Science fiction has a problem: everyone looks the same. I know there are a few series that have aliens that look unimaginably different from human beings. But those are the exception, not the rule. Most major sci-fi series – Star Wars, Babylon 5, Mass Effect, Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate – have alien species that are hominid.
Consider the above image. Of the twenty visible species, only five are visibly not hominid. That’s right, I count the prawn, xenomorph, predator, Cthulhu and A.L.F. as being hominid. I grant that it’s a bit of a stretch. A more conservative evaluation would be that only two of the twenty are truly hominid. The others, which we’ll call pseudo-hominids, still share the following with humans: bipedal locomotion; bilateral symmetry; a morphology of head, trunk, two arms, and two legs; upright posture; and forward-facing, stereoscopic eyes. I grant they don’t look precisely human, but the similarities are too striking to be swept into the nearest black hole.
Even the most strident supporter of parallel evolution would laugh in the face of anyone who claimed that the most intelligent species on nearly every planet in the universe just happened to evolve the exact same physiology. In series like Star Trek and Mass Effect, where interspecies relationships are possible, this cross-species compatibility is made even more preposterous. We all suspend our scientific disbelief to enjoy the story and the characters. No one believes for a second that the first species we meet in the cosmos is going to look just like us save for some pointy ears and a bowl haircut.
But what if many species in the universe do look like humans? How in Carl Sagan’s cosmos could we explain parallel evolution of that magnitude? Star Trek: The Next Generation, manages to give a scientifically plausible answer to the question of hominid and biologically compatible alien species in an episode entitled “The Chase.” Which lead me to develop the Hominid Panspermia Theory of Science Fiction Aliens.
A couple in Toronto has decided to keep the gender of their baby, named Storm, private. Good for them! Way too many people can guess what gender I am, it takes the fun out of everything. Guessing my sexuality is quite a bit more difficult, but I digress. People are upset about Storm the genderless baby! Why? How we portray friendly and scary aliens in science fiction may help explain why people are worried about a person’s gender being indeterminate.
Let’s clear some things up first. Storm has a biological sex. I have no idea what it is, but chances are that Storm is biologically male or female, as those are pretty common ways for people to be. Of course, intersex – that is, ambiguous genitalia and/or blended sexual maturation – is a real, though minor, possibility. And that’d be just fine too.
But you and I don’t know for sure. Storm’s parents feel that our society’s obsession with the need to know what sex a person is biologically (and how that jives with that person’s gender presentation) is an invasion of privacy. Second, gender is, almost by definition, impossible to keep secret. Gender is what we present to the world. Thus, if I can’t tell what gender a person is, that doesn’t mean that person’s gender is secret, it just means I don’t have a mental category for what I’m seeing. Gender presentation can be obvious, ambiguous, over-the-top, cliché or mundane, but it’s never hidden.
So it’s not that Storm doesn’t have a sex or gender that is getting attention, but that Storm’s parents don’t seem eager to make Storm’s gender presentation obvious, nor to confirm that their baby’s gender presentation matches their baby’s biological sex. Ok, so where do aliens come into play? Read More
We are at a cusp point in medical generations. The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become. If they could start over, the surveys tell us, they wouldn’t choose the profession today. They recall a simpler past without insurance-company hassles, government regulations, malpractice litigation, not to mention nurses and doctors bearing tattoos and talking of wanting “balance” in their lives. These are not the cause of their unease, however. They are symptoms of a deeper condition—which is the reality that medicine’s complexity has exceeded our individual capabilities as doctors.
Gawande has two main arguments. First, that when doctors use checklists they prevent errors and quality of care goes way up. Second, that doctors need to stop acting like autonomous problem solvers and see themselves as a member of a tight-knit team. Gawande is one of the few sane voices in the health care debate. However, later on in his speech, he says that the solution to the health care conundrum is not technology. To a large degree, I agree with him. But not completely. Tech still has a big role to play. If we take a closer look at Dune and Star Trek, we’ll see why Qualcomm and the X-Prize Foundation are ponying up 10 million bucks to fund a piece of medical technology that could help make Gawande’s dream of team-based medicine a bit closer to becoming reality. Read More
Radical Publishing’s Shrapnel is one step closer to becoming a real, honest-to-God movie now that director Len Wiseman (Underworld, etc) has signed on. The graphic novel—written by Nick Sagan, Mark Long, and M. Zachary Sherman, with art by Bagus Hutomo—is billed as a “Joan of Arc in space” story. During the last day at Comic-Con, Sagan, son of the famous cosmologist Carl Sagan and a respected science-fiction writer himself, spoke to SciNoFi about the project.
“I think of Shrapnel as the anti-Star Trek,” says Sagan, who wrote several episodes for the franchise. “Instead of putting aside our differences to boldly go and do great things, I’m not sure that’s the way it’s going to actually happen. Shrapnel is based on the idea that we do colonize the solar system, but it’s not clean and optimistic. The haves are putting the screws to the have-nots. The story is about the last stand of the last free colony in the solar system.”
But moreover it reflects about man’s battle with himself—pitting the thin veneer of civilization against millions of years of evolutionary programming. “Higher levels of technology allow fewer people to do more damage,” says Sagan. “That’s going to be a real challenge for us. There’s a belief that if we branch out into the solar system, if something goes terribly wrong on Earth, we have an escape route. That’s a hopeful idea, but we tend to take our problems with us wherever we go. As a science-fiction writer, I feel my responsibility is to look ahead and see the dangers of what might happen, and try to warn people of the potential pitfalls.
Recently, I mentioned that I was looking forward to the new Star Trek movie because the trailers looked pretty good. I was accused of having cloudy judgement—I wanted the movie to be good, and so of course the trailers looked good. Which is fair enough—plenty of movies haven’t been as good as their trailers.
But what’s wrong with rooting for a movie? I want Star Trek to be awesome again, to be all about adventure and a future where people get do interesting things other than hide from radioactive mutants left over from the apocalypse. Sure, rooting for a movie from the get-go has led to some pretty harsh disillusionment (The Phantom Menace, the second and third Matrix movies), but on the other hand The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, and Lord of The Rings all turned out pretty well. So, in order of their release dates, here are the five movies I’m rooting for this summer:
Who says science education is falling by the wayside? The Online Colleges Blog has compiled a list of the “15 Strangest College Courses in America.” And while the general list is pretty standard (yes, Virginia, there really is an underwater basket weaving class) a decent chunk of them are sci-fi related. The geek-friendly choices include Georgetown University’s “Philosophy and Star Trek,” the University of California at Irvine’s “Science of Superheroes” (plenty of new material for that syllabus these days), “Myth and Science Fiction: Star Wars, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings” at Centre College, UC Berkeley’s “The Strategy of StarCraft,” and our personal favorite, “Zombies in Popular Media” at Chicago’s Columbia College.
While it’s easy to laugh these off as “rocks for jocks”-level fluff, discounting sci-fi as an academic-worthy subject is a pretty big oversimplification. The best science fiction becomes so popular, and has such a lasting effect on culture, because it taps into underlying truths about humans, culture, and society.
Even now, current sci-fi mirrors just about every controversy we’ve got going, from the recent “Is Resident Evil 5 racist?” controversy to the religious fanaticism in BG. In fact, many sci-fi writers can get away with plotlines and characters that would never fly in a film or series set in the “real world” (reincarnation-obsessed Muslim fundamentalists as key characters? We think not. Attractive females in wading pools out to destroy humanity? No prob.) Plus there’s the fact that the best sci-fi spawns some pretty interesting work by big names in (real) science.
Michael D. asked, on the Assignment Desk post:
In the most recent issue of Nature, there are two papers…that detail the characteristics of sodium and lithium under extreme pressure. Specifically, these two metals adopt semiconductor-like (even superconductor-like) characteristics if you subject them to giga-pressure (literally, 80-200 gigapascals). The sodium actually becomes optically transparent during this squeeze. Reading this reminded me of a Star Trek [movie] that involved a not-so-scientific explanation of “transparent aluminum” …Is the idea of using transparent metal for windows pure science fiction?
The paper you’re talking about, the one on high pressure sodium, sure did make a lot of noise in the science world, and for good reason. Drs. Yanming Ma and Artem Oganov at SUNY Stonybrook showed that lithium and sodium do goofy things under pressure — like turn transparent. Normally under really high pressure, elements turn into metals, c.f. hydrogen. The science makes intuitive sense because the atoms are getting smooshed together as the pressure increases. The electrons are freed to become conductors, and the element takes a metal-like structure. But in sodium, it turns out, the electrons line up into columns, one on top of the other. This creates gaps between the atoms, and instead of becoming a conductor, it becomes an insulator, and, conicidentally, becomes transparent.
All of which is cool, but it doesn’t really answer Michael D’s question, because the sodium is under 200 gigapasacals of pressure, the sort of pressure you find if you were journeying from Jupiter’s surface toward its core, not hanging out on the bridge of the Enterprise.
And yet! That formula Scotty gave for transparent aluminum in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home very nearly exists in the form of aluminum oxynitride (known as ALONtm). Harder than diamond, ALONtm is far more shock resistant than even bullet resistant glass. In Air Force tests it has resisted multiple rounds from a .50 caliber sniper rifle. That hardness also prevents wear and tear, since neither sand nor rocks nor shrapnel in the night will scratch the stuff.
In practical use, the ALONtm would be the outer layer for windscreens of cockpit covers. It would be backed by a thin layer of glass and a layer of transparent polymer to prevent shattering. All together the ALONtm windscreen would be thinner and lighter than a traditional bullet-resistant windscreen.What’s unclear from my research is whether it would be strong enough to hold back enough water to make the aquarium for all those humpbacks whales on a captured Klingon spaceship, but it’s a start.
The main downside? It’s wicked expensive. Traditional bullet resistant glass goes for $3 per inch-squared, but ALONtm costs between $10-$15, or it did back in 2005. I can’t seem to find any more current applications for it, but this is the military, it could be classified.
Anyway Michael D., I hope that answers your question.
In this installment of Science Not Fiction’s Codex Futurius project, we pose the question:
I want to have a teleporter in my story. How would one work?
The good news is that a working teleportation device already exists. The bad news is that it won’t work for you if you happen to be bigger than a rubidium atom—but scientists are toiling away to fix that. As physicist Michio Kaku noted last year in DISCOVER, we could be teleporting things as big as a virus within a few decades, which means we would be ready teleport a person around the 23rd century, just in time for the predicted construction date of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise.
SciNoFi sifts the mass of SciFi news to find the bits worth knowing.
• Battlestar Weirdness: For reasons more arcane than the Cylons’ plan, Universal is talking to Glen A. Larson about making a Battlestar Galactica movie–based on the original Battlestar series. What the heck? I loved the original series in my bespectacled youth, (we were really starved for space fights back then), but they couldn’t hold a blaster to the reimagined series. In other news, the actor playing Ellen Tigh and Battlestar creator Ron Moore will be making guest appearances on CSI. Don’t ask why.
• Watchmen Watchmen Watchmen! Despite getting wrecked by most mainstream critics, Watchmen cleaned up this weekend with a $55.7 million haul at the box office. Anyone out there see it and think it’s awesome? I haven’t seen it yet, but my nerd network seems to be rating it a solid “meh.”
• Smells like Teen Kirk: OK, I know this has made the rounds, but everyone needs to know that about the Star Trek themed colognes: “Pon Farr”, “Tiberius”, and—my personal favorite— “Red Shirt”. Because tomorrow may never come. Also worth noting, Paramount put replicas of the models of the new Enterprise on display at the Arclight (a.k.a. best theater in the world ever) in Hollywood. Click through for images.
• Fantastic art Spectrum announced the 16 winners of the best in 2008 fantasy art. This is not the usual fantasy dreck promulgated by Wizards of the Coast and well worth the click.
• What’s on TV : Last week Knight Rider sped off into the sunset for good, but news isn’t all bad for sci fi fans. Heroes got picked up for one more season, and, perhaps more enticing, Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller is trying to generate momentum for a new Star Trek show, oriented back toward the original series. Also, Red Dwarf will make its return after 10 years with a two-parter expected to air over Easter in the UK.
You know we’re obsessed with weight loss when the problem pops up in our science fiction. I only just caught up with Series 4 Doctor Who, but the first episode featured Adipose, the drug that makes your fat “just walk away.” In fact, they’re being literal: The device Adipose is selling uses human fat to form an alien baby for the Adipose, an extraterrestrial species. Every night around 1 a.m., the fat pulls itself out of the person and walks out the door to the Adipose building. It’s quite adorable really. The Doctor gets all huffy about it, since it’s against space law to do such things against people’s will, and the villain is ultimately thwarted.
But afterward I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe The Doctor was sitting a little stiffly on his high horse. Read More