Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
September 2018

A Bangled Tank

All the school kids so sick of books
They like the punk and the metal band
When the buzzer rings (oh whey oh)
They're walking like an Egyptian
- Liam Hillard Sternberg

A scientific meeting can be a great place to get material for stories. They're idea-dense environments, full of smart people infected with all kinds of interesting memes, which they are only too happy to pass along to you. It's like recess for researchers. Unfortunately, they can be expensive, unless you can convince the organizer to give you a press pass (you are a writer, right?).

Fortunately for us, I have spent the past nine years doing educational work with a five-university Science & Technology Center, supported by the National Science Foundation, and once a year they offer me a plane ticket to Lansing. Other funders like Education and Outreach, but NSF requires it, which is a pretty neat opportunity for SF writers to get paid for embedding real and current science into stories. There are precedents, like Mike Brotherton's downloadable classroom anthology of astronomy stories, Diamonds in the Sky, or the teacher's guide that Chad Rohrbacher and I built for another small-press anthology on human evolution, but not so many that the field is saturated (a fine example of frequency-dependent selection). I'm always recruiting writers to join my tiny horde. Hit me up through the PlotBot FB page.

Back to the Beacon Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, which holds an annual Congress at Michigan State to bring all its tribes together. There we do the things that humans do. We indoctrinate our children (the new grad students) with trainings in scientific ethics. We look for places to apprentice them, like this summer program in game design that my kid would just love--or marry them off for political advantage, as when a former student gets a post-doctoral fellowship in a collaborator's lab. There's also a ridiculous amount of eating and drinking to lubricate the social gears of a hundred-plus introverts. So much caffeine . . .

But what about the science? Oh, the sweet, sweet interdisciplinarity. Ecologists and engineers, gene jockeys and code monkeys, protein folders and information theorists. All of these, engaged in the study of what Darwin called "a tangled bank." He was only referring to biological ecologies on Earth, but as our view gets wider, and our technology gets more complex, those same dynamics of variation, selection, and inheritance can be seen across pretty much every field of human endeavor. This was one theme of my own talk; confining evolution to biology has allowed opponents to compartmentalize it. Nobody in the real world characterizes thermodynamics as a political or religious issue, even though it has serious implications for the end of the world, because the phenomenon of heat flow is both obvious and practically useful. Mega-churches need air conditioning, too.

Evolution can be equally useful, as shown by the first keynote speaker, Stephanie Forrest. She has spent her career applying ideas from biology to computer systems, in both philosophical and concrete ways that go well beyond cyberpunk's vague references to ICE. This includes using random mutations to quickly and cheaply fix bugs in big complicated software packages. The same ideas have been used to make programs more energy efficient (an average of 20% less electricity use, with up to 40% savings in some cases), and to examine energy/accuracy trade-offs in image analysis. In other words, to leap hobo-like off her train of thought and roll in the story gravel at the edge of the tracks, at some point you could be accused of a crime because the face-recognition algorithms were running at a lower resolution to save a few watts. Not a conspiracy, just the inhumane ripple effect of a default setting in the software. Philip K. Dick would be all over that.

Let's skip ahead to keynote speaker #3, Paul Turner of Yale (and a startup called Paci-PHI, because puns). He and his collaborators study viruses of several types, especially those that infect bacteria. The Russians have been using bacteriophage cocktails to treat infections for almost a century, but Westerners have mostly used them for basic research rather than medicine. Because viruses are very good at injecting DNA into cells, they have been go-to tools for genetic engineering in all sorts of species, including primates. Science fiction writers have also focused almost exclusively on those same uses, except for Greg Bear, in Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children.

Turner's major project has been to pacify drug-resistant bacteria by taking advantage of the concept of the trade-off. This idea is all over evolution and engineering, but my personal favorite example is (what else) the human brain. The benefits of big brains are fairly obvious. The costs don't get so much press. Our heads are so big that mothers and babies die, failing to squeeze them through the birth canal, even with the skull bones being relatively soft and deformable. Generating all of those action potentials and pumping all those ions is so expensive, energetically, that your brain uses one-fifth of all the calories you eat. Think about that. A three-pound organ (or one 1/50 of total body weight) uses 1/5 of the energy. Do the math. Despite the enthusiasm of science fiction for big-headed aliens, the human brain probably cannot get any bigger without some serious technological interference.

Turner's clever idea is to pit antibiotic resistance and virus resistance against one another in a trade-off situation. Bacteria use a family of membrane proteins called efflux pumps to push toxic molecules like antibiotics out of the cell, where they can't interfere with the internal machinery. Viruses can use those very same proteins as doors into the cell. If the bacterial population contains a mutated pump that the virus can't attach to, or if some of them remove the pump from the membrane to hide it from the virus, then they become susceptible to the antibiotic again. Very, very neat.

Finally, a few words on evolution in the art world. People started using computers to compose music back in the 1950s, and BEACON itself ran a PicBreeder competition a few years ago, which produced a crapload of pseudo-lighthouses. The questions of how to objectively measure creativity and artistic quality in a quantitative way that would make sense to a computer have remained difficult. Francisco Fernandez de Vega is the first person I know of to approach the problem by instantiating a genetic algorithm in a population of human artists. He gave them pairs of historical "parent" paintings, which they used to inspire new paintings, for ten generations. When surveying audiences at galleries proved too difficult and intrusive, his team hit on the idea of submitting the results to juried competitions. So they had human artists, evaluating work made by other human artists through an algorithmic process. Which makes me wonder: what the algorithm is for writing these columns?

It definitely involves recombination.

Randall Hayes, Ph.D., can not believe how hard it is to find a cute picture of a full-sized armored vehicle covered in bangles, or spangles, or sequins, even. It's infuriating.



A Mangled Ankh?


I have not tried this myself, but I intend to start. A Dangled Rank?




FREQUENCY-DEPENDENT SELECTION (least to most technical)







From the seventh reference, counting down: "The research ethics community has come to a consensus that promoting responsible conduct of research (RCR) cannot be done on a piecemeal basis, but will require the cultivation of an ethical scientific culture." SF is all about moral dilemmas, right?


"Instead of pre-programming scripted enemy behaviors to escalate difficulty, our games use populations of creatures that evolve--and specifically evolve to beat your strategy."




In the academy and the think-tank scene, sure. They just like arguing.



ASU also hosts the very interesting Center for Science & the Imagination, of which I am an online member.



"A Systematic Study of Automated Program Repair: Fixing 55 out of 105 Bugs for $8 Each"




"You, sir, look like Atilla the Hun--or a Yale Man!" -Thurston Howell III


During his talk, Dr. Turner was at pains to point out that he was still a basic scientist, as opposed to a clinician or (heaven forfend!) an entrepreneur.



Clicking through to "Publications" will take you to some of their original research papers.



Though this paper says the "obstetric dilemma" is a little overblown, because big-headed mamas have bigger birth canals.


There's a whole cottage industry of people text-mining The Origin of Species for their book titles.




SF Anthology released for the 150th anniversary of OoS.




Believe it or not, this was just about the least technical article I could find.


Covers both music and computer-centric SF.



Even if you don't want to sign up for the service that would let you read the full paper, you can get a pretty good idea from the Figures posted with the abstract.


Copy. Transform. Combine.


A newfangled tank, sure. That's easy.

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