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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for September, 2011

Are Textbooks Science Fiction?

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

by Joan Slonczewski

Today I have the great pleasure of hosting my friend Joan Slonczewski, who will discuss how textbooks can fire the imagination of future scientists.  Dr. Slonczewski is Professor of Biology at Kenyon College where she teaches, does research in microbiology, and writes a leading undergraduate textbook, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton). She is also an SF author well-known for incorporating real science in her fiction, as highlighted by her justly famous A Door into Ocean.  Her recent SF novel, The Highest Frontier (Tor/Macmillan), shows a college in a space habitat financed by a tribal casino and protected from alien invasion by Homeworld Security.

When the film Avatar opened, it drew many critiques based on science. The planet Pandora could not exist around a gas giant; the neural-linked ecosystem would have no predators; and the Na’vi should have six limbs, like other Pandoran fauna. The greatest flaw was that the Na’vi have breasts, although their class of creatures are not mammals. Non-mammals having breasts would be an error unthinkable in real science.

Yet I wonder what might happen if an introductory textbook in biology were to receive scrutiny similar to that of Avatar.  If non-mammals should not be shown with breasts, does it follow that true mammals, named for the mammary gland, should indeed show breasts? The typical textbook section on “mammalian diversity” shows scarcely a mammary gland. One would never guess that we drink milk from cattle, mares, camels, and reindeer. The more modern books do show prominent breasts on a human. In other words, a view of life surprisingly similar to Avatar.

I first saw the fictional aspect of textbooks from the viewpoint of a science fiction author writing a college text, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton).  As a fiction author–my book A Door into Ocean won the Campbell award–I well know the dilemma of “hard SF,” which aims to invent a future world of gadgets that don’t yet exist based on science that actually does. Even “hard” science fiction often dodges inconvenient points about exceeding the speed of light, breathing the air on any planet where the starship lands, and mating with the seductive native “aliens.”

A textbook, I thought, would be different. My coauthor John Foster would correct what I wrote, and our publisher provided a throng of editors and expert reviewers. The art budget paid for stunning visuals from a first-rate graphic arts firm whose artists actually check details in the primary literature.

Our early illusions about textual perfection fell away in the light of reviewer comments based on errors entrenched in other books, and editorial “corrections” that often made clearer English but muddier science. But the art process was what really made me think of fiction. Early on we chose a “palette” in which color conveys information: DNA was purple, RNA was blue, proteins red, yellow, or green. And cell interiors, with their nucleus, mitochondria, and so on, offered a rainbow of colors from lilac to salmon. Our color-coded figures are more than informative; they are gorgeously attractive, so much so that prospective adopters have been known to caress them on the page.

But DNA is not “really” purple, and RNA is not really blue. Chloroplasts are indeed green, as typically shown, but mitochondria are not red aside from a few of their iron-bearing proteins. And what of individual atoms as ray-traced blue and red balls and sticks? This aspect of science art goes beyond fiction–it is fantasy.

Despite their limitations, the visuals in a textbook illustrate in that they form a pattern in the reader’s mind; a pattern that deepens understanding of a concept. This aim of illustration is actually shared by the best science fiction. Frank Herbert’s Dune illustrates how water scarcity drives an ecosystem. Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood illustrates how organisms trade genetic identity for survival.

So if textbook art is “fictional,” what needs to be “correct”? The mental patterns formed by the text and art need to be honest; to spark genuine insights that lead to understanding. A cell’s nucleus is not “really” lavender in color, but the colored shape draws attention to the nucleus as a compartment enclosing the precious DNA. By contrast, an image depicting the nuclear contents as spilling out of the cell would not yield insight, but confusion. A troubling new group of textbooks aim to sow such confusion–books with titles like Exploring Creation with Biology and The Lies of Evolution.  Such books aim to inoculate “inquiring preteens” against the founding principles of biology, geology, and cosmology.

If deliberate confusion is the worst sin of any book, the next worst sin is boredom. Teachers can make students read the most boring book; but will they stay awake?

A key decision we made for Microbiology: An Evolving Science was to tell stories. We told how Bangladeshi women taught the world to fight cholera. How life began out of atoms formed by stars that died long before our own sun was born. How a high school boy testified at the Scopes trial that humans evolved from microbes. How Louis Pasteur as a student discovered mirror symmetry in biomolecules–a tool that astrobiologists may use to reveal life on other worlds.

A textbook, like science fiction, should raise questions. Is there microbial life on Mars–and what might it look like? Textbooks should take the reader to new places where we’ve never been–and perhaps could never go, such as the interior of a cell, the electron cloud of an atom, or a planet where people have three sexes.  Like science fiction, a textbook should inspire people to learn more about real science, and even become scientists.  After Jurassic Park came out, some scientists felt embarrassed by the book’s technical flaws and its portrayal of money-mad dinosaur cloners.  But so many students came to Kenyon College wanting to clone dinosaurs that we founded a new program in molecular biology.

My latest work of fiction, The Highest Frontier, has already drawn complaints. The space elevator won’t work; the casino-financed satellite can’t be built; and the aliens could not really evolve like viruses. Let’s hope at least the book inspires students to pursue virology.

Athena’s coda:  Readers of this blog know the reasons why I detest Avatar, which go beyond its sloppy science; so do some attendees of Readercon 2010, because Joan and I had a lively exchange about it in a panel.  Even so, I entirely agree with what Joan says here, as attested by The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction.

In my essays and talks, I have repeatedly used A Door into Ocean as an example of outstanding “hard” SF that does not trumpet its hardness and also contains the additional layers and questioning of consequences that make it compelling fiction.

I also had the privilege of reading the penultimate version of The Highest Frontier.  The novel is an unusual combination of space opera and grounded near-future extrapolation — and Harry Potter aficionados would love it if they found out about it (unfortunately unlikely, given the proliferation of unlinked subgenre ponds in speculative fiction).  It’s fascinating to compare and contrast it with Morgan Locke’s Up Against It, also from Tor.  Both are set in beleaguered space habitats where cooperative problem-solving is the only viable option; both literally brim with interesting concepts, vivid characters and exciting thought experiments.

The two novels are proof of three things: women can write stellar hard SF; scenarios for a long-term human presence in space that ignore biology (very broadly defined) are doomed; and I need not despair of finding SF works that engage me… provided that authors as talented as these continue to be published against least-common-denominator tides.

Images: 1st, a Sharer of Shora (from A Door into Ocean) as envisioned by Rowan Williams; 2nd, Slonczewski’s microbiology textbook opens with the NASA Phoenix lander and asks, “Is there life on Mars?”; 3rd, a glimpse of the habitat in The Highest Frontier.

High Frontiers and Cheap Snarks

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Note: This article has a coda about the CERN neutrino results, which came out while I was writing it.

Two seemingly disparate but actually related items came up in the news recently. One was the discovery of a planet circling a close binary star system given the placeholder name of Kepler 16. The other was the publication of a viral protein’s crystal structure.

What, I hear you ask, do these have in common? Well, for one both projects used crowdsourcing (now going by the PR-friendly term “citizen science”). The other commonality was the anti-scientist hype: the media trumpeted gleefully that non-scientists are more prescient and clever than scientists. In contrast to plodding experts, prophetic film directors (“OMG, Tatooine!”) and intrepid gamers simply vault over obstacles and gracefully yet squarely hit the target. Kinda like Luke Skywalker homing on the tiny dot of vulnerability in the planet-sized Death Star with little flying experience and eyes wide shut because, ya know, the Force is with him.

Let’s parse the circumbinary planet first. Close to half the stars are in binary configurations, and about half of these have accretion disks. Hence, the likelihood of planets in such systems is very high. Astrophysicists’ models have shown that a planet can stably orbit either around one member of a widely separated pair or around a very tight pair. The first discovery of a planet circling a close binary dates from 1993 (or 2003, if one counts the final confirmation of the original observation). What makes the Kepler 16 system a first is that its planet appears to be smaller than Jupiter. As for prescience, beyond the astrophysicists’ theoretical calculations, Isaac Asimov had written Nightfall and Chesley Bonestell had painted Double Star long before Tatooine was even a solitary neuronal firing in George Lucas’ brain.

So now on to the crystal structure that “had stumped scientists for years but was solved by gamers in a few days”. To begin with, this was not the first crowdsourcing scientific project as touted. The honors for that must go to SETI@home, launched in 1997. There have been many others since, across disciplines. Beyond that, the people in the protein folding contest used a program developed by scientists (FoldIt) and half of the dozen or so participating “gamers” were biologists themselves. Crucially, they were given NMR and X-ray diffraction data to constrain and guide their steps. Finally, the result (a model, which means it’s still hypothetical) primarily aided crystallographers in placing heavy metal elements so as to get well-formed crystals, whose X-ray patterns gave the real, definitive proof of the structure.

Parenthetically, protein folding is a topic of perennial fascination to both creationists and believers in the strong anthropic principle. Many non-biologists, including physicists who blithely delve into biology in popsci books, are fond of intoning ad nauseam that amino acid strings would take billyuns and billyuns of years to fold correctly – hence god/intelligent design/a privileged universe/fine tuning of constants. In fact, with one exception that I can think of, proteins that have been unraveled into amino acid strings never re/fold at all (nor do they fold efficiently or correctly in programs like Rosetta, that presume complete lack of folding). Proteins fold as they get made, while they emerge from the ribosome. So they fold locally to achieve partial energy minima (so-called secondary structure) and these partly folded structures quickly coalesce into the final tertiary structure. On the technical side, making protein crystals is a difficult, delicate art – the biological equivalent of glass blowing. Like coaxing cells into growing, it’s part craft, part experience-based knowledge so deep that it becomes instinct.

Involving many people in parsing scientific data is a tremendous idea: it gets non-scientists familiar with the concepts, process and vocabulary of science, it can accelerate portions of the analysis, and it helps forge a sense of collective purpose and achievement. The great success of crowdsourcing highlights the unique human ability to notice anomalies instead of undeviatingly following protocols as computers do. This human attribute, not so incidentally, is one of the strongest arguments for sending crewed exploration teams to places like Mars.

At the same time, scientists are not stodgy techs in lab coats (whose wearing is almost entirely confined to movies; in real life, MDs are far likelier to sport such togs). To be a good scientist, let alone a great one, you must possess not only knowledge, rigor and stamina but also imagination and the informed, trained intuition that enables you to recognize patterns as well as deviations from them (aka “the prepared mind”). And distributed data churning won’t replace trained experimentation and thinking any time soon – or later.

Anglo-Saxon cultures have a strong anti-intellectual streak. Some of it is the lingering mystique of the British gentleman dilettante; some is the American obsession with self-determination. Yet the same people who treat scientists like class enemies and jeer at their painstaking mindsets and work habits follow woo gurus – from homeopaths to investment advisors to Teabagger televangelists – with unsurprising outcomes.

If people really think that they can do science better than trained scientists, I invite them to apply this reasoning to other domains and have the next person they meet on the street do their root canals or wire their house for electricity. Those who participate in citizen science are praiseworthy, citizens in the full sense of the word. Nothing but good can come from the practice – except for the demagogic triumphalism of those journalists whose self-satisfied ignorance vitiates every hard-won gain achieved by the scientist/layperson partnerships.

It’s a natural human reaction to ridicule what one fears and/or doesn’t understand, though adults are supposed to mature beyond this juvenile tendency. The question then becomes why science, whose record is far better than that of just about any other human endeavor, has become a bugaboo rather than a vision and an integral part of this culture. It’s a question well worth remembering when all the GOP presidential candidates fall all over themselves to deny evolution – and one of them might lead what is still struggling to remain the most powerful country on this planet.

[Click on this image to see legible larger version]

Coda: The news that CERN’s OPERA project recorded anomalous results of neutrino speeds got its share of “Roll over, Einstein” smartass quotes although, thankfully, the hype didn’t reach the proportions of NASA’s “arsenic” bacteria. Neutrinos are literally the changelings of the particle clan but the claim is far from proven and the paper has still not been peer-reviewed.

If it proves true, it won’t give us hyperdrives nor invalidate relativity. What it will do is place relativity in an even larger frame, as Eisteinian theory did to its Newtonian counterpart. It may also (finally!) give us a way to experimentally test string theory… and, just maybe, open the path to creating a fast information transmitter like the Hainish ansible, proving that “soft” SF writers like Le Guin may be better predictors of the future than the sciency practitioners of “hard” SF.

Images: 1st, Double Star by Chesley Bonestell (used as a Life cover in 1954); 2nd, a schematic of a protein structure; 3rd, Neutrinos by ever-sharp xkcd.

Small Bricks, but Bricks All the Same

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

My dreams of space exploration never wane, no matter how dismal its prospects look. So I’ll be one of the hopeless (hopeful?) romantics giving presentations at the 100-Year Starship Symposium, organized by DARPA (in Orlando… at least it’s not Las Vegas).

On other fronts, I moderated and participated in a discussion of Lavie Tidhar’s new novel, Osama, which just went live on SF Signal. And Rose Lemberg will include my two Bull Spec poems (Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol) in her anthology of feminist speculative poetry, The Moment of Change from Aqueduct Press.

Now if only my neuroblastoma lines would behave…

Cool Cat is by Ali Spagnola

Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Note: This 2-part article is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Readercon 2011.

Part 1: Science

Recently, I read a round table discussion at the World SF blog whose participants were international women SF/F writers.  The focus was, shall we say, intersectional invisibility.  One item that came up was the persistence of normalizing to Anglo standards.

Also recently I started Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani travelogue.  In the prologue I ran into the following sentence: “There is not much here about his wartime service in Crete, where for two years in the mountains he organized the resistance to the Nazi occupation.”  In other words, for those who read this introduction (or Anthony Lane’s and David Mason’s swooning accounts of Fermor), the Cretans became sidekicks in their own country, in their own struggle – like the Arabs in T. E. Lawrence’s memoirs.

There are two asides to this.  Fermor’s best known doing, the Kreipe kidnapping, conferred no strategic or tactical advantage, although the German reprisals were very real: they slaughtered and burned the village of Anóghia, the home of bard Níkos Ksiloúris.  Like most of its kind, the action served to maintain Allied control over the “unruly” native resistance.  Additionally, Fermor was frequently airlifted to Cairo, to decompress and receive his wages.  The Cretans were not invited along.  They remained in Crete, subject to said reprisals.  But Fermor was British gentry.  It was his version of reality that got heard, became canon history and granted him fame and fortune.

In Part 1, I said that if I wrote about New Orleans, readers and critics would be on me like a brick avalanche.  I followed the recent conniptions of the British SF contigent over Connie Willis’ depiction of WWII London.  She got terms wrong, she got details wrong, blah blah blah.   Care to know how many things Greg Benford got wrong about Bronze Age and contemporary Mycenae in Artifact?  Care to know what I think of Neil Gaiman’s “There is nothing uniquely Greek about the Odyssey?”  For that matter, you hear endless hymns about Ian McDonald’s books – until you discuss Brasyl with a Brazilian or Hyberabad Days with an Indian.

Myths and history that recedes into legend reach us already as palimpsests.  When The Iliad became standardized, the events it recited were already half a millennium old.  Such stories bear all kinds of revisionist tellings, and the more resonant they are the more ways they can be re/told.  If you want to see a really outstanding retelling of Oedípus Rex from Iocáste’s point of view, watch Denis Villeneuve’s film Incendies based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched.  However, whenever people embed stories in a culture they haven’t lived in and know intimately, I’m wary.  This, incidentally, is true across genres.  For example, I can’t quite trust Martin Cruz Smith’s Russia, although Arkady Renko is a truly stellar creation.  If you read John Fowles’ The Magus side by side with his French Lieutenant’s Woman, the disparity in authenticity is palpable.  Marguerite Yourcenar knew Hellás; Mary Renault, not so much.

There is nothing wrong with writers using other cultures than their own, especially if they’re good storytellers with sensitive antennae.  But when such works are taken for the real thing, the real thing often gets devalued or rejected outright, just as real science gets rejected in SF in favor of notions that are false or obsolete and often duller than the real thing.  It’s like people used to canned orange juice disdaining the freshly squeezed stuff because it contains pulp.  Or like James Ruskin forming his opinion of women’s bodies from classical statues and then struck impotent when he discovered that real women possess pubic hair.

There’s another equivalence between science and non-Anglo cultures in speculative fiction.  Namely, the devil’s in the details.  You need to have absorbed enough of your subject’s essence to know what counts, what needs to be included for verisimilitude.  You may get the large picture right by conscientious research; you may get by with bluffing – but small things give away the game even when the bigger items pass cursory inspection.  The diminutive of Konstantin in Russian is not Kostyn, it’s Kostya.  Hellenic names have vocative endings that differ from the nominative.  The real thing is both more familiar and more alien than it appears in stories written by cultural tourists.  And often it’s the small touches that transport you inside another culture.

When outsiders get things right, they get saluted as honorary members of the culture they chose to depict and deserve the accolade.  Outsiders can sometimes discern things in a culture that embedded insiders cannot see.  Mark Mazower wrote riveting histories of Salonica and my people’s resistance during WWII that I recommend to everyone, including Hellenes.  Roderick Beaton and Paul Preuss wrote absorbing novels set in Crete that are inseparable from their setting (Ariadne’s Children and Secret Passages).  And Ellen Frye’s The Other Sappho may have dated considerably in terms of its outlook – but you can tell that Frye lived in Hellás for a long time and spoke idiomatic Hellenic, whereas Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind suffers from a generic setting despite its considerable other merits.

Then we have the interesting transpositions, like Jack McDevitt’s A Talent for War.  If you don’t know he’s loosely retelling the wars of the Hellenic city-states against the Persians, you enjoy the story just fine.  But if you do know, the underdrone adds emotional resonance. By knowing Hellenic history past the surface, McDevitt got something else right almost inadvertently: Christopher Sim is a parallel-universe portrait of Áris Velouchiótis, the most famous WWII resistance leader in Hellás.  On the other hand, Ian Sales turned Eurypides’ careful psychological setup into wet cement in Thicker than Water, his SF retelling of Ifighénia in Tavrís (to say nothing of the name changes, with Orris and Pyle for Oréstis and Pyládhis winning the tin ear award).

Previously, the costs and intrinsic distortions of translation stood between stories of other cultures told by their own members and Anglophone readership.  With SF/F writers of other nations increasingly writing in more-than-fluent English, this is no longer the case.  The double-visioned exiles that camp outside the gates of SF/F might be just what the genre needs to shake it out of its self-satisfied monoculture stupor.  The best-known examplar of this is Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) whose bewitching stories have never gone out of print, though her Kenyan memoirs have their share of noble savage/colonial glamor problems.  Of course, one swallow does not bring the spring: reading one author per culture won’t result in major shifts; singletons cannot serve as blanket representatives of their culture — they remain individuals with unique context-colored viewpoints.

I think we should encourage cross-fertilization or, to use a biological term, back-breeding to the original stock.  We need to listen to the voices from outside the dominant culture, if we don’t want speculative fiction to harden into drab parochial moulds.  We need to taste the real thing, even if it burns our tongues.  Burt Lancaster (but for the accent) was a memorable Don Fabrizio in the film version of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo; but Ghassan Massoud swept the floor with his Anglo co-stars as Salahu’d-Din in The Kingdom of Heaven.  Although, to be thorough, Salahu’d-Din was a Kurd.  So he might have had blue or gray eyes.

Images: 1st, Peter O’ Toole in another quintessence of palatable exoticism, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia;  2nd, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar; 3rd, Lubna Azabal as Nawal Marwan in Villeneuve’s Incendies.

Related entries:

Iskander, Khan Tengri

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Evgenía Fakínou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism

Added note:  Almost concurrently, Aliette de Bodard and Cora Buhlert discuss aspects of the same issue.  The synchronicity suggests that the time may be ripe for a change!