5 Things (forensic science, survivorship bias, neanderthals, gay genes, internet hoaxes)

1.Forensic Science

I blame Val McDermid. I read her excellent book Forensics – The Anatomy of Crime earlier this year. Since then I’ve developed a bit of a fascination with the gruesome subject. I really enjoyed Gabriel Weston’s thoughtful BBC documentary series, Catching History’s Criminals – The Forensics Story.  All very reassuring, but forensic science has its sinister side too. This essay about Forensic DNA Phenotyping shows how racist ideology can underlie (and be reproduced by) what appears to be a scientific breakthrough in fighting crime: Sci-Fi Crime Drama with a Strong Black Lead.

2. Survivorship Bias

This entertaining TED Talk  by David McRaney makes me wish that someone had introduced me to survivorship bias back when I was around twenty one years old.  ‘Survivorship bias’ refers to our human tendency to favour examples of survivorship – in the broadest sense – and to ignore the usually far greater evidence of failure. This is a problem because survivors are pretty rare and seeking advice from them results in a seriously skewed perception of reality. People who want to open restaurants will pay attention to the successful restaurants in town, but fail to research the more numerous restaurants that shut down. Whatever the survivors might claim, its difficult to identify the real source of their success. Perhaps they were just lucky. McRaney argues that the failures can often provide us with more useful information. There’s a longer essay available on his website if you’re interested.

Continue reading

Albert Goldbarth, ‘The Sciences Sing a Lullabye’

Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you’re tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now.
Quit tapping your feet. They’ll dance
inside themselves without you. Go to sleep.

Geology says: it will be all right. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean. Go to sleep. Let darkness
lap at your sides. Give darkness an inch.
You aren’t alone. All of the continents used to be
one body. You aren’t alone. Go to sleep.

Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow,
Zoology says: on rainbow-fish and lithe gazelle,
Psychology says: but first it has to be night, so
Biology says: the body-clocks are stopped all over town
and
History says: here are the blankets, layer on layer, down and down.

1948

5 Things (sand, fossils, junk food, vintage lesbians, dresses)

This image is one of my favourites, so I was delighted to discover this article from FACTS.FM which has more astonishing photographs revealing the Hidden Beauty of Sand. I’m especially taken with the grains of sand that are actually tiny fossils.

Continuing with the fossil theme, I adored David Attenborough’s 1989 documentary Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives.  Attenborough’s passion for the subject is so infectious and I think the documentary is improved by being produced before the advent of CGI. Without the option to create CGI images of the animals (which is almost certainly what would happen if this was made now), the documentary has to focus on the actual fossils.  So if you want to see fossils in abundance, this is the one to watch. I think it’s stunning and can’t wait to show it to my nephew when he’s old enough.

Continue reading

Greg Egan, Luminous (1998)

“the only freedom lies in being this machine, and not another”, Mr Volition.

A sinister genetically-engineered jungle; a super-computer made out of light; a piece of software that could reveal the true nature of consciousness; a religious icon from Chernobyl; a mysterious, deadly new disease; a barrier to protect the foetus in the womb; radical brain surgery that might allow you to choose your own happiness. These are some of the delights and terrors contained within the stories of Greg Egan.

Greg Egan writes hard science fiction. His stories are concerned with the ways in which people respond to scientific advances and, just as importantly, how science shapes the possibilities of human existence.  These are stories about the politics and the ethics of science and its interactions with economics, culture and belief.

Continue reading

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows, Matthew 10:29-31

In 2019 a SETI programme picks up a radio transmission from near Alpha Centauri containing the sound of exquisite alien songs.   The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) decides to fund and lead an independent, scientific mission to that part of the galaxy to try and find the planet of origin.  After a few months, the Jesuits  lose contact with the expedition and the UN sends a second mission to Rakhat.   The information that they send back  threatens to bring the Jesuit order to its knees. Only one member of the first mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been found alive.  He has been discovered living in a state of degradation in what appears to be a brothel, and worse still, has been accused of murdering a child.  Decades later in 2059 (thanks to the speed of light) Sandoz finally arrives back on Earth, a broken man, sexually brutalised, with his hands horrifically maimed.  Under huge international and media pressure, as well as UN condemnation for taking matters into their own hands without approval, the Jesuit order decides to hold an investigation into what happened on the planet of Rakhat.

Continue reading

Carl Sagan, Contact (1985)

The film version of Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel, Contact (1997), seems to divide people into “love it” and “hate it” camps.  Personally, I love it: it’s elegant, has an imaginative story and, of course, stars Jodie Foster as Dr Eleanor Arroway, so I was looking forward to reading the novel on which it was based.

Continue reading

SF is Love

Recently, I’ve been feeling the science fiction urge, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read some of the classics and catch up on newer stuff.   With the help of the NPR’s Top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, I’ve compiled a reading list and, thanks to the library and local secondhand bookshop, made a start on working my way through it.  I’m currently reading Iain M. Banks’s Nebula nominated The Algebraist (2004) and Isaac Asimov’s classic, The Foundation Trilogy (1951). I also  got Roger Zelzany’s The Dream Master (1965) which won a Nebula and comes highly recommended by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kate Wilheld’s Hugo winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing (1977).  From the more recent books, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1994) has been on my shelf for a while, and I got Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996), which picked up a clutch of awards, plus Liz Williams’s Banner of Souls (2004) which looks like good dystopian fun.

And, just because it’s awesome, here’s a link to an article about the kind of discovery that inspires science fiction, a strange, black planet. Anyone want to have a go at a story about this?