The science in fiction: From gravity to microbiota

When talking about the science in science fiction, we often concentrate on technology or cultural developments that were correctly predicted in a novel. Of course, we all know that science fiction is not written to come up with correct predictions about the future, but comparing older novels with current developments is fun, nonetheless. At least as much fun is the opposite: where did novels get it completely wrong and why. One of the earliest examples is of course Jules Verne‘s De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon; 1865) in which three explorers are sent on a voyage to the moon aboard a “spaceship” that basically is a huge hollow bullet, fired from a gigantic cannon. Apart from the possibility (or, rather, impossibility) of such a launch mechanism, the novel contains a big mistake that nowadays even a kid in high school will immediately spot: the travelers are subjected to gravity all the way to the point where the gravitational fields of Earth and Moon cancel each other out and then experience a short period of weightlessness. After this their capsule turns around and they are henceforth subjected to the gravity of the moon. However, while the physics of the late 19th century certainly would have been able to predict accurately the weightlessness that the travelers would have experienced throughout the trip (apart from a brief moment at launch), it is easy to see how Verne could have made this mistake. Even much later, in the 1960s, even educated writers got much wrong about acceleration and the effects of its presence or absence. Hugh Walters (and not just him, either) had his astronauts lose consciousness at every launch because of the g-forces they were subjected to, for example.

Another mistake that probably only few people have noticed (mainly because the book is much less popular than Verne’s) is Robert A. Heinlein‘s Sixth Column (1941). It’s far from Heinlein’s best, but, then, even Heinlein’s weaker books are always worth a read. It was published almost a year before Pearl Harbor and portrays a future in which Japan and China are unified under a common emperor as “Pan Asia” and on a conquering spree. After annexing India, they take on the United States and after an apparently rather brief war occupy the country. The story follows a group of researchers hidden in a secret base in the Rocky Mountains who, just at the moment of surrender, discover a new powerful weapon. It is based on a kind of hitherto unknown radiation (not from the common electromagnetic spectrum, but from spectra resulting from different combinations of electrical, magnetic, and/or gravitational forces). These new types of radiations can have several effects, ranging from inducing severe fear to killing specifically some groups of organisms, while leaving others unharmed. Indeed, the researchers get on the trail of this weapon at the start of the novel when a mishap kills almost all people in the base, but not their laboratory mice and rats.

Later on as the story unfolds, one of the scientists realizes that the weapon can also be used for good, namely to cure infectious diseases. To put this to the test, he infects himself with anthrax and then heals himself by using the appropriate radiation to kill the anthrax bacteria. In fact, he also notices that a heavy head cold also disappears and realizes that by killing all microorganisms in his body, he has significantly improved his overall health. When I read this in the middle 70s or so, I already knew that this was incorrect: killing all his gut bacteria would at least have caused some digestive problems for this brave self-experimenting researcher… By now, of course, we know that such a treatment would have much more profound effects.

Recent research has revealed that the composition of our microbiota can influence almost anything you can think of. Having the right gut microorganisms may provide children with a more adaptive response to malnutrition (see also here). And your gut microflora may influence your susceptibility to psychiatric disorders such as depression. Of course, there is no way that Heinlein could have foreseen any of this, as microbiology was just in its infancy at that time: the first antibiotic, penicillin, had been discovered only a decade earlier and did not come into general use until more than a year after Sixth Column was published.

The discovery that our gut bacteria influence our brain and affect things like mood and such was probably a surprise for many people, even neuroscientists who have rightly described this finding as a paradigm shift. In retrospect, as with so many things, it’s much less surprising of course. We habitually try to influence our psychological state by using chemicals, be they recreational drugs or psychopharmaca like antidepressants. That different gut microorganisms, by producing different chemicals (or different quantities of the same chemicals) eventually entering our bloodstream, influence our psychological state is therefore perhaps unexpected, but not really too surprising. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, this has made the view that our behavior is molded by our genes in interaction with environmental influences even more simplistic than it already was. After epigenetics, now our microflora adds additional complexity. And just like genotype and environment complicate things by displaying complex interactions and covariations, it is to be expected that effects of our microbiota will depend on our genes and our environment (and any combination thereof), making things even more complicated. It really makes one wonder, given the current state of our knowledge, about the chances for success for the hugely expensive Human Brain Project.

Given the state of science in 1941, we should probably also credit Heinlein with some insights that were ahead of his time. In the same staff meeting where the above-mentioned scientist confesses to having infected himself with anthrax, the commander next directs the discussion to how best to use their discoveries for propaganda. The head scientist leaves the meeting disgustedly: he’s only interested in science, clearly implying that social science is not real science. In response, the commander reflects on why mass psychology, and psychology in general, would not be a valid field of scientific inquiry. One of the biologists knows the answer to that one: psychology is not a science, because it is too difficult. In a time when experimental psychology was still in its infancy, that’s quite a remarkable insight. In fact, given the above remarks about genes, microbiota, interactions, and what not, things are quite more complex than even Heinlein could have thought. Despite all the advances that we have made since the 1940s and the concomitant improvements in, for example, mental health, we are not at risk to be out of a job anytime soon, as we are still far from understanding how our brains work.

As I have said before: good science fiction makes you think

How to write an unreadable scientific article

Articles, books, and blog posts aplenty tell you how to write a good scientific article. “Don’t use jargon (too much)” and silly advice like that. But should we really make it that easy for readers to understand what took us years to produce? Isn’t it more reasonable to require the dozen readers or so that the average article gets to put in at least as much effort? And, you want to get your work in a high impact journal, don’t you? Ever seen an easy to read article in any one of those? See! In addition, if you write a really impenetrable article, it will make people believe that you’re really sophisticated, because they don’t understand what you write (and then consciously or subconsciously they think that it must be them, they’re just so much less intelligent than you…)? An added advantage is that you will drive editors and reviewers to exhaustion and after a few revisions they’ll just give up asking for more clarifications.

To achieve all this, I have some advice here for you.

  • To start with, have a look at articles published in the high-impact journal of your choice. There are plenty of fine examples of opaque writing to be found here. These journals of course claim that their content is intended for a wide public, but that is just another stratagem to make readers (you in this case) feel inadequate. When, in fact, was the last time that you understood even the title of one of their articles, unless it was directly in your own field in its most narrow sense?
  • Make it as difficult as possible for the reader to figure out what exactly you have done. Split up all essential details of your methods and disperse them: do NOT write a concise and complete “Materials and Methods” section, but only a brief one, giving only the “essential” details. All other minor stuff (such as what species of experimental animal you used and whether they were males, females, or both) can be hidden in “supplementary methods” (posted separately online in a huge document file) or, even better, in one of the legends of one of the myriad supplementary figures that you provide in the supplementary materials. Done skillfully, this can occupy a reader or reviewer for hours, frantically searching for details on any particular test that you have done or any method that you have used. A reviewer would feel really stupid if they claim you forgot to mention some detail and you can triumphantly rub their nose in the fact that it was there all along, they just didn’t read carefully enough and this invalidates all other nitpicking comments they made in their biased report!!
  • To obfuscate your materials and methods even more, claim repeatedly that this or that method was done “as described earlier” with a reference to a previous paper (if judiciously chosen, an added advantage is that this will boost your h-index), even if a finicky reader upon checking finds that this article either doesn’t describe that particular method or can conclude from some clue that you have skillfully hidden somewhere that it really is impossible that you have used any method described in that article.
  • Do not place “Materials and Methods” after the introduction and before the results, that is way too logical. Readers should be able to understand your results without referring to any details about methods, really! By hiding the methods section at the end of your article, you adequately indicate the low importance that this part of your manuscript has. Readers, authors, and editors really should just give this section only a cursory read. And those sticklers for detail that insist on first knowing what you have done before interpreting your data can just keep on going back and forth through the manuscript, serves them well!
  • Avoid giving any details about the statistics that you did. Just saying something is significant or not should be enough for any reader, right? Remember that if you use males and females, for example, and a treatment has a significant effect in males (t-test comparing treated animals with controls: p=0.0499), but not in females (p=0.0501) that this is solid evidence that males and females react differently to the treatment. I am giving the p values here to be pedantic, in a real article you don’t need that, of course. Please also ignore those wiseacres who insist that you should do a two-way ANOVA and can only reach such a conclusion if the interaction term is significant. Tell them that your conclusion clearly makes sense and that everything is obvious when inspecting Figure S36 (actually, it’s Figure S45, but we have to keep them alert!).

I am sure that there are many ways to improve upon the above advice, but I think this covers at least the major points. If you follow this closely, you too can soon be the proud author of a perfectly impenetrable article. It will look satisfyingly scientific, will make any reader feel appropriately stupid, and ensure that nobody ever will be able to repeat your work, because, let’s face it, we really can’t have that, now can we?


PS: Oh, and before I forget, do use as much jargon as you can, of course!!