A tourist on Mars


Recently, I got to visit the Grand Canyon by helicopter.

Dawn helicopter flight

Dawn helicopter flight

Standing there in the waiting room, watching the sun rise with a fleet of helicopters being prepped in the early dawn light, I couldn’t help but think of how astonishing such a sight would have been for García López de Cárdenas, the first European to stumble across the canyon.

North rim

North rim

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long with an average width of anywhere up to 18 miles and a depth of just over a mile. García tried to descend into the canyon to reach the river, but failed.

If you’d told García that one day people would fly in tiny bubbles propelled by a giant fan, he would have thought you were mad. If you’d told him they’d fly down and land by the river only to have a quick wander around and a glass of champagne, he would have thought you were away with the fairies, and yet that’s precisely what happens today.

Just as there’s tourism in the Grand Canyon, one day there will be tourism on Mars.

OK, on Mars I'd be wearing a spacesuit

OK, on Mars I’d be wearing a spacesuit.

Behind me is a billion years of geological history, with layer upon layer burying the past, until around 10 million years ago the Colorado river began eroding the canyon. The Grand Canyon is a time capsule, allowing us to understand the progression of life on Earth and the various climates and conditions that prevailed in different epochs.

This is precisely the kind of formation NASA Curiosity Rover is exploring on Mars.

The ground around me is strewn with the most unusual rocks. At first, I wasn’t sure if they were igneous (volcanic) in origin. Although they look like pumice, they were much heavier and far sturdier. Knowing this particular layer was once an ancient sea I wondered if they were sedimentary, perhaps even some fossilized remnants of sponges or corals (which are common in the American Southwest). Then I found this beautiful rock that captures the transition from one layer to another, effectively ruling out volcanic origins.

Transition rock

Transition rock

The depth within the canyon would suggest this is precambrian (>500 million years), and it may well be the fossilized remains of ancient algae mats. If anyone’s a geologist and can shed some light on this, please leave a comment below.

Canyon1

Blue Mars?

Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an astonishing trilogy about the colonisation of Mars called Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. Here’s a photo that with a reddish filter could pass for Blue Mars.

valles marineris

Valles Marineris

The irony of tourism on Mars is that the Valles Marineris is not only the largest canyon in the solar system, being as long as the Continental US, it’s also so wide that the curvature of the planet comes into effect. Stand on one side of the canyon at its broadest and the far side is hidden below the horizon.

One day, we’ll have tourism on the Moon, visiting the carefully preserved Apollo sites, and eventually the canyons of Mars will be tourist destinations as well, although hopefully without the trappings of Las Vegas.

Dear parents, you are being lied to.


pcawdron:

Lies feed on uncertainty, even where there’s none to be found scientifically.

Originally posted on Violent metaphors:

Standard of care.

In light of recent outbreaks of measles and other vaccine preventable illnesses, and the refusal of anti-vaccination advocates to acknowledge the problem, I thought it was past time for this post.

Dear parents,

You are being lied to. The people who claim to be acting in the best interests of your children are putting their health and even lives at risk.

View original 1,134 more words

Book Giveaway


Hi all, I’m giving away autographed copies of Feedback, Little Green Men and Xenophobia on Goodreads. You can find the links below.

Here’s a video of me unboxing the latest shipment of books from Createspace showing the new covers designed by Jason Gurely.

FEEDBACK

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Feedback by Peter Cawdron

Feedback

by Peter Cawdron

Giveaway ends April 20, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

LITTLE GREEN MEN

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Little Green Men by Peter Cawdron

Little Green Men

by Peter Cawdron

Giveaway ends April 20, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

XENOPHOBIA

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Xenophobia by Peter Cawdron

Xenophobia

by Peter Cawdron

Giveaway ends April 20, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Cosmos Revisited


This weekend, Neil deGrasse Tyson is appearing in a reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which will undoubtedly awaken a new generation to the wonders of our universe. In light of this, here are some of my favorite quotes from Carl Sagan.

Picture credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Picture credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The specks of light you can see are not stars, not even galaxies, they’re quasars, phenomenally energetic black holes at the center of large galaxies. They thin out toward the edges not because there’s less of them further away from us but because we are looking back billions of years to when they were less developed.

“The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”

Picture credit: British Museum

Picture credit: British Museum. The Rosetta Stone was used to unlock the meaning of hieroglyphics, allowing us to understand an ancient culture and people otherwise lost to the mists of time.

“One glance at (a book) and you hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millenia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time.”

Picture credit: NASA.

Picture credit: NASA. New stars (out of sight at the top left) blow away dark molecular clouds within a stellar nursery. The dark blobs on the lower right are resisting these stellar winds, caught in a race to undergo gravitational collapse into another infant star before being dissolved. Every person that has ever lived, every blade of grass that has ever sprung forth, everything you see on Earth was once part of a molecular cloud like this.

“We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times – a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universe and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor.”

Picture credit: Connect to your core

Picture credit: Connect. Life brings meaning to the universe, turning stardust into something wonderful beyond compare.

“We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Nus The mechanics of how you think are far more important than anything you know.

“Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgement, the manner in which information is coordinated and used.”

Picture credit: Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) by night, under the Magellanic Clouds

Picture credit: ALMA. Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) by night, under the Magellanic Clouds

“The total amount of energy from outside the solar system ever received by all the radio telescopes on the planet Earth is less than the energy of a single snowflake striking the ground.”

I’m looking forward to the new Cosmos series. With thinking like this… 

tyson quote

 

I’m confident Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to continue Carl Sagan’s legacy

 

 

Interview with Ernie Lindsey


Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an anthology of short stories called From the Indie Side and got to meet a bunch of authors I’d only ever seen from a distance. In this blog post, I’m interviewing one of these authors, Ernie Lindsey.

Ernie  is a USA Today best selling author with over a dozen books to his name. His latest novella, How White People Die is available on Amazon.

What are you working on?

ErnieI just finished up an insane writing marathon where I finished five novels in as many months, plus a couple of short stories. Reminds me of Forrest Gump where he’s out in the middle of the desert, stops running, and says, “I’m pretty tired… I think I’ll go home now.”  That said, I tried to take a break, but that’s the burden of having too many stories in your head and motivation to get them all down before they disappear.

So, at the moment, I’m working on a piece for Kindle Worlds, which is set in Marcus Sakey’s world of Brilliance.  I loved the novel and the vision of society that he created, and so far, it’s been a lot of fun to dabble in it. I love the fact that folks like Hugh Howey, Marcus Sakey, and all the incredible storytellers who allow us to play around in their creations. The thing is, inside their imaginations where these worlds are built, they’re only telling ONE story of many, and there’s so much room to explore. I’m excited about getting this one out there.

From the Indie SideHow does your work differ from others in its genre?

Interesting. (Ponders for entirely too long…) I’m not entirely sure that it does, and I’m okay with that.  …I think…

Genre is genre, and we all have our own unique voices, and you do your best to tell the best story possible. I sound like a NASCAR driver trying to give the standard platitudes.  I’d like to thank the Ford Chevy Diet Coke Nabisco racing team for their efforts. We put a great car on the track today…

You know, if I absolutely had to pick something that makes my work stand out from the pack, I’d say it’s the fact that for me, there’s minimal buildup to the action. I drop a reader right into the middle of the car chases, the gun fights, the kidnappings, and leave them little room to catch a breath for the next three hundred pages. I try to limit the peaks and valleys of intensity, and to continue the NASCAR theme the pedal is always to the metal.

Why do you write what you do?

As fledgling writers, we’re told to write what we know, but if I were to do that, I’d be inundating the literary world with stories about a former technical writer creating instructional guides that nobody reads. I write the types of stories that I do because it’s what I’d want to read if I randomly picked up one of my books at the library or a bookstore.

The weird thing is, I have hundreds of books on my Kindle, but now and then, I’ll catch myself reading one of my own novels (always looking for things to tweak) and instead of working on the story, I’ll find myself getting sucked into the plot. Such a strange feeling.

How does your writing process work?

how whiteMan, it’s a mish-mash of regimented discipline and haphazard fits and starts. When I’m definitely into a story I’m telling, I’ll set timers and write for twenty-five minutes and then take a five-minute break. I’ll rinse and repeat that for three or four hours at a time until my mind goes to mush, then I’ll take a longer break and start all over again. Typically, using this method, I can crank out three to five thousand words in an uninterrupted day.  When it’s haphazard, I’ll be all over the house putting laundry away, cleaning up after our toddler, washing bottles and dishes, whatever, in an effort to keep the task-oriented side of my brain occupied while the creative side works on the plot.  It’s not unusual to find the bed half made because an answer presented itself and I had to run back to the computer.

Other than that, I’m a total pantser. I can’t plot out my stories with outlines or mindmaps because I find it too limiting. To me, it feels like I’m square-peg-round-holing it, trying to make the characters do what they need to do in order to fit where the story is going.  I’ve tried to plot like that and it ruins me every time a character starts misbehaving and derails the story by ten thousand words.  It’s too hard for me to go back and fix what feels like the natural progression of the story.

So, instead, I write the story like I’m reading it. I solve the mystery with the characters—sometimes with them, sometimes a chapter or two sooner, but I figure that in the end, if a story can surprise the one guy who *should* know where everything is going, it’ll be doubly exciting for the reader.

Alright, that’s it!

You can find Ernie at www.ernielindsey.com

Happy reading!

Other stops on this blog hop from authors starring in FROM THE INDIE SIDE:

Beginner’s Guide to Relativity


Einstein was a genius, there’s no doubt about that. But don’t let that deter you from wanting to understand relativity. Although it seems counterintuitive, it’s not too difficult to grasp. Surprisingly, at a basic level, it requires only high school math.

The first thing to understand about Einstein’s theory of relativity is that it is a description of reality. That is to say, relativity is not some vague, esoteric notion or ethereal concept like transubstantiation. Relativity is an explanation for what we observe of reality.

Let’s explore this a little…

Speed is a simple concept. Look at the speedometer in a car and the measurement is mph or kph, miles per hour or kilometers per hour, depending on where you live in the world. And that’s all velocity is, distance over time: v = d/t

Picture credit: Superstock. Pacific Island Sumo wrestler on a plane

Picture credit: Superstock

Speed is relative, or at least we instinctively think it is.

If you’re walking down the aisle of a plane traveling at 600 mph, how fast are you going? A casual walk is about 2 mph, so if you’re walking toward the front of the plane, your speed relative to the ground is 602 mph. Walk toward the back of the plane and your speed is 598 mph. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?

One of the startling discoveries of the late 1800s was that the speed of light was the same in every direction regardless of motion. Scientists measured the speed of light at 670,616,629 mph (186,282 miles per second). For simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it 670 million miles per hour.

For a couple of decades, scientists scratched their heads at this finding, repeating their experiments and confirming something that seemed entirely counterintuitive. The speed of light never varied, even though “common sense” said it should.

Let’s go back to our 747 to understand this better.

When you walk down the aisle of a 747, your personal speed (relative to the plane) is 2 mph in either direction, but relative to the ground, you’re travelling at 598 mph when walking toward the tail and 602 mph when walking toward the cockpit.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Zazzle

Now, if you stand in the aisle and shine a light at the cockpit and then at the tail, you would measure the speed of light in either direction as 670 million miles per hour. No surprises here. Just as you walked in either direction at 2 mph, light travels in either direction at 670 616 629 mph.

The “problem” arises when we measure your speed from the ground. When you walk toward the tail, your speed relative to the ground is no longer the same as the airplane. The plane is traveling at 600 mph but you’re traveling at 598 mph(or 602 mph).

The “problem” is the speed of light is not relative. The speed of the light you shined toward the back of the plane is still exactly 670 616 629 mph.

Walk toward the front of the plane, and your speed relative to the ground is 602 mph because you are traveling distance at combined rate of 602 miles an hour, but the light you shine is still traveling at exactly 670 616 629 mph. Why? Why isn’t the speed of light 670 617 229 mph (670 616 629 + 600)? It works that way for you walking around inside the plane, why doesn’t it work that way for light shining within the plane?

Einstein’s brilliance lay in accepting the results of these kind of experiments as reality, and then developing a theory that incorporated them accurately. Rather than trying to shoehorn what appeared to be “common sense” into a theory, he realized the results of this experiment revealed something profound about reality: time is fluid.

Remember our formula for speed? Miles per hour, or v = d/t. It’s a simple equation. There are only three elements. Velocity equals distance traveled over time taken. If the velocity of light remains the same while the distance has changed due to the motion of the plane, the ONLY explanation is that time has also changed to compensate.

And you can calculate by how much time changes with a spreadsheet.

(1 – plane speed2/ speed of light2)0.5

If you want to play along at home using a spreadsheet, this would be…

=(1 – ((A1^2)/(A2^2)))^0.5

Where A1 = the plane’s speed in mph and A2 = the speed of light in mph.

1 second on the ground equals 0.9999999999996 seconds in the air

As you can see, it’s a minuscule effect, which is why relativity went unnoticed for so long.

The Voyager space probe is travelling 35,000 miles per hour so over the course of a year, time is slowed by a second.

A popular notion in science fiction is the idea of time dilation for space travelers, but even if you were traveling at half a million miles an hour, that would only equate to about three and a half minutes difference each year. You have to go very fast for a long period of time before time dilation would ensure you were younger than your grandchildren on Earth. But thanks to Einstein, we know that this isn’t fiction.

Time is elastic. Anytime anyone is traveling at any speed relative to you, time is passing slower for them, whether that someone is driving by in a car or whizzing past in some absurdly fast spaceship. It’s just a question of by how much. Time dilates. That’s what it does.

Even the Beatles, tripping on acid, couldn’t have come up with something as outlandish as relativity. Once again, truth is stranger than fiction could ever be!

beatles

Bonus: Einstein also correctly deduced that the effect of gravity is the same as constant acceleration. Here’s a wonderful photo of an airplane in a roll. The constant change in angular momentum is mimicking constant acceleration, which in turn is mimicking gravity, and the pilot can pour a glass of water upside down.  How awesome is that?

physics

Picture credit: Reddit

Feedback: a novel by Peter Cawdron


I’m excited to announce the release of my latest novel, FEEDBACK.

FEEDBACK_aboutme (wordpress)

Cover design: Jason Gurley

Synopsis

Twenty years ago, a UFO crashed into the Yellow Sea off the Korean Peninsula. The only survivor was a young English-speaking child, captured by the North Koreans. Two decades later, a physics student watches his girlfriend disappear before his eyes, abducted from the streets of New York by what appears to be the same UFO.

Feedback will carry you from the desolate, windswept coastline of North Korea to the bustling streets of New York and on into the depths of space as you journey to the outer edge of our solar system looking for answers.

You can find FEEDBACK in the Amazon Kindle store.

My thoughts on writing

Writing is an art.

Hugh Howey recently made the point that writing a novel is a bit like running a marathon. Anyone can do it, well, I couldn’t with my dodgy knee, but most people could run a marathon if they put their mind to it and put in the hard work necessary to train beforehand. But you can’t just throw on a pair of sneakers and turn up at the starting line. As my editor, Ellen Campbell, will attest, getting FEEDBACK produced has taken a marathon effort.

One of the criticisms often leveled at indie writing is that there’s a lack of professionalism, but that stigma is rapidly becoming outdated. Easily 2/3 of the effort required to produce a novel like FEEDBACK comes from editing, re-editing, revising, reviewing and polishing the story so it shines like a gemstone. Find an indie author prepared to do that, and you’ll always get a top-notch story.

What advice would I give to aspiring authors?

  • Aspire no more — the only way to grow as a writer is to write.
  • Write short stories & fan fiction — seriously, it’s fun, rewarding and a great way to grow. Writing a novel is a herculean task. You’ll probably underestimate the effort and commitment required for a full-length novel, so start small and build from there. I love Kindle Worlds. Get something out there for people to read.
  • Kill your darlings — this is a bit of a cliche, but I mean it in terms of your writing. I culled 25,000 words out of Xenophobia based on beta-reader feedback. That’s a quarter of the book gone with a single keystroke, and a publication delay of almost two months, but the story was better for the revision. Be ruthless. If you don’t, you’ll never grow as a writer.
  • Don’t look at reviews or sales stats or author rankings — seriously, don’t do it. You don’t need affirmation from others. Write because you love to write. I try to limit myself to peering into these dark webs once a month. I try. Reviews, sales & rankings are a fickle yardstick with which to measure yourself. Avoid them like the plague.
  • Don’t take rejection personally —  all writers love five star reviews, myself included, but look closely at any 1, 2, 3 or 4 star reviews you get. Look for what you can learn. If I get a one star review, I’ll look at what that reviewer rated five stars and download at least a sample of that book, as I want to learn how I can do better. Sure, there’s nothing to learn from trolls, but most low star ratings are genuine. For some reason, the story missed the mark. Learn from that.
  • Surround yourself with people who make you a better writer — I don’t have many beta-readers, but I’m thankful for those I have and their input is invaluable.
  • Respect the reader — readers are placing a portion of their lives in your hands while they read. They’re giving up something far more precious than a few bucks, they’re giving up their time. There’s always a risk of mistakes creeping through, but do everything you can to polish your story to perfection for their sakes.
  • Learn from other indie authors — check out Favorite posts for writers on Hugh Howey’s home page, tap into indie groups online, talk with other authors about what works and what doesn’t. Mathew Mather and I recently swapped notes on how we approach character studies when planning a novel. We both took advantage of the opportunity to learn from each other.
  • Have fun

Thank you for supporting independent science fiction. If you do grab a copy of FEEDBACK please leave a review online as your thoughts and insights are invaluable in helping others determine whether this is a book they’d enjoy.

Cawdron_FEEDBACK-equations-small

Cover design: Jason Gurley

Anthologies are like a box of chocolates


AnthologyLate last year, I was honored to be asked to participate in an anthology called From the Indie Side, featuring some of the best indie writers on the planet.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know these writers as we’ve corresponded on various aspects of our stories.

Indie writing is exciting. Traditional publishing is a long, slow road to trudge, with no guarantee of results. Indie publishing holds no promise of success, but it is astonishingly quick, and yet that speed needs to be tempered with patience to ensure quality.

This anthology has been edited by Hugh Howey‘s editor David Gatewood to ensure the quality of stories is top notch. The cover design is by Jason Gurley.

For me, indie publishing has offered an avenue for growth as a writer that I would not have had in a traditional publishing environment, so I’m proud to be an indie and excited to contribute to this anthology.

Anthologies are like a box of chocolates. You get to sample a wide variety of stories in a wonderfully condense format and discover new authors you can explore.

chocolate-box

If you like quirky short stories on a variety of subjects, you’ll love From the Indie Side. It’s got something for everyone.

Here’s the synopsis of each story.

The Winter Lands (Jason Gurley)

Jonathan Froestt lives alone in a retirement home. His family is gone. His friends are all dead. For over sixty years, he has been writing a novel, the pages collecting in his apartment in stacks. Nobody has ever read it. Until today.

Going Gray (Brian Spangler)

When their community is engulfed by a deadly, caustic fog, sixteen-year-old Emily and her family decide to escape to the one building they can think of that might be able to withstand the fog’s corrosive force: the shopping mall. But a trip to the mall has never been so desperate, or so terrifying.

Queen Joanna (Kate Danley)

Thrust into a loveless marriage of state, Queen Joanna soon discovers her new palace is home to many dark secrets. And when a face in the mirror confronts her with a dire warning, she realizes her life is at risk. Has she awakened a curse—or been struck by madness? “Queen Joanna” presents a haunting twist on the legend of Bloody Mary.

Mouth Breathers (Hugh Howey)

Moving to a new town, starting off at a new school, meeting new kids… it’s never easy. And it only gets harder when the new town and the new school and the new kids are on a different planet. But sometimes, something happens that makes it worth all the trouble.

The Man With Two Legs (Ernie Lindsey)

Many winters ago, the man with two legs managed to escape the oppressive maiming rituals of Tritan’s government. Now he stands on a hillside overlooking the city, a bomb in his rucksack, determined to bring about two impossible results: his mother’s rescue and freedom for his people.

Cipher (Sara Foster)

When Beatrice leaves her family behind to visit her father, she never imagines she might not see them again. But then a bomb goes off close to home, and Beatrice must rely on a stranger’s help to find out what’s happened—and whether or not her husband and children have survived.

Made of Stars (Anne Frasier)

A genius vampire named Sinclair creates an alternate world where vampires can experience a traditional human life of love, marriage, and children. Sixteen-year-old Gabriel is Sinclair’s beta tester and volunteers to fall in love with a coffee-shop girl. But when the pain of love becomes overwhelming, Gabriel questions his decision. “It’s too real,” he tells Sinclair. “You made it too real.”

Gyre-Witchery (Kev Heritage)

All Tam wanted was to be loved. Was that so hard? Made outcast because of her green eyes—the sign of witchery—Tamina, a well-meaning simpleton, is shunned by a superstitious people who blame her for the ills that have overtaken their small island. It was not her fault that she put on weight while the others starved, or that wild animals slunk at her side, or that men and women both desired and despised her. But change was coming, brought upon the back of a terrifying squall…

The War Veteran (Susan May)

For seventy years, World War II veteran Jack Baker has endured vivid flashbacks to that horrific June day on Omaha Beach. But tonight, the flashback will be terrifyingly different. Tonight it becomes real. Tonight, Jack’s seventy-year-old secret will come back to claim him.

The Greater Good (Mel Hearse)

When Lanie wakes up in a hospital bed with no idea how she got there, she tries desperately to work out why she was on the old loop road that’s been all but abandoned by the locals. Thinking there must be an obvious answer, Lanie leaves no stone unturned in her quest for an explanation. But when all is revealed, she is left with only one question—and no good answers.

REDOUBT (Michael Bunker)

Phillip is a militia commander who has planned for a decade to defend the pacifist Vallenses of Central Texas with his army if ever the world tips over and goes to hell. He never thought he’d be on a skiing trip to New Mexico when the end comes.

The Man Who Remembered Today (Peter Cawdron)

Kareem wakes with a headache. A bloody bandage wrapped around his head tells him this isn’t just another day in the Big Apple. The problem is, he can’t remember what happened to him. He can’t recall anything from yesterday. The only memories he has are from events that are about to unfold today, and today is no ordinary day.

From the Indie Side is available on Amazon

and from Barnes and Noble

and on Kobo 

sunrise-thank you

Peace in Amber


In 2013, Amazon launched Kindle Worlds, which enabled a commercial avenue for what has been disdainfully called fan-fiction.

Critics attacked the idea.

Readers attacked the idea, saying “it’s a stupid move,” and “it will never last.”

Even such stalwarts of science fiction as io9 attacked the idea, saying, “Kurt Vonnegut? F*CK AND NO. The man is one of America’s literary icons. To allow fan fiction based on his work is a disgrace.

Picture credit: Inktank

Picture credit: Inktank

Is there the possibility for fan-fiction to be a poor imitation of the original? Yes. But to assume that Kindle Worlds will “tarnish… America’s greatest authors,” is short-sighted. Rather than tarnishing Slaughterhouse Five, Hugh Howey has produced a story that is undoubtedly one of the greatest science fiction sequels ever penned.

There are a handful of stories that are iconic: Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse Five. It is with solemn respect that I suggest Peace in Amber joins those ranks as one of the few stories that captures the psyche of a nation.

In the same way in which Slaughterhouse Five captured the horrors of World War II and the bombing of Dresden, in centuries to come, people will read Peace in Amber to understand the impact of 9/11 on the heart and soul of America.

Peace in Amber is masterfully written, carefully echoing the style of Vonnegut while bringing a fresh, original perspective to the concept of the Tralfamadorians, a fictitious alien race that is unbound by time, seeing all of life in one sweeping vista.

Peace in Amber is written from two vantage points, that of Howey himself as a ship captain at dock below the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, and Montana Wildhack, a character from Vonnegut’s original story. Montana was the mate selected by the Tralfamadorians for Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five.

Picture credit: unknown

Picture credit: unknown

The prose is chilling. The alternating storyline blends with the chaos of the moment, and you are transported seamlessly from that fateful September morning across the universe and back again.

I’m on the wharf, looking up. There’s a plane howling across the clear blue sky, banking hard, coming in too fast. One building is burning, and another can’t get out of the way. A pattern is forming, but in my head I only have a silent scream to a pilot who is already dead. Pull up. Pull up. — Peace in Amber

Even the title, Peace in Amber, has been adapted from Slaughterhouse Five.

All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber. — Slaughterhouse Five

Hugh Howey has written an American classic.

Without Kindle Worlds, Peace in Amber would have never been written and we would be the poorer for that loss.

September 11, 2001 stands as a pivotal moment in history in much the same way as December 7th, 1941 marked the end of America’s innocence. To capture the raw poignant emotion of this event in such a moving story is the essence of great literature.

For generations to come, this book will be a rallying point for those that seek to understand what we collectively felt on that day.

Rather than diminishing Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Hugh Howey has refreshed it for a new generation.

Kurt Vonnegut would love Peace in Amber.

Thank you, Hugh.

*Disclosure – I am a science fiction author who met Hugh Howey once. You’ll have to decide if that constitutes a bias. You can find Peace in Amber on Amazon Kindle Worlds

What is color?


Each year, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science issues the Flame Challenge, challenging scientists to communicate complex subjects to 11 year olds in 300 words or less. This year, the challenge was to explain color. Although I’m not a scientist and cannot compete, I couldn’t resist.

What is color?

Color is an important part of our world, but what is color?

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Color is the result of our eyes catching light in different ways.

spectrum

Picture credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

To someone that’s colorblind, these two images look the same. Color evolved so we could distinguish between shades of grey.

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Picture credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey (saved in black and white)

Other animals evolved to see slightly different portions of light.

Cats only have color receptors for green and blue, whereas humans have green, blue and red.

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Picture credit: Nickolay Lamm

Cats may see less color, but they see better in the dark.

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Picture credit: Nickolay Lamm

How can one flower be seen three different ways?

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Picture credit: Nature.com

We don’t see all the light bouncing around us. We only see a thin strip of light. Shift that slightly so you have the vision of a bee, and you’ll see things that are invisible to our eyes.

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Picture credit: West Mountain Apiary

If that isn’t weird enough, some animals see colors we can’t even begin to imagine.

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Picture credit: Mantis Shrimp, Gizmo

The mantis shrimp sees twelve primary colors! Not only do shrimp see more colors than us, shrimp see over a wider range! What do these extra colors look like? We have no idea. Just as we couldn’t explain red to someone born colorblind, we can’t picture the colors a shrimp can see.

Picture credit:

Picture credit:Pan Studios

What would an alien see if they came to Earth?

If an alien were to visit Earth they would probably have some form of sight. Sight is so useful it evolved independently on Earth over forty different times! An alien would have to be able to see the stars before traveling to them, but their sight would have evolved on an entirely different world, so they’re probably going to see differently, just like cats and bees.

What is color?

A convenient way our eyes perceive light. Our eyes interpret the black-and-white world around us, adding a touch of excitement to our sight.

An alternative to stars on reviews


Five star ratings are becoming increasingly meaningless on Amazon and GoodReads.

Every writer loves five star reviews, and I’m certainly no exception. There’s no doubt, five star reviews sell books, but how accurate a measurement are they of a quality to be found in a story?

The problem is… how can you compare WOOL by Hugh Howey with THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway?

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WOOL is a wonderful story and has proven popular to a wide readership, gaining a phenomenal 7000+ reviews, but it is yet to have the longevity or literary impact of the Old Man.

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On the surface, WOOL is a better story than THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, but is that really the case? Or have we exposed how star ratings fail to adequately capture the essence of a book?

You see, the problem is we’re comparing apples and oranges. Both books are wonderful, but to make any kind of comparison between them is shortsighted. Ever tried orange pie?

The rating system on Amazon is structured like a footrace, ignoring the subtleties of literature.

I’d like to suggest we need an alternative means of rating books, one that perhaps runs in parallel with the star ratings, but one that categorizes content rather than judging enjoyment.

I’d recommend Amazon explores the possibility of developing a Briggs/Meyer style rating system where books are grouped by opposing characteristics, where no one characteristic is either good or bad. In this way, we can get honest representations of a book’s content. I’ll kick the discussion off with a few suggestions…

Rating

And then books that are AAA would be great for action/adventure, while DDD would be Proust, Hemingway, etc. In this way, people could match themselves with the writing styles they enjoy, and a five-star ABC book would not be confused with a five-star DDD, etc.

It may take a little more thought than clicking on a star, but if a reader really loves a story enough to leave a review, I think they’d like the opportunity express their estimation of the content accurately.

There is a world of difference between enjoying a book you read over the Christmas holidays and recognizing that a book transcends time and genre. Amazon’s current rating system doesn’t allow that distinction.

Come on, Amazon. Innovate!

PS: This doesn’t mean I don’t want reviews :) Please, please, please leave honest reviews for everything you read regardless of the author. Your thoughts and opinions as a reader are invaluable to writers.

Evolution in the lab


When it comes to experiments, Archimedes’ bathtub, Galileo’s rolling ball and Newton’s prism are legendary. They’re insightful and represent turning points in our collective understanding of the world around us.

In the centuries to come, Richard Lenski’s E. Coli experiment will be ranked alongside them and others, like the Michelson-Morley measurement of the speed of light, as some of the greatest experiments ever undertaken, but with one distinct difference. In the centuries to come, Lenski’s E. Coli experiment will STILL be running.

In 1988, Richard Lenski began a controlled experiment to observe evolution under laboratory conditions. Lenski chose E. Coli bacteria for the experiment as it only reproduces asexually. This ensures the genes of the offspring are identical to those of a single parent.

800px-Lenski's_12_long-term_lines_of_E._coli_on_25_June_2008

Picture credit: Richard Lenski

By isolating thousands of generations of E. Coli from outside influence, Lenski sought to observe evolution by means of natural genetic variation as a result of errors in replication or from naturally occurring radiation, etc, with only those variations that were favorable being naturally selected for subsequent generations. Genetic variations could only spread by common descent if they were beneficial to the bacteria.

Here’s an overview of the results of Lenski’s experiment so far…

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A repeatable, isolated environment eliminated any “noise”

Creationists often cling to the fact that there are gaps in the fossil record. They used these so-called “missing links” to create doubts about evolution. However, given how difficult it is for fossils to form it would be more of a surprise if there weren’t any gaps.

Gaps are not an issue. They’re only an issue when people don’t understand that species are dynamic, not fixed. Lenski’s experiment demonstrates the smooth, gradual change that is missing from the fossil record only because rocks are not as effective a scientific instrument as a petri dish.

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Living fossils

Lenski preserved frozen samples at regular intervals for examination at a later point in time, effectively forming a living fossil record of this species as it evolved in his laboratory.

We categorize organisms as species, but species are transitory. Most “species,” as we note them, only exist in the same state for roughly a million years or so. Animals and plants are in a constant state of flux. Their genes are malleable and plastic, although changes occur at a glacial pace.

Rather than thinking of species we should think in terms of the genetic lines that branch into the various species we see today.

Species are not islands unto themselves, they’re not single, isolated points in nature. Think about how roads represent a network of interconnected pathways leading to various points. In the same way, species are points on the genetic highways of life. They’re not a destination, they’re just the latest position on that particular road. Given time, all species will travel beyond where they are today.

Richard Lenski’s experiment demonstrates how organisms diverge from a common point.

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Life natural adapts to exploit opportunity

Natural selection was observed under controlled laboratory conditions. All twelve strains were completely isolated from each other and yet they all evolved to exploit their new conditions of life in roughly the same manner.

Growth in cell size of E. Coli. Picture credit: Wikimedia

Growth in cell size of E. Coli. Picture credit: Wikimedia

E. Coli adapted to suit its new environment without any external influence. Some E. Coli lines changed more than others, but none of them remained the same, and that again makes the point that species are dynamic, not static.

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Natural Selection is like the Olympics

Life seeks maximum efficiency.

Have you ever noticed how world records continue to be broken in sports? The reason is simple, competition ensures increasing effectiveness. In the same way, evolution is the setting of new records in the natural world as species continue to adapt to exploit an ecological niche against all comers.

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We’re witnessing the birth of a new species

Much to the surprise and delight of scientists, Lenski’s experiment led to an entirely new, novel adaptation, the ability for E. Coli to consume citrate in an oxygen rich environment. On the surface, that may not seem that spectacular, but what Lenski witnessed at this point was the birth of a new species of bacteria. Technically, the bacteria are still E. Coli, but remember the term species is an artificial designation we assign to organisms somewhat arbitrarily.

When it comes to the slow, gradual progression of species as they branch out from a common point, there’s no clear cut delineation. Just as there’s no one particular moment when a child becomes an adult, species progress by gradual steps. In Lenski’s laboratory, the E. Coli line Ara-3 branched in a new genetic direction, forming the basis for a new species!

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Be kind, rewind

Creationists are unduly hung up on the fact that we don’t see species diverging before our eyes, but that’s because it takes vast stretches of time to occur. In reality, the fact we have artificially selected wolves to become Chihuahuas and Great Danes over a few thousand years should be evidence enough. But here, Lenski has demonstrated such evolutionary change in a laboratory.

If we could replay the evolution of hominids from Homo ergaster through to Homo sapiens, there would be no huge jumps, no sudden changes in skull size or spinal column, just a slow, steady progression as smooth as the changes Lenski observed with E. Coli. At various points in time, subtle changes would be introduced and, if favorable, preserved by Natural Selection.

Picture credit: Wikimedia

Picture credit: Wikimedia

Richard Lenski’s experiment confirmed what scientists had known from all the other lines of evidence, that evolution occurs naturally all the time.

An exciting aspect of Lenski’s experiment is that there’s no need for it to stop. I can’t see any reason why his experiment would not be running in a hundred or a thousand years time. How much change will occur? What will the new, emergent, divergent species look like? It’s hard to say. Lenski’s E. Coli are severely restrained and limited by their strictly controlled environment, but that hasn’t stopped evolution so far!

If anyone has any doubts about evolution, Lenski’s experiment should lay them to rest as he has shown evolution is a demonstrable fact under controlled, laboratory conditions.

The Selfish Meme


Disclaimer: I am not a biologist or a trained scientist. I am writing this as a science enthusiast. 

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in which he laid out the already recognized case for personifying the role of genes in evolution as being selfish or self-centered. It’s a humbling view of life, one that examines nature on a timescale of billions of years: that genes exist in competition to perpetuate themselves through whatever torturous, indirect means they can.

“We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.”

At first, the concept of the selfish gene might seem to be an extreme view, as we tend to see our bodies as serving us rather than thinking of ourselves as an elaborate extension of genetic material, and yet that’s the truth.

“Different sorts of survival machine appear very varied on the outside and in their internal organs. An octopus is nothing like a mouse, and both are quite different from an oak tree. Yet in their fundamental chemistry they are rather uniform, and, in particular, the replicators that they bear, the genes, are basically the same kind of molecule in all of us—from bacteria to elephants. We are all survival machines for the same kind of replicator—molecules called DNA— but there are many different ways of making a living in the world, and the replicators have built a vast range of machines to exploit them. A monkey is a machine that preserves genes up trees, a fish is a machine that preserves genes in the water; there is even a small worm that preserves genes in German beer mats. DNA works in mysterious ways.”

Evolution is the natural, predictable outcome of the geometric expansion of living organisms. Too many seeds fall, too many pups are born, too many eggs are laid to ever survive to adulthood and reproduce.

  • A single, female salmon produces 28,000,000 eggs when spawning
  • A single oyster  produces 114,000,000 eggs a season
  • Charles Darwin realised that elephants are the slowest breeding land mammals. Yet if the generations that stem from a single litter could all survive and breed down through numerous generations, there would be 19,000,000 elephants in roughly 750 years

Something has to be preventing the world from being overrun with elephants, salmon and oysters! Darwin realized the intense competition between individuals for limited resources would winnow out the majority of offspring. In addition, the presence of predators and disease and sexual selection also act as a filtering mechanism. Darwin’s great insight was to realize that those animals that survive do so because of a subtle advantage they have over their peers, and in this manner Natural Selection gives rise to the astonishing diversity of life we see around us today.

Much to the surprise of naturalists in Victorian England, Charles Darwin noted that the greatest competition comes from within a species or from closely allied species. He understood that those organisms that survive these intense pressures into adulthood to breed have inherited some slight advantage from their parents. Richard Dawkins clarified this subtle advantage as the triumph of the selfish gene, being a genetic difference that gave one organism an edge over its competitors.

In this way, evolution has led to increasing complexity not dissimilar to a Rube-Goldberg machine. The eccentric, convoluted interactions are secondary to reaching a certain goal. In the case of life, that goal is the propagation of genes to the next generation.

OK, I admit it, this entire post was an excuse to insert that video. OK Go are awesome!

Seriously, at the end of the video there’s a shot of all the people that set up the Rube-Goldberg machine on the mezzanine level. They’re the genes! They’re the ones that ensured this level of complexity was possible and would come to pass.

Perhaps the best example of selfish genes at work is the sloth. Although they’re not directly related in a linear sense, the Megatherium (ground sloth) and the current tree sloth are very closely related, being part of the same branch within the evolutionary tree of life.

In the age of the megafauna, Megatherium was a four-ton, elephant-sized herbivore that was anything but slothful. Some researchers suggests Megatherium could scavenge the kill of a Smilodon saber-tooth cat, and yet today both Megatherium and Smilodon are extinct. The only sloths still carrying the Xenarthra Pilosa Folivora genetic line forward are tree sloths, a poor imitations of Megatherium. If this video is any representation of their survivability, they may not be around much longer.

Nope, this sloth hasn’t been hit by a car. He’s not road-kill. That’s his normal speed. How could such a magnificent genetic line such as Xenarthra Pilosa Folivora be humbled in this manner? By selfish genes, genes that alter without regard to their host.

Genes change randomly, but they only propagate to another generation if their host is successful in breeding. Genetic change is random, survival is not, as it’s governed by Natural Selection, a distinctly non-random process. From the perspective of genes, adaptation is a blind experiment to find the best genetic combination to survive into the future, regardless of how bizarre such variations may be.

Animals such as Smilodon and Megatherium were driven to extinction by a combination of factors, including aggressive human hunters (who would be considered predators) and climate change. As strangely inefficient and ungainly as the current tree sloth may seem to us, it was better suited to surviving these changes. There’s little doubt, however, that it is evolving into a genetic dead-end. Without human intervention, the sloth will go extinct.

Another example of the counterintuitive results of selfish genes at work is the sea squirt.

These beautiful sea creatures have a distinctly different larval stage in their infancy, during which they can swim around seeking an outcrop for their adult phase of life. After roughly three days, they settle and transform from a juvenile into an adult, only that transformation includes absorbing body parts such as their gills, tail, spine-like notocord, eye and brain ganglia. Yep, these guys “eat” their own brains! The pathway scribed by their selfish genes have determined that as adults they no longer need eyes or brains to succeed as an organism.

99.9% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct. Why? With the exception of the occasional asteroid, they’ve all been driven to extinction by competition with other species. As genes continue to evolve by means of Natural Selection, they cause species to adapt better to compete with each other. Those parent species that fail to keep pace in this genetic arms race fall to extinction.

Species go extinct at a regular rate, known as the background extinction rate, although this has accelerated with human activities. On average, marine species fall extinct every 4-5 million years, while land mammals have an average species lifespan of just over a million years. As alarming as that may seem, extinction often aligns with the emergence of new species. In essence, the child species displaces its parent species.

Tree of Life (I Think)

Picture credit: Wikimedia

The genetic relationships between life on Earth have been described by Charles Darwin and others as a tree. But Darwin saw the fallacy in this analogy himself, as the branches and connections within a tree are alive. In light of this, Darwin also likened the evolutionary tree of life to a coral, where living polyps thrive on the dead branches.

The tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life, [its] base of branches dead; so that passages cannot be seen.
Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Volume 1, pg 368

What is the selfish gene? In a nutshell, it’s a metaphor to that describes the self-serving agency of genetic material as it propagates itself into the future. The selfish gene is constantly adapting to natural pressures so as to survive the fierce competition of life. In this way, new species branch off from old species, often condemning them to extinction.

Because the title is so arresting, it is easy to assume Dawkins was promoting selfishness when he wrote The Selfish Gene, but he wasn’t. Far from considering the selfish gene as an ideal, Dawkins sought to expose the self-indulgent nature of genes and promote our ability to live above and beyond their pernicious influence.

“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are all born selfish.”

Fast forward to 2013 and science writer David Dobbs published an article called Die, Selfish Gene, Die. In essence, his argument is that other factors, such as gene expression in different environments, epigenetics and genetic assimilation make the gene-centric view of evolution out-moded. It’s an extremely well written article, but Dobbs overplays his hand.

At the core of Dobbs’ examples is the plasticity and versatility of the gene! Ultimately, there is no other hereditary component being passed from generation to generation. Like our Rube-Goldberg machine, the process may have an astonishing degree of complexity, but someone (genes) had to establish that in the first instance and carry it forward to subsequent generations.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Scientific American

The example Dobbs provides is of the Schistocerca gregaria locust (left) and Schistocerca gregaria grasshopper (right). The differences between these two insects reaches well beyond their coloration. The hind legs of the locust are set at a different pitch. The wings are smaller while the brain is larger, and yet these two insects are the same species. In fact, the grasshopper can transform into a locust in a matter of hours with the right hormones (normally triggered by environmental factors).

As spectacular as this is, it is entirely dependent on the plasticity of the Schistocerca gregaria genes. In the same way, a caterpillar and a butterfly share the exact same genes, but they’re expressed in different manners at different stages of life.

Genes may be more remote in these examples, but they’re still the foundation of the transformation of a grasshopper to a locust. This transformation is only possible because the genes allow for it.

As far as we know, genes are the only way for biological information to be passed from one generation to the next.

One of Dobbs’ claims is that the gene follows, it doesn’t lead. But this is only the case in a handful of examples and if the gene follows then it is following other genes!

Perhaps the clearest example of how genes lead is in Richard Lenski’s 50,000+ generational experiment into the controlled evolution of E. Coli under laboratory conditions. Lenski was able to observe one of his twelve colonies of E. Coli evolve to consume citrate, something E.Coli cannot do in the wild. In a stroke of brilliance, Lenski kept frozen samples of bacteria every 500 generations. This gave Lenski the ability to “replay” evolution from different depths of generations. What he found was astonishing.

E.Coli originally evolved the ability to consume citrate around generation 33,127. If Lenski revived bacteria within that colony from generation 25,000 the ability to consume citrate evolved again, albeit in a different generation. Now, here’s the clincher. If Lenski revived a generation from prior to 20,000 that colony never evolved to consume citrate! What that tells us is that some other correlated adaptation that later supported citrate consumption occurred around the 20,000th generation, roughly 13,000 generations before the bacteria adapted to consume citrate. In other words, Lenski demonstrated that genes lead, they don’t follow!

Genes are a Rube-Goldberg machine. They not only affect the development of an organism, they can act on other genes, they can lie dormant until activated at later stages of life (as in the caterpillar and butterfly), or in response to environmental changes (as in the grasshopper and locust), but their motive (if a gene’s function can be personified in that way) remains the same: to survive and propagate by any means possible.

And this brings us to the Selfish Meme, the title of this article. Memes are ideas. The word itself is a play on the word gene, and describes how information can take on similar characteristics to genes, slowly accumulating from one generation to the next as an idea spreads within a population.

In practice, genes are memes. They’re biological information that replicates and becomes more refined over time.

Tree of Life

Phylogenetic tree of life – Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Ever since life first arose roughly 3.8 billion years ago, it has been spreading its message. We think of animals and plants as distinctly different species, but they are interrelated in a way that is astonishing. All of life on Earth is related at a genetic level. And it’s not just that all life uses DNA. All life uses a variation on the original pattern of life that emerged some 3.8 billion years ago!

Life has adapted and diverged, filling various niches, in constant competition for limited resources in an ongoing struggle to survive and propagate. The selfish gene is merely a manifestation of the selfish meme, Life!

Life is an idea, an ideal that has thrived and survived on Earth against the odds. Rather than being selfish in the arrogant, narcissistic sense of the word, life is selfish in that it seeks to survive in whatever form it can.

Life is the selfish meme.

Don’t fear the facts. Learn about the Theory.


This blog post was developed in conjunction with Professor O.R. Pagan from the University of West Chester Pennsylvania in light of some common cultural misunderstandings we’ve observed about the subject of evolution.
Slide1

There are two deeply misunderstood and unfairly maligned terms in science: the words “evolution” and “theory”.

It is important to distinguish between the term “theory” in a conversational sense and the word “Theory” as it is used in science. Many people confuse the two and this shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the scientific process.

A “theory” (all lowercase) is essentially a guess or an opinion, as in “this is what I think.” On the other hand, a “Theory” (capitalized) in the scientific sense is a model that organizes a wide variety of phenomena, integrating them in a logical way which has little to do with personal opinions. In this way, a Theory is capable of explaining additional observations and most importantly, makes predictions. Over time, these additional observations are used to modify the Theory and in some cases, even change it entirely.

It is dangerous to confuse “facts” with “Theories.” For example, consider gravity.

Things fall towards the ground. This is an unquestionable fact that is observed millions of times every single day. We (humans) have described this as “gravity,” and we have imagined many different explanations of what makes it happen. Since antiquity, there have been several explanations to account for the fact of gravity, all the way up to Newton and Einstein, and yet the proverbial apple does not care about the mechanism; it falls to the ground regardless.

Although we have a Theory of gravity, we do not think of gravity as something dependent on our personal opinions. Gravity happens, whether we like it or not. In this sense, gravity is both a fact and a Theory.

Slide1

Picture credit:http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/images/teach/parachute.gif

In our age of media sensationalism (or bite-size science), it’s not uncommon to hear someone proudly proclaim, “Newton got it wrong,” or “Darwin was wrong.” We’ve even heard, “Einstein got it wrong.” The truth is, these claims are spurious and shortsighted; it goes without saying that they are also wrong. We’ll deal with evolution in a moment; let’s finish with gravity first.

Take for example, Newton and Einstein. Newton didn’t get gravity wrong. If anything, given the limited access he had to observational evidence and experimentation, Newton’s insights into concepts like the inverse square relationship of the distance between two masses when calculating gravitational attraction is astonishing, and let’s not even talk about how, when the mathematics that he knew proved inadequate to explore this aspect of nature he invented calculus (more or less at the same time as Leibnitz).

Einstein didn’t overturn Newton, he improved on the accuracy of Newton’s laws. We still use Newton’s laws today even though Einstein’s theory of general relativity is more accurate.  For example, pure Newtonian mechanics is perfectly adequate to model the basic motion of the planets around the Sun.

Shooting-Target

Picture credit: http://www.dimensionsinfo.com/shooting-target-dimensions/

If you look at this target from a distance of 200 yards, that large grey-black area encompassing rings 10, 9 & 8 will appear like a smudge, barely more than a dot in the distance. If you’re using a handgun or a rifle without a telescopic sight, at that distance you could proudly claim a bulls-eye if you struck the grey-black area, and yet up close it’s apparent there aren’t any shots that hit dead-center. In the same way, Newton’s laws fall broadly within the bulls-eye. Newton’s laws are extremely useful, but Einstein hit dead-center (at least to the best of our current knowledge. If the link between gravity and quantum mechanics is resolved, we may yet increase our accuracy even further).

When talking about theories, the same reasoning that we apply to gravity can be applied to evolution.

Gasp!

For some, evolution is a scary word, but it shouldn’t be.

The term evolution is a catch-all, a summation of more than a hundred and fifty years of scientific research and, unfortunately, religious controversy, compressed into nine letters. As a concept, evolution carries differing weight and different meaning in various people’s thinking, but it shouldn’t, as evolution has been clearly defined by science.

As with gravity, a vast collection of Theories of evolution have been used to explain this change of biological life over time through a variety of different mechanisms. The best available evidence points at natural selection as the most likely mechanism that accounts for evolutionary change.

As much as we like simple, straightforward answers, complex sciences like biology rarely resolve into a single solution. There can be numerous, interrelated causes contributing to the evolution of species. When DNA was first discovered, there were high-hopes that it would provide a single blueprint or instruction manual for life. Instead, what we find is that DNA is just part of the answer. The full answer encompasses epigenetics (the impact of the environment on our genes at the molecular level) and may even include an emerging field known as hologenetics (where the microbiome of symbiotic bacteria living within animals indirectly contributes to evolution in a kind of symbiosis). These are exciting fields of research, teaching us more about the mechanism by which life has adapted, diverged and thrived on Earth for billions of years.

Whether evolution has occurred by symbiosis, natural selection, a combination of the two, or even by an as yet undiscovered mechanism, our theories have no bearing on the fact of evolution. Life happened. Life has changed over time. The undeniable fact is that life on our planet has evolved over time. This has been thoroughly documented by many lines of evidence. This is a fact. Pure and simple. No “buts” or “maybes.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about evolution is that it attracts any controversy at all, as it is quite simple and straightforward: the main imperative of life in the biological sense is to reproduce. To reproduce, you must be alive, therefore the kind of life that survives in a particular environment gets to leave offspring carrying its genetic legacy. Over time, we call this process adaptation.

The challenge species face is that there is fierce competition for limited resources, there’s disease, there’s predators, and so each animal species must produce offspring that survive to mate or they will go extinct. No child is identical to its parents, and so if gradual, generational changes provide an offspring with an advantage over its peers, then that change will be favored and slowly become a dominant characteristic. In this way, birds become lighter, lions become stronger, cheetahs become faster, etc. But there are physical limits. Become too light and a bird can’t migrate if it needs to. Become too strong and a lion needs more kills to drive its metabolism or risk starvation. Become too fast, and a cheetah may be more susceptible to strains or broken bones, etc. And so natural selection finds an equilibrium of maximum efficiency for a given species.

400px-US_and_USSR_nuclear_stockpiles

Picture credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_arms_race

Evolution is a Cold War within the animal kingdom, an arms race not unlike the one between the US and the USSR after World War II, with the stakes being extinction.

That life on Earth has changed over time is undeniable, and was a source of considerable interest in Victorian England when the fossils of terrible lizards (dinosaurs) were first uncovered.

And it’s not just that dinosaurs are extinct, 99.9% of all the species that have ever lived on Earth, including innumerable mammal species, are also extinct. The species we see around us today represent 0.1% of all the species that have ever existed. The species alive today are not merely survivors, they’ve inherited their pedigree from prior species. In some cases they’re really lucky survivors. We only have to go back to the dinosaurs, that proud lineage that thrived over millions of years, to see innumerable species wiped out in the proverbial blink of an eye by a random event in the form of a big rock that fell to Earth.

At its heart, science is about cataloging and categorizing natural phenomena in order to understand cause and effect. As more and more fossils were uncovered in the Victorian era, an interesting pattern emerged. Life could be ordered by strata, or layer. Fossils could be grouped together according to broad families of species, with each successive layer revealing a growing relationship down reaching through time.

Fossils are a time machine, a window into the distant past. They reveal how ancient species diverged and branched out into the species we see around us today.

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Picture credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Horseevolution.png (And by the way, this is only one example of the many lineages where transitional fossils have been documented).

Biologist J.B.S. Haldane was once asked what it would take to overturn the theory of evolution. His answer? Rabbits in the precambrian fossil layers.

As a humorous as this is, it’s an astute observation. In England, rabbits were a pest. Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. Rabbits were everywhere, except in Precambrian history! And that struck Haldane as profound.

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Picture credit: http://dogmapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Precambrian_rabbits

Dig down through layers of rock and stone and you’ll uncover fossils with similar skeletal structures to those species alive today, but there are distinct and clear differences. The deeper you dig, the more marked the difference. This sequential progression forms a pattern, revealing clues about how life has evolved on Earth. That life has evolved is a fact beyond controversy. How life has evolved is a theory that is well-tested and being refined further every day.

One common retort against evolution is to dismiss the concept by saying, “Oh, evolution is just a theory.” But such a flippant remark fails to understand that scientific theories are rigorously tested, subject to intense scrutiny, peer-reviewed, held to the highest standards of transparency and consistency, and brutally refined according to the available evidence.

A common fallacy prevalent in many circles is that scientific facts can be easily rendered invalid at a moment’s notice. This is not the case. Even if you are talking about the Theory of evolution, the sheer weight of evidence for the mechanism of evolution needs to be accounted for. There’s the fossil record, genetics, phylogenetics, laboratory experiments that have directly observed Natural Selection, and our own experience with artificial selection revealing the plasticity of species. All of these demand a clear explanation. The evidence we have, from a variety of different disciplines as far-flung as geology, all converge on the fact that evolution has occurred.

In the same way as Newton hit the bullseye while Einstein improved the accuracy, Darwin too hit the bullseye. Modern scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins have reported refinements to the theory of evolution and have contributed significant original ideas like punctuated equilibrium and the “selfish gene” idea.

In Darwin’s time, the main difficulty that stood in the way of a more complete acceptance of natural selection as a mechanism of evolutionary change was that nobody knew how traits were inherited. In the 20th century, the field of genetics has shown us how organisms transmit their genetic endowment and how that endowment changes over time (the concept of genetics reaches from Mendel to molecular sciences researched by Haldane, Mayr and Dobzhansky among others).

Beautiful.

This brings up an interesting point about science, and one that we can only articulate by using the term evolution in a figurative, non-biological sense: Science is about evolution not revolution. We’ll explain what we mean.

Fields like string theory may very well lead to a revolution in our scientific understanding, but more than likely they too will be evolutionary, building upon rather than overturning existing notions. There are plenty of gaps to be filled in, but importantly there’s no evidence to be thrown out. Our understanding of biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc., is always open to revision so as to be more accurate, but science really is about the evolution of ideas rather than a revolution. And nowhere is that more true than when it comes to evolution itself.

TeachControversy

Picture credit: American Scientist

As sincere and well-meaning as creationists and proponents of intelligent design are, they do a disservice to science by cherry-picking concepts that suit their agenda, and this does no one any favors. Science takes no such shortcuts.

Good science is critical to our lives. The next time you open a can of soup, drive your car, or open a refrigerator, you are trusting good science. With the evolution of antibiotic-resistance strains of bacteria, the debate between science and pseudo-science is more than theoretical. In this regard, pseudo-rationality can get you killed.

Science has and always will be about removing agendas and looking at the evidence with an unbiased, critical mindset.

Evolution’s not a scary word. It’s an exciting concept, a wonderful glimpse into the mechanism by which life has thrived on Earth for billions of years.

For more information about evolution as fact and theory check out Stephen Jay Gould.

“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”

~Karl Popper

Presents for Book Lovers


pcawdron:

Christmas presents for the book lover in your life :)

Originally posted on Books and Bowel Movements:

bookishchristmas 

Mugs & Shiz for Readers

Mugs & Shiz

Mugs & Shiz

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