has lead to a glut of books on the market, which has driven prices down. And yet for me, it offered the opportunity to be published long before a traditional publisher took interest in my writing, and that exposure to readers and their feedback allowed me to refine my craft.

The inevitable consequence of a glut is falling prices. It’s simple economics—supply vs demand. Over supply and prices fall as suppliers (authors) seek to satisfy demand from readers. Some authors jealously guard their marketing secrets like the alchemists of old, thinking they are pitted in a struggle for the reader’s attention against other authors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of oversupply reaching for a limited market, we should be looking to expand the market. Nothing inspires readers like a good book. Nothing encourages someone to pick up another novel than the satisfaction of a great read.

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What is the true worth of a book? Where does its value lie?

I brought The Martian when it was an independent eBook priced at 99c, and then spent $70 taking my family to see the movie (yes, movies are horribly overpriced in Australia). All up, I’ve spent the best part of a hundred dollars on a single story, but it was money well spent.

On the other hand, I’ve spent $30 on paperbacks from big name science fiction writers, only to stop reading after a few chapters. A waste of money? Not quite, you see the value of a book lies not in its cost, but in how it enriches our lives. Money buys a seat at the table, but the real cost of a book is the time I’m prepared to invest in reading, as that time is priceless.

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Think of it this way. In New York, you can buy a burger from a corner store run by three generations of Italians, or you can get one from the Waldorf Astoria. The burger is largely the same regardless, the price is not. The creamy mustard, crisp lettuce, juicy meat patty, soft bread, and smooth ketchup that runs down your cheek defines the real value of the burger. Which is better? Honestly, there’s no way to know without tasting, but judging the burger by the money exchanged is folly regardless of whether you paid more or less.

Part of the problem is we judge book prices by other book prices, rather than the enjoyment each book brings. In reality, we should compare book prices with other commodities that bring enjoyment. I know people that will agonized over spending 99c for an ebook but will spend five bucks on a good coffee. Little do they know, the real cost of the book they just purchased is their commitment to read it.

Never underestimate the power of a good book to soothe your soul and inspire you. Reading books is like recharging batteries, giving you new life with which to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.

My latest novel Retrograde is now available, and no, it’s not free. It’s not 99c. It’ll cost you more than a cup of coffee, but in the words of six time Hugo award winning author Ben Bova…

Science fiction as it should be. Retrograde combines realistic characters with depictions of Mars as our explorers will one day find it in a powerful story. A must read!

…and Hugo award winning Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer…

For lovers of Andy Weir’s The Martian, here’s a true hard science-fiction tale set on the red planet—a terrific blend of high tech and high tension, of science and suspense, of character and crisis.

Personally, I think it is well worth your most precious commodity—time.

Read on.

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Is there life on Mars?


Although at first glance the answer to whether Mars harbors life may seem obvious, the evidence is far from settled.

Dredging the bottom of Scottish lochs looking for plesiosaurs, or scouring the Himalayas in search of hominids is a lost cause. There is no Big Foot, no Yeti, or Nessie, but when it comes to Mars there is enough evidence to suggest we need to look closer for the possibility of life existing there now.

There’s no doubt humanity will reach Mars and eventually settle there, but what will we find?

In my latest novel, Retrograde, I explore what life would be like living in a colony beneath the surface of Mars. Lava tubes would provide a ready-made shelter from the harsh cosmic radiation lashing the frozen surface of the planet. Having stood for hundreds of millions of years, lava tubes would be ideal to protect us, but perhaps they protect native life as well.

Red-Dragon-Landing

Elon Musk is working toward establishing a colony on Mars. Picture credit: Wired

Let’s take a look at the evidence for the possibility of life on Mars.

Wet Mars

Earth has been shaped by hydrology—water locked in a cycle. Water evaporates from the oceans, streams and lakes, condenses in the air, and falls as rain, only to repeat that cycle over and over again, providing the natural environment in which the chemistry for life can thrive.

In some cases, the hydrological cycle is rapid, occurring in days. But sometimes water can become locked in subsurface caverns, or beneath thick layers of ice in Antartica for millions of years. In all cases, water sustains life, even when trapped and cut off from the outside world for untold millennia.

How can water exist in lakes beneath the ice for millions of years? Wouldn’t it freeze? Good question. The answer is, intense pressure, salinity, and in some cases geothermal warming keep these hidden lakes in liquid form beneath miles of glacial ice.

Lake Vostok in Antarctica has been sealed off from the outside world for at least 15 million years. The DNA in the bacteria thriving there differ from their surface counterparts by up to 86%, branching in their own distinct evolutionary direction.

lake vostok

Russian scientists have drilled down to sample life from Lake Vostok: BBC

On Earth, everywhere we’ve found water, we’ve found life.

We’ve found microbes in gold mines, upwards of two miles beneath the surface, having branched away from their surface counterparts some 25 million years ago, and thriving at scorching temperatures of 140F/60C.

There’s sufficient evidence that Mars was once hospitable, with liquid water flowing on its surface. But what about now? Is there evidence of water flowing on Mars today? Is there any evidence of fluids capable of supporting life there now? Yes. Mars is the only other planet in our solar system that has a hydrological cycle. There’s no rain, but we have observed conditions that would allow water vapor to condense and cling to dust particles.

Each summer, orbiting satellites like MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) record an unusual phenomena known as RSL or recurring slope lineae, streaks that appear on the sides of craters, gullies and canyons as the planet warms.

Warm_Season_Flows_on_Slope_in_Newton_Crater_(animated).gif

NASA observes recurring slope lineae suggesting subsurface water escaping from a crater wall

There’s some discussion about whether these recurring slope lineae (RSL) are caused by subsurface frozen salt brines melting in the Martian summer, or some other process, such as frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice) sublimating and dragging dark (but dry) dust down the crater slopes.

As NASA’s Phoenix Lander found water ice beneath a few inches of soil (the tiny fragments in the shadow at the bottom left), mixed in with dry ice (the large regions of white in the centre), RSL could easily be the result of both. Summer temperatures can reach as high as 70F/20C so liquid water is entirely possible, even if it is only fleeting on the surface due to the low atmospheric pressure.

I07-21-ice

Compare the bottom left area in shadow, where flecks of water ice evaporate. Picture credit: NASA

That Mars was once warm and wet is beyond dispute given the evidence gathered by NASA’s rovers. Not only are there ancient lake beds, the humidity and temperatures observed by the NASA Curiosity rover would allow a liquid brine to form even during winter.

To our untrained eyes, Mars appears as a bleak desert, but dig a trench and the soil and the bottom will be slightly darker due to the moisture content. It may not contain enough water to sustain us, but there’s enough to allow microbes to survive if they can tolerate chemicals like perchlorates.

On Earth, the temperature increases by roughly 25C for every kilometer you go beneath the surface, and life can exist several miles down. On Mars, this same effect is probably only 6 degrees per kilometer, but it’s enough that liquid water could exist at depths that support life on Earth.

Closer to the Martian surface, scientists have found frozen reservoirs holding as much water as Lake Superior in North America. Buried beneath anywhere from a few feet to thirty feet of rock, it calls to mind the glaciers of Antarctica that support life in hidden pockets beneath the ice.

Over the past decade, research has revealed that ancient Mars may have held an ocean to rival that of the Arctic on Earth.

That Mars could have supported life in the past is beyond doubt, but what about now?

wet mars

Artist’s depiction of ancient seas on Mars. Picture credit:NASA/Villanueva/Mumma/Gallagher/Feimer

Smelly Mars

Methane has been detected in the Martian atmosphere, which is highly unusual as methane is short-lived, and generally produced only by geothermal activity or life.

At less than 1% in concentration it’s minuscule, but given there’s no tectonic or volcanic activity on Mars, it raises the possibility of being produced by microbes. If methane was seasonal, produced by some repeating physical process, we’d expect to see it at regular intervals. Instead, it comes and goes sporadically. At one point, NASA’s Curiosity rover observed it continuously for 60 days, and then it disappeared.

ESA’s ExoMars satellite arrives in orbit around Mars in 2021 to better understand this chemical phenomenon and help isolate its origin.

Searching for life

Microbes are small—insanely small. A single strand of hair is about 75 microns thick (with a micron being a millionth of a meter). Bacterium can be as smalls as 0.2 of a micron, making them rather difficult to detect at a distance of 30 million miles even with remote-control robots.

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Bacterium on a diatom on a amphipod. Picture credit: James Tyrwhitt-Drake

Even if we could get an electron scanning microscope to Mars, we could stare at bacterium like this and still be unable to distinguish it from dust particles.

The NASA Viking missions back in the 1970s are the ONLY missions to specifically look for life on Mars, and they did it using an ingenious method. Rather than looking for life, they looked for evidence of metabolism. They were designed to tease out respiration from microbes hungry for nutrients, and the results?

sagan_viking_0

Carl Sagan beside a model of the Viking Lander: NASA

Out of the three experiments, only one produced positive results, so it was largely ignored at the time, but a recent review of the evidence has reached a different conclusion.

The Labelled Release apparatus (LR) was designed to release nutrients into one of a number of samples taken from the Martian surface. By spiking the nutrients with radioactive carbon, scientists were confident they could measure any gas released by microbes (either as carbon dioxide or methane). Immediately, measurements spiked from the background levels of 50/60 counts to over 10,000. Something had happened, but what?

The other samples were used as controls, and subject to darkness for a month to kill any microbes relying on photosynthesis, or other microbes that might prey on them, the idea being, if the first results were a simple chemical reaction, they would be repeated in 30 days. If the first run had revealed life, and that life died in the darkness, there wouldn’t be any second result. Remarkably, there was no second reaction. It’s circumstantial evidence, for sure, but it suggests Viking may have found life.

Just a few years ago, Joseph Miller from the University of Southern California noticed something rather startling when he overlaid the Martian temperature fluctuations from one day to the next with the results from Viking—he saw a circadian rhythm.

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NASA’s Viking experiment results match circadian rhythms

On Earth, the metabolic activity of every life-form from microbes to Blue whales follows some kind of day/night cycle.

The red line in the chart above shows the temperature in the sample chamber during the experiment, fluctuating from one day to the next. The sample was protected from the harsh variations in temperature that occur over night on Mars by the internal heaters on Viking itself, but there was still some minor fluctuations, and surprisingly, this coincided with significant variations in the amount of radiation detected. Although it’s tempting to think these variations were abiotic and simply heat related, such a minor temperature variation of only 4 degrees can’t account for the increased activity, and there’s a delay. Each day, the spike in radioactivity is delayed by approximately two hours, something that’s inconsistent with the effect simply coming about from a slight increase in heat. In addition to this, the baseline increases each day, meaning each peak and trough is successively higher, so for the same temperature variation from one day to the next, NASA observed a steady increase in the amount of radiation being released at each rest and peak period, something that is consistent with microbial growth.

During this same period, Viking 2 also observed water frost on the ground in the morning, with the ice sublimating during the day, demonstrating an active, albeit modest hydrological cycle.

Although it’s not conclusive, the Viking results make a strong case for the possibility of life on Mars.

Scientists at NASA have proposed a Mars Sample Return mission to allow for the direct examination of martian soil, but it doesn’t have funding yet. Even if it is funded, the selection of the sample site is challenging. Imagine trying to understand life in the ocean from just a teaspoon of water. Ideally, the Viking experiments should be extended further and repeated. If we continue to see anomalous results like these that suggest a biological mechanism, then we have identified an ideal site for a sample return.

There’s one other compelling piece of the puzzle suggesting Mars may still harbor life—homeostasis.

Planetary Homeostasis

In biology, homeostasis is “the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements,” and is a characteristic of all life. Humans, for example, maintain a body temperature around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Vary too far outside that, and death comes quickly.

When it comes to the search for life beyond Earth, the point is often made that our planet is ideal for life. We look at the hellish domains of Mercury and Venus, or the frozen wastelands of Mars and Titan, and they’re inhospitable. We even call the region of space we inhabit the Goldilocks Zone (not too hot, not too cold), but this is somewhat of a misnomer. Earth doesn’t house life because it’s ideal for life. On the contrary, Life tamed the planet.

Life first arose when Earth was hellish.

In the Hadean era, shortly after the planet formed, temperatures were as high as 400F/220C and entire oceans boiled as Earth was pummeled by asteroids and comets in the Late Heavy Bombardment.

hadean

Earth appeared hellish in the Hadean: Scientific American

Life arose during the Archean almost four billion years ago. Temperatures reached 185F/85C with a toxic, acidic atmosphere choking the planet. Early microbial life forms were able to exploit an atmosphere that would have killed us, and they thrived in the rich CO2 environment.

Earth was unrecognizable during this time, appearing more like Venus, or the Saturnian moon Titan, than the beautiful Blue Marble we live on today.

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Earth appeared unassuming and uninhabited for billions of years: Astrobiology Web

Life transformed our planet beyond recognition.

The first life appeared ~3.8 billion years ago and used CO2 for its metabolism, burping out O2, which is how O2 started building up in the atmosphere. As O2 is toxic to bacteria, a lot of bacterial species died out, while those that could tolerate O2 thrived.

2.3 billion years ago, the Great Oxygenation Event was caused by microbial action changing the planet, and releasing vast amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere. Since O2 is very efficient for metabolism, there was a spike when natural selection harnessed oxygen for the first time. The levels of O2 continued to rise until ~600 million years ago when they reached roughly the present level.

During the Proterozoic era, the seas were home to colonies of algae easily visible from space, and a supercontinent called Rodinia emerged, but as best we understand it, Rodinia was devoid of life. It would be another billion years before complex life would emerge from the oceans.

Rodinia

Rodinia was a desert supercontinent, but it was as lifeless as Mercury: LiveScience

Even when a Snowball Earth emerged for hundreds of millions of years, life would not be deterred, and fought for planetary homeostasis, creating the moderate world we inhabit today.

Earth has a CO2 cycle that operates over hundreds of millions, stretching into billions of years, and this has helped keep the planet’s atmosphere stable.

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Life on Earth was almost extinguished during its snowball phase: BBC

The fact that life started in the ocean helped it survive the Snowball Earth (water has unique properties: ice expands which means it floats, and thus was able to create an isolation blanket over the oceans, while the hydrothermal vents provided heat).

If you had a time machine and could visit these various epochs, Earth would appear lifeless to the untrained eye. Not only has Natural Selection had the time and ability to modify species, along with their associated allied and predatory species, but even their environments have changed. The planet itself has been shaped by evolution. When viewed over eons, the entire planet has been transformed. Life competes to live. Life seeks out niche environments, and by its presence, invariably modifies those environments. Given 3.8 billion years, Life has fought against natural geological processes to modify Earth’s climate to become temperate. It’s astonishing to realize microbes tamed and transformed an entire planet, and that brings us to Mars.

There’s something rather unusual about Mars.

Mars is the only other planet in the solar system where water can exist in three states simultaneously—as water, ice and vapor—but only just. The Triple-Point of Water describes the combination of temperature and atmospheric pressure that allows H2O to be stable as water, ice and vapor simultaneously. Mars sits right on the cusp of this range.

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Mars is slowly slipping below the triple point of water: space.stackexchange

The existence of H2O as a liquid is entirely dependent on the relationship between temperature and pressure. Too much temperature and water becomes a vapor. Too little and it’s ice. Pressure changes that equation. On Mt. Everest, water boils at 160F or a mere 70C.

All life on Earth requires water. Chemical reactions need a medium in which to occur, and water is uniquely suited to that, meaning, more than likely, life elsewhere will also utilize water. But the existence of liquid water is finely balanced by temperature and pressure.

Mars is slipping away from the Triple Point of Water.

It could be a coincidence that Mars is so close to the Triple Point, but it could also be that we’re observing a dying planet hanging onto the last vestiges of microbial life.

Given everything else we’ve observed, it might be that this frail combination of temperature and pressure on Mars, allowing for minuscule amounts of liquid water, is the last remnants of planetary homeostasis. We may be indirectly observing Martian microbes succumbing to defeat as their environment fades. This could well be the dying gasps of life on another planet.

There are extremophiles here on Earth that can survive in Mars-like conditions, so perhaps there is still life beneath the surface of the red planet.

It’s speculation, of course, and at best merely circumstantial, but given the clear hydrological history of Mars, the unexplained presence of trace amounts of methane in the atmosphere, the circadian rhythm in the results of the NASA Viking experiments, and the finely balanced Martian environment, hovering around the Triple Point of Water, there’s a strong case to be made that we should be looking for microbial life on Mars now in subsurface pockets of water.

The ESA ExoMars mission will help bring some clarity to the question of how methane arises on Mars, but it seems only a return mission with samples will allow us to know for sure if there is life on the fourth planet in our solar system.

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Peter Cawdron is a science enthusiast and science fiction writer. His latest novel, RETROGRADE, explores at the complexity of colonizing Mars and is available in hardback, paperback and electronic formats.

Author Interview: Peter Cawdron


Here’s an interview I did about the launch of RETROGRADE this month

MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape

Today I am interviewing Peter Cawdron, author of the new science-fiction novel, Retrograde.

◊  ◊  ◊

DJ: Hey Peter! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!

For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Peter: Thank you for having me. I’m an Australian scifi writer specializing in hard science fiction, although I detest the term “hard.”

There’s nothing hard about good science fiction, rather it simply adheres to reality as closely as possible. For me, that makes it more plausible.

A lot of science fiction boarders on fantasy, with “science” being rather loose. As an example, in one of the new Star Trek movies, Kirk (on Kronos a dozen light years away) calls Scotty (in a bar on Earth) to ask him an engineering question. In reality, faster-than-light communication isn’t possible. Rather than giving Kirk a phone-a-friend lifeline, I would have…

View original post 1,625 more words

Fermi’s Paradox: The Great Suck


Simply put, Fermi’s Paradox is, “Where is everyone?”

Fermi’s Paradox highlights the apparent contradiction between the sheer abundance of stars in the universe, the astonishing amount of time that has transpired, and the absence of any other intelligent life in the universe.

In reality, Fermi’s Paradox is Earth centric. Our ability to survey our own galaxy is extremely limited. At the moment, our efforts to look for extraterrestrial life are akin to someone standing on the shores of Africa looking for America. A lack of evidence isn’t evidence of lack, but rather demonstrates our efforts are in their infancy.

When it comes to Fermi’s Paradox, a number of potential solutions have been proposed, including The Great Filter, which suggests the emergence of life elsewhere in the universe may be common, but perhaps the emergence of an intelligent spacefaring species is astonishingly rare. The Great Filter proposes that there is something catastrophic that has hindered other species from making this leap. From our own experience, we can see the existential dangers of nuclear warfare, biological warfare, and even the possibility of artificial intelligence bringing our civilization to a grinding halt on the wrong side of the filter.

But there are a number of other possibilities, including The Great Suck.

If you haven’t heard of The Great Suck it’s probably because it’s a phrase I’ve just coined, along with The Great Gloom, to describe other plausible reasons we may not see intelligent interstellar species spreading out through our galaxy.

What is The Great Suck?

Gravity sucks. Literally. Gravity sucks far more than you probably realize.

Shuttle launch: Picture credit NASA

Look at the Space Shuttle. To get into orbit it needed two massive solid fuel rockets and an enormous fuel tank.

Your car has a fuel tank, but at a guess, it’s probably not as disproportionately large as this one. Why?

The reason is because of the velocity required to reach orbit. Don’t be fooled. When you see astronauts floating around inside the International Space Station, it’s easy to think of them as sedate, just drifting there in space. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are literally falling AROUND the entire planet with the same acceleration you’d experience if the cable in your elevator gave way and you plummeted toward the basement. In the words of Douglas Adams “Flying,” or in our case getting into orbit, “…is throwing yourself at the ground and missing.”

In order for astronauts to stay in space without falling back to Earth they need to be moving so fast they fall OVER the horizon, constantly plummeting toward Earth but never reaching Earth because the curve of the planet falls away quicker than they do.

If you’ve ever thrown a baseball and watched it fall back to Earth, and then tried to throw it a little father and higher, you’ll know gravity really does suck.

To overcome Earth’s gravity, you need to be traveling at least 8 kilometers per second (or just over 5 miles per second). Picture somewhere 5 miles from where you live. Now picture yourself zipping past that point a second later—THAT’s what it takes to orbit Earth!

When you do the sums, being able to attain these kinds of crazy speeds is incredibly difficult. Whereas your car only needs to carry roughly 4% of its weight as fuel, rockets need to dedicate at least 85% of their weight to fuel (hence that massive fuel tank).

Rockets are astonishing. With 85% of their weight going to fuel, the entire rocket needs to be engineered exquisitely with the remaining 15%, and that remaining mass needs to be built with astonishing precision to ensure both performance and safety.

The external fuel tank on the Shuttle was designed to be structurally sound under 3Gs of force, while housing cryogenic fluid cooled to within 20 degrees of absolute zero, and under 60 pounds of pressure per square inch (that’s the same stress as applied to a submarine at 140ft beneath the ocean). And NASA’s scientists and engineers accomplished this with greater efficiency than you get in a flimsy can of soda!

Picture credit: Hops Blog

Even with these incredible feats of engineering, the Space Shuttle was only able to deploy 1% of its total mass at launch into orbit.

Space travel seems easy. Star Trek does it all the time. In Star Wars they journey between planets in a few minutes. In reality, just getting into orbit is a herculean task. The largest, most powerful rocket ever successfully launched sent Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon, but even then the Saturn V only delivered a payload of 4% into orbit. Rockets are BIG investments, with small physical returns (although the payoff for science is incalculable).

What does this have to do with Fermi’s Paradox? Quite a lot. You see, there are physical limits beyond which a chemical rocket could never reach orbit. Due to the constraints of Earth’s gravity, we can barely make it into orbit. If Earth was just 50% larger in diameter, we wouldn’t be able to get into orbit at all. If Earth was bigger, we physically couldn’t build a chemical rocket as the amount of fuel required would approach (and for larger planets even exceed) 100%.

Picture credit: Arizona University

Most people have heard of “Super Earths,” a class of planets larger than Earth, but smaller than the gas giants. If any of these held an intelligent extraterrestrial species, they would NEVER be able to leave their planet and explore space. Like us, they’re subject to the laws of physics, and The Great Suck would really suck.

Could they develop nuclear rockets or some other means of reaching orbit? Maybe, but the bigger the planet, the worse the problem becomes. At a certain point, it is physically impossible. For those civilizations, this is a serious problem—for them, space is something to be seen, not explored.

What would such a civilization think about the universe if they were forever trapped on the surface of their planet. Would conspiracy theorists win the argument of a flat super Earth? How astute would they be at managing their finite resources? Would they end up like the inhabitants of Easter Island, that destroyed themselves through exploitation?

Such a gravitationally-bound civilization would never get to see their equivalent of The Blue Marble. Communications satellites would be impossible. Their perception of reality would be skewed, perhaps be even more self-centered than our own pre-Copernican views.

Picture credit: NASA

Visual and radio astronomy would tell them a lot about the universe, but they wouldn’t be able to explore nearby planets. How would this affect their view of the broader universe? Would it be seen as a purely academic idea with little to no practicality?

Perhaps they’d like to reach out to other species via radio simply to seek escape from their gravity-bound prison. Certainly, their best option would be to have some other species (perhaps future humans), bring an asteroid into geosynchronous orbit and lower a cable to form a space elevator.

Can you imagine the clash of cultures at that meeting?

For us, looking out at them even just a few hundred light years away, there wouldn’t be much to see. We might detect their electromagnetic emissions, but they could be tens of thousands of years more advanced than us and yet under gravitational house arrest. Perhaps this is why we don’t see species spreading through the galaxy—a lot of them physically can’t.

The Great Gloom

Another interesting alternative to The Great Filter is The Great Gloom.

What would happen to an intelligent species that developed on a planet bound by thick cloud cover like those found on Venus?

Picture credit: NASA

From their perspective, the sky would always be overcast. Depending on how turbulent it was in the upper atmosphere, it might not be practical for them to breach the cloud tops and see the magnificence of space. For such an intelligence species, there would be a distinction between day and night, but no call from the stars, no intrigue or celestial mysteries to understand.

How would such a society perceive the universe? Perhaps they would develop radio astronomy and gain a glimpse of obscure, seemingly erratic signals reaching their tiny world. Would they muster the courage and curiosity to explore the universe?

At the moment, we have no way of knowing how wide-spread or limited life is elsewhere within the universe, but if super Earths dominate as rocky planets and are hospitable, there could be thousands of civilizations that are millions of years more advanced than our own that can’t reach their own moons!

Here on Earth, we live on an astonishing planet. We are a species on the cusp of interplanetary travel, and one day we will reach the stars. Other intelligent species may not have been so lucky, and perhaps that explains at least some of Fermi’s Paradox.

 ______________________________________

Peter Cawdron is a science enthusiast and science fiction writer. His latest novel, RETROGRADE, explores at the complexity of colonizing Mars and is available in hardback, paperback and electronic formats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten free paperbacks to giveaway


 

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Next month, my novel Retrograde will be released, and to celebrate, I’m giving away ten paperback novels to celebrate.

Jump in and you could win a copy of:

  • Alien Space Tentacle Porn
  • Anomaly
  • Little Green Men
  • Maelstrom
  • My Sweet Satan
  • Nosferatu
  • Starship Mine
  • Xenophobia
  • Welcome to the Occupied States of America
  • What We Left Behind

….and the winners are….

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Congratulations!

 

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Zombie caterpillars!


Zombie caterpillars? Really? Is there such a thing?

Let’s look at the history of zombies and how such behaviors can arise in nature

The term zombie originates at least as far back as the 8th century in Africa, with its origins being found in the term nzambi, which in the Congo meant ‘spirit of a dead person,’ and ndzumbi meaning ‘corpse’ in the Mitsogo language of Gabon.  From there, the term gravitated to Creole with African slaves, being used to describe someone who died and was then brought to life without speech or free will.

Europeans first became obsessed with zombies in Haiti, where the mortality rate among slaves was three times higher than in the US, and eventually led to revolution. The appalling treatment of slaves often left them in a zombie-like state before they succumbed to death, further perpetuating European fears. It’s a sad historical irony, that the monstrous actions of slave owners would breed what was essentially the racist blame of Africans becoming the undead. People fear things they don’t understand, and so witchdoctors were blamed for what was the inevitable result of slavery itself, and the walking dead were born, only instead of feeding on the living, they were clinging to the last vestiges of their own lives.

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In 1968 George Romero transformed zombies from mindless slaves into aggressive predators, hunting the living. His film Night of the Living Dead launched the modern zombie genre, continuing today in shows such as The Walking Dead.

How realistic is a zombie apocalypse?

Well, that depends on a couple of factors. First, how likely is it a disease could bring about zombie behavior, and how well could it spread in the modern world.

Medical science describes the virulence of pathogens with the Basic Reproduction Number or R-0 (sometimes called R-Nought), and this can give us a good idea of how a zombie virus could spread and how we could combat it.

If R<1 then an outbreak is considered under control and fading, as for every person infected, less than one other person will contract the disease, meaning the wildfire is running out of fuel.

Ebola, as an example, had an R-0 factor of between 1.5 and 2, so without intervention, for every person infected, up to two other people would succumb to the disease. That might not sound particularly bad, but remember the law of compounding effects, doubling as it goes.

The Spanish Flu, which killed an astonishing 18 million people in the 1920s had an R-0 factor of just 2.8.

Measles, though, makes Ebola look like an amateur with an R-0 factor between 12 and 18. So for every infected person in an area without inoculation, almost twenty other people will become infected. Without intervention, the next generation of infections will reach 400, and the next, 8000. You can see why medical science worked so hard to develop a vaccine for measles, and why inoculation is so important.

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Worse than any zombie apocalypse: Demon in the Freezer

Perhaps the most virulent virus to hit humanity is Smallpox, which, like Measles had an R-0 factor in the high teens, and may have even breached 1:20, being airborne as it spread.

In his book, Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston recounts one of the last outbreaks where a patient was quarantined on the ground floor of a hospital, in an isolated ward. One of the nurses made the mistake of cracking the window to allow a breeze into the patient’s room. From there, the virus drifted up, through a second floor window, infecting patients in that room, and even people that never even entered that room. Merely walking down the corridor, past closed doors, was enough to expose victims to the disease!

Most people think we defeated Smallpox with vaccines. We didn’t. There wasn’t enough time to produce enough vaccine. Smallpox would take hold of cities containing millions of people. Even with a hundred thousand doses, the prospect of stopping this deadly disease seemed impossible.

The UN came up with the concept of ring containment. Rather than vaccinating everyone within a city containing tens of millions of people, they calculated how far the virus could spread once infection was reported, and they’d contain that area, vaccinating all of those inside the perimeter likely to come in direct contact with the virus, essentially forming a ring around the infection site. It was a stunning idea, and allowed humanity to drive the virus to extinction regardless of its virility. Today, there are no wild pockets of Smallpox, only demons in the freezer, held in stock by the US and Russia. Should these ever be unleashed as biological weapons, they would be utterly devastating.

What would be the R-0 factor of a zombie virus? Unlike Smallpox and Measles that have incubation periods, allowing them to spread unseen, the zombie virus is immediately apparent. Even if it matched the R-0 factor of Measles, I’m confident we could contain it. We’ve already battled worse in Smallpox.

All of this was in my mind when I wrote my young adult thriller What We Left Behind. I knew we could defeat a zombie virus, so how could I present a plausible alternative? How could something so devastating slip below our medical radar and spread until it was too late to contain?

I settled on the concept that the very idea of a zombie virus would be a distraction, diverting valuable resources on a wild goose chase, and instead proposed an inter-species parasite, a minor mutation to something that was already common, and so easily overlooked.

Last week, a friend sent me an article about researches at the University of California observing tomato plants releasing toxins that cause caterpillars to turn on each other and become cannibals.

Zombie caterpillars! Who would have thought of it? Science again beats science fiction hands down

And this isn’t the only example of zombies in nature. The flatworm, Euhaplorchis californiensis alters the behavior of the fish it infects, making it easier to be captured and eaten by birds? Why? It reproduces within the bird gut, and uses the fish to complete its lifecycle.

Then there’s the Ophiocordyceps fungus which turns ants into zombies.

Toxoplasma-gondii

Toxoplasma-gondii infects cats, and drives mice made. Image credit: National Geographic

Toxoplasma gondii reproduces in the gut of cats. The only problem is… the gut is a point of transit. So how can this microbe get back into a cat’s gut in order to reproduce? It can’t. Not by itself. So it faced an evolutionary dead-end, unless it adapted to manipulate another species, and quite remarkably, that’s exactly what happened.

Mice and birds become carries of T. gondii when they eat cat feces. Over time, natural selection developed a strain that would cause mice to become attracted to the smell of cat urine, effectively sacrificing themselves for their parasitic companion.

Scientists suspect the neurotoxin released by T. gondii may have a detrimental impact on humans as well.

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Could zombies arise as the unintended side-effect of some other parasitic life-cycle like toxoplasmosis? Image credit: CDC

In What We Left Behind, I leave the culprit unnamed, but the book focuses on how to break the cycle of cross-species infection. It’s a great read.

If you’re into zombie bowling, or surfing with zombies, grab a copy. I think you’ll enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinosaurs & Vampires


Nostalgia is a curious thing. As a writer, I draw on a lot of different sources for inspiration, but I think my greatest stories have their roots in my childhood love of science fiction.

We grow up all too fast, and not just physically. Mentally, we’re too keen to leave behind our childhood and be adults, and there’s merit in that, and yet there’s also a degree of sorrow in that our innocence and childlike excitement is often lost. I find it fascinating that scientists like Carl Sagan never lost their curiosity and childlike desire for exploring the unknown.

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Carl Sagan‘s imagination as a child was echoed in his love for science as an adult

The first novel I read from cover to cover was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I forget how I stumbled across a copy, but I was riveted. I had to keep reading. I had to know what would happen.

Dracula is not just a novel about vampires. It’s a story of courage against the unknown. It highlights the mental fatigue of mere mortals struggling against evil. Our heroes aren’t warriors—they’re no stronger, smarter or braver than anyone else, but they’re compelled to fight for what’s right. They’re doctors, lawyers, husbands, wives—and their exploits are written as journal entries, letters, and notes. For me, that’s what grounds Dracula as a story. It’s the rise of the new world of science fighting against the supernatural past.

When I began writing, roughly a decade ago, I knew I wanted to pen a story in homage to Dracula, but I waited, wanting to get the timing right, wanting to be sure I could do justice to the story, so I’m excited to announce the launch of Nosferatu.

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Another story I found fascinating as a child was Land of the Lost. Although it was a TV series, it managed to sustain a level of intrigue for several seasons. The story arc included dinosaurs and aliens, as a modern family was swept into a parallel world where primitive humanity struggled to survive.

land of lost

When Vanquish Motion Pictures asked me to write a pilot for possible development in TV or film, the brief was just a few line—The story should be set in China, and involve parallel worlds colliding, but to keep production costs down, it should be present day and avoid high tech worlds.

My mind immediately gravitated to Land of the Lost, but didn’t want to simply replicate the concept. I wanted to come up with an original take, but one that quietly paid homage to the TV shows I enjoyed in my youth. From there, Maelstrom took form.

maelstrom (wide)

These two stories couldn’t be more different, but they both share the same origin in my fascination with fiction as a child.

Unleash your childlike imagination with Maelstrom and Nosferatu, both of which are on sale for 99c.

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Fermi’s Paradox, really?


In the 1950’s, Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi proposed a paradox by asking, where is everyone? His reasoning was simple, given the sheer size of the universe, what are the chances we’re alone? If we’re not, where is everyone else? We should look out into space and see signs of intelligent life around other stars.

Conservative estimates put the number of galaxies in the visible universe at around a hundred billion, and the number of stars at 10^24. The problem with both of these numbers is we have no way to appreciate them in every day life. They’re simply too large to hold any meaning. But hold a grain of sand out at arm’s length, and you’re blocking the light from 10,000 galaxies!

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Astronomer Frank Drake came up with the first methodical way of estimating the possibility of life elsewhere in our galaxy (remembering ours is just one of at least a hundred billion). He arrived at the conservative figure of 10,000 other civilizations, while Carl Sagan thought the number could be as high as a million.

Drake

Some estimates for the entire universe end up with absurdly large numbers like “ten million billion” alien civilizations! The bigger the numbers being spit out of our estimates, the more perplexing it seems that we don’t see evidence for any other intelligent life in outer space. Fermi’s Paradox is a head scratcher. Or is it?

There’s a problem with Fermi’s Paradox. We’re not actually sure it’s a paradox.

Think back to the numbers we just looked at—10,000 galaxies, containing trillions of stars, all obscured behind a single grain of sand. If just one of those galaxies contained life, we wouldn’t know it. We can’t see any of those galaxies with any clarity.

There’s a case to be made that WITHIN our galaxy we don’t see any other intelligent life, but beyond our galaxy, our ability to look for life is non-existent. It’s a bit like someone standing on the shores of Greece saying, “I see no evidence for Egypt.”

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Fermi’s observation isn’t really a paradox. Look at how little we’ve actually searched. Even our most advanced planet-hunting space telescope has only focused on a tiny patch of our own galaxy. It’s no surprise we haven’t found life. Honestly, it would be a surprise if we had.

Remember, there are roughly a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, but again, numbers like this are meaningless without context.

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Ah, that really doesn’t help.

Just how big is a hundred billion? Well, a million seconds pass in 12 days, a billion seconds in 34 years, a hundred billion seconds pass in well over three millennia.

Is there life in outer space? Yes. Earth itself is proof of that.

Is there any other life in outer space? Well, we’ve just started looking. We really cannot say one way or the other, but we have no reason to think there isn’t. Fermi’s got us looking, and that’s a good thing, but don’t underestimate the magnitude of the challenge.

 

 

How accurate should science fiction stories be?


As accurate as a speedometer.

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There’s a difference between accuracy and precision.

Accuracy is a relative term that’s situation appropriate. When it comes to speedometers, it’s enough to know I’m driving at about 60mph. I don’t need to know that I’m traveling at precisely 59.945mph or 61.232mph. Either approximates to 60mph, one’s slightly faster, the other slightly slower, but by margins that are meaningless.

The same principle holds true when it comes to science fiction. If my protagonist is orbiting a planet in his spaceship, it’s entirely accurate to say he’s traveling at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. There’s no need for precision—and this is the point—there’s no need to be slavishly precise, just accurate.

How accurate are these three darts?

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Well, it depends. Strictly speaking, only one hit the bullseye. The other two missed. If I threw them from five feet away, they’re not bad. If I threw them the length of a football field they ALL are astonishingly accurate, although only one of them is precise.

The point is… stories can be accurate without being precise.

In the movie Alien Covenant, there are a lot of heart-pounding moments, but there are a few scenes where darts weren’t even thrown at the board, they were simply dropped on the ground. Exploring a strange alien spacecraft without any kind of biological protection is absurd. At least try to throw a dart at the board, please.

When it comes to the prospect of finding any kind of alien life, be that microbes, plants or animals, we are astonishingly concerned about biosecurity—and not just because we could be infected, we could contaminate an ecosphere with an invasive Earth-species that overwhelms that environment.

40_CGF_STILL_00022_1600The Cassini space probe launched from Earth in 1997 (which is accurate, although if you want to be precise, it launched on October 15th of that year)

Cassini spent almost seven years drifting toward Saturn, arriving in July of 2004. Since then, it has heralded an astonishing amount of scientific data, and revealed that at least one of the Saturnian moons is habitable. There’s a remote possibility that Enceladus could harbor life. As far as we can tell, it’s got the right conditions for life to evolve, but we have no evidence of life.

By the time Cassini’s mission ends, it will have spent twenty years in space, and still we’re not taking any chances on Earth microbes hitchhiking to one of the moons of Saturn, so we’re going to crash Cassini into Saturn.

Think about how absurdly small the chance is that we could infect life on Enceladus. For that to happen, Earth microbes would need to survive

  • An alcohol wash (that doesn’t leave them drunk)
  • Baking at upwards of 120C for 30 hours
  • Sterilization with ultraviolet radiation

And that’s before launch… Once in space, temperatures can vary from hotter than your oven to colder than any point on Earth. What are the chances microbes could survive that? What are the chances Cassini would accidentally hit Enceladus? What are the chances anything could survive the impact? What are the chances frozen microbes from Earth scattered across the surface would affect life several miles beneath the ice? Well, a fair answer would be absurdly small but not zero, and so we’re not going to risk it.

Now, ask yourself what measures someone would take when finding a crashed alien spacecraft on another planet? Is wearing a spacesuit really too much to ask? Oh, and the irony is… the original Alien movie got this right.

It’s not hard to make science fiction accurate, and it doesn’t require anything like the precision we see in real life, just a little common sense.

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Science fiction isn’t hard


The great shame of modern science fiction is that it’s often lazy, treating science loosely, and perhaps that’s partially because we’ve called plausible science fiction, “hard.”

Science fiction is not “hard” it’s simply science + fiction.

Fiction is fictitious. By definition, it’s not true. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us if some elements of a story aren’t entirely correct. One could nit-pick at even the “hardest” of “hard” science fiction stories and find fault, but science fiction should, at the very least, make an effort to incorporate actual science. Lasers and spaceships are not enough.

I don’t mean to say stories should be exacting in every detail and slavishly correct. Science itself is not settled. Science is not fixed. We know more about Mars today than we did yesterday, and tomorrow, we’ll know even more. Does that negate what we know today? No, it builds from and extends our knowledge. The same is true of science fiction. We can give fiction the same breathing space we give science, while still expecting to be entertained in a plausible manner.

By making one category of science fiction “hard” we’ve discouraged some writers from even trying, which is our loss, and leads to movies like Alien Covenant.

The Alien franchise has some astonishing stories in its history, but all too often, follow up movies are forgettable because simple science is ignored.

Minor spoilers for Alien Covenant follow.

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Movies like Prometheus and Alien Covenant appear to have given up on basic science, which is somewhat paradoxical as the lengths they go to in terms of set design, costumes, stunts and special effects are simply astonishing.

How have we got to the point where the science in science fiction is ignored?

All stories need tension. Alien Covenant achieves this in part by having the “away team” land in the middle of a storm. Communication is poor, so the interstellar spaceship has to descend into the storm at the risk of breaking apart. Problem is… the spaceship never actually orbits the planet. It’s ALWAYS hovering somewhere overhead. The oversimplified computer graphics even show it descending vertically like a helicopter.

The irony is… they didn’t need to come up with such a contrived scenario. Just let the spaceship orbit the planet, as spaceships are wont to do, and it’ll be out of contact with the ground crew roughly half the time, with communication strained when the craft is low on either horizon. Hey, a little bit of plausibility suddenly sneaks in and strengthens the story, rather than weakening it.

Also, the periodic nature of orbits could have been used to drive more tension, as there’s nothing the ground crew can do but wait for the next pass. Ah, but instead, we get some mumbo jumbo about the ship breaking apart in a storm.

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A lot of the time, it’s not just science that’s ignored, it’s common sense, like walking around on an entirely new planet covered in rich plant life (and presumably microbes), without wearing a spacesuit. What could possibly go wrong?

Devices should make sense. A life support systems that cremates someone when it fails probably isn’t going to get off the design board, let alone into production on a starship. In the same way, Prometheus had a super-duper advanced fully automated medical system that couldn’t operate on women. WTF?

Another scratch-your-head moment came when, after tracking a mysterious signal across the depths of space, the landing shuttle inexplicably touches down eight kilometers away from the source, and at a considerably lower altitude. A perfectly good flying machine is left sitting on the rocks while the crew have to climb a mountain.

How did no one at least think of flying over the site of the signal to have a look? Perhaps seeing a derelict alien spacecraft would have given pause for thought.

The first two alien movies are legendary, but not just because they were ground breaking, they were plausible. In Alien, our intrepid explorers wear spacesuits while investigating the ruins of a crashed extraterrestrial craft, and the acid from a face hugger eats through the helmet, allowing it to get to poor Kane.

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In Alien Covenant, people stroll into a similar crashed alien spaceship like they’re exploring a new shopping mall. Oh, look… over here everybody. Macy’s has a sale on…

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As if wandering around an alien biosphere without a spacesuit isn’t dumb enough, the crew of the Covenant wander into the crashed spaceship wearing nothing more than beanies to ward off the cold. In the future, it seems biosecurity protocols don’t extend beyond Earth.

It’s not hard to make science fiction plausible. Alien did it. Why can’t Alien Covenant?

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One thing Alien Covenant did really well, was to portray some old-fashioned anatomical studies by the stranded Michael. Various dissections, and aging sketches conveyed a sense of study and scientific consideration (that took a rather macabre turn later in the story).

Movies like Prometheus and Alien Covenant spend millions on sets and special effects, and labor over details with meticulous care. If only they paid as much attention to the script we’d end up with something as iconic as the original