Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
August 2016

Rock Gods

I'm beginning to feel like a rap god, rap god

Who thinks their arms are long enough to slap box, slap box?

-Eminem, "Rap God"

Mr. Nem is pretty brilliant in that song, a seven-minute cyclone of science fiction and comic book references, but it's definitely not PG-13, so I won't link to it from here. Just as clearly, Eminem is not a team player. Science journalists and other storytellers love stories of inflated ego, like the Bone Wars of paleontology, because they sell--but that's not how science is usually done, in practice.

For a more realistic picture of the incredible cooperation necessary for science to proceed in a dangerous place, check out the book Water, Ice, and Stone, which follows a team of researchers trying to figure out the chemical flows into and out of the frozen lakes of the Antarctic Dry Valleys. For a less realistic and more paranoid (but still team-based) conception, try John Carpenter's The Thing, also set in Antarctica.

Of course, there are also competitive interactions in science. Papers have authors, and the person whose name is at the top of the grant application gets the majority of the glory. Some have suggested moving to a credits system like the movies use, which would document who performed each experiment, made each analytical decision, wrote each tortured paragraph, and even who donated computer time. That kind of system would certainly be more fair. It might also improve the reproducibility of experimental results. (Although here is a paper claiming that the unfairness actually increases the overall production of the community.)

Thankfully, science education is also moving away from the "Great Man" mythology and emphasizing that science is performed by teams of people. SF and even superhero shows have either caught up with this trend, or led it--I'm not sure which. All I know for certain is that when I was a kid in the 1970s, most of the shows I watched were about traveling loners like David Banner or Kwai Chang Caine, or hermits like Grizzly Adams, who played off against a never-ending series of character actor guest stars. Not to mention the detectives.

Then in the 80s there was an explosion of huge ensemble casts like Hill Street Blues. Now even Green Arrow has a posse, growing each season. I wonder how much of this is due to the simple recognition that recycling characters from one episode to the next builds audience loyalty, and how much is due to exhaustion? Coming up with new names every week is hard.

In any case, it's somewhat unusual these days for NOVA to devote an entire episode to the work of a single scientist, especially when that scientist is still alive. Leonardo da Vinci or Einstein, sure, but Robert M. Hazen? Who's that? Well, if you watch the show, you'll see that he (and his collaborators) proposed that the big mystery of how life started on planet Earth is missing some key clues.

Most SF writers have undoubtedly seen some version of the Miller & Urey "lightning in a bottle" experiment, where they used a spark generator to create simple organic molecules like amino acids out of the gases that were floating around in the atmosphere of the early Earth--hydrogen, methane, that sort of thing. They ran many versions of that experiment, tinkering with the gas mixes, but according to MSU artist-in-residence Adam Brown, they never ran it for longer than a week. Brown ran a version for much longer, but he still hasn't created the kinds of long threadlike polymers that can store information or fold up into molecular robots and start catalyzing chemical reactions. Maybe it takes a billion years for the exceptionally complex stuff to build up, as many people have assumed.

Or perhaps the problem is that solids and liquids are not enough. Perhaps there need to be solid surfaces where some of those exotic reactions products can collect, surfaces more complicated and interesting than the inside of a glass ball, surfaces that could stabilize the products of those reactions and possibly catalyze new ones (remember last year's column on the importance of three-dimensional shape in biochemistry?). Hazen's group suspected that the crystal structures of minerals would be important, especially the thin, porous layers of clays. One of the main structural features of Earth life is how carefully it controls surface area, the boundary between Self and Other, as well as the ratio of surface area to volume. The NOVA episode shows some neat computer simulations of that work.

What I'm more excited about today is another piece of the Hazen group's work, which I want to make clear I have totally been into since, like, 2010, just to distinguish myself from the NOVA groupies. This webpage chronicles the concept of mineral evolution. Minerals are like the species of geology. They have specific crystal structures that can form only under the right conditions of temperature, pressure, and chemical neighbors. Some of those conditions occur pre-life, enough to generate maybe a dozen mineral species inside a nebula and hundreds on a planetoid. Others of those conditions occur only much later when life is around, such as high concentrations of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Hazen's group divided the history of the Earth into ten stages of mineral evolution. This graph from the website charts the increase in mineral diversity over time. Notice that, unlike biodiversity, mineral diversity only goes up; there have been no mass extinctions for minerals (or have there?).

That pretty curve could have many applications for a scientist, or an educator, or a science fiction writer. It may be that life requires some threshold level of mineral diversity in order to get started, as Star Trek kind of anticipated with its "class M" designation for planets. Arguments about precisely where to place that threshold could underlie lots of stories. If there really are specific minerals that can only form when life is around, then we finally have clear markers for at least the past presence of life. The itey apellations of those crystals--azurite, malachite, etceterite--would be great things to name-drop in a story (not to mention that they often sound cool).

Also, SF authors love shorthands and stages like the Kardashev scale of technology. Problem is, to avoid being a hypocrite, I'd have to propose the Hazen-Papineau-Bleeker-Downs-Ferry-McCoy-Sverjensky-Yang scale of mineral evolution, which is bloody great from a bridge-crew diversity point of view but pretty much sucks otherwise. There aren't even any vowels to nucleate an acronym crystallization process. Maybe if I used their first names . . .

Randall Hayes skipped the Hall of Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City last week, and he's a little bummed about it. But it was a long day even without the HoM, so maybe it was for the best. He's looking for a good geologist to come by the Greensboro Science Cafe, if you know anybody.





Another approach, designed to work backwards from the published papers.





Neat little documentary about the making of the show.




Stated Clearly is a series of animations on genetics and evolution. Support their work on Patreon.





This is why the leaves of plants are usually flat, and why completely photosynthetic humans such as you find in John Scalzi's Old Man's War series, or the Kim Stanley Robinson story below, are probably not possible, because we can't pack enough chlorophyll into our roughly 2 square meters of skin to make enough sugar to feed our roughly 100kg bodies, especially our energy-hog muscles and brains. Not that it wouldn't be helpful, hunger-wise.



Science needs more groupies. I'm just saying.






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