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.

2017 N3F Short Story Contest- 1st Place Winner!

qq

I have exciting news!

I’ve won another contest!

This one happens to involve three of my short stories. In December, during my vacation, I came across a writing contest by The National Fantasy Fan Federation (N3F), the oldest international Science Fiction and Fantasy fan club on Earth. They’ve been publishing stuff since 1941. Per contest rules, I could submit up to three short stories. It just so happened that I had some sitting around, waiting for a publisher to snatch them up. I submitted all three, and a month later, I received an email that went something like this (excluding story-specific feedback):

“To the Author of Nautilus:
[…] Great story! Exquisite pacing, excellent construction, a beautiful dramatic build-up to the climax, a strong and active climax, flawless narration, and good dialogue. […]
Your story did not win in the 2017 National Fantasy Fan Federation Short Story Contest, but was one of the nine Finalists.

“To the Author of “Icarus Drowned”:
[…] Everything about this story is great. There is absolutely nothing I could teach you about writing!
Your story did not win in the 2017 National Fantasy Fan Federation Short Story Contest, but was one of the nine Finalists.

“To the Author of “Quantum Quietus”
[…] Wow! This is a totally nifty story! It brings new ideas to the table, in new ways. The protagonist is well developed, the narration is strong, the dialogue is mature, and the *ideas* are just staggering! […] The story is a gem and a joy.
This story has won First Prize in the 2017 National Fantasy Fan Federation Short Story Contest!

So in addition to taking up a third of the finalists’ slots, I also got 1st place!

True, I have no idea how many people entered the contest, but I’ll get some prize money out of it and a shot at getting another of my stories published.

The inspiration behind the winning story:

I was inspired to write “Quantum Quietus” after researching the strange and instantaneous communication of quantum-entangled particles, even over large distances. The only way to make sense of the phenomenon was to conclude that time itself did not apply to entangled particles. By acting on one, that action would reach back in time to the moment of entanglement, and define the properties of its partner. I envisioned a day when the pharmaceutical industry could make a drug that entangles our minds, allowing us to receive Feedback from seconds into the future. The story also delves into the dangers of playing with quantum uncertainty. In the words of the antagonist, “If humanity continues to allow the principles of quantum uncertainty to direct our future, it will discover just how uncertain that future is.”

Summary of the story:

Joe is one of the handful of people allergic to Quantanax, the latest drug from Prescience Pharmaceuticals. It gives people the near supernatural ability to see into the future. With just a few seconds of foresight, their reflexes become quick, their actions unerring, and their mistakes erased before they ever happened. They called it Feedback, the new sixth sense. Had things turned out different, Joe could have been like them. His life would be free of unpredictability and hardship, better in every way.

When television broadcasts are hijacked, and a man with a mask and synthesized voice walks onto the screen, Joe realizes he’s more fortunate than he first believed. The masked man has placed a nuclear device in the city, one triggered by a Quantum Random Number Generator. As the man activates the device, nearly everyone drops to the ground, catatonic, and overwhelmed as they experience their deaths second after second. Unaffected, Joe is the city’s only hope to find the bomb and shut it down.

 

I’ll be sure to supply the link to the award announcement as soon as the N3F newsletter is released, and another link to the story if/when it gets published.

I apologize to my readers for yet another writing update. I promise to get back to my regular Science in Sci-Fi posts soon. I do quite a lot of science writing for my day job, so my brain has been over-saturated lately.

Until next time, write well and science hard! (I think this will be my new slogan).

 

cross-of-pipette-and-pen

My publications (so far)

It wasn’t until midway through my first novel that I began to think about publication. I was in my early twenties, and didn’t know anything about it. Like most writers, I slowly began to educate myself on the different types of publications and the process of becoming published. After nearly ten years, I still have a lot to learn, but I am happy to say that since I began taking writing seriously, I have gained a bit of practical experience in publishing.

Publishing my own words and ideas is a very fulfilling process. It isn’t the same as relating your day-to-day experiences to friends on Facebook. Face it, nobody really cares what you ate for breakfast. This fulfillment comes from communicating an idea, an emotion, a complicated theory, a story, or some other form of insight about the world that few people would have readily come to on their own. While writing is fun, I am not one of those writers who claim to write for themselves. Words were made to communicate, and communicating with yourself seems a little pointless to me.

Ideas are like viruses and words are their genetic code. When someone is exposed to an idea, it sometimes takes hold, and that person becomes a carrier, propagating that idea to other hosts. I want my ideas to reach people, to spread, to replicate like a virus. Not all ideas are dangerous, and some can change peoples’ lives for the better.

Here are a couple of the ideas and stories I have already released into the world. Many of them will not spread, but I hope they will affect (infect?) some people eventually.

My stories.

Speaking of viruses, the latest of my published stories was about a virus that destroyed people’s self-control and drove them to violently seize anything they desired. The possessive irrationality would not leave them until they had what they wanted and hid it away in a secret hoard. The young protagonist must fight to survive among the Hoarders, but even the uninfected are not to be trusted. This short story is called Want, and I published it with my writers group, Alabards, as a part of a horror anthology.

In the first book of our anthology series, I published a short story called Blue and Green Horizons. This story is about a man who had become a paraplegic in the past year due to a sky-diving accident. He has very little memory of the incident, recalling only the blue and green horizon as he leapt from the plane. He still has no idea why he deployed his parachute so late. The story takes place on a trip to a friend’s wedding. They are taking the train because he doesn’t feel comfortable on planes. When the train derails within a tunnel, he is the only one who can save the other passengers, but first he must fight his own insecurities and come to terms with his disability.

img_20160926_203928

Off-kilter and Off-kilter2 available on Amazon

This isn’t my only experience in the area of self-publishing. For the past few years I have been printing beta-reader novels through Lulu. The only difference is that I chose not to assign it a ISBN or make it available to anyone else but me (technically it’s never published). I highly recommend this method for beta-reading as it allows the readers to see the book in their hand and in a professional format. If you choose to self-publish (I haven’t decided yet), then it will also allow the readers to comment on format and cover design. I also suggest inserting a couple of questions at the end of each chapter in the beta-reader version. This will allow the reader to jot down their impression for each chapter rather than try to recall everything at the end. I am currently preparing my novel Quotidian this way. It will be ready for beta-readers early next year. Please contact me if you wish to be a beta-reader.

cover-quotidian

The working cover and title for my latest book. Seeking beta readers.

My laboratory notebook.

A couple years ago, I was in my last year of graduate school and I got fed up with the laboratory notebooks currently available. I liked to outline my experiments by making a flow-chart first, then I would write down the protocol, and then I could record and paste the results. No one laboratory notebook was organized in such a way and nor did they have dedicated spaces for a table of contents, title, dates, signatures, etc. So I decided to make my own.

img_20160927_132406

The back and front of each page. Available on Amazon and Lulu

After designing the lab notebook and ordering several for my lab, I reached out to the founder of several private schools in Atlanta. Her science lab needed just such a lab notebook. I made a few changes to the format and added her school’s logo to the cover (a cover that can easily be personalized and decorated), and so far they have ordered hundreds of copies for their kids. “They are a staple to the program now,” she says.

labnotebooks

The lab notebooks I made for the Midtown International School in Atlanta, GA separated by class and filled with the kids’ science experiments.

I would encourage all writers with some knowledge of self-publishing and book formatting to put that knowledge to work. You can make calendars, planners, cook books, etc, for your own personal use or to sell. There is no reason why anyone should be confined to publishing novels when they have all the skills necessary to dabble in other publishing formats.

My research.

I was surprised to discover that my day job also provided me with practical publishing experience. Throughout grad school and my post-doc, I have been constantly constructing, writing, editing, and then publishing research papers. Science writing is very different from fiction writing in both style, tone, and wordage, but it still requires extensive planning, editing, and communication with editors and publishers.

My largest published work is my dissertation. Anyone who has ever written one will agree that the formatting is almost as tasking as the writing.img_20160927_131022192
While my 20ish articles and reviews are something many will likely never read, they are at least reaching other researchers who can build off my research findings and theories to help probe a little deeper into the mysteries of biology and disease. According to ResearchGate, my publications have been cited nearly 200 times in other publications since 2013.

citation

Take home message.

With that, I will leave you with one last consideration. Building your publishing presence is just as much about quality as quantity. Just because you have written something doesn’t mean that it is ready to be released into the world. I am proud of each and every one of my publications, but I still see a lot of room for improvement. Many of my readers will see it too. So unless you are confident that you know how to format a book, design a cover, and edit a story until it gleams, I suggest you take the time to learn how or to consult with professionals. Otherwise your reputation as an author will be marred by your haste to release your stories and ideas into the world. For example, I never could have created the amazing covers that grace the front of our short story anthologies, so I reached out to an old friend and graphic designer who had the skills and eagerness to take on the project. Thank you, Matt.

There is a common mentality among authors and artists to keep everyone ignorant of the project until it is ready to be released. Perhaps it is a fear that other people’s opinions or meddling hands will corrupt it in some way. These works most often fail because nobody has any stake, interest, or investment in the project. Getting beta-readers, cover designers, editors, and other writers involved in the project, even to a small degree, will link them to the project. These people will be the ones to help market the book once it is published because they can proudly say they read it before anyone else, helped edit it, etc. It can only benefit the author to bring others into the fold, especially if it means a more polished and marketable product.

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.

img_20160825_165259-1

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.

The creativity proclivity

creation

As writers, we have a penchant for creating things. Seeing something of your own imagination brought into the world provides such a sense of satisfaction that, for many of us, it has become a drug. When we need a fix, we simply pull out our computers or notebooks and let our imaginations spill out onto the page. We can create entire worlds and cultures, magic, and new laws of science, but sometimes we encounter writer’s block, or the act of writing is no longer enough to satisfy the craving. To keep withdrawal from setting in, many of us seek a creative outlet in the real world. If you suffer from this creation addiction, here are some tips on how to expend your pent-up creativity in a safe and productive manner.

Arts and crafts

One of the easiest ways to sate your creative impulses, is to take up arts and crafts. This includes any hobby that involves the creation of objects, not the intangible ones to which we writers are accustomed. Whether it involves glue, thread, needles, wood, metal, or glass, or paint or graphite, these mediums can be used to exercises your inner creative muscles.

I have tried my hand at lampwork (melting glass with a torch), pen making, sculpting, whittling, mold making and casting, and many more. But for me, the most satisfying form of arts and crafts is etching. I have etched images and text into metal (saltwater etching and electroplating), glass (chemical) and wood (wood burning), and even cloth (screen printing).

IMG_20140607_193730629

An aluminum saltwater etching I made for a friend, quoting the Space Wolves Catechism from Warhammer 40K

Until recently, I have been doing this the hard way, but I came across this laser etching service called Ponoko, where I can have all kinds of materials laser etched to create key-chains, jewelry, game pieces, prototypes, etc.

IMG_20160824_154708.jpg

Insect wings cut and etched into acrylic by Ponoko. I gave these to my girlfriend who enjoys making earrings.

_20160113_171240

Leather key-chains with a P kissing an M for me and my girlfriend, Megan.

Food

There is no creation as immediately gratifying as food. While you can enjoy food cooked by anyone, that urge to create something is not satisfied unless you do it yourself. Heating a microwave dinner or mixing a couple ingredients provided in a box don’t count. I don’t have a wealth of culinary skills, but I do like to experiment in the hopes of coming up with a new taste. I get the most enjoyment out of cooking something from scratch. Take a pizza for example. It takes no creative effort to order one or heat it in the oven. Instead, try making the dough yourself (water, yeast, flour, and some sugar and salt), the pizza sauce (tomatoes, salt, and herbs), and then cheese and toppings. I’m proud to say that I’ve made an entire pizza from scratch a few times, including the cheese. I hope that one day I will be able to plant, reap, and process my own grain into flour, too. Want an adult beverage with your pizza dinner, stop by a home-brew supply store and brew your own wine, beer, mead, or cider.

Growing your own herbs, fruits, and vegetables is also a rewarding process. Even if the plants are decorative, allowing them to flourish provides the same sense of accomplishment.

Creating with friends and family

If you are a mother or father, congratulations, you have successfully brought life into the world, you are a creator. I do not advise expending your creative urges in this manner all the time, however. Instead, try the following collaborative projects:

– coming up with stories at bedtime

– create your own board or card games

– start a band and write music

– come up with science fair projects

– have art projects or arts and crafts nights

– play Minecraft or other sandbox games

– DIY projects around the house.

At work

If you have a job where you are paid to create (e.g. engineer, artist), then you probably aren’t lacking in creative outlets. In the lab, I get to make figures and schemes and presentations to accompany my research data. For many of you, there will be many opportunities to exercise your creativity at work. You can volunteer to put together a logo, a presentation, a memo, an advertisement, or anything else that requires a bit of imagination and implementation. If your job doesn’t offer those kinds of opportunities, it can be as simple as making cookies for your colleagues, customizing cards for special occasions, or decorating office space or attire, designing a business card with interesting graphics, or printing t-shirts for company getaways.

I once made a motivational poster of my boss peering down the barrel of a Nerf gun, with the words “stay focused” written beneath. Soon, everyone in the lab was requesting motivational posters with their own sayings. I also cultivated a line of petri -dish Jade bonsais that have since been spread to multiple labs as a window seal decoration.

IMG_20121003_205244

To supplement your writing

Of course, these creative projects should not impinge on your writing time, marketing, or other author responsibilities. However, you can supplement your writing with these creative projects to help sell your brand. You can focus your arts and crafts on making things specific to your fantasy or scifi world. If you describe a piece of jewelry or attire, try to make it. If you have a saying, motto, or logo, or book cover, print it on t-shirts, mugs, poster, etc. Perhaps you can sell these items on your website, or offer them as giveaways. That way when people show off these items, it will further advertise your book. You can even draw sketches of your characters, paint a scene, draw a map, or design a cover for your book.  Do you make music and have a bunch of audio equipment? Turn your novel into an audiobook. If you like to cook, make the dishes you describe in your world and write a cookbook. Not only will you be able to describe the taste of such a dish in detail, you can describe the making of it.

IMG_20140530_152625646

A leather cover for the first round of edits of my first book.

It is difficult to be creative in today’s world; everything is made for us, processed within an inch of unrecognizable and provided with instructions as simple as “just add water.” It is no wonder the simple process of creation eludes many of us on a day to day basis. Writing can only satisfy our addiction for so long before we begin drawing inventions on the back of napkins or building a castle of epic proportions on Minecraft.

Are you an creation addict? How do you expend your excess creativity?

The Write Right Rite

This isn’t a post about homonyms, it’s about the rite of passage we all must take in order to become better writers, to write right. Contrary to popular opinion, people aren’t born great writers. Anyone can become a talented and successful writer so long as they possess the following traits:

  • The passion for reading and telling stories
  • The creativity to come up with those stories
  • The dedication, patience, and persistence to write, edit, and market those stories
  • The willingness to read, practice, and learn the craft
  • The humility to learn from your mistakes and accept criticism and feedback

If you are reading this, then you will likely agree that these last two traits are crucial to any writer who wants to improve. In the beginning, most writers are blinded by their own accomplishment, that act of putting so many words down on the page, that they fail to see their own deficiencies. OMG, they say, I am doing what all those authors in bookstores are doing, I am writing a novel. Once I finish, my book will be right up there with theirs. It is not their fault; they simply don’t realize how difficult it is to become a successful author, and their friends and family all insist it’s a work of art. They don’t know that they have just embarked on a life-long journey of self-improvement. Who knew that writing was considered an entire craft? How hard can it be? They’re just words, right?

birds.pngIf only it were that simple. Pretty soon these fledgling writers will leap from the cozy nest they were born in and try to soar to the starry heights of the literary skies. Unfortunately, many of them will plummet to the ground, their little wings incapable of bearing them up. Those that do rise will find that a cruel tempest lies between them and their goal. Once the reality sinks in, many writers will give up and lock their stories away where they can no longer embarrass them.

It takes a lot of courage to face your inadequacies as a writer and choose to stay in it for the long haul. And it won’t be easy. Today’s authors are encouraged to find their own unique voice and original story lines, yet produce writing that meets the standards of the industry. It is a narrow path to walk. If you stray too far from the norm, you will be criticized or ignored entirely, but if you adhere too firmly to the standards of the genre, you will be accused of chasing trends and your work will be viewed as derivative. Today’s author must stretch the limits of the genre’s boundary in order to find their niche.

The quickest way to learn the craft, is to do your research and seek writing advice. At one time or another, most writers will join writers’ groups or participate in online writing websites and forums, or follow blogs (cough…this one… cough). There they can absorb the hard-won wisdom of writers who have already been through the process. All writing advice is subjective, however, since it comes from an author with their own unique voice and target audience.  What will work for one person may not work for another. The advice may still be useful, as it has already gone through the extensive process of trial and error. Learning what advice to accept and which to disregard is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome as a writer.

You can read all the advice in the world, but it won’t make you a better writer without practice. It takes time and effort to produce quality writing. Consequently, many writers consign their first novel to the bin, proclaiming it their ‘learning or practice novel.’ Like most rites of passage, this one is particularly discouraging and painful, but is often necessary in order for writers to improve their writing. In a recent newsletter, one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, admitted to having written ‘numerous books,’ many of which were ‘very weak,’ before he sold his first novel.

Someone once told me that writing is a practice in shoveling a mountain of ‘crap’ (she didn’t say crap), and that every time you write you decrease the height of the pile. Only when the pile is gone, will the writing be free of ‘crap’. However, there will always be writers who do plenty of writing but are incapable of facing their inadequacies, who won’t listen to advice, strive to improve, read books, or learn about the craft. They will continue to churn out undeveloped stories and poor writing, and accuse the world of not understanding them. These unfortunate writers, don’t see the mountain of ‘crap’ they are standing on, and instead produce more of it in order to look down on the world from an even greater and loftier height.

Have you ever recalled a memory, but rather than experiencing it through your own point of view, you look upon your actions as if from third person? I am no psychologist, but I like to think this happens because, subconsciously, you can no longer identify with your former self. Something in your values, your mentality, your self-image has changed. You should strive for this feeling with your writing. If you can look back on something you wrote 5 years ago and see no way to improve it, then you are not doing it right. Writing as a hobby or as a career, requires continuous learning. Read more about the craft, learn more about what your audience wants, read over your reviews or go in search of critiques. There are always ways to improve, and as writers, we should use every opportunity to produce quality and enjoyable writing for our readers.

The science of writers’ retreats

It’s been pretty quiet here the past few days, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been writing. Last Friday I left on a writers’ retreat with a couple members of my critique group to the beautiful San Juan Islands in Washington state. If you are a writer and haven’t been on a writers retreat or joined a writers group, I highly recommend it. I’ve been to a couple of writing retreats over the past few years, and there is a science to getting the most out of them.

Go to write and go with writers- If you think you can get some writing done on an ordinary vacation with family or friends, chances are you won’t get to sit in one place for very long. If you are like me, you get distracted very easily, so you will need to surround yourself with like-minded people with similar goals. Join a writers group. There is something about sitting in a room with other writers that helps me stay on track. Perhaps it is the clicking of keys as they type, or the thoughtful expressions they wear as they stare beyond the physical world and into their imaginations, that spurs me to stay focused and keep pace. A writers’ retreat is really just an extended writers group meeting, where you occasionally toss around ideas and advice or ask for a certain word or expression that’s been eluding you. Make sure to go with people you know and get along with. Also, come to a consensus about what type of trip it will be. If someone is looking forward to a weekend away from distractions in order to write, while another thinks of it as a social outing with friends, neither will be particularly happy with the outcome.

Go to an inspiring and cozy location- Chances are that you will need to take a break from your writing. Ideally, the purpose of that break will be to reflect on what you’ve written so far and prepare you to write the next scene. Taking a walk along a forest trail or a warm beach, is the perfect recipe for inspiration. But if the scenery is far more beautiful than the indoors, chances are you won’t want to come back in and write. You should avoid places with too many nearby activities. If there is a movie theater down the street, a casino, or a theme park, their proximity will distract you from your goal. Chose a comfortable and homely dwelling that will help you escape the bugs, the heat, or the cold, a place you will want to stay in.

Set the mood- If you write best with a bit of music in the background, by candle light, or while wrapped in your favorite comforter: do it. You’ll need to come to an agreement with the other writers before blaring your inspiration mix, or at least wear headphones. You don’t want to be responsible for distracting another writer.

Go prepared- Hunger, headaches, sunburns, bug bites, and innumerable other distractions, can easily be avoided. Bring whatever medicine and sustenance you might need to counter these distractions. You don’t want to be a downer to everyone else in attendance. Take a break from writing to cook or order some delicious food. Delicious being the key word. Let yourself indulge in some comfort food and perhaps some wine, to make the trip even more idyllic and inspiring. Brew some coffee or otherwise be prepared to wake up early and get things done; it might be a vacation, but you still have a job to do.

Bring a few things to work on- If you aren’t making any headway on your current work-in-progress or if you lost your passion for it, take a break and work on something else. Writers retreats don’t happen often, so it would be a shame to walk away without anything to show for it. You should also feel free to start something new. Bounce a few ideas off of your fellow writers, write an outline, and start typing.

Many say that writing is a solitary occupation, and I say that those people have never been to a good writers’ retreat. Have you been to a writing retreat? Leave a comment if you have anything else to add to this list of considerations.