Was it just me, or was their something faintly bizarre about yesterday’s historical ass whooping of man by machine? Maybe it was Brad Rutter’s increasingly frantic swaying as Watson took his lead and asked for yet another clue in its stilted, strangely mis-timed way. Perhaps it was the effect of the last corporate stiff of the event – in front of a stone wall backdrop that seemed a parody of cheesy corporate décor – telling us where Watson’s winnings will go, all while speaking with a monotone that would make Al Gore jealous. Or maybe it was Alex Trebek’s nonchalance after the historic event as he immediately turned his attention to pitching the next day’s all-teen tournament. Somehow I expected balloons and confetti to descend from the ceiling, maybe with the voice of Hal in the background—“I’m sorry Ken, but you were really improving from your performance yesterday. Would you mind taking out the garbage?” The most important intelligence test of machine versus man in decades sails by with hardly the rattle of a plastic fern.
Besides the very impressive technical achievement of Watson, IBM should be congratulated for managing to turn three episodes of Jeopardy! into a three-episode-long infomercial for their brand. We saw breathless executives tell us how Watson was a real game-changer for medicine, genomics, and spiky hairdos for avatars. We saw the lead engineers puzzling over mathematical squiggles written on staggered layers of sliding glass panels (something we’ve seen in an Intel commercial before when it was necessary for a visual joke to work, and so obviously useless for doing real work that it seems an insult to viewers in this context).
A few days ago two assassination attempts on Iranian nuclear scientists were made. One succeeded while the other was a near miss. This is just a short while after programmable logic controllers running Iran’s centrifuges came under cyber attack. Attempts to stop Iran from having the bomb have transitioned from breaking the hardware to killing the brains behind the hardware.
The idea of attacking scientists to stem technological development is an old one. Perhaps the most dramatic example from recent times is Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In his case the targeted killings were embedded in an anti-technology philosophy fully developed in his Manifesto. In the recent assassination attempts in Iran, we see the workings of geopolitical pragmatism in its most raw form.
Regardless of what we may think of Iran having the bomb, the strategy of killing scientists and engineers of a country’s technological infrastructure is one that should give us pause. Few steps separate this ploy to making them the domestic enemy as well, a tradition with an even deadlier history that includes the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s purge of academics.
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part IV of IV. (Check out parts I, II, & III)
Before I get onto the other exciting questions, a quick recap: a zombie pathogen could not be a “live infection” (i.e. rabies/Rage), but would be a re-animation virus: infection-death-reanimation. Bodily fluid transmission, non-regeneration/growth, and slowed decay were also key features of my hypothetical zombie pathogen. A zombie is a corpse with the appearance of life. The distinction is between brain-death and brain destruction. A zombie is brain-dead. In reality, it is the pathogen which is alive, hijacking the corpse. When one damages the corpse sufficiently, the pathogen has nothing left to “hijack” and therefore the zombie is de-animated.
With these key points answered, we can answer a whooooole bunch of other questions about what a zombie is and isn’t. Answers after the jump! Read More
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part II of IV. (Check out parts I, & III)
Before we can start investigating whether or not something that craves brains has a mind or should be pitied, we need to define just what, exactly, we’re talking about when we talk about zombies.
I’m going to start by ruling out the 28 Days Later zombies and the voodoo/demonic zombies of Evil Dead. First, the name of this blog is Science, not Fiction, which means any religious hokum is right out the door. Demon possession, souls back from Hell, and voodoo are not going to be considered in this investigation. On the other end of the spectrum, in 28 Days Later anything infected with “Rage” becomes a “fast” zombie. In essence, Rage is rabies only way, way scarier. Thus we aren’t dealing with the “undead” so much as the violently insane. So non-fatal pathogens don’t count either. If the pathogen doesn’t first kill you, then re-animate you, then you aren’t a zombie.
Which leads us to the next question: how does the pathogen work? I am not denying here the multitude of variations and nuances among zombie plague viruses, so we have to come up with a generic, realistic version to have our discussion. Zombies generally meet three important criteria. They are 1) stimulus-response creatures that seek flesh 2) continually decomposing and 3) contagious via bodily fluids. If we can explain, reasonably, how and for what reason a pathogen might cause/allow these conditions, we can describe a realistic zombie pathogen.
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part I of IV. (Check out parts II, & III)
Zombies are everywhere! Zombieland, Shawn of the Dead, and 28 Days Later in the movies; World War Z and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the bookshelf; Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising and Resident Evil in your video games - not to mention the George A. Romero and Sam Rami classics in your DVD collection. And this Sunday Robert Kirkman’s epic The Walking Dead lurches from the pages of comic books onto your television thanks to AMC.
Where ever you turn, zombies are there. We can’t seem to get enough of the re-animated recently departed. But why do we love these ambling carnivorous cadavers so?
Zombies are horrifying. An outbreak would almost certainly lead to global apocalypse. Unrelenting, unthinking, uncaring, undead, they are a nightmare incarnate. They remind us of mortality, of decay, of our own fragility. Perhaps worst, they remind us of how inhuman a human being can become.
Zombies are familiar. Refrains of “Brains!”, guttural groans, and mindless shambling instantly trigger the idea of a zombie in our mind. We all know, somehow, that decapitation – that is, destruction of the zombie brain – is our only salvation. I bet you’ve dressed as one for Halloween. Every time “Thriller” comes on you probably dance like a zombie. Some mornings I feel like a zombie. Even philosophers talk about zombies. We know zombies. They are hilarious, they are frightening, they are part of us. And that is why we love them.
But have you ever asked yourself: is a zombie still a human? is a zombie dead, really? can it feel pain? does a zombie have dignity? Has the question ever popped up in your quite-live brain: is it ok to kill a zombie? Could a zombie be cured? If you could cure it, would you still want to? In honor of Halloween and our culture’s current love affair with brain-eating corpses, I present The Ethics of the Undead, your universal guide for answering all of your most pressing zombie questions. Stay tuned for posts throughout Halloween weekend!
The chasm between science and the humanities is nowhere more blatent than the lack of work on how science fiction is reprocessed and used by those of us securely strapped into the laboratory. It’s a topic that attracts some heat: Some scientists take to suggestions of inspiration between their creations and those in preceding Sci-Fi with the excitement of a freshman accused of buying their midterm essay off the internet. In Colin Milburn’s new work on ways of thinking about this interaction, he refers to Richard Feynman’s 1959 lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” This lecture is a key event in the history of nanotechnology. In it, Feynman refers to a pantograph-inspired mechanism for manipulating molecules. It turns out that he most likely got this idea from the story “Waldo” by Robert Heinlein, who in turn probably got it from another science fiction story by Edmond Hamilton. Rejecting the suggestion of influence, chemist Pierre Laszlo writes: “Feynman’s fertile imagination had no need for an outside seed. This particular conjecture [about a link between Feynman and Heinlein] stands on its head Feynman’s whole argument. He proposed devices at the nanoscale as both rational and realistic, around the corner so to say. To propose instead that the technoscience, nanotechnology, belongs to the realm of science-fictional fantasy is gratuitous mythology, with a questionable purpose.”
First, in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, it was a T-Rex rampaging through downtown San Diego munching on house pets. Now aliens have stealthily invaded the San Diego Air & Space Museum. This particular invasion, however, was invited–the Air & Space Museum is hosting the Science of Aliens traveling exhibit: a fun mix of science and science fiction.
The exhibit is broken down into four areas:
The alien fiction section was small, and had a collection of movie props, videos, and sections devoted to Roswell and the Alien Autopsy video. Interestingly the content in the Roswell section was donated by the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM, so I felt it was slightly skewed in favor of the object that crashed at Roswell being of an extraterrestrial nature, while the content provided for the Alien Autopsy video practically screamed “THIS WAS A HOAX!”
Where do budding, even experienced, science-fiction writers learn about the science behind the science fiction? Going back to school and getting a university degree in a scientific discipline is an option, but that’s going to take quite a while. You could short-circuit the process by spending a week at Launch Pad at the University of Wyoming!
Launch Pad 2010 Attendees
Launch Pad is a free, NASA-funded workshop for established writers held in beautiful high-altitude Laramie, Wyoming. Launch Pad aims to provide a “crash course” for the attendees in modern astronomy science through guest lectures, and observation through the University of Wyoming’s professional telescopes.
The workshop’s mission is to:
…teach writers of all types about modern science, primarily astronomy, and in turn reach their audiences. We hope to both educate the public and reach the next generation of scientists.
Alas, Capt. Kirk’s muzzle-loading bamboo gun would more likely have killed Kirk himself then the Gorn attacking him—or at least, so said the Mythbusters a while back. For those who haven’t seen arguably the best episode of Star Trek TOS (Arena), the plot is as follows: An alien race wants to test humanity by pitting Kirk against another alien, called a Gorn, in a fight to the death. The Gorn is bigger and stronger, but Kirk wins the day by finding and mixing together saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal into black powder, loading them into a bamboo tube, and, using diamonds as ammunition, shooting and killing the Gorn.
The Mythbusters set about testing the theory and found that it didn’t work. They handmade some half-decent gunpowder, but it didn’t have enough force to fire anything, and if it had, the bamboo tube couldn’t contain the explosion. The Mythbusters discovered the exploding bamboo would have been more likely to kill Kirk then the gorn.
But it’s possible the Mythbusters didn’t use optimal ingredients in their low-energy gunpowder.
Like, maybe they used bad charcoal. Ulrich Bretscher is a retired Swiss chemist who turned his discipline and training to the art of homemade black powder, and he says the charcoal is the key element in determining the effectiveness of the gunpowder.
I finally got around to watching Torchwood: Children of Earth this weekend.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]
Wow. Bleak. Maybe I shouldn’t have watched all five episodes in one afternoon, but I haven’t been this depressed since Dark Knight. What happened to the randy, swashbuckling Captain Jack that we loved?
On the SciNoFi front though, Torchwood gives us the opportunity to revisit the topic of eyeball spy cameras, last seen in an episode of Dollhouse this spring. As Stephen noted in a post at that time, scientists have been working on plugging directly into the brain (in cats at least) to locate and interpret visual processing activity.
Interestingly, the Torchwood contact lenses appeared to be a much more basic technology: essentially small video cameras that could transmit images back to a laptop and also display text messages to the wearer.
Given how far we have to go in understanding the brain, a contact lens camera is probably a more straightforward and only marginally more detectable solution for this kind of surveillance. Eyeball sized cameras are already commercially available.