The science of suspended animation

Stasis2.png

I sold my first non-fiction article!

Back in January, I got in contact with Tony Daniel, the senior editor of Baen books, sent an article proposal, and signed a contract. Around the same time I won the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story award. I think it took him a couple of weeks to realize he was communicating with the same person in the two different email chains. This article was originally going to be posted last month, but he felt it was best not to publish it the same month as my short story “Feldspar.”

Here is the link to the article on the Baen website: “Stasis: The Future of Suspended Animation.”

For this article, I managed to get an interview with Dr. John Bradford, the COO of SpaceWorks, who is pioneering the development of suspended animation techniques with NASA for future human expeditions to Mars.

Here is the full, unedited interview:

Me- “How long could hibernation theoretically be sustained?”

Bradford- “One initial comment that is a bit of semantics, but we like to always clarify. On the term ‘hibernation’: We can’t actually make people hibernate, so prefer terms like “human stasis”, “torpor inducing”, and “metabolic suppression”. Maybe in the distant future through gene therapy/modification, this can be achieved, but right now we are focused on artificially inducing a hibernation-like state via cooling and metabolic suppression. So, we are trying to mimic hibernation, but not achieve it.

We are in the process of evaluating how long we can sustain the low metabolic state. This will ultimately have to be determined through testing, but since we are starting with current practices for Therapeutic Hypothermia, we have a lot of data to evaluate on what is occurring in the body over short 2-4 day periods. Longer periods of up to 14 days has been achieved, but data there becomes much more limited. We also look at animal hibernators as sources of understanding (and inspiration). Bears are a great model since their core temperature doesn’t drop to the extreme conditions most hibernators experience. They can be in torpor for 4-5 month periods. In summary though, we don’t know what the theoretical limit is yet. For our approach, it would not be measured in years. We can benefit a lot in terms of space travel if we can achieve just a few weeks, but ultimately we are looking to achieve months.”

Me- “Are there any plans to test human hibernation in the near future?”

Bradford- “Eventual human testing is on our roadmap and plans. NASA’s NIAC program is not funding us for any medical testing though, only to evaluate if this is possible, identify how we would do this, and quantify the mission impacts if it is feasible (engineering analysis). However, we are getting inquiries from a few investors and looking at non-governmental funding sources to start some specific testing. Note again that we do have medical data from subjects undergoing TH over short periods already, but those were not controlled tests.”

Me- “What is a major medical/engineering hurdle that will have to be overcome before this technology can be implemented?”

Bradford- “I get asked this question a lot and my answer probably changes frequently depending on what aspect I’m currently working on or problem I’m trying to solve. There are certainly challenges, but we are coming up with a variety of solutions or ways to mitigate them, either via a medical approach or engineering it out. The ability to initiate human testing will certainly be a milestone – fortunately I hear from a lot of people that want to volunteer! Transitioning to space-based human testing would be the next big step.

Lastly, I’d say we believe human stasis represents one of the most promising approaches to solving the engineering and medical challenges of long-duration spaceflight. With this technology, a variety of new options can be introduced and applied that address major human spaceflight medical challenges and risk areas such as bone loss, muscle atrophy, increased intracranial pressure, and radiation damage. System-level engineering analysis has indicated significant mass savings for both the habitat and transfer stages. These savings are due to reductions in the pressurized volume, consumables, power, structures, and ancillary systems for the space habitat. This capability is potentially the key enabling technology that will ultimately permit human exploration to Mars and beyond!”

To read the full article, including other interviews, and to learn about the science of suspended animation, click the image below:

 

stasis article

Link to Baen article: http://www.baen.com/stasis

“Feldspar” is now published

I’m happy to report that “Feldspar,” the story that won me the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award, has officially been published on the Baen website, where you can read it for free!

Baen webpage screenshot.png

Screenshot of the Baen main page’s listing of “Feldspar.” Click the image to be redirected there.

Here’s the blurb they wrote for the story in their newsletter:

“In the future, a gaming company is accomplishing what governmental space agencies tried and failed to do: they’re slowly making Mars suitable for human habitation. But to do so they’ll need the help of a team of gamers back on planet Earth. One such gamer is Blake; his remote-controlled rover is Feldspar. But not all Martian exploration is done from the safety of an ergonomic chair in front of a computer desk back on Earth. Astronauts still make the dangerous trip to the Red Planet. And where human space flight is concerned, things can go very wrong very quickly. Now, Blake and his intrepid rover are all that stand between one astronaut and certain death in “Feldspar,” the grand prize winner of the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award.”

Last month I flew to St. Louis to attend the International Space Development Conference to receive the award, and to meet with Baen editor, Tony Daniel, and the contest administrator, William Ledbetter. I had the chance to meet with several other authors at the conference, including the runner up, Stephen Lawson, and the third place winner M. T. Reiten. Baen also published Stephen’s story, Bullet Catch. It is a story stuffed with fascinating characters, science, and suspense. It is well worth the read.

Group photo

From left to right: M. T. Reiten, Me, Stephen Lawson, and Bill Ledbetter

Tony surprised us with a request for an interview at the conference to discuss our short stories and our backgrounds. You can listen to the interview below, which was aired on the Baen Free Radio Hour Podcast on May 26th.


The talks at the conference were amazing, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a huge nerd. I heard talks on space elevators, space beacons, space medicine, planet colonization and exploration, Mars simulations, and new ways to harvest asteroids and solar energy. I even got to share the award banquet with Linda Godwin, a former astronaut and recipient of the Missouri Space Pioneer Award. Needless to say, I came away from it with all kinds of new story ideas.

Linda Godwin presentation

Presentation by Linda Godwin

I don’t believe my own acceptance speech was recorded, but I’ve transcribed it for you below. To hear the introductory speech Tony gave, listen to the above podcast.

“Thank you, Tony.
It is an honor to receive this award as both a writer and a scientist, and to be here at this amazing conference.
I’d like to thank all those who helped make it happen, especially my family and friends who gave me valuable feedback on the story,  Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, and all the judges who chose my story from all the other entries. It couldn’t have been an easy decision. Finally, I would like to thank Jim Baen, for the impact he had on science fiction, and the legacy he left behind.
It would be difficult to find a scientist here who was not in some way inspired by science fiction. I think we’ve all dreamed of a future where traveling to space becomes no more routine than getting on the bus to work each morning. The part of me that’s a writer can only dream of this future; it’s up to the scientist in me, in all of us, to make it a reality.
Thank you.”

Last but not least, I got to explore St. Louis with my girlfriend, Megan. First on our to-do list was to RE-explore the City Museum. The last time we went, we lost a large number of our photos due to a cell-phone malfunction, so we had to re-document the amazing place. We felt like kids again.


Now for my regular readers, I’m happy to tell you that I’ll be getting back to my regular science in sci-fi posts. I have a big one planned for next month, so stay tuned.

Interviewed by my alma mater

WhywelearnSo this was a first. A couple weeks ago I was interviewed by my alma mater, Auburn University Montgomery, for their article series titled “#WhyWeLearn.” Click here to view the article they wrote.

For those of you who are interested in how I came to love both writing and science, I posted the full interview here. Enjoy!

Interviewer- Beck Phillips, AUM Strategic Communications and Marketing

Q1. You started in English and left for Biology. What made you want to switch?

Like so many other freshman, I still hadn’t figured out what to do with my life. I wanted many things, but one passion stood above the rest: writing. It takes a lot of practice and dedication to become a professional writer, and I planned to make it there eventually. In the meantime, I went in search of a work-study position at AUM. I admit, the idea of spending all day in the library for both work and school, was idyllic. Unfortunately, no such position was available, so I accepted an opening in the biology department. I’d always found science interesting, so it wasn’t surprising that I took to my responsibilities with a lot of healthy fascination and curiosity. In setting up labs and helping biology professors with various tasks, I was introduced to Virginia Hughes, who was an instructor in the Clinical Laboratory Sciences program. For days I helped her use the microscope camera to take pictures of blood cells for a hematology atlas. My interest piqued, I investigated the program. In addition to hematology, they taught immunohematology, microbiology, immunology, chemistry, and many other clinical subjects. For someone who loved many scientific fields, it was immediately appealing to me. Within a few weeks, I had applied to the program. Science, I decided, would be my career, but writing would always be my hobby. At the time, I couldn’t have foreseen how important my writing would be to my science career.

Q2. But you never gave up your love for language and writing?

Writing has been my passion since high school, when I decided to write the story I had always wanted to read. Those creative muscles couldn’t be exercised with science alone. I still had stories to tell, experiences to share, and an imagination that needed to be let out on paper every now and then. So I wrote. At first I wrote short stories, but then a story that was too large came along. After my first novel, I started another, then another. I was addicted. For me, writing was a way to communicate those complex ideas I couldn’t quite vocalize, to exercise my imagination, and to hopefully inspire others.

Q3. Did your professors here encourage you to do both? How did you avoid being
“pigeonholed”? Did anyone here at AUM help or encourage you?

For a long time, I kept my love for science and writing separate. When I took creative writing classes, I focused on writing, and when I took my science classes, I focused on science. Then one day in my Writing Fiction class, Jeffrey Melton, my instructor, gave me the advice all writers will eventually hear: “Write what you know.” And I knew about science. I wrote a short story about a crime scene and a clever detective who used forensic science to identify the true perpetrator. The story was well received in class, and I decided that perhaps writing and science could somehow mesh together. This concept became even clearer in my science classes, when I was required to write reports and papers, and give presentations. The mechanics of writing and the ability to tell a good story are just as important to communicating science as writing fiction. My main source of encouragement was Melinda Kramer, who, as both my mom and an AUM employee, cultivated my love for science and writing and knew exactly where I could find the resources I needed.

Q4. How did your time (and the people) here at AUM help prepare you for your
future and your career?

I owe my success in writing and science to so many at AUM. The instructors in the Biology department deserve most of the credit. Sue Thomson, took me in as a work-study student, and gave me every opportunity to learn new things and pursue my interests. Ben Okeke gave me my first research experience and taught me about biofuels and microbiology. When I joined the Clinical Laboratory Sciences program, I was introduced to Kyle Taylor, who taught me all about microorganisms and disease, and gave me even more research opportunities. To this day, I still use the laboratory practices and techniques I learned from Kathy Jones. I owe many of them thanks for writing the recommendation letters that played a large role in getting me into Grad school.

Q5. You were sort of a pre-cursor to STE(A)M (science, technology,
engineering, (arts), and math) — how valuable has your work in each field
been to the other?

My experiences in each field have been immediately applicable to the others. The broad scientific background I received at AUM gave me an advantage over my classmates in Grad school, many of whom came from highly specialized fields. My interest in hematology, immunology, and biochemistry culminated in many successful and highly cited studies in my dissertation lab. My background in writing and the arts has allowed me to communicate my science and create effective figures for my publications and presentations. I use math daily to perform my experiments and to analyze data. I have consulted and beta-tested new technologies for clinical research, and have been called on to perform troubleshooting and repairs for those instruments. No skill has been wasted. The true test of this was perhaps my short story entry into the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story contest. The contest seeks scientifically accurate short stories set in the near future, and is co-hosted by the National Space Society. My story was about a rover operator living in San Francisco, who finds himself in the terrifying position to save the life of an astronaut on Mars. I was not qualified from a mathematical, engineering, or technological standpoint to create a 100% feasible story, but if there was one thing the sciences taught me, it was how to do research. I spent months investigating every aspect of Mars and rover technology that might be relevant to the story.

Q6. How do you apply your talent for writing to the field of science?

Writing scientific grants, publications, and reviews require the use of descriptive and persuasive language. With the current state of scientific funding, a grant must be interesting and comprehensible to stand out among all the rest. I have personally applied for and received two grants for personal funding and have been involved in many large institutional grants that have been funded. My writing experience has been invaluable to the writing of nearly 20 co-authored scientific publications, which have been cited over 200 times. The same can be said for the role of science in my writing successes. The science I learned from AUM, grad school, and during my time as a biomedical researcher, routinely serves as fodder for my stories. I currently maintain a writing and science blog that advocates for the use of accurate science in sci-fi.

Q7. What goals do you have for yourself in the future after winning this award?

The Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest was the first short story contest I’d ever entered. To say I was surprised to win is an understatement. Receiving even the slightest bit of validation for your craft does wonders for your motivation. There are more contests to enter and no shortage of stories to tell. In the near future, I hope to publish my first novel. All of this would be impossible without the help of the writing and critique groups I’ve joined, and the continued support of my family, friends, and former teachers.

Q8. What advice do you have for current and future AUM Warhawks about their
academic choices?

Never let go of the things that make you happy. Life gets busy, and often you have to set your passions aside, but if it is truly something you love, you will find time for it. Be it writing, painting, music, culture and language, eventually that hobby will make you stand out from your peers and give you the advantage.
Additionally, there are far more opportunities out there than you may realize. If you’re intent on pursuing one career path from the moment you enter college, you’ll miss out on some amazing opportunities. Take the time to learn about the world, and soon you’ll discover your place in it. That is, after all, why we learn.

Writing Update- The 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest

Feldspar

I am pleased to announce that my short story, “Feldspar,” won the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. It is an honor to be chosen as the grand prize winner from such a pool of talented finalists.

The contest.

Baen books describes the contest as follows:

“Since its early days, science fiction has played a unique role in human civilization. It removes the limits of what “is” and shows us a boundless vista of what “might be.” Its fearless heroes, spectacular technologies and wondrous futures have inspired many people to make science, technology and space flight a real part of their lives and in doing so, have often transformed these fictions into reality. The National Space Society and Baen Books applaud the role that science fiction plays in advancing real science and have teamed up to sponsor this short fiction contest in memory of Jim Baen.”

If you follow my blog, you can tell why this contest came to my attention. I am a scientist, but my narrow field of research only satisfies a small portion of my fascination for science, space, and innovation. I decided some time ago that the only way I could make a real difference in science (beyond my own research) was to write about it. With any luck, my stories will inspire other scientists to invent what I do not have the time, intellect, or resources to create on my own. Winning this contest means a lot to me.

As the winner, I will be professionally published by Baen Books sometime in June. This will be my first professional publication, so it’s kind of a big deal for me. Along with publication, I will be given a year’s membership to the National Space Society, free admission to the 2017 International Space Development Conference in St. Louis, an engraved trophy, and tons of other prizes. Needless to say, as both a scientist and writer, I am most excited about attending the ISDC conference in May. It will give me the chance to speak to leaders in the field of space development about topics such as living in space, the space elevator, planet colonization, and innumerable other topics of mutual fascination. A previous Baen winner was able to sit next to Buzz Aldrin at lunch *cue two months of giddy excitement*. With any luck, I may be able to discuss my own scientific research and how it could help prevent the muscle atrophy associated with low gravity. I hope to come away from the conference with many new contacts as well as exciting story ideas.

The story.

“Feldspar” is the story of Blake, a lonesome rover operator in the city of San Francisco. With the help of the gaming industry, space exploration has boomed, and Mars has become the largest sandbox game in human history. Over a hundred rovers prowl the surface of the red planet, harvesting regolith for smelting. The iron wire they receive in return is used to 3D print any object these gamers desire.  But they aren’t the only ones on the red planet. When Blake comes across the footprints of a NASA astronaut over a hundred kilometers from the Eos Basecamp, he becomes her only hope of staying alive.

My thanks.

I’d like to thank Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, Michelle, the “slusher of doom,” and all the judges, including author David Drake, for choosing “Feldspar” from the slush pile. I worked on “Feldspar” for months, gathering feedback from friends, family, my writers group, and even my uncle Wade, a NASA employee. I appreciate their valuable feedback. This was my first short story contest, and it gives me hope that there is a place and perhaps a need for my unique voice in the world. I will diligently continue my writing, hoping that my vision for the future of space exploration will inspire scientists to make it a reality.

Links to award announcement.

Locus

File 770

Baen

The Science of Time Travel

time-machineLet us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space.

-Arthur Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World (1928)

Time travel features heavily in speculative fiction. It provides a useful means of foreshadowing and helps to heighten suspense as the characters try to avert a looming disaster or manipulate the future for their own ends. It appeals to all of us who have ever experienced guilt or loss and want to go back and fix it. It is rife with unintended consequences and can trigger exciting conflicts. However, it also provides a great source of frustration for writer and reader alike as they try to contend with the plot holes, paradoxes, and skewed logic associated with tampering with the fundamental laws of our universe.

In this post, I will address the most common problems and paradoxes associated with time travel, and then discuss the science that could make it possible.

Causality.

Cause and effect. That is how the universe works. Nowhere in nature can an effect cause itself, which is to say that energy cannot spontaneously manifests itself to perform an action. Thermodynamics and all of Newton’s laws require a cause and effect, but time travel inevitably breaks these laws.

Like the Billy and Rubin comic above, if the Professor succeeded in going back in time to stop Billy from building a time machine, he would then have no time machine with which to make the journey. Traveling to the past, for even a few seconds, can violate causality and initiates all kinds of paradoxes.

Grandfather paradox.

There is no better example of a causality violation than the Grandfather Paradox. If a time traveler kills his own grandfather before he meets his grandmother, the traveler will have never been born. Most disturbing of all, are the implications for “free will.” If the traveler sees his grandfather, he will be physically incapable of killing him, for doing so will prevent his own existence. Imagine a knife that physically cannot interact with a person, because if it were to interact, it would prevent its own interaction. *Mind blown*.

Butterfly effect.

A term used in chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect is coined after the concept of a gentle disturbance in the air caused by a butterfly’s wings, which eventually leads to a hurricane.

Some writers insist that any disruption to the timeline will “heal,” and all will be set back on course, but this is unlikely. If the person went back just to witness an event, they talked to no one, and received no more than a passing glance by others and were quickly forgotten, then I could see the future not changing… much. But even if something small happens, like the traveler buys a slice of pie from a street vendor, it could initiate a chain of events that divert the future substantially. What about the person who was supposed to buy that slice? That person might then continue walking to find another vendor, and chat with friend he met on the street. If that friend subsequently misses a trolley and arrives late to work, failing to smile at the woman who would have been his future wife, then generations of people will have ceased to exist in the future, and all of their actions, and achievements, will have been erased… just because of a slice of pie. This is another example of causality, and every major and minor moment in our lives can be traced back to equally minuscule events.

Foresight and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Time travel isn’t the only thing that violates causality, it can also be violated with foresight. Having knowledge of a future event can allow the future to be changed, but is it really the future if it can be changed?

Prophecy is a common plot device in Fantasy novels. If a seer or prophet sees the hero’s future or reads their fortune, what will happen if that hero decides to do something completely different? If the hero changes the future, was it ever the future to begin with? What is to stop a person from just sitting down and not doing anything if they learn of their future? If that future depends on them performing an action, yet that person refuses to do anything, how can that future exist? This is the Idle (or Lazy) argument. For example, if a man learns he will die by being hit by a bus, that man can refuse to leave his house, thus preventing the future. I have seen authors stretch the limits of believability by having the hero walk into situations, saying and doing exactly what the prophecy says they will, even though they know exactly what fate awaits them.

This only works if the prophecy aligns with the main character’s own motivations, or if they are somehow duped into causing the situation they were hoping to avoid. We call these self-fulfilling prophecies, wherein the hero makes something happen because he or she believes there is no avoiding it, or because they want it to happen. For example, there is a prophecy that a castle will be invaded; so on the day of, the character leaves his guard post at the gates and flees the city. The enemy notices this new weak point in the castle’s defenses and decides to invade.

The science behind time travel:

Paradoxes aside, it should be noted that time is very strange. Some scientists suggest it is nothing more than a product of our minds trying to make sense of the universe. Time can go faster for some, and slower for others, all depending on how much gravity is around or how fast an object is travelling.

Black holes.

Time is inherently linked to the three dimensional fabric of space. Therefore, a force that can condense that fabric, can also affect time. Gravity is such a force, and a black hole is a near infinite supply of gravity. If it were possible to survive the spaghettification (gravity literally stretching you out) associated with entering a black hole, you would most certainly be crushed by the pressure of the mass surrounding you. There is a theory however, that a zone exists around a black hole where the centrifugal forces of its spin counteract the forces of its gravity. Thus, time would be slowed (possibly even reversed), but you would not be pulled into the center.

Special relativity.

Satellites in orbit are actually experiencing time a little slower than we are, largely because of the speed at which they circumnavigate the globe. Einstein introduced the concept of special relativity, which basically states that, while nothing can travel faster than light, light will still appear to travel at light speed, even if the light source is traveling at close to light speed. So, depending on your reference frame, time will move differently based on your speed. This time dilation can make a person’s 300 year journey near light speed feel like 20 years. This is probably the closest humanity will come to “traveling though time,” but it is a one-way ticket. Traveling faster than the speed of light, theoretically, would reverse the flow of time. Most scientists maintain this is impossible, because it would violate causality.

Quantum mechanics and the Many-Worlds interpretation.

Some writers have gotten around the causality argument by suggesting that time might be like a river. If a significant event disrupts the flow of time, it can branch off into another stream, parallel to the first, creating two different timelines of different pasts and different futures.

Based on observations of quantum entanglement, and particle-wave duality, it is clear that, at the quantum state, an object can be in two places at once, and doing different things. Physicists have since theorized that any and every action creates a parallel universe, in which the opposite action was taken. These infinite worlds can be very similar to our own or very different. While this concept doesn’t quite offer up a solution to time travel, if proven true, it can help eliminate many of the causality paradoxes associated with it.

Conclusions:

Because there are so many theories regarding time, its nature, and how to travel through it, there is no correct way to portray it in speculative fiction. I would advise, however, to thoroughly outline your book if it contains elements of time travel. For many readers, time travel paradoxes are indistinguishable from plot holes.

What other considerations should writers take when writing about time travel? Did I miss a theory? Leave your comments below.

Rest assured, if time travel is possible, I will travel back in time to this very moment to ensure that I got everything right…

…nope. No Phil from the future. I’m a little disappointed, actually.

Books I read in 2016

For those of you who haven’t found your way over to my Reviews page, I decided to post the content here now that 2016 is over. Overall it was an average year for me. I estimate that I read about 25 books. Unfortunately, I’ve only had time to write reviews for a small number of those. I will post more reviews throughout 2017.

In keeping with the theme of this site, these reviews will focus on the plot and the accuracy of the science. I graded these books with a POINTS system I invented for this purpose (Plot, Organization, Intelligibility, Novelty, Technology, and Science). Each will be given a grade out of 5 with a highest possible score of 30. This score has little to do with my enjoyment of the novel, but how I rate the individual parameters. I will try not to give too many details or spoilers, but it might be necessary on occasion.

*Cover images taken from listings on Amazon.com.

Here they are:


51ax82bt2b4ylColumbus Day: Expeditionary Force, Book 1 by Craig Alanson (POINTS= 25/30)

Plus POINTS: This first book in the series follows the POV of a young soldier home from a stint in Nigeria. He is surprised to see an alien ship crash land in a field near his hometown. The aliens immediately start destroying things. He rounds up some people and fights back. This is only the beginning of the story. More aliens arrive, but these are helping them, and eventually drive the hamster-like aliens away.  The young soldier is shipped away to an alien planet where he must keep the peace. It is there that he discovers that their friends, the lizard-like aliens, are not so much their saviors as their overlords, and the ones they should be fighting. He teams up with fellow soldiers and an artificial intelligence to take back humanity’s freedom. Science and technology wise, it is hard to say what is and isn’t possible when advanced alien technologies are thrown into the mix. At least they didn’t all speak the same language and instead they were given devices that could interpret everything that’s said. Overall, this is one of the more humorous books I’ve read. There are some slow parts but it is nicely paced and full of action.

Minus POINTS: Alanson didn’t write the most original story, but he definitely put a new twist on the average military scifi. The science is probably the lowest scoring in the POINTS system. The thing that I have the hardest time coming to terms with is the appearance of the aliens. They are described to be very similar looking to hamsters, with another species very similar to lizards. It is very unlikely that an independently evolving species on a separate planet with an entirely different climate would look remotely like anything we have on earth. Even more unlikely, is that they would all breath similar air compositions. I think adding in some breathing apparatus for the aliens or humans on a foreign world wouldn’t have detracted from the story. Also, Alanson states that the insects, animals, and microorganisms on these foreign worlds wouldn’t effect them, which may be true when it comes to ingesting unknowns compounds, proteins, or being exposed to a venom, but it is more likely that an organism would have found the organic molecules that makeup the human body very pleasing, and the human immune system would have no way to fend it off. Artificial wormholes and faster-than-light travel is also mentioned, but with no explanation as to how such things were made or how FTL drives don’t affect causality and mess with… pretty much all of Einstein’s theories. A long-vanished race of aliens left behind the wormholes as well as an artificial intelligence. Providing comic relief is not the only thing the AI can do, it can also bend space-time, hack every encryption code, interface with every technology, and exist in multiple dimensions. Despite all of this, it still uses helium 3 as a fuel source. Overall, I would recommend this book as a great, entertaining read, so long as you aren’t expecting hard-scifi.


41t82bdrhohlThe Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey (POINTS= 27/30)

Plus POINTS: This isn’t your typical zombie story. I was actually very surprised to find out that it was a zombie story. The story follows Melanie, a very nice and bright little girl, except she is treated like a dangerous monster by the people who take her from her cell and deposit her in class every day. Her diet consists of the occasional grub. Carey has cleverly used a well know fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that causes zombie-like behavior in ants, as the zombie pathogen of choice. Zombies that have been turned long ago, end up with fungal coatings and even sprout mycelium. One of the doctors doing the research actually goes into detail how they think the fungus is hijacking the brain, and why kids like Melanie are so special. She introduces some actual research tools and techniques as well. In order to prevent Melanie from smelling human’s and feeling the impulse to eat, they have to constantly douse themselves in chemicals. When the facility that’s holding her gets overrun, she and the humans that fear her must band together to get her to another facility where they can continue to perform research on her. Melanie has to overcome many zombie-ish impulses along the way. POINTS across the board.

Minus POINTS: While it is impossible to say how the cordyceps fungus has been manipulated or mutated to create zombies, it is never likely to have such a devastating role on humanity. For one, most fungal infections grow very slowly, and the immune system slow it even more. Also, the fungus would have to somehow penetrate the blood-brain-barrier, which is difficult for even the smallest of pathogens. There is also a scene where a huge wall of fungal mycelium stretches into the sky, sprouted from thousands of zombies. There is nowhere near enough biomass available to support that type of growth, especially when it would have to compete with other microorganisms. It’s difficult to believe that it could withstand the wind or even a single storm.  There is also a scene where they arrive a huge mobile-tank of a laboratory. I can’t believe that anybody would have designed or constructed such a laboratory. There is no logical purpose. Overall, the story started strong but became more and more improbable as it went along.


611ezqeptpl-_aa300_The Mountain Man Omnibus (Books 1-3) by Keith C. Blackmore  (POINTS= 23/30)

Plus POINTS: The mountain man is Gus. He lives on a hill outside a small city in Nova Scotia. He is constantly drinking and lonely. You can’t really blame him; zombies have taken over the known world. These books were a great read. It was a story of survival, friendship, and the fragility of the human mind and morality. When you have to fear the living more than the dead, it really paints a grisly picture of mankind. He does make one friend though, Scott, who leaves the picture a little too soon in order to chase down a killer. There is some serious ingenuity and resourcefulness on the the part of Gus and Scott. The story gets many plus POINTS for plot, intelligibility, and organization.

Minus POINTS: As for novelty, technology, and science, I have to deduct some POINTS. I’m tempted to give very little points for science and technology, especially since this is a zombie novel, but on multiple occasions, Blackmore addressed that they didn’t know how the virus worked, but that it slowed decay, and could even jump species. No detail is better than the wrong detail. There was at least one occasion where the author described the ‘smell of cordite’ after guns were fired. This is a common description which is completely inaccurate. Cordite has not been used in ammunition since the end of WWII… and this book is set in the near future.For the most part, every character had a purpose all the way up to the third book. Personally, I saw little point to the Norsemen except as a tool to show how savage humanity can be. Also, Gus spends years scavenging for supplies, but doesn’t ever try to find seeds and grow his own food. This seems very short-sighted.


511dbkz7gulSpaceMan by Tom Abrahams  (POINTS= 26/30)

Plus POINTS: This is a great post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t afraid to throw some science and technology into the mix. An astronaut, Clayton, becomes stranded on the ISS, when a massive Coronal Mass Ejection strikes the earth. He recovers his dead colleagues who were out on a space walk, and then tries to find a way back to earth, to his family. The other POV in the story is Clayton’s family and a family friend. When the CME hits, power goes out, and many devices are shorted. A short time later, planes come crashing to the ground. All-in-all, this story was successful in integrating accurate science and terminology with life or death situations that hook the reader’s interest as well as educate.  I see too many books getting the facts of solar flares wrong, but Abrahams accurately demonstrated how fast CMEs move (pretty slow compared to the light from the flare), the radiation they carry (protons), and the devastating effects of the EMP on electronics. It was apparent that the author did his research. Many plus POINTS for Science and Technology, novelty, and intelligibility.

Minus POINTS: The book was short and the author really should have included the sequel as a part of book 1 because very little of the conflict is actually resolved. While Abrahams does a decent job of switching between POVs, I thought the novelty of the book was the astronaut stuck on the ISS, but he seems to spend more time following the people on the ground, making this feel more like an average post-apocalyptic story. In fact, it seems like the space adventure ends too soon. While it is hard to say what people would do in the event of the apocalypse, I think chaos and disorder happened a bit too quickly, with gangs, thugs, and religious cults taking to the streets within a day or two.


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Leviathan Wakes (Expanse series #1) by James S. A. Corey (POINTS= 27/30)

Plus POINTS: Despite being categorized as a space opera, I see very little resemblance. This is a book with a lot of political and interpersonal conflicts, but it really gives us a snapshot of what might actually happen when humanity begins to colonize the solar system. With large corporations and governments fighting for resources, and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter being a source of much of it, tensions are high. The story is a mystery suspense that focuses on the disappearance of a woman and the seemingly pointless destruction of an ice freighter. It follows the perspective of a detective on the Ceres station on the belt, and a small surviving crew of the destroyed ice freighter. They uncover conspiracies that can change the way the humanity views their place in the universe. The pace was great, the writing gripping, and the science as spot on as it could be for such a large leap into a possible future. Corey (pen name for two authors) accurately depicts G forces, types of ‘artificial gravity’ (thrust or rotation), and the health effects and physiological changes of people that aren’t living in a ‘gravity well’. He knows what he is talking about.

Minus POINTS: There isn’t much negative to say about this first book in the series. I felt a bit more info could have been provided on the Epstein drive, which is a fusion reactor capable of providing continuous thrust. The crash couches and other seats meant to cushion the crew during high G maneuvers and accelerations are interesting, but the explanation of the ‘juice’ pumped into them to sustain consciousness and mobility during such event doesn’t quite satisfy me. Also unexplained is how a particular entity (protomolecule) can control many EM fields, take over organic matter, and change direction or speed up with seemingly no change in inertia. While it does break a couple of Newton’s laws, Corey does salvage his credibility by bringing up this fact and having the character’s baffled by how it could be done. They are, after-all, face to face with a strange entity that may have technology far beyond our own. It is also a bit improbable that humanity would have developed so far as to begin colonizing some of Jupiter’s moons and build massive ships, but not improved on standard projectile weapons, nukes, etc. Everyone knows that developing weapons is the first technological leap in most societies. Humans love killing each other.


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Hell Divers (The Hell Divers Trilogy Book 1) by Nicholas Sansbury Smith (POINTS= 23/30)

Plus POINTS: When the rest of humanity lives on floating airships above a radioactive earth, how can they survive? By sending divers down to the surface to scavenge for any fuel cells and supplies they need, that’s how. This book had a very unique concept and was full of action from start to finish. The overall scientific concepts are sound, though Smith does not talk about the science the much. I can’t even guess if severe electrical storms would be caused by massive amounts of radiation on the surface of the planet, but it makes sense that many, many ions and radicals would form under the radioactive onslaught, leading to severe electrical discharges. Smith also does due diligence in describing the harm such radiation inflicts on the human body, whether it be an acute exposure or a chronic one. Overall, it was a very interesting read and kept me entertained throughout.

Minus POINTS: Given the fairly short length of the novel, I would have preferred one or two fewer points of view. There were some 5 or so in total, and it really prevented me from getting attached to any one character. Alternatively, the book length could have been increased to help flesh out some of the underdeveloped sections. For example, there was one conflict where militant crewmen seize control of a section of the ship and make demands. It almost ends in catastrophe, and was definitely suspenseful, but I felt like nothing much came from it and we never had a lot of closure. Drawing out the suspense and fleshing out the resolution would have made a much more satisfying read. The organization was a bit awkward as well. I felt like he worked the tension up a bit for each dive, but none of them lasted that long. He could have had fewer dives and drawn out the suspense a bit more for each one. Smith compensated for this a little bit by having one POV on the surface most of the time. And unless I missed it, I imagine that solar energy would be a better energy source for an airship, but instead they rely on nuclear power. Perhaps, for whatever reason, they can not rise above the omnipresent cloud cover. Such cloud cover, however, would have caused the earth to cool. While Smith mentions quite a lot of snow on the surface, it isn’t clear if this is due to the location of the city or if it is the general state of the planet. But these are very minor points. The major minus points to the science was the use of super mutant monsters. Yes, perhaps two centuries had passed since the war occurred that irradiated the planet, but that is way too short a time for humanoid creatures with hard skin, barbs, wings, and no eyes to have evolved. Yes radiation can speed mutation, but it is more likely to cause death to the creature that is being irradiated, thus preventing evolution. Also, the radiation would have been much worse centuries ago when the war started, and these creatures would not have had their thick skins to protect them from it. Earth would be sterile. It is also not clear how the monsters are detecting electrical and radioactive energy or feeding off of it.


41ck5inzmjl-_sx311_bo1204203200_Sand Omnibus by Hugh Howey (POINTS= 22/30)

Plus POINTS: This was a highly original and engaging novel which really got my imagination going. Like Wool, much if the story takes place underground as it follows a family of sand divers as they explore the remains of forgotten and lost cities that have been buried under the sand for a long time. It is not just a tale of survival under the sands, but above it, as more and more people compete for the loot as well as chase after the most valuable loot of all, something that can make obstacles, and people, vanish in the blink of an eye. This story has a lot of political and survival elements that really amp up the suspense.

Minus POINTS: Vibrations seem like the most likely way to penetrate into sand, however, the notion that vibrations can be controlled so well as to extend from a suit and several feet away into the sand to harden sand or soften it, is a bit ridiculous. Yes, they character’s use little headsets that read their intentions, but the technology feels more like telekinesis than real technology. Soften the sand all you want, it would still exfoliate your face off and tear through any type of fabric or metal with enough time (the same principle as sandpaper), but this seems to have been left out by Howey. The worst part for me was the ending. The hero goes off with a mission, rather than show that hero doing their exciting mission, we are instead give the POV of the concerned family as they sit around a camp, bored as they watch the horizon for proof of the hero’s success. Showing people being bored is a sure way to make the audience bored. The climax of the story, while interesting, wasn’t all that intense either. And with a lack of a satisfactory resolution, the story really suffered in the last half.


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Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5) (Silo series) (POINTS= 28/30)

Plus POINTS: I thoroughly enjoyed this series and I was surprised it had taken me so long to pick it up. Hugh Howey has crafted a fascinating world for us, an underground world. The residents of a large underground silo have been living for generations below the toxic atmosphere, believing that nothing and nobody was capable of living above the surface. Their only connection to the world outside the silo is a camera that shows them the toxic wasteland above. Occasionally men and woman are sentenced to death (or volunteer in some cases) to clean the surface of the cameras with a bit of wool. They always clean, even when they say they wont, and they all die before they can climb the hill and out of view, their suits deteriorating in the toxic environment. It has become taboo to speak of the outside, and in fact, it is a death sentence to express any interest in leaving. But everyone thinks about it. When the sheriff of the silo expresses an interest to leave, everyone is shocked. The send him out to clean and then go on with their lives, growing plants, recycling everything, mining, in the hopes of keeping the silo running for their life times and their children’s. When a new sheriff is recruited from the lower floors, mechanical, she begins to research why the previous sheriff wanted to go outside, and uncovers some large conspiracies that upend all they know about the world above and the purpose of the silo. The science and technology presented in this book appeared very thought out and well conceived and very realistic. I couldn’t think of many things he could have added to improve on the silos. The plot was full of suspense throughout, and I had a hard time putting it down. The culture and mindset of the silo seem very logical, with religions, taboos, and other things like their concept of distance and open spaces, the scarcity and price of paper, or the mythological view of animals that may have once walked the surface.

Minus POINTS: The only minus points here are due to the ending and a bit of the science. There were several points were I thought the motivation of the characters was a bit lacking or underdeveloped, thus resulting in actions that seemed very unlikely, or that they were overlooking some obvious problems and then became surprised by the consequences. The ending was a bit underwhelming and I never got the sense that I experienced a true climax of the tension. My only issue with the science were a few unlikely events where someone survived what would have been some extreme pressure, and the seeming lack of exhaustion for some people as they climbed a bunch of stairs. Also, there is apparently some room for people to fall or drop things over the edge of the stair well, if that is the case, why didn’t they create a lift or pulley system to help transport supplies or people? Technology wise, everything seemed a little dated and unsophisticated, but you learn that much of this was intentional.

Note: I chose not to review Shift (POINTS=19/30) or Dust (21/30) by Hugh Howey because I felt like I didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about them. Neither ended very satisfactorily, had way too much background, alternate POVs, unrelatable motivations, and info I thought distracted from the story, and were kind of boring. Dust wasn’t too bad, though. I think he could have left out Shift and continued with Dust, and made the whole series much better.


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The Martian by Andy Weir (POINTS= 29/30)

Plus POINTS: As far as the POINTS system goes, The Martian is currently the standard by which all books are judged. The story of a man deserted on a barren planet, trying to survive until rescue, is about as hopeless and grim as you can get, but Weir manages to inject humor, action, intrigue, and most importantly, science. From orbital dynamics, to pressure regulation, and oxygen and water reclaiming systems, he is pretty spot on, with in depth descriptions which are intelligibly and cleverly delivered (which the movie does a really poor job of replicating). I thought he started the story in just the right moment, not too early or too late. While it may not be targeting the softer side of the sci-fi readership, for us hard sci-fi fans, it’s just what we’ve been asking for. I confess that I did not read this recently, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten many details… I’ve read the book 5 times now!

Minus POINTS: Its really no one particular thing. If I could take away a third of a point from the intelligibility, science, and plot categories, I would. It is pretty heavy on the science and terminology, so readers need to pay attention to avoid missing anything vital to their understanding. Scientifically, there is a minor point with the inciting incident, where Mark gets impaled by an antennae and the MAV almost tips. With atmospheric pressure so low on the planet, it would have been impossible for the wind to push over much of anything. The only part I found lacking in the Plot was the seeming disappearance of a secondary character, Mindy Park, who was in charge of monitoring Mark on the surface of Mars with orbiting satellites. I would have liked to see her jump in and save the day at the end, perhaps having a satellite diverted to help with a lost communications issue or something. And perhaps have Mark establish some sort of relationship with her in the end. They both seemed pretty lonely. Oh well, can’t have everything.


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Red Rising by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 22/30)

Plus POINTS: This is an emotionally charged and gripping story about a young Red man in a caste-based society, who must become a Gold in order to “break the chains” they use to enslave his color. It has a more futuristic Hunger Games vibe, but the purpose of this competition is to train Golds how to become ‘peerless,’ to separate the grain from the chaff. I would classify this novel as a dystopian space-opera. Though it is not hard sci-fi, it was evident that Brown did his research and took his time constructing the elaborate and rich story line.

Minus POINTS: The story opens with the main character harvesting helium 3, an essential part of fusion reactions, from beneath the surface of mars, though this process and fusion reactors in general are not discussed. Also unaddressed by the author is how this isotope of helium can build up below the surface of a planet with minimal geological activity. Solar wind is the primary source of this particle in the solar system, so I have a hard time believing it would occur anywhere but the surface. There are elements of genetic manipulation, complex physiological alterations (‘carving’) and power over laws of physics. Cleverly, Brown uses the main character’s ignorance and perhaps lack-of-interest in these processes as a way to avoid explaining them in detail. Grav boots, for example, are a contraption that allow their wearers to zip around wheresoever they please, while ghost cloaks make the wearer become invisible. Many other such technologies exist that can somehow prevent the local vibration of air molecules to suppress sound, and make swords infinitely sharp and capable of cauterizing flesh.


51pg95d6dvlGolden Son by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 23/30)

Plus POINTS: As the second installment of the Red Rising Trilogy,  Darrow continues on his ongoing mission to overthrow the Gold overlords of society. To do this, he has become one of them, made a name for himself, and schemed his way into a position of power where he gets the Golds to war amongst themselves. His inner turmoil grows as his mission clashes with his burgeoning love and friendships. Breaking away from the setting of Mars, the setting of this story take place on the moon, in space, and a few other places around the solar system. There were no obvious plot holes that I could see and it was a very enjoyable read, with intriguing characters, exciting space battles, and political drama.

Minus POINTS: My main scientific objection to this story was the creation of Earth-like atmospheres and climates on the moon (and many of Saturn’s and Jupiter’s moons). Not only is the moon able to hold atmosphere, but it still has a low gravity? Unless I missed it, this was never explained. While I find it plausible that ‘artificial gravity’ might be created one day, and could possibly help hold an atmosphere to the moon’s surface, it is obvious that this was not the method Brown used. And how do they protect themselves and prevent the atmosphere from being stripped away from cosmic rays? We will never know. The razors, incredibly sharp whips that can become sturdy swords with a “chemical impulse” also defy reason, but they are an interesting concept, nonetheless. The characters also seem capable of recovering from almost any injury, and can have severed limbs and eyes replaced within the span of a few chapters.


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Golden Son by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 22/30)

Plus POINTS: The ruse is over, Darrow can no longer pretend to be a Gold. In this book, he must discover who is ally and who is enemy as he seeks to overthrow the Gold overlords. There are many fronts to this war and Darrow must choose one to fight first as well as amass an army to accomplish the impossible task. This story is packed with interesting characters, fascinating plot twists, and non-stop action.

Minus POINTS: The organization and plot take a bit of a hit here. While it was easy to follow, the author relied a bit too much on the ‘all hope is lost’ mentality for the reader, allowing us to believe that all of the plans have gone horribly wrong. Yet still Darrow and his friends still accomplish the impossible at every turn. It is sometimes difficult to understand his motive during these events. For example, rather than fight the Jackal or Sovereign, he decides to go take on a large fleet outside of Jupiter instead. His plan to gain the moon lords allegiance and take out the huge fleet seems rather flimsy, indeed, it almost ends terribly for him and the cause he fights for, but as always, just when things start going horribly wrong, he succeeds and even accomplished more than he intended to. As is typical with this series, the technology and science bring the score down a bit. While these aspects of the book are interesting, they don’t have much of a connection to reality. Medically, you can’t just stand up and be alright after being ejected into the vacuum of space for several minutes or being locked in a small box for 9 months, even if given an injection of some secret stimulant in the heart. Also stab wounds are probably going to cut vital organs or at least cut through some muscle and bleed a lot, so it’s unlikely that you can just carry on fighting without being slowed much. Wounds also seem to disappear with a couple chapters or so, and amputated limbs are somehow found and reconnected.

Writing Update-December

For those of you who didn’t notice, I failed to write a single post during the month of November. I didn’t forget about you. November was packed with all kinds of distractions. The first half of November was spent preparing for and then attending a science conference (Society for Redox Biology and Medicine) in San Francisco. I had a blast and learned a lot, but couldn’t get a whole lot of writing time in. The conference ended the weekend before Thanksgiving and I stayed in San Francisco to spend it with some family in the area. Because this post is light on visuals, I made this little squirrel to represent how I felt after the week of Thanksgiving:

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November, as many of you know, was also National Novel Writing Month. I never participate in NaNoWriMo, but I did plan on getting my book edited. Sadly, after spending weeks without any creative outlet, I couldn’t bear the thought of editing. Instead, starting Thanksgiving week, I began a short story project. The story has been bouncing around in my head for a while, but I now had a reason to get it out on paper.

That reason is the Jim Baen Memorial short story award. I stumbled on to this contest last year, but couldn’t meet the deadline (Feb. 1st). The thing I love most about this contest, besides the fact that it is free to enter, is that they allow short stories of up to 8000 words in length. I have a hard time writing stories shorter than 4000 words, which is the norm for most contests. The other thing I love about this contest, is its mission. Not only is it requesting strictly science fiction stories, but stories that can help inspire scientific progress. This isn’t just meaningless propaganda either. They will give the top three finalists free admission to the 2017 International Space Development Conference as well as a bunch of other prizes.

I am almost finished with the short story and hope to share more details in the near future. In short, it is about a Mars rover operator who finds himself in a position to save the life of a Martian astronaut. I am tempted to call it brilliant, but I am still coming down from a creativity high. Its true quality will be determined during editing.

For my last bit of news,  I participated in the Twitter SFFpit event for a few hours earlier today. I had one acquisitions manager from a small press show interest in Quotidian but I am holding out for a literary agent who can get me the best deal. For those of you who don’t know, SFFpit is very much like other Twitter pitch contests. Summarizing your book in 140 characters is no easy feat. To give you an idea of how short that is, this sentence is 132 characters long with spaces, and I haven’t even included the hashtag. You can check out my twitter feed on the bottom of the page to see what variations I tried. The SFF pitch event was hosted by Dan Koboldt. If you recognize his name, it’s because I recently wrote a guest post for him on Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support.

December will be a bit light on posts as well as I will be in lab for 10+ hours a day trying to crank out some data before the holidays. Speaking of holidays, I will be in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, so there is little to no chance of me blogging during that time. I will be on a beach somewhere drinking cocktails and soaking my pale Seattle skin in sunlight.

With that, I am behind on editing and have a lot more to do before I can send my book to beta readers early next year. I’ve already put together a beta-reader book cover (below)! Wish me luck.

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Beta-reader cover for Quotidian. It depicts a scene from the book.

The science of enclosed ecosystems

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Earlier today I did a guest post for fellow blogger, writer, and scientist, Dan Koboldt. I came across his blog about a month ago. He and I share the same mission, to promote the use of accurate science in sci-fi. But rather than do all the background research on his own, he wisely seeks out professionals in related fields and asks them to write about scientific misconceptions in sci-fi and how to get it right. Since my own lab work concerns cellular respiration, I offered to write a post for him on enclosed ecosystems, and he generously agreed. You can see the original post by clicking on the graphic below:

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Enclosed ecosystem and life-support systems in sci-fi

A Closed Ecological System (CES) is a broad term that encompass any self-sustaining and closed system in which matter does not leave or enter. These artificial habitats can be built in space, underground, or underwater, but no matter where they are, chances are they are closed for a reason. Whether it is an underground bunker in a post-apocalyptic setting, a distant planet in the early stages of colonization, or a spacecraft carrying the last remnants of humanity, the environment outside is not hospitable. To ensure long-term survival, the occupants must maintain a well-balanced air and water system, a continuous food supply, and a reliable source of energy.

So far, no artificial enclosed ecosystem has successfully supported human life for long periods of time. Even the astronauts on the International Space Station get regular supply runs and have to exchange personnel. The largest CES was Biosphere 2, which sustained 8 crew for 2 years; however, they had to resort to some extreme measures to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in normal ranges, and many of the plant, animal, and insect populations died off.

Creating and maintaining a CES is difficult, as many fluctuations or imbalances can cascade into environmental collapse without continuous monitoring and support. Here I will discuss a few of the misconceptions about Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support systems and suggest ways to get it right in Sci-fi.

Myth: Waste is useless and should be disposed of.

You see this in many sci-fi stories set in space; the airlock door opens and a stream of garbage is ejected into the vacuum. This might be acceptable for short-term missions, where all the supplies needed are carried along, but for an ecosystem intended to last for a long time, being wasteful is not an option. It is a matter of mass balance. In most situations, it won’t be possible to obtain resources from outside the enclosed system, so if your characters are ejecting waste of any kind out the airlock, soon there won’t be anything left. By the same principle, if some waste product cannot be recycled, it will build up and eventually consume all of the precursor materials.

Getting it right

When creating a life-support system for a fictional crew, they must adhere to a strict recycling policy. Most solids, such as plastics and metals or glass, can be melted and recast into any number of shapes. Of greater importance is the conversion of gaseous, liquid, and solid wastes into breathable air, drinkable water, and edible food. Solid organic wastes such as material from dead plants, animals, or their excrement, contain large amounts of nitrites and nitrates, phosphates, and other inorganic compounds that serve as fertilizer for plants.

Having a ‘living soil’ or cultured hydroponic system is also necessary, as bacteria, like those found in the human gut, are great at breaking down complex organic molecules and making them assessable to the roots of plants. So far, there is no easy way to convert waste, carbon dioxide, and water into an edible food source, outside of a biological system, such as a plant. Such plants can be consumed as food, and the cycle is repeated.

Myth: Water evaporates and condenses, but the total amount doesn’t change.

You hear this often in terms of a large environment like the Earth, where water rises from the oceans and falls again as rain, and it is true for the most part. Only a few processes create or break down water, but in a small, highly balanced environment, they can make a huge difference. Water is made and destroyed in biological systems during condensation reactions and hydrolysis reactions, respectively.

But the most significant of these reactions occurs in the mitochondria, the ‘energy’ producing organelle in nearly every cell. In the mitochondria, oxygen receives 4 electrons from the Electron Transport Chain and is reduced to water. Yes, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb through your lungs is converted into water. The reverse happens in plants, where water is hydrolyzed into oxygen during the construction of carbohydrates during photosynthesis.

Getting it right

The balance between animal and plant life on the ship should ensure a stable supply of water, but water can be made and eliminated artificially if there is ever an imbalance. Electrolysis, breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen, can be accomplished with a little electricity. That processed can be reversed by burning hydrogen in the presence of oxygen. A means of storing oxygen and hydrogen or water should be in place to deal with small fluctuations. Humidity and condensation can cause severe damage to electrical systems, especially in zero gravity, where air currents can become stagnant. This also increases the risk of mold. Cold surfaces or specialized air filters can trap the water vapor and return it to storage.

Myth: Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, while animals do the opposite.

Unfortunately, the biochemistry isn’t so simple. Oxygen is not converted into carbon dioxide in animals. As I already mentioned, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb is converted into water. Carbon dioxide is released from the breaking down of metabolites like sugar, proteins, and fats. This takes place in the mitochondria. In plants, oxygen is made when both carbon dioxide and water are converted into carbohydrates like glucose during photosynthesis. This occurs in the chloroplast in plants.

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Another misconception is that producing oxygen is all plants do. In reality, plants have mitochondria too, and they consume oxygen and carbohydrates and produce carbon dioxide and water. When the lights are on, plants tend to produce more oxygen than they consume, but without light, they will suck up the oxygen as hungrily as we do.

Getting it right

Even as little as 1% concentrations of carbon dioxide can cause acute health effects such as fatigue and dizziness, but even higher concentrations (7-10%) can lead to unconsciousness, suffocation, and death within hours. To control fluctuations in carbon dioxide, CO2 scrubbers can be used. However, carbon dioxide is an intermediate step in oxygen and carbon cycles, so this artificial means to lower carbon dioxide may cause downstream effects on plant growth and lower oxygen concentration. This occurred accidentally in Biosphere 2 when carbon dioxide was converted into calcium carbonate in exposed concrete.

Materials like metal oxides and activated carbon can be used in CO2 scrubbers and then the carbon dioxide can be released at a later time. Large variations from the normal 21% oxygen is more easily tolerated than variations in carbon dioxide, but long-term exposure to greater or lower concentrations can lead to many acute and chronic health effects. Adjusting the amount of artificial or natural light available for photosynthesis is an effective means of controlling oxygen concentrations.

Myth: Energy must be produced within the ecosystem.

No closed ecological system is completely enclosed. If it were, it would soon succumb to the laws of entropy, making it a very cold and dark place. Something has to enter the system, and that thing is energy. The energy driving the weather, the currents, and the very life on this planet is coming from the sun.

Getting it right

Most common energy sources:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Water
  • Geothermal
  • Gas
  • Fusion/fission

The first four examples are the only types applicable in a completely closed ecological system, since energy can be moved into the system without any exchange of matter. A major drawback, however, is that the habitat can’t leave the source of the energy. A spaceship powered by the sun will have a hard time operating in interstellar space.

Any technology that requires the use of combustible fuels or fissionable (uranium 235 or plutonium 239) or fusible (Hydrogen 2 and 3, deuterium and tritium, and helium) materials will have to be resupplied on a regular basis, so they are not suited for long term ecosystems. By nature of their bi-products, they cannot be reused for more energy, but they have the benefit of being disposable and can be used as a form of thrust in spaceships without upsetting the mass balance.

Other Considerations for Environmental Control and Life Support.

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My year old Ecosphere. Going strong except for a slight algae overgrowth (The lab decided to keep lights on around the clock this past month).

Size- Closed ecological systems can come in all shapes and sizes, but the larger the better. Larger ecosystems, like the Earth, can sustain much more life and complexity and take longer to collapse if poorly maintained.

Nutrition- The nutritional demands of a human are more than getting the right amount of calories. There are many essential trace elements, minerals, amino acids (9 of them), and fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) and nearly everything that is classified as a vitamin, that cannot be synthesized by the human body. Until these things can be synthesized by machines, a complex ecosystem of many different plant and animal life forms would be required to maintain optimum human health.

Temperature regulation- Heat will build up rapidly in most enclosed systems, even in the cold of space, especially when you have heat generating electronics around. Heat needs to be dumped back into space as thermal radiation, usually a high surface area radiator that circulates a fluid capable of picking up heat in the interior and then dispensing with it outside. The opposite may be true in the deep ocean or underground, where heat may be drawn out of the enclosed system, and insulation will be necessary.

Air circulation- This is particularly important in zero G space, where hot and cold air will no longer rise and fall, respectively. To prevent air stagnation, humidity fluctuation and condensation, air needs to be well circulated. Filters are also necessary to remove any particulate matter such as skin cells or microbes.

The human element- Most enclosed ecosystems designed to support human life have not lasted nearly as long as they were intended to. Why? Because they failed to factor the human element into the equation. People get lonely and fall in love, personalities clash and people fight. Close quarters and a limited food supply can cause even the most patient and respectful of people to lose their temper. In Biosphere 2, the eight crew were barely on speaking terms by the time they exited, and two of them got married soon after.

Writing Update-October

fall-in-seattleIt is Fall, a beautiful time of year in Seattle. All the leaves are changing color, and the days are either rainy, sunny, or a bit of both.  I wish I could blame the weather for the late writing update this month, but the truth is, I just forgot. I do have some fun blog posts planned, but you will have to wait till next week to see them.

My works-in-progress.

The thing I love most about this blog is that it allows me to research dozens of topics I would otherwise have no reason to research. In so doing, it has given me more ideas than I know what to do with. These ideas have found their way into my writing and into the outlines of several new works in progress.

In case you missed it in my last post, I am working on a new story called Grounded (working title). Quotidian is more dystopian than sci-fi, but Grounded is very sci-fi. You can read the blurb here. It will be set in the near future, just like Quotidian, but unlike Quotidian, it will be chock full of science and innovation. It has been fun learning all about orbital mechanics and buoyancy and speculating about what will change when gravity has been eliminated. I have even consulted with my uncle, who works for NASA. You will be hearing more about this project in the near future.

Editing.

Quotidian is coming along slowly. In my August update, I had planned to make it through several rounds of edits and several drafts by the end of the year, but I am still wading through the current draft. The hardest part it deciding what stays and what goes. If a subplot doesn’t contribute much to the overall story, character development, or setting, I eliminate it. Unfortunately, this means I have to comb through the draft and remove all mentions of it. The earlier the subplot is introduced, the more there is to eradicate as the story progresses.

Typically writers fall into one of two categories: underwriters and overwriters. I think I am an overwriter, but not to the extreme. As I am editing, my word count is shrinking, but not by much. I think I outlined it well enough that there isn’t a whole lot of extraneous exposition or excessive subplots.

I usually write my entire story as one Word document. It is easier to keep track of the drafts that way verses having a Word document for each chapter. I regularly make new versions of the same document with a new save date to ensure, if I lose one copy or make a significant change, I can return to a previous version if necessary. This has resulted in a huge file of documents over the years. I love graphs, so I plotted the word count for each of my document versions over time to get an idea of my writing pace and speed:

quotidian-word-count

Word count for Quotidian

The book started relatively high in word count, but this was mainly due to all the notes, outlines, and about a chapter or so of actual story. It was pretty slow to get started because I was finishing Book 2 of the Abyssian. I didn’t start making headway on Quotidian until the end of 2014. Of course, this didn’t last long. I had to graduate. The next several months were spent writing my dissertation and graduating. I started my postdoc about a week after my last day in grad school, and that week was spent packing my bags, leaving Alabama behind, and traveling across the country to Seattle. Once in Seattle, the setting for Quotidian, I felt much more inspired. During the day, I was in lab, but afterwards I would find a quiet place in some nearby café or bar and write, nearly every day, until I completed Quotidian. Now I am in the editing phase, and I am really missing the daily writing. I have since started Grounded, but juggling both is making editing and writing progress pretty slowly.

Thankfully, I get quite a lot of editing and feedback from members of Critique Circle. On this website, I post chapters to my private queue, and my queue members read and critique it. I only have 16 chapters posted so far, but will be putting all of them up by the end of the year. In addition to finding me some alpha readers, CC was able to generate some pretty cool stats for my posted chapters:

readabilityadjectivesnounspronounsadverbsverbsprepositionsdeterminersdistinct-wordsdirect-speech

The readability stats indicate what grade level the reader needs to have in order to understand each chapter. Mine is pretty standard for a book targeting a broad audience, I think. The other stats give me assurance that my writing style isn’t dramatically changing throughout the story, and they show me where I am heavy on description or dialogue. I highly recommend CC to other aspiring writers. When I get into some other editing software, I will be sure to post my reviews and recommendations.

As a side note, I was thinking about starting up a scientific consultant service to cater to writers’ specific story needs. I would probably do this service for free, unless demand rises rapidly. So if you are having trouble figuring out the science involved in your story’s unique context, or if you simply want someone to help you brainstorm, please feel free to contact me. I will likely not be an expert in the topic you need help with, but I do enjoy researching new things.

I am also happy to take suggestions for future blog posts. Any topic related to improving the accuracy and believability of science in science fiction is preferred.

That’s all for today. Back to writing… and editing, I guess.

The science of gravity

gravityFor this week’s post, I’ve decided to talk about the thing that keeps us all grounded, makes us fall, and keeps us from venturing too high. It’s a very weighty subject, something I hope will draw you in, and it’s apparently a great source of puns. It is gravity.

Writers have gone to great lengths to circumvent this fundamental law of nature. When gravity can be eliminated or overcome, new and astounding opportunities arise. Our characters can strap themselves into rockets, dirigibles, and aircrafts to view our world from amazing heights, or visit entirely different worlds.

Unfortunately, many writers think their grasp of gravity is sufficient enough to excuse them from any research. In most cases this is true, but when glaring mistakes prevent readers from being immersed in the story, a little research would have been invaluable.

The science.

Gravity is many magnitudes weaker than electromagnetism at the microscopic level, allowing even a weak fridge magnet to resist the pull of our entire planet. What gives? Why isn’t it pulling its own weight? That was the last pun, I swear. The truth is, while electromagnetism predominates over the small, on the planetary scale, gravity always prevails. So for such a strong force, why do we have no idea how it works?

Unveiling the mysteries of gravity is the sole priority of many research labs around the world, and many theories have been proposed, but only a few have been found scientifically and mathematically sound (though they make many assumptions). The problem with all these theories is that they offer few testable hypotheses, and are based principally on math. Some, like Einstein’s theory of General Relativity and Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG), believe that gravity isn’t a force at all, but instead a warping or changing of the geometry of space-time (4 dimensions). While other theories, like Quantum Field Theory (QFT) and M-theory (string theory), believe the force of gravity is mediated by particles, the graviton, which propagate out like any other particle, not just in our 4 dimensions, but into other dimensions. There are pros and cons to each theory, and some go to extraordinary lengths to justify the strength of gravity relative to electromagnetism or the method by which it propagates. Some theories don’t try to explain everything at all (create a unifying theory) because it simply won’t work. Recently LIGO detected the previously hypothetical gravitational wave from two colliding black holes, giving researchers some clues as to how gravity propagates through space. This casts some doubts on those theories that suggest gravity has everything to do with space-time geometry, unless you somehow justify that ‘ripples in space’ are somehow to blame.

If you are creating a story line where gravity manipulation is a major plot point, some of these theories might make a good starting point for ‘anti-gravity’ technologies. Since no theory has been proven, there is a lot of room for creative license. I myself have absolutely no formal training in physics. In fact, I probably got away with taking fewer physics courses than the average science graduate. I also am pretty terrible at math. I have been looking into theories of gravity for several months now, and most of them gave me headaches. I applaud anyone who can make sense of them. I, with my limited understanding of physics, think gravity might be a combination of several theories. I theorize that perhaps gravity is a distortion of space-time, but that this distortion is the result of a particle, the graviton. If the Higgs boson (spin 0) is unable to move freely through space (or the Higgs field, whatever that is), imparting mass to objects, and the photon (spin 1) is able to move across space freely, what if the graviton (hypothetical spin 2), had the same speed as a photon, but also affected space, not by resistance, but repulsion. If the graviton were responsible for distorting space, this could explain its weakness (displacing space at the plank scale), its ability to affect time, and its ability to propagate like other particles. I have no idea if this theory has already been suggested or has already been debunked, but it’s what I am going with until someone decides to educate me. Seriously, if you are a physicist, we should chat.

Whether or not you came up with your own theory, gravity is still one of the most studied and characterized ‘forces.’ It follows certain rules. These rules are so defined, that we can take Newton’s equations from the 16th century, and use them to launch a tiny ship about 240,000 miles to land exactly where we want on the moon with zero to minimal course adjustment. So here are some considerations when writing your novel:

Orbits.

It is important to note that just because your characters are in space does not mean they will be weightless. If you take a balloon to the very edge of space, you will still feel the gravity pulling you down. It is only when you achieve angular momentum, momentum away from gravity, that weightlessness occurs. This is an orbit.

While orbits are relative, we tend to say one thing is orbiting another thing, when that second thing is the more massive of the two. Orbits are pretty simple to understand, and once understood, writers can avoid making some simple mistakes. A stable orbit is when a body has an angular momentum (outward force) that is equal to the inward force supplied by gravity. Because the force of gravity decreases according to the inverse square law, the further something is from the center of mass, the slower it has to travel to remain in orbit. For example, the International Space Station has to travel at nearly 17,500 miles an hour to remain in a low earth orbit of about 200 miles (orbits every 90 min), whereas a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, or about 22,000 miles from earth, only has to travel at about 7,000 miles an hour (orbits once 24 hours). At about 5 trillion miles from the sun, the objects in the Oort cloud barely need to move at all and only need to be nudged in order for them to come careening toward us as a comet. If you need a planet to revolve around another, but close enough to fill a quarter of the sky, they need to be revolving pretty fast around each other in order to counterbalance the pull of gravity, which will also cause some extreme tidal forces (to the core and oceans).

Directions.

Like orbits, directions are relative. North on our planet is simply the magnetic north, where the magnetic field lines converge back on our planet (the place in the north pole where the compass starts to act a little erratic).  On other planets, this may not be the case. Venus for example, has an extremely weak magnetic field, perhaps due to its very slow spin, or the loss of convective forces due to a thick crust.

Gravity is also the only thing that differentiates up from down. The saccule and utricle of the inner ear contain grains of calcium carbonate that respond to gravity and momentum, tugging on hair cells (mechanoreceptors). This as well as visual stimuli, help you orient yourself to gravity and keep you from falling over.

In space, without gravity, this sensation is lost and many astronauts have to deal with a bit a vertigo and nausea as their eyes tell them something their ears are not. In space, people need to orient themselves to something besides gravity, like a feature of the galaxy (quadrant), the orientation of equipment or text on the spaceship, or they can learn to ignore directions all together. In my current work in progress, it is a struggle to describe motion and actions when lacking a directional cue. Are you really reaching up to flip a switch if you are upside down relative to everyone else? It is important to orient your reader to the character’s POV and sense of direction in order to prevent confusion.

Other effects of gravity.

As mentioned earlier, a world orbiting closely to a gas giant will likely have tremendous geological activity and a molten interior from tidal forces. A small world about the size of our moon that is not orbiting a gas giant will likely have very little atmosphere and no molten interior, since gravity is responsible for both.

Buoyancy is another ‘force’ that exists because of gravity. As Archimedes’ principle states, whether it is water or air, if something weighs less than the stuff around it, it will rise above it until it finds an equilibrium. It will sink when the object weighs more than the medium. This upward force is caused by the pressure differential in the medium, i.e. the pressure of the medium against the bottom of the object will be slightly greater than the pressure of the medium against the top of the object, causing it to rise. Neutral buoyancy occurs when the medium it displaces weighs the same as the object itself, and when the pressure difference between the top and bottom equals zero. The larger the volume of the object, the more medium it will displace, but it will also tend to weigh more. That is why ‘density,’ the weight of a certain volume of an object, is commonly used to estimate buoyancy. In orbit, the effect of gravity is canceled out and everything will be weightless. Thus there is no buoyancy in space. You can inject a drop of air into a sphere of water, and it will stay in place and not rise to the surface.

There are also many health effects associated with a long exposure to weightlessness, including muscle and bone loss as well as some neurological and visual problems. Rather than go into all of this, I will encourage you to read this post from Amber, a fellow sci-fi blogger and science nerd.

Difference between mass and weight.

This is a relatively minor point, but that should make it easy to remember. Mass is measured in grams, and weight is measured in newtons (gravitational force multiplied by mass). Most of the time weight and mass can be used interchangeably, unless there is space travel involved. Your character’s mass will be the same on earth as it is on mars, however, their weight will have changed. Weight is the measure of an objects gravitational attraction to another object, whereas mass is a physical property of the matter the object is made of. Mass is caused by the Higgs boson, but weight is caused by gravity (perhaps the graviton). While the incorrect use of this terminology will probably not dissuade many of your readers, it might cast doubt on your knowledge of the subject. Better safe than sorry.

Artificial gravity.

This encompasses any technique that is used to mimic the effect of gravity, and it is used in nearly every hard sci-fi story where astronauts are able to walk instead of float around on their space-ships. Creating an artificial gravity will be required for prolonged periods of weightlessness to prevent many of the adverse health effects. It it important to note that artificial gravity is not gravity at all.

Centrifugal ‘force’ is a method used to generate artificial gravity, whereby a torus, or another type of structure, is rotating around a central point. This has the effect of making all objects within the structure want to fly outward, but the structure itself is preventing that (centripetal force), thus allowing all the objects to be forced to the inside of the structure, with up being the center of rotation, and down being out into empty space. There are some pretty simple equations that will allow you to estimate the amount of rotations/min needed for a torus of a certain radius, to generate a certain amount of force (equivalent Gs).

Other continuous forms of acceleration can also apply a constant force, however, rockets will run out of thrust eventually, and when the people inside the rocket catch up to the rockets velocity, they will become weightless again.

It is up to the writer whether or not they want to address how gravity is simulated in their ship. I personally prefer there to be some mention of it to avoid logical inconsistencies. For example, if there is no torus or rocket used to apply this continuous force, then I will assume gravity has been mastered and replicated. If that is true, why would you need propulsion at all? What happens when the ship loses power (assuming generating gravity consumes power)? Where is the device that creates it? Where are all the floating cities, flying people, and gravity weapons? Conquering of gravity would of course result in all these and many other amazing things.

Anti-gravity.

It does not exist (yet). Sadly, most contraptions that claim to be working by anti-gravity are in fact operating by buoyancy or propulsion. In order from something to be anti-gravity, it must ignore gravity, or perhaps reverse it, not just compensate for it. This probably won’t happen until we find out what gravity really is. Is it the curvature of space time by Mass? A change in the geometry of space-time?

But when we finally do unravel the mysteries of gravity, we may be able to redirect it, amplify it, or turn it off altogether. Exciting times are ahead, but as sci-fi writers, we don’t have to wait, we can bring that excitement to the here and now.

 

On that note, I think I will end with a blurb for my current work in progress. This has been extremely fun to write so far and I look forward to keeping you guys up to date on its progress.

Grounded (working title) blurb:

In the not-so-distance future, the graviton, the fundamental particle believed to carry the force of gravity, has been discovered. A government research facility wants to be the first to harness the power of gravity and reduce the cost of aerospace ventures. But when a high energy experiment goes awry, all matter within a mile radius is made weightless. Hundreds of lives are lost to the sky.

In the wake of the event, all further graviton experiments are banned in order to prevent a future disaster, one that could destroy the very thing that holds the earth together. The survivors are left with a choice: to leave the research facility and become grounded by the very foods they eat and air they breathe, or to be maintained in a weightless state and embark on a scientific expedition to the sky and beyond without gravity to hold them back.

But with nearly every commercial industry developing applications for weightless matter, its value has soared. Many of the survivors seeking to return to a normal life and weight have gone missing. When heavily armed men break into the facility, they do not steal the wealth of weightless materials around them. They are after something far more valuable: the graviton research that started it all. With the fate of the planet at stake, one lone researcher must stop them at any cost, even if it means casting off the moorings that hold the facility to the ground.