Enclosed Ecosystem Writing Prompts and More: PSIF and NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is fast approaching, which means all around the world, writers are scouring the internet for inspiring writing prompts. Many of them will bite off more than they can chew in an attempt to turn those prompts into realistic and scientifically-plausible stories.

Well you’ve come to the right place. I have prepared a few writing prompts with a list of scientific problems you might need to consider as you write. If you lack the scientific training, never fear, expert advice on writing with authenticity is available in the new book, Putting the Science in Fiction. My own article in the book will talk you through creating realistic Enclosed Ecosystems and Life-support systems, and the following prompts will have the same theme.

Gone rogue

Prompt 1: Gone Rogue

  • An object with a powerful gravitational attraction passes through our solar system. By all calculations, the perturbation will eject Earth from the solar system, making it a rogue planet, destined to drift through the emptiness of space for the foreseeable future. How much time does humanity have to prepare before the great freeze sets in? Would your characters hunker down and try to survive, or leave the Earth behind? Either way, you would need a habitat capable of sustaining human life indefinitely.

Considerations:

  • On a frozen planet far from the sun, the atmosphere would soon freeze and fall out of the sky, and all flowing water will solidify, making solar, wind, and hydroelectric power useless. About the only source of power and heat will be from natural gases and fuels, fission or fusion, and geothermal power.
  • With the freezing temperatures and plummeting atmospheric pressure, your enclosed ecosystem will need to be insulated and shielded from the cold vacuum by thick walls or built far underground.
  • The larger the enclosed ecosystem, the less likely it is to collapse. This will require a variety of animals, plants, and microorganisms to sustain the atmosphere, provide food and nutrition, and recycle wastes.
  • On the plus side, all of Earth’s resources have been cryogenically preserved. A scavenger in a hardy enough space suit might just be able to find edible food and usable supplies, assuming they aren’t all covered by meters of oxygen and nitrogen snow or rendered useless due to thermal stresses.

Lock Down

Prompt 2: Lock Down

  • Your characters are stranded in a large fallout shelter as nuclear war rages outside. How many people can it support and for how long? What will they need to survive?

Considerations:

  • The facility will need some way to remove the radioactive fallout from the air if it is vented in from outside, or a means to recycle the carbon dioxide within the facility and replenish oxygen. Plants under grow lights can help with this.
  • Water vapor might quickly wick away into the porous concrete of the shelter. Putting up plastic sheeting and having a condenser of some kind will keep this valuable resource from being lost. Alternatively, people in radiation suits can go in search of food and water, but only sealed containers can be trusted not to have been contaminated by nuclear fallout. Read my previous post “The Science of Killing your Characters,” for some background on radiation poisoning.
  • The power source will need to be self-sustaining, but the sun might not reliably penetrate the now-pervasive clouds of ash. Wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear power may be your only viable sources or electricity. Gasoline for generators would need to be scavenged on a regular basis.
  • People forced into close quarters can do unexpected and terrible things, especially after the trauma of the apocalypse. An established leadership, laws, and consequences will help limit keep chaos at bay. Conversely, love and relationships will blossom in time, but they can bring their own complications.

Mass Balance

Prompt 3: Mass Balance

  • Rather than a costly endeavor of launching building materials into space, your characters plan to build a space station by send a single, small rocket with a few crew to intercept an asteroid. There, your character will mine the raw materials to build a much larger and sustainable space station. What type of asteroid will they need, and what can they build with its components. How will they convert it to a usable form? What is their overall goal?

Considerations:

  • To sustain a large space station, mass balance needs to be preserved, meaning your characters can’t just throw things out the airlock without a means of replacing it. Otherwise they will run out of materials quickly. Luckily, they have an asteroid to pick apart, supplying water and thus liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel, as well as all kinds of common and rare metals. Things like plastics and some specialized components must be strictly recycled.
  • The type of asteroid is important. A C-type asteroid has a relative abundance of water and carbonaceous minerals, but has a scarcity of metals. Carbonaceous minerals aren’t all bad, especially if it can be used to synthesize carbon nanotubes, graphene sheets, or used as a component of soil or fertilizer. S and M-type asteroids have more stone and metals, respectively, but less water.
  • An enterprise like this one will require a lot of power, especially if there is smelting to be done, water to convert to fuel, or high-tech computers to manage it all. For a power source, they will need something sustainable and replaceable. Solar arrays are a likely candidate, but it will provide less power the further away from the sun the space-station gets.
  • Heat can accumulate in an enclosed ecosystem, even in the cold of space, especially if there are all kinds of heat generating people and equipment around. A radiator system can help collect the heat inside the station and release it as thermal radiation out into space.
  • Air circulation and filtration will be required to filter out floating debris and contaminates, capture water vapor, and prevent stagnation in micro-gravity.
  • Lastly, some type of artificial gravity may be required to prevent the long-term health effects of micro-gravity. See fellow PSIF contributor, Jamie Krakover’s post, as well as my previous post on “The Science of Gravity.”

Putting the Science in Fiction

Science and technology have starring roles in a wide range of genres–science fiction, fantasy, thriller, mystery, and more. Unfortunately, many depictions of technical subjects in literature, film, and television are pure fiction. A basic understanding of biology, physics, engineering, and medicine will help you create more realistic stories that satisfy discerning readers.

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Putting the Science in Fiction brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:

  • Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are frequently featured in fiction.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
  • Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
  • Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
  • Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, PSIF will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

Putting the Science in Fiction collects articles from “Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy,” Dan Koboldt’s popular blog series for authors and fans of speculative fiction. Each article discusses an element of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in that field. Scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and others share their insights in order to debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.

Much of these scientific considerations in this post apply to all sorts of unique and interesting scenarios, like a sudden ice age, a super volcano eruption, an expanding sun, or settings like Arctic research facilities, Mars, or the rings of Saturn, to name a few. I encourage you to come up with your own and share it with the rest of us. Leave comments, ask questions, and let us know of some scientific considerations I may have missed. If these prompts weren’t quite what you were looking for, check out #PSIF on Twitter or click here throughout the month for more prompts by PSIF contributors.

Additionally, you can now enter to win a copy of Putting the Science in Fiction from Writers Digest. Enter the giveaway below!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

While it’s easy enough to write a compelling story without doing your research, it will always lack something. Hard science fiction adds an element of awe, the knowledge that such astounding, beautiful, and seemingly magical things might actually be possible. It inspires scientists and readers alike to put their imaginations to use in the real world, to bring what was once science fiction one step closer to reality.

So until next time, Write Well and Science Hard.

The Science of Aging and its Fictional Cures

Aging

Author’s note: This article was originally published by invitation in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-fi blog series. See the original article here. If you are interested in more Science in Sci-fi, check out Putting the Science in Fiction for expert advice on writing Sci-fi and Fantasy with authenticity. It will be published in October 2018 by Writers Digest, with a foreword written by bestselling author Chuck Wendig. You can pre-order on Amazon, just click on the cover image to be redirected. I will have an article published in the book.

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The Science of Aging and its Fictional Cures

All things age. For non-biological objects, it is a matter of entropy and oxidation (see “Aging Properties” by Gwen C. Katz in Putting the Science in Fiction). While life is not immune to these effects, it has the ability to replenish itself, repair damage, and theoretically exist indefinitely. So why don’t we live forever? This article will explore the science of biological aging and debunk some of its misconceptions in fiction.

 

Myth: Death by Old Age

“So-and-so died from old age.” We’ve all said it or heard it before. But can age really kill you?

Ultimately, aging does not kill you, but makes you more vulnerable to other things that will. As time goes on, our physiological integrity weakens and cells no longer act like they should. Muscles weaken, metabolism slows, and we all become a bit more sedentary, leaving us at risk for accidents, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and coronary artery disease. Similarly, DNA repair slackens and increases the risk of cancer, the immune system becomes erratic and can lead to autoimmune diseases, and the brain loses it edge and degenerates. All together, the chance that something will kill you every year is over 1000x more likely in the elderly than in children.

How to get it right:

Here are some of the most common causes of death:

Heart disease

Cancer

Stroke

Lung diseases and infections

Accidents

Diabetes

Alzheimer’s

Kidney disease

For the most part, the incidence of all of these causes of death increases with age. In other words, age is never the cause of death, but age-related diseases are. Similarly, “death by natural causes” is commonly used to describe the death of an elderly individual, since these causes are common enough to be considered natural.

 

Myth: There Exists Such a Thing as a Life-Force

There persists a notion that life is some ethereal force that courses through us, able to be sucked away by the first succubus/incubus that lures us in. Aging, therefore, would be the waning of such a life-force.

As far as we know, there is no ethereal energy that perfuses all life and makes it work. In fact, life can be manufactured by going online, copying the genetic sequence of a simple organism, synthesizing the DNA in a machine, and injecting it into an empty husk of a cell. This artificial “life” will then proceed to live on its own as shown by an experiment performed in 2010 by Craig Venter.

How to get it right:

All life has a few things in common, though there are exceptions to the rule. The standard definition of life is an entity that can grow, reproduce, undergo metabolic processes, and sense and interact with the environment. From this definition, metabolism is about the only thing that can be considered a life-force that can be given or taken away.

There is some truth to the concept though, as mitochondria, the energy producing organelles in most of our cells, do lose some of their efficiency as we age, and are implicated in many age-related diseases. Similarly, there do appear to be factors circulating through our body that affect how we age, and these can even be transferred from one person to another. Parabiosis is an experiment wherein two animals are surgically connected, allowing them to share blood. The older of the two animals will show signs of improved cognitive performance, muscle development, heart health, cellular regeneration, and properties that typically deteriorate with age.

The circulating factors thought to mediate this effect are certain inflammatory molecules (cytokines), small packets of intracellular materials (exosomes), some mitochondrial proteins, and many others. Interestingly, some of these are the same factors that promote systemic health following exercise. So unless you plan to surgically attach yourself to your much younger friend, or are currently a succubus/incubus, exercise truly is the best medicine.

 

Myth: The Elixir of Life and other instant cure-alls

Fiction often portrays the cure of aging as an easy fix, often restoring youthful vitality and vigor over the course of just a few minutes. Such an elixir smooths wrinkled skin, increases muscle mass, darkens silver-white hair, and eliminates all ailments associated with age. If only it were that simple.

Many researchers agree that aging is the result of mutations and other damage that accumulate over time, causing cancer, affecting metabolism, protein turnover, the immune system, the endocrine system, etc. A cure to aging would need to reverse all of this damage. Among other things, this would require replacing the lost connective tissue in the skin and removing it from areas where it has been produced in excess, like the muscle. It would need to revive cells that have already died, and kill cells like cancer. Additionally, the cure would need to remove lipid plaques from the vasculature, amyloid plaques from the brain, and fix every type of damage down to individual proteins and DNA mutation. And by most depictions, all of this would occur over the course of a few seconds to minutes. While this may look visually impressive, it would be impossible. The changes that occur with age are just too numerous and widespread to be reversed.

A fictional remedy like small nanomachines would have to constantly change shape, be physically capable of reaching every crevasse of every protein and condensed DNA strand, retain the information of what to fix and how, and somehow produce and store enough energy to complete the task. Even if it could somehow do all these things, fixing the accumulated damage would not be instantaneous, nor would it be visually apparent for at least a day or two. Similarly, gene editing never shows immediate effects, whether by taking years off your appearance or, if so designed, transforming you into a werewolf.

How to get it right:

Fortunately, there are some drugs and lifestyle changes being explored that have been shown to increase lifespan in mice and other mammals, though the effect is relatively mild. Some of these longevity enhancers have negative side effects, however, like testicular atrophy in the case of Rapamycin. Similarly, caloric restriction doesn’t sound like something I would do voluntarily. Even taking such measures, an indefinite extension of our lifespan may not be possible without something to extend our telomeres, the condensed DNA at the end of our chromosomes that gets shorter with each cell division.

Of course, your fictional characters might choose to skip over the cure, and abandon their aging bodies all together for something far more durable. They have merged them, body and mind, with machines. For more info, see Edward Ashton’s post on Immortality in Science Fiction.

 

Myth: Agelessness and the Fountain of Youth

Since reversing aging seems unlikely, the only other option would be to make your character ageless, resistant to the wear and tear of time. However, like wizards and elves, the ageless being is completely fictional.

The most common source of damage within the cell is the act of living itself. While metabolizing our food and consuming the oxygen we breathe, the mitochondria occasionally produces a small amount of oxidants, which then oxidize proteins, DNA, and lipids. DNA polymerase, which is responsible for copying our DNA during cell division, can slip or make a base-pair mismatch. Our immune system, which functions primarily to rid us of invading micro-organisms, can get overzealous and damage other cells caught in the crossfire.

Also, let’s not forget that life is just complex chemistry, and sometimes damaging chemical reactions will occur at a low frequency that are impossible to prevent, like the hydrolysis of DNA. Another major cause of the accumulating damage is the environment. Background radiation, toxins from our food or water, and the aforementioned microorganisms can interfere with all manner of biological processes and inflict direct damage. Eventually DNA damage accumulates, leading to cellular dysfunction, and ultimately death. To be ageless, one would have to resist all of this damage.

How to get it right:

Not all beings are created equal, however, and many creatures that have found a way to subvert the effect of time.

Take the “immortal jellyfish” for example. It is said to live indefinitely by reverting back to an immature polyp state. Unfortunately, humans are quite a bit more complex than a jellyfish. Such a state of immortality would be like taking the DNA from one of your cells and cloning yourself. Your clone would have none of your memories and be a distinct organism. Another creature, the naked mole rat, has extraordinary DNA repair capabilities and connective tissue factors. It looks nearly identical at year one as it does at an impressive 30 years old, which is to say it looks rather hideous all its life.

The Icelandic clam, the Greenland shark, and some other sea-dwellers have been known to live as long as 500 years, partly due to its resistance to oxidative damage. Somehow, I don’t think their natural environments would be compatible for us, but the secret to their longevity may one day be translated to humanity.

If a means to become ageless is developed during your lifetime, chances are you won’t be able to use it. Your unborn children, however, might be more fortunate. The most likely method will be to modify our progeny’s’ genetic code to enhance cellular repair, telomerase activity, antioxidant enzymes, and other processes shown to prolong life in animal models. Only then would human biology have a chance at resisting the ravages of time.

 

Conclusion

Life is complex; so many parts need to come together to keep it functioning, and if one thing falters, so does life end. Gerontology is the study of how those complicated parts of life fail over time. The Somatic DNA damage theory of aging alluded to in this article is just one theory of many. Other theories include antagonistic pleiotropy (i.e. that which makes us strong early in life, makes us weak later), disposable soma theory (i.e. keeping the body young isn’t the best allocation of resources), the replicative senescence theory (i.e. telomere shortening), rate of living theory, other damage accumulation theories, as well as some theories proposing we are programmed to age and die, often for the “overall prosperity of society.” There are still numerous theories of aging which haven’t been conclusively proven or disproven, and until we know the real cause, finding the cure will be all the more difficult.

“If there is one thing a Gerontologists understands, it is complexity,” said Dr. William Hazzard, a renowned gerontologists, at a 2018 aging symposium named in his honor. And while there is currently no cure for aging, there are things we can do in the meantime to slow it down. Dr. Hazzard, an 81-year-old academic who took the three stairs to the podium in one leaping bound, asserts that the best medicine is to “keep moving,” to “keep learning,” and above all, “embrace the totality of the experience.”

 

Until next time, Write Well and Science Hard

The Science of Exobiology

Space rocks

So you want to introduce a new lifeform in your fiction. There are many reasons to do so. A sentient humanoid can provoke your reader’s sympathy and relatability, while a vile, brainless, and flesh-eating slug can put your readers on edge. If done sloppily, however, skeptical readers will find the flaws in such a creature, and that disbelief will undermine any of your attempts to draw them into the story. You can blame biologists for always taking the fun out of your unique imagination, or you can choose to awe them with the many ways you manipulate biology into something terrifying or beautiful. After all, there are millions of weird and wonderful species on our own planet, some far more alien looking than what sci-fi authors have conjured up over the years.

anemone

“Fish and anemone,” picture by Philip Kramer at the Seattle Aquarium

Here are the things you should consider when making a new species:

 

What is life anyway?

To breathe life into your creation, you should first understand what life is. The standard definition of life is an entity that can grow, reproduce, undergo metabolic processes, and sense and interact with the environment. This simplistic definition has led to some interesting debates. A virus for example, can do little to none of these things outside a host cell. Is it a living thing? Crystals too can take in energy and materials from their environment and use it to grow and reproduce. Is a crystal alive? Alien life will also likely defy some of these rules.

So what might life on another planet look like? This field of study is referred to as exobiology and astrobiology.

 

All life is a product of its environment.

Everything about life, down to each protein or strand of DNA, was selected for over the course of millions of years. If an organism died before passing on its genetic material, the next generation would not inherit those characteristics that lead to premature death. This is evolution, and because of it, nearly everything about you has a purpose and function.

True, there are some things that appear to have no function except to give scientists headaches. These things exist because they can, or because they did not provide an evolutionary disadvantage. For example, many of the glycoproteins coating each of our red blood cells have no apparent function. Others, like the Duffy antigen, are used by the malaria parasite to infect cells. As a result, many individuals whose ancestors were from malaria-prone regions do not express this antigen. The simple rule is this: evolution will select against adaptations that negatively affect a species’ chances of survival and procreation, but any adaptations that improve those chances, or don’t change them at all, will persist.

On Earth alone, evolution progressed down millions of branches depending on environmental pressures. Many of those branches ended when these evolutionary experiments failed or the creature was overpowered by another creature attempting to take over the same ecological niche. As humans, we adapted our opposable thumbs from grasping tree limbs to avoid predators on the ground and reach food high in the canopy. We became bipedal to facilitate running and giving us a height advantage to spot both predators and prey when traveling across the ground. When intelligence improved our ability to hunt and forage, we dedicated much more room and energy to developing it. For other animals, they took to the air, or stayed in the water, and evolved talons, teeth, and scales to defend themselves. Any change to the fictional environment would make your creatures change accordingly. If the atmosphere was just a little thicker, for example, like the one on Venus, instead of birds with wings, you might have puffer-fish like creatures that fill an air-bladder with hydrogen or oxygen to float around. If your creature lives in dark caves like Astyanax mexicanus, a Mexican cave fish, they will probably have no eyes, or at least not ones that function.

 

Familiar or strange?

Going out of your way to creating an entirely original and strange lifeform may not be necessary. In fact, some scientists think life can only come in a finite number of forms. So it is possible that alien lifeforms share characteristics with us or other life on our planet. Darwin’s Aliens, is a new theory suggesting that there are only a handful of ways biology can evolve to deal with its surroundings. Yes, even biology is beholden to the laws of physics. Take the eyes as an example; there are only a few ways a creature might focus light from its environment onto a cluster of light sensitive cells. Evidence suggests that eyes evolved independently on dozens of evolutionary branches on Earth into something that looks and operates very similarly. The number and placement of those eyes on the head are also no coincidence, allowing a large range of vision without taking up too much space and energy in the brain to process that information.

Just because alien life might look familiar, doesn’t mean it can’t be strange. You can still be creative with your alien. In fact, it is very unlikely aliens will look too similar or identical to life on Earth. Since we exist because of a series of random genetic mutations and environmental coincidences (like ice ages and the particular tilt of our planet caused by the moon), it is very unlikely a species from another planet will have experienced the same evolutionary history.

Designing your lifeform.

The simplest unit of life as we know it is the cell. Alien life will most likely be composed of cells too, as it is the natural progression of simple to complex life, and allows each unit to carry the genetic information required for it to grow and replicate. Your alien can be a single cell, or a complex lifeform composed of two or more of these units working together for mutual survival. This partnership also allows some cells to specialize in certain tasks (defense, digestion, locomotion, etc.) to make tissues and organ systems.

Here are some of the features and organ systems most complex life should have:
Size- No matter the planet, there will be gravity, so your lifeform’s proportions will likely adhere to the square-cube law. This law, while by no means strict, describes most of the complex terrestrial life on Earth. In simple terms, it describes the relationship between volume and surface area of a creature. As a creature grows in size, its surface area does not increase at the same rate as its volume. As a result, larger animals must have thicker limbs to support a greater mass, a circulatory system to deliver nutrients and gasses through its body, and methods to dissipate heat through its lower relative surface area. Increasing an insect to the size of a cow would make its exoskeleton heavy, and its spindly limbs unable to support the mass of its bulbous body. Additionally, it could no longer rely on it tracheoles and hemolymph to diffuse oxygen throughout its body.

bug

“Pillbug,” by Philip Kramer, (edit of picture)

Skin- Often the largest organ in the body, it is the last barrier between living flesh and a harsh environment with no regard for living things. Making a sentient slime the primary host of a hot, water-poor planet like Venus would not only be impractical, but evolutionarily impossible. A type of lizard with scales that reflect infrared and are resistant to sulfuric acid rain, however, would be far more likely. If the planet is cold instead, fat deposits or thick fur will serve as good insulation.

In addition to a physical barrier, the skin can also serve as an optical defense or lure. Lizards, butterflies, encephalapods, and many other creatures disguise themselves with their surroundings, make themselves look menacing, or lure in other creatures by appearing to be harmless.

 

fleattle

“The Fleatle,” by Ian Dowsett

Skeleton and muscles- In some cases, the skeleton can take place of the skin. This is known as an exoskeleton. While it can provide protection from the external world, it is not very deformable, and weighs too much on large creatures. Additionally, such a skeleton would limit growth, and occasional periods of molting would make the creature vulnerable to injury. An internal skeleton provides more joint versatility, structural support, and anchorage for ligaments and tendons. Add muscles, and the creature will be able to move through and manipulate the environment around them. The means of locomotion will vary depending on its evolutionary environment, allowing for wings, fins, tentacles, or feet and hands. The type and position of joints is going to alter the function of the limb. For example, the elbow and knee are terribly weak joints (the fulcrum near the end of lever), meaning it takes a large amount of force to move the limb. Why would evolution do this? While the arms and legs are weak, their length away from the pivot point means they can move at incredible speeds, ideal for running, climbing, and throwing things. By contrast, relatively small muscles in joints used for crushing and raw strength, like the jaw, can allow bite pressures of over a thousand pounds per square inch in the hippopotamus, alligator, and hyena.

Tim's alien

“Gra’Sugra” conceptualized by Tim Kramer, illustrated by Joseph Martin

Brain- The nervous system, a means by which creatures control their limbs and the movement and function of other organs, can be simple or complex. For complex creatures, they come in two major types: centralized and decentralized. A central nervous system, like our brain and spinal cord, control all peripheral communications. A decentralized nervous system, like the octopus, has multiple little brains that can act independently of one another, or coordinate with each other without sacrificing intelligence. If your human explores encounter an alien starship, chances are the alien creature will have a complex nervous system, for how else would they have constructed such advanced technology.

ForC

Centralized nervous system- “ForC” by Ian Dowsett

 

Drude

Decentralized nervous system-“Drude” by Ian Dowsett

 

Metabolism and digestion- Biology is a huge source of entropy, bringing far more chaos into the universe than order. Life gets its energy by breaking existing molecular bonds and using that energy to create new ones. But we break far more bonds than we form. As humans, we must consume dozens of tons of food over the course of our lifetimes just to maintain our relatively unchanged size and shape, and perform comparatively low-energy functions.

The source of molecular energy a lifeform uses can vary. On Earth, most life gets its energy from breaking down simple carbohydrates, fats, or proteins. These in turn were formed by other lifeforms. Chances are the circle of life will come back to plants, who ultimately get their energy from the sun to form carbohydrates. In areas that lack sunlight or are too inhospitable for plant life, ecosystems revolve around other root sources of energy. Deep under the ocean at hydrothermal vents, where temperatures can reach higher than 400 degrees Celsius, the base life form are extremophiles (Archaea) which can use non-organic compounds to synthesize energy in the absence of sunlight. These in turn feed larger crustaceans and nematodes.

Morning Glory

Morning glory pool at Yellowstone. Many colors attributed to extremophiles. Picture by Philip Kramer

It is also possible, that aliens will not find humanity or other forms of life appetizing unless they evolved similarly. We have very specialized enzymes for very specific foods, like glucose (D-glucose, not L-glucose), amino acids (L, not D), and fats. If an alien predator does not utilize these same substrates, we will not taste very good or sit very well with them.

Waste disposal- On that topic, waste disposal is another must for complex organisms. It is impossible to digest, utilize, and recycle 100% of ingested food. At some point, toxins, and metabolic waste will need to be eliminated. Intestine type organs to digest and absorb, a liver to detoxify, and a kidney to filter our liquid waste, are common features of most complex life on Earth. Some creatures, like birds, reptiles, and most fish release both solid and liquid waste and reproduce through a single orifice called the cloaca. The aliens in The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide series, have such an orifice, much to the amusement of all the authors in the series.

TPATG alien

Alien from The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide series, illustrated by Stephen Lawson. Note: over-emphasized cloaca.

Reproduction- Life is complex, therefore it requires a lot of genetic information to maintain and recreate it. No matter what your alien species, they will have a genetic material (could be DNA, or some silicon-based version of it), and a method of reproduction. It can be an asexual species that creates clone-like copies of themselves like many starfish, or it can reproduce like humans and most other animals with two or more members of the species contributing genetic code.

starfish2“Starfish,” by Philip Kramer, (edit of picture)

Or, like slugs, they can be hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female reproductive organs.

 

slug1

“Seattle slug,” by Philip Kramer (edit of picture)

Circulation and respiration- The need for a way to distribute metabolic substrates and facilitate gaseous exchange is necessary for all large and complex organisms, including plants. The lungs and/or gills would need high surface area to facilitate the transfer of gasses. In smaller creatures, diffusion is sufficient, though rudimentary tracheoles, a heart, and hemolymph are present in many insects. Aside from supporting metabolism, the circulation is an ideal medium to support an internal defense against invading organisms. Most animals have a complex immune system supporting many types of specialized cells. Any alien coming to Earth would not have the adaptive or innate immunity required to repel local microorganisms. We would also have no defense against alien microbes.

Senses- Like locomotion, the senses will be defined by the environmental medium and ecological niche of the creature. Vibrations travel through air far better and faster than they do through a medium with little to no compressibility like stone or water, so many terrestrial creatures will likely have ears. Assuming there is light to see by, aliens will also have a type of eye, though it may see different parts of the spectrum. Tiny hairs, like those on insects, could improve tactile awareness, and receptors for aromatic molecules can provide a sense of smell. Humans have far more than five senses, so there are plenty to choose from to make your aliens as aware or unaware of their surroundings as you want. If, for example, your aliens only see in infrared, your space troops could use a special armor to disguise their heat signature.

Samuel“Samuel,” by Ian Dowsett

Mechanical augmentations- Aliens with a computer driven intelligence or mechanical augmentations are an exception to many of these “rules.” They will need energy, but this can come in many different forms, and they will not need to digest or dispose of waste in the same way. Despite the differences, however, they would have needed an intelligent biological host or a biological predecessor to design them. Seeing as how mechanical lifeforms are far more resilient, they will likely be the first interstellar visitors we encounter.

The tide

“The Tide,” Conceptualized by Tim Kramer, illustrated by Joseph Martin

Conclusion.

Congratulations, you have now made an imaginary lifeform and, ipso facto, you now have imaginary godhood. Don’t let it go to your head. Even a novice biologist will likely be able to undo all your hard work. But you have one thing going for you. Give your creatures all the things required of life, make it beholden to the laws of physics, and a product of its environment, and even those pesky naysayers won’t be able to prove its nonexistence. If you are still having trouble, take a page out our own planet’s ecological history. There are many millions of species with unique features, functions, and evolutionary trees, right here on Earth. With a little bit of research and imagination, we can all be amateur exobiologists.

 

Until next time, write well and science hard.

Writing Update- 1 Year Blog Anniversary

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My blog is one year old! In this past year, I’ve posted 30 times, have had nearly 300 followers, and over 3000 viewers. For a first-time blogger, I will call that a success.

My most popular posts.

The science of time travel

Writing Update- The Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest

The science of killing your characters

The science of gravity

The science of making your readers hate you

However, I believe the majority of people who visited the time travel post were referred by a conspiracy website where someone tried to draw some tenuous connections between me and the deceased bassist of The Iron Butterfly who shares the same name. Oh well, any traffic is good traffic, right?

Also in this span of time, I have interviewed scientists and have even been interviewed. I have published a short story and sold a couple non-fiction pieces.

Lessons I’ve learned.

  1. Have an original platform:

Creating a unique theme for your website is a great way to stand out among the thousands of other writing blogs out there. With a relatively original platform, you will be the first person to come to mind when writers and readers encounter a specific writing problem. For me, that platform is science in science fiction. I have received several science questions from authors over the past year and have tried to assist them with the science in their stories. I even received one question from a best-selling author!

  1. Write regularly:

This is obvious, but I feel obligated to mention it. The more posts you have, the more people will find their way to your site. Once you haul them in, chances are they will stick around to see what other posts you’ve written. Having an archive of posts will continue to draw in readers even if you haven’t managed to post anything new in a while. The longer gap between posts, the more likely the reader will forget your name, the content you offer, or their interest will have faded.

  1. Write quality posts:

This requires planning, patience, and quite a lot of research. Readers aren’t going to come by your blog if all you talk about is yourself and the day-to-day minutiae of your existence. Most people search for blogs because they are interested in learning something new, or are trying to find quality reading material, or an answer to a specific question. I try to keep my posts longer than 1000 words.

  1. Make writing friends:

I have met many other writers through writing websites and while writing for this blog. I would even call some of them friends, even though we’ve never met. If you’re lucky, these friends and acquaintances will help spread your name around and direct people to your website. Doing the same for them isn’t always expected, but it’s appreciated.

On that note, here are some websites that have been great resources for me. They are run by some very talented writers, friends, or host amazing writer communities and forums.

Resources.

Dan Koboldt

Amber Pierce

Judy Mohr

Corey D. Truax

Rick Ellrod

Writers helping writers

Critique Circle

Codex

Things I’m going to try next year.

  1. Guest posts:

There are numerous other areas of science in which I have no expertise, so new perspectives and advice will only help my readers. Plus, getting other authors and experts invested in the success or your website, if just to improve their own success, is the definition of a win-win. I would also like to volunteer to write more guest posts for the same reasons. The more my name shows up on other quality websites, the more readers will recognize and remember me.

  1. Post some of my writing:

This applies to those short stories or novels that I do not intend to professionally publish. They may provide a separate means of drawing in traffic and serve as a sample of my writing to future prospective readers, agents, and publishers.

 

Thanks again to all of my readers and followers and writer friends. I like to think I write and maintain this blog for myself, but the truth is, I do it for you!

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.

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.

The science of enclosed ecosystems

billy-and-rubin-ecosystem

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:

ecosystems-and-life-support-in-scifi

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.

food-water-and-air-cycles

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.

Ecosphere.jpg

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.

The science of the presentation

presentationI am posting much later in the week than usual. It was a busy week. Most of my time was dedicated to analyzing data and preparing a research presentation for a group at the university. It was in preparing the presentation that I came up with the topic for this blog post. I realized that the mechanics of giving a presentation were very similar to the mechanics of writing a book. The goal is to make it sell.

I was lucky enough to be trained in how to give presentations by my first mentor, who was passionate about the mechanics of delivering presentations (he even gave a yearly presentation on how to give presentations). These were some of the main points he stressed:

Control the flow of information-

Don’t give any more background than the audience needs to be able to understand and appreciate the rest of the presentation. This is especially important when it comes to the content of individual slides. If you overload the audience with too much information at one time, they will become distracted from the heart of your message. Begin a presentation with a complicated scheme or figure and the audience’s eyes will wander to every part of it except for the area you want them to focus on. Worse, the audiences’ eyes might glaze over entirely when confronted with what appears to be a lecture. In a book, they call this an info dump, and it is a sure way to slow down a story and make people lose interest. In short, deliver the information only when they need it, and never more information than they need.

It is also important to deliver the information in a direct and logical fashion. If you are too vague and ramble, your audience won’t have gained anything in the time they spent listening. You want to anticipate their thoughts, giving them an answer right before they realized they had a question. This will keep them interested and give them confidence that you are an expert in the subject on which you are presenting. It follows that you should never bring up something you will not address or hope people won’t ask about. If you have a curious artifact in a piece of data, don’t draw attention to it, especially if you have no idea why it’s there or what could be causing it. You will be asked questions you can’t answer and the audience will get the impression you are ignoring something important, or just too dense to figure it out.

It is best to assume your audience is intelligent. Having a slide titled What is DNA? will be sure to offend all the geneticists in the room. By the same token, your sci-fi readers will not be pleased with a detailed description of why earth orbits the sun.

Which brings us to our next point.

Know your audience-

Delivering a presentation on muscle physiology and contraction kinetics to a group of geneticists is difficult. Trust me. So it’s important to deliver the information in a way that makes sense to them and gives them a bit of what they are expecting. You can judge your audiences’ reaction to a presentation by how many have fallen asleep in their chairs. On amazon, you can get an idea of your book’s success by number of reviews. At this point, it is too late to go back and fix things. Running these things past your lab or beta-readers will help you narrow down your audience.

If you are struggling to find a way to make your product (research or novel) interesting to the audience, it’s probably not your target audience, and you should not spend your time and effort on them. Selling a horror novel at a Romance Readers Conference is the definition of futile.

Be enthusiastic and confident-

Projecting enthusiasm and confidence is the best way to draw your audience in. But like all things, it is best in moderation. You can litter your presentation with animations and colors and media, just as thoroughly as you can fill your novel with flowery language, imagery, and description. But too much of it will be distracting and off-putting, and make it seem like you’re trying too hard, or compensating for a poorly plotted story or lack of data. Keeping things too colorless and dry, however, will come across as boring. If you sound bored, your audience will be bored too.

It’s okay to be a little nervous. When we put our stuff out there, whether it is in front of a lecture hall or on the virtual bookshelves of Amazon, anxiety is to be expected. I find that I am far more confident in my presentation if I have done a lot of preparation. This includes significant edits and revisions of my slides, and many practice runs with people willing to give me critiques. It is the same with my writing. I am far less nervous about my audience’s impression of my work if I know it is well thought-out and heavily edited for grammar, style, and structure.

 

Research presentations are a lot like books. The major difference is that your data shouldn’t be fiction (theorizing that your data is the result of ‘magic’ is frowned upon in most scientific circles). But no matter how much you prepare and polish, there will always be those who don’t care for your work and will criticize it. Don’t lose heart. You can’t please everyone… unless there’s free food involved. Nobody complains about free food.

The science of killing your characters

research-at-work               *** This post may contain some detailed and disturbing descriptions***

I spend a lot of time thinking up ways to kill people. Normally this might classify me as a psychopath…if I weren’t a writer. Let’s just hope the FBI makes that distinction if they ever get a glimpse of my search history.

This is a very important subject for writers to research, not just to add realism, but because death, or rather the avoidance of it, is one of the most common motivations for characters. Pretty much every adventure, horror, mystery, tragedy, and drama story uses death or fear of death to some degree. Death is, understandably, the greatest universal fear. It means the end of everything (unless your story contains elements of the afterlife), and there is no coming back from it. Even the bravest of heroes and heroines are cowed by the prospect of imminent death. It makes the bravest of men and women weep and pray to be spared, and it can provoke irrational and reckless actions in the most learned and patient of people. It is the most useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for creating suspense, surprise, and horror.

When writers are given the ever-important task of describing the stakes for their main character, most of them are common iterations of the word “death.”

  • Save the _____.
  • Survive the_____.
  • Fate of the _____.
  • Destroy the _____.
  • Loss/end/demise/etc.

Death is often featured in the opening of a story to spark the initial conflict, and it can be used to conclude the conflict at the climax. It is important then that death be portrayed accurately when it finally does strike, especially in these two all-important scenes.

I watched the first few minutes of a movie the other day and I couldn’t bear to watch any more than that. The victim in this opening scene of the movie had a huge hole punched through their chest. Despite their heart and lungs likely being destroyed, the person was able to spend the next couple minute saying their farewells. I’m sorry but you can’t talk without lungs, nor can you stay conscious for more than a few seconds when your heart is turned into mush. Unlikely deaths can cause an audience to laugh or roll their eyes, which is often not what an author is going for.

In this post, I will discuss the most common types of death featured in fiction. It is, by far, my longest post and pretty heavy on the science; my apologies.

Death by poison.

If your protagonist or antagonist has to kill someone without casting blame on themselves, they will either hire an assassin, wear a mask, or choose poison as the murder weapon. Sadly, poison has been a bit overused in fiction as a means of causing death, and often it is used inaccurately. The poison itself will only be effective at the right dose, in the right vehicle (solution, powder, etc.), and by the right mode of entry (breathing, eating, drinking, injection, etc.), so it is important to do research. Simply coating a bit of it on an arrow tip will probably not work.

Also, almost anything is considered a poison at the right amount. Put a tiny bit too much harmless potassium in someone’s IV and they will go into cardiac arrest. Since potassium levels naturally spike after death, such a poisoning would be impossible to detect. There are a lot of poisons, so for the purposes of this section, I will focus on the ones that are interesting to me.

Succinylcholine is a common one used in fiction. This paralytic is often toted as the best to use if your characters want to get away with the murder. First thing to appreciate about this drug is that it has to be injected into the muscle or vein; eating it is useless. This poison functions by imitating a common neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which is how nerves tell muscle to contract. When injected with this paralytic, classified as a depolarizing paralytic, the muscles contract and spasm uncontrollably and prevent the muscle from repolarizing in order to undergo subsequent contractions. The patient is paralyzed within a couple minutes and dies within a few minutes after that because they are unable to breath. It is nearly undetectable because it is quickly broken down into choline and succinate, two molecules found in abundance in the body.

It might surprise you that the poisons cyanide, azide, and the gasses carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, and hydrogen sulfide all work in the same way, by inhibiting Complex IV of the electron transport chain in the mitochondria. This protein is the main reason why we need to breathe. Almost all the oxygen you take in will be used by the mitochondria by this protein, which dumps 4 electrons onto oxygen to make water. This is the final immensely favorable reaction required by the mitochondria to drive the highly unfavorable pumping of protons into the inter-membrane space of the mitochondria. Once an electro-chemical gradient is established, those protons pass through Complex V to drive the production of ATP, the molecule that ‘powers’ most cellular functions. With ingestion of sufficient cyanide or azide, and breathing of the gasses, the victim will die by lack of energy production, a complete suffocation of all the individual cells. It may interest you to learn that rigor mortis, the stiffening of a body at around 12 hours after death, is the result of the body’s muscles finally running out of ATP. In the muscle, ATP is required to relax the contractile machinery and to keep calcium from constantly flooding into the cell and causing contraction. The relaxation of the body afterward is due to the degradation of the myofilaments causing the contraction. During my day job I study mitochondria in muscle, so I can tell you that there are hundreds of potential inhibitors of mitochondrial function to chose from.

Botox is not simply a way to prevent wrinkles, it is also the most toxic poison known to man. Produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, this protein prevents the release of acetylcholine, often causing death by rendering the victim unable to breathe. But if small amounts of this toxin can cause death, why is it used in cosmetics and medicine for all kinds of diseases and conditions? It is all about containing the spread of the toxin. If an injection hits a vein rather than an intended muscle, you better hope someone can put you on life support. The muscle weakness can last for months.

Last but not least, Russel viper venom. Of all the millions of poisons to choose from, why this one? Because I find it fascinating. The venom is a direct activator of Factor X in the blood, the enzyme that converts prothrombin to thrombin and activates coagulation. In short, it turns your blood into a thick sludge. This can, ironically, cause you to bleed uncontrollably because all your clotting factors and platelets are used up.

I haven’t gone into a lot of symptoms for these poisons, primarily because there are so many of them, but I do advise writers to look up dosage, symptoms, and cause of death to make sure they get it right. There are many other poisons, but this post is already going to be too long. If you have questions about what poisons to use in your story, shoot me a message and I can help you brainstorm.

Death by blood loss.

If stab wounds, severed limbs, and internal bleeding feature in your work of fiction, it is important to consider blood loss. Depending on the location of the injury, bleeding may be quick or rather slow. Blood will clot fairly quickly if the bleeding is slow. A wound to an artery will likely be required to cause death, so make sure that arteries are present in the area your character is stabbed. The average adult human body contains about 5 liters of blood, which is the same as about 8.5 bottles of soda (20 ounce variety), but they will have died and their heart stopped beating long before all of that blood ends up on the floor.

The most common symptoms of blood loss are cold, pale, and clammy skin, racing heart, a tinge of blue in the finger tips, fading vision, and unconsciousness. Unless something else is going on in the body, most of the time they won’t just trail off and die mid-sentence with their eyes open as seen in pretty much every movie out there; they will instead go unconscious.

I’ve worked in two different blood banks and wrote my dissertation on mitochondrial function in human blood cells. I have drawn and processed quite a lot of blood for transfusion and analysis. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn I’ve seen more blood than most surgeons ever will. In case you don’t have this much experience with blood, it will be important to look it up and familiarize yourself with its appearance and properties. For example, the red in blood is due to the hemoglobin in erythrocytes (red blood cells) which are in suspension in circulating blood (about 40-45% of total volume), but when the blood has been allowed to settle (30 minutes to an hour) the greater half of the blood volume will sit on top of the packed red blood cells. This fluid is called plasma (or serum if it has clotted), and it is usually golden or straw-colored in appearance, but this will depend on many factors. Also, unless the victim is somehow injected with anticoagulants, the blood will most likely clot within 30 minutes. Clotted blood has the consistency of Jell-O, especially if it is a fresh clot, and it will shrink and harden over time.

Death by pathogen.

Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites are the most common types of pathogens. There are nearly a million different species of pathogen that can infect mammals, and each of them might have different symptoms and can be deadly, or have no symptoms at all and live symbiotically with their host. Some won’t survive on a surface for more than a second, some can last years. Some can only be transmitted by blood, some by mucus membranes, and some by the fecal oral route (yes, eating poop). Some, like parasites, may have multiple life cycle stages that occur in different animals. They are fascinating to learn about and even more fascinating to use as tools in fiction.

I won’t say much on this subject because it would take an entire book just to cover the basics. I will stress, however, that the most common symptoms presented with these pathogens are not really due to the pathogen, but the result of our own immune systems trying to combat it. Most of these deaths are caused by your own body which kills you in its attempt to kill the invader. Granted, many pathogens will generate and release toxins of their own, or get inside your cells to evade the immune system, or even tinker with your DNA, or commandeer your cell’s own machinery for its own ends. These tiny organisms want to live just as much as we do.

Fever is a common means by which your body tries to eradicate the invaders, but it can fry your nervous system if it gets too high. Your body often tries to repel invaders by producing a lot of mucin in your airway epithelium and goblet cells which is secreted, mixed with water, and comes out as coughs and phlegm of various colors. Mucus can then congest the airway and prevent the lungs from absorbing enough oxygen, resulting in death. Interestingly, the green in pus and mucus is not a result of the bacteria, but myeloperoxidase, an enzyme of neutrophils (a common white blood cell) which converts hydrogen peroxide (also produced by these cells) into hypochlorous acid (bleach) to help kill pathogens.

Death by radiation.

From a nuclear blast, to cosmic rays, radiation can come in many forms and many of them behave differently. Depending on the type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, ions, protons, etc.), they will have different effects on the body. Some, like alpha radiation, are so large (a helium nucleus) that they are unable to penetrate skin. Others, like gamma rays, can rip through the body, cutting apart DNA and generating oxidants. When DNA is damaged faster than it can be repaired, the body will shut down and then die over the course of 24 hours to several weeks, depending on exposure. The cells that replicate the fastest in the body will be the first to go, including those that line the mouth, lungs, hair follicles, and gut. Vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, headache, loss of mental faculties, hair-loss and many other symptoms can result in as little as a few hours. The immune system is reliant on the proliferation and function of many immune cells (like lymphocytes and neutrophils), and when they can no longer provide their essential functions, the body will be subject to infections. Cancer can also result from DNA damage to important genes controlling the cell cycle.

There is a common misconception that radiation will contaminate other items, thus allowing it to be spread from one irradiated thing/person to another. This only occurs if the radioactive isotope is what is being spread. There is also a common misconception that taking iodine will help you survive radiation exposure. This only helps if the radioactive element is iodine 131. Taking normal iodine will prevent the harmful radioactive isotope from being taken up by your thyroid. Granted iodine 131 is a common fission byproduct of uranium and plutonium, so having some iodine might be useful in such situations as a reactor breach or nuclear blast.

Before deciding on this mode of death, it is important to look up symptoms for each exposure level as well as the type of radiation that will result from the event.

Take-home message.

There are many ways to kill your characters, so many ways in fact, that you don’t really need to make stuff up. I’ve only listed a few scenarios here, but they are near infinite. Why go in to this kind of detail? Well why not? You can teach your readers something as well as describe something that is visually captivating. That’s a win-win in my book. If you need help figuring out where to start, feel free to contact me.

Aweology

transdimension

The science of awe.

According to a review of one study, awe-inspiring sights elicit global activity of the autonomic nervous system, but shuts down parts of our parietal lobe, which contains our sense of self and our own boundaries and those of the world around us. In short, our brains are broadening their sense of scale, trying to encompass the vast and beautiful world. This is perhaps why awe also makes our own problems and worries seem insignificant in the grand scope of things. This same review cites a 2012 study showing that awe alters our sense of time, making us feel like we have more of it to spare, and even motivates us to spend more of that time helping others.

We also use awe to describe a sense of fear. This is also a process involving the autonomic nervous system, causing our heart and breathing to speed up, and in some cases, freezing us in place even as danger barrels toward us.

Becoming numb to awe.

Last month I was sitting in the middle seat on a flight to Atlanta from Seattle. I fly a lot, but certainly not as much as the man sitting in the window seat next to me. At one point during the flight, he lifted the blind and peered out for a few seconds before starting to close it again. The one and only time I spoke to the man was to keep him from closing it and to ask if I could take a picture. How he could have peered out the window at such a sight without taking the time to appreciate it was beyond me. The picture barely does it any justice.

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The ability to recognize beauty and feel fear is something most of us have. Unfortunately, it is also something we can become numb to with repeated exposure. In my novel, Quotidian, the day is repeating, but not just any day, the last day, the end of the world. The characters experience danger and destruction every day and have ceased to be awed by it, and even death has become something routine.

Make their jaws drop.

From a sun setting over a field of flowers to the plume of a radioactive mushroom cloud, these sights, like so many others, can inspire awe. But there are different levels of awe:

  • There is the kind that makes your jaw drop and stare speechless for a time.
  • The kind that gives you chills.
  • The kind that deserves a nod of appreciation
  • And the kind we assign to everything else that barely warrants noticing (in the words of Emmet from The Lego Movie: “Everything is Awesome!”)

It is important to aim for the mind-blowing sort of awe in writing. Why? Because readers have become so overstimulated, that anything less than that will barely register. This concept is important for writers to grasp. If our target audience experiences the same conflicts, the same wonders, love stories, horrors, scifi dramas, etc. they will lose that sense of awe.

Some strategies.

Nowadays it is difficult to create an original plot.

Rather than racking your brain for a new story to tell to awe your readers, try presenting a similar story in a unique way. As my brother is fond of saying, “do it in a way that nobody has ever done it before.” This can be as simple as changing the tone or mood of your story, or changing something about the world, or show things from a new perspective. For example, the scene of a large open field is boring until you put on a pair of glasses that invert your view of the world, and suddenly it feels like you could fall into the sky. This can reawaken your reader’s sense of awe even thought the primary plot and conflict is little different from others they’ve seen before.

My own strategy is to open the reader’s eyes to the inner-workings of things. It is only when you understand a magician’s act, that you can appreciate the complexity of the sleight of hand, the talent, and the training involved to pull it off. It is the same for sci-fi. Only when you truly understand the hazards of space travel do you become awed by the accomplishment of traveling to and landing on another planet.

As I was trying to describe this awe, I realized I didn’t need to, I’ve already written about it. This is an excerpt from my second book of The Abyssian series:

There were two types of awe, I surmised. One that was inspired by the unknown, the majesty and mystery of the world the God-of-All had built for them. This was a powerful sort of awe, I knew, I had felt it before and could see it kindling in the eyes of those praying around me. The second type of awe was wholly different, the opposite in fact, but no less powerful. It was an awe of knowing, at least in part, how the world worked. From the weather, the formation of mountains and seas, to the inner workings of the human body, it was an awe of knowing how this last had managed to survive and even thrive among all the rest. It was this awe that I felt burning in me as I stared at the cluster of men and women who had managed to carve out a peaceful and quiet existence from the stones of the cold and unforgiving northern mountains.

No matter your strategy, it is important to chase the awe factor. As Brandon Sanderson says, “err on the side of awe.”

 

Can you think of any other strategies to awe a reader? I’d like to hear from you.