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!!

What happens on Tschai…

I recently wrote about Close to Critical, a 1950s novel that I first read in the late 1960s. Some time after that I read City of the Chash and its sequel, Servants of the Wankh  (in Dutch, it wasn’t until the late 80s that I started reading mainly in English), the first two volumes in the Planet of Adventure series. It took me some time to convince myself to read the books: the blurb on the first one said that it was “brilliant and hallucinating” (‘briljant en waanzinnig’) and that somehow put me off as it sounded like some experimental prose that I had tried (and failed) to read. However, I was a voracious reader (during school vacations 2 or sometimes even 3 books per day) and ever since I had read Robert Heinlein‘s Orphans of the Sky while at an astronomy camp in the summer of 1968, I did not read anything but science fiction. So at some point, I had actually read all science fiction books that our local library offered and found myself forced, despite the off-putting “maniacal” and the fact that I had never heard of the author (Jack Vance, 1916-2013), to give these books a try anyway. That was a fateful decision, leading to a lot of joy (reading many more wonderful Vance novels and stories) and a lot of anguish (impatiently waiting for the next volumes in the tetralogy to appear, which took more than a year – something close to eternity when you’re 16 years old…).

Where Hal Clement had shown me the wonderful and amazing worlds that science fiction writers can imagine, Jack Vance blew me away with the strange and alien cultures that his mind produced. Some of his most alien cultures were actually human… In fact, as I learned later, the Planet of Adventure series is a somewhat atypical example of Vance’s work, which most often describes human worlds and cultures and much less often includes alien species. Well, Tschai, the world on which these novels are situated, contains not just one, but at least four separate and very different alien species: the Chash (which come in three very distinct varieties: the decadent Old Chash, the more dynamic Blue Chash, and the barbaric Green Chash), the Wankh (in later editions called “Wannek”), the Dirdir, and the indigenous Pnume. There’s a fifth alien species, the Phung, but it remains unclear whether this is really a separate species or an insane variant of the Pnume. When an explorer from Earth, Adam Reith, crashes on Tschai, he finds to his bewilderment that it is also inhabited by humans, in an even more bewildering diversity of peoples, races, tribes, and varieties. These humans are the descendants of Neanderthals and other humans taken from Earth by some of these aliens in prehistoric times. Each one of the four alien species has a specialized variety of humans to serve them (with the interesting exception of the Wankhmen) and that have evolved to resemble them physically (the Dirdirmen, for example) or mentally (the Pnumekin). The other peoples of Tschai are descendants of members of these client races that for some reason or another were expelled from their communities.

Over the years and decades, I re-read these novels several times. So much so, that I actually could point out on a map of Tschai the different places visited by Reith in sequence. I don’t recall when I read my old Dutch copy of the tetralogy for the last, umpteenth, time, but recently I decided that I wanted to read the novels yet again, but this time in their original English. I wasn’t disappointed. Within a week of the arrival of my new copy, I had finished it (it was a busy week, so I could not read as much as I wanted…). The books, I am happy to report, have withstood the ravages of time quite well and are still a fascinating read.

The narrative follows Reith, who tries to obtain a spaceship to return to Earth to warn humanity for the threat that these alien species represent. His quest takes him all over Tschai, which provided Vance with the canvas on which to paint dozens of different human cultures, each with its own peculiar habits and strange religious beliefs. Vance is not a writer who waxes philosophical about how such customs, rituals, and religions emerge or how a culture gets established. However, when reading a book like Planet of Adventure, I really cannot imagine that someone would only read this as an adventure novel and nothing more. One simply is forced to wonder how all this came about. In some cases, this is obvious. The Dirdirmen, for example, believe that they originate from a Primeval Egg, which lay partly in the sun, partly in the shade on the Dirdir homeworld. When it hatched, the Dirdir emerged from the sunny side and the Dirdirmen from the shaded side. As one of Reith’s travel companions, the Dirdirman Ankhe at afram Anacho says: “They are Sun, we are Shade… The Dirdir are the highest form of cosmic live; Dirdirmen can only emulate and this we do, with pride”. To approach this ideal Dirdir form as much as possible, the Dirdirmen have practiced selective breeding for many millennia, supplemented with surgery and the use of artificial body parts. The Dirdir, in turn, mostly seem to barely acknowledge the existence of the Dirdirmen. Nevertheless, it appears clear that the origin of this creation story must be the Dirdir themselves, who have made it up to keep the Dirdirmen in their place as useful servants.

The books are filled to the brim with inventive concepts and ideas. For example, on Tschai money does grow, albeit subterranean, not on trees. One might expect that this would make it easy to become rich. Not so. Money remains scarce, because it only grows in one particular region and the Dirdir use this as their hunting ground, where they return to their pre-civilized feral state and hunt the humans that search for money, roasting and eating their prey. Fascinating and puzzling are the decadent Yao, where individuals have a plethora of personal names, each to be used only in precisely defined circumstances that are almost impossible to grasp for outsiders. Some rituals look silly to us, like the sect that considers the act of ingesting nourishment to be something intrinsically personal, not to be performed in public, much like we think about sex. My favorites in the book are the mysterious Pnume, with a recorded history of millions of years. Although the fourth volume of the series plays almost exclusively in their underground realm (somehow, “subterranean” seems out of place and “subtschaian” is awkward), they remain at the end only slightly less mysterious than before.

When reading these descriptions of wonderful, mysterious, silly rituals, cultures, and religions, I find it impossible not to reflect on how real-world religions, rituals, and cultures came about and wonder whether some of our beliefs and habits have perhaps a similar, almost trivial, origin, where someone or some group made up something to further some selfish goal. That, of course, is what good science fiction does: it makes you think.

In short, these books have remained as fascinating as when I read them for the first time, almost half a century ago. Of course, knowing these books so well, by now the surprise is gone for me, although the sense of wonder remains. So I envy you, if you don’t know Tschai yet, because there is no equivalent to the sensation of discovery that you get when you read these books for the first time.

Close to Critical, 50 years later

One of the earliest science fiction novels that I ever read was Close to Critical by Hal Clement. I read it in the late 60s, while in high school, in a Dutch translation from our local library. Years later and now a student at Nijmegen University, I found a copy in a used book store and re-read the book. I clearly remember how both times I was blown away by the strange world that was being described and the obvious attention to scientific detail. This was pure “sense of wonder” reminiscent of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Again years later, I had the privilege of meeting Hal Clement, whose real name was Harry Stubbs, at the 1990 Science Fiction WorldCon in The Hague. Clement/Stubbs turned out to be a kind elderly gentleman and was, as far as I know, the only one who came to his book signing session accompanied by his wife, an equally kind lady. Unfortunately, none of his books were offered for sale by any of the book sellers at the convention, so very few fans came up to him to ask him to sign a book. Luckily, I found a very old, used copy of one of his novels (albeit in German), which he graciously signed for me.

For those among you who are not familiar with Close to Critical, here’s a short synopsis. As in many of Clement’s novels, the main “character” of the novel is actually the place of action, a planet called Tenebra. It’s hot and heavy, with a very dense atmosphere. Because of the thick atmosphere, the surface is rather dark to human eyes and conditions are directly around the critical temperature of water (a pressure of over 200 atmospheres and a temperature of 374° Celsius) and the resulting frequent changes of water from the liquid phase to the vapor phase plays an important role in the narrative. Despite these extreme conditions, the planet teems with life and one of the species has developed intelligence. By means of a robot, with some irony being named Fagin, humans living on board a space ship in orbit around Tenebra are in contact with one of the indigenous tribes. The story then evolves around two children, one human, the other a member of yet another alien species, who crash on Tenebra aboard a bathyscaphe and the efforts of humans and Tenebrians to save them.

Because of my fond memories of this novel, I recently decided to re-read it, as I often do with books that I really like. Many of them turn out to be still quite readable, if one is willing to overlook anachronisms such as scientists using a slide-rule (I still have one myself, which shows my age, I fear…) to calculate an orbit for their spaceships or using punch cards to program their computers (I used those myself only once and had trouble finding a card reader, making me feel a bit younger than the slide-rule…). For example, Jack Vance‘s Planet of Adventure, which I also recently re-read, has withstood the test of time quite well, I think (perhaps I’ll write more about that book in a future post). Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Close to Critical. Yes, it still is an easy read. A quick one, too: this was written in a time when a science fiction novel was supposed to count about 150 pages, not the trilogies counting thousands of pages that are the norm today. The description of Tenebra and its conditions still is impressive in its detail and, as far as I can see, scientific correctness. Apart from that, however, this novel has aged too much. The story is overly simple and reads more like a juvenile novel than anything an adult might want to read (and I write this as someone who still enjoys reading the occasional juvenile…) Worse, the characters are flat and exchangeable. Fagin’s tribe consists of 10 individuals, but apart from their leader, Nick, they only differ in their names. Early on in the story, two of the tribe’s members (that’s a whopping 20%) are killed by another tribe, but nobody seems to pay more attention than the occasional mention of the fact.

In short, the story suffers from the fact that, all too obviously, it’s just a coat rack used to describe the planet, the real subject of the novel. So why, given the above, do I still recommend reading this book? Well, exactly because of the detailed descriptions of Tenebra. Clement is not for nothing famous for designing extreme worlds. Writers like Vance excel in describing weird cultures, but their worlds are basically all copies of Earth. With Clement you immediately know that you’re not in Kansas any more. Curious about the crucial difference between a milky and a clear rain drop (both many meters in diameter)? Read Close to Critical and find out, because if ever you find yourself in a place with 200 atmospheres pressure and a temperature of 374° Celsius, it may mean the difference between life and death!