Sat, 28 July 2007
This seems to be my week for reading articles that feature unusual feats of critters that figure in my science fiction. Scientists at University of California-Davis now think bacteria may be useful in making buildings more resistant to earthquakes - by converting crumbly, sandy soil into rock. I'm glad to see the lowly bacterium get its due.
Ever since Louis Pasteur and The Microbe Hunters and all of that stuff, the bacterium has had a bad rep. Sure, they can make us sick, but good bacteria can also help us digest our food. They don't ask for much in return, just a nice warm place to live, in our gut.
Bacteria are a lot more sophisticated then we give them credit for. After I wrote in The Consciousness Plague - my third science fiction novel, in which people start losing their memories, because antibiotics start wiping out bacteria-like organisms living in our brains, which help us think - I discovered that some bacteria actually do communicate with each other. (Hey, honey, want to meet me at John's throat tonight for a drink?) Of course, the part about bacteria enabling us to think was science fiction - I made that part up - but who knows what we might discover some day.
As for antibiotics, they're a lot like unruly cops, called in to quell a problem, and they start clubbing everybody over the head. That's why when we take antibiotics to fight an infection, or whatever, we sometimes get upset stomachs. The antibiotic-cops are not only taking out the bad but the good bacteria who help with our digestion. Those helpful symbiotic bacteria were living up to their part of the bargain, and how do we repay their efforts? We wipe them out with some kind of cillin or mycin.
Fortunately, bacteria are very prolific, regenerate quickly, and don't seem to hold a grudge. So you can get some acidophilus and they're usually happy to get to work for us again, even if we wiped out their brothers in our stomachs.
Category:Technology & Society -- posted at: 7:55pm EDT
Sat, 28 July 2007
I guess I do most of my book shopping online these days...
Category:Technology & Society -- posted at: 3:21am EDT
Sat, 28 July 2007
The Norse - or Vikings - were an amazing seafaring people. They got as far as North America, and played a role in
For most of our recent history, until the 1970s, in fact, many historians doubted that the Vikings ever made it to
And that concerns me, a little, like a chill down my back. You ever wonder about what happened in the ancient world, or even the Dark Ages, that we don't know about? In an age before mass media, lots of important events went unreported and unrecorded. Sometimes, even when they were recorded, they were lost. How many unique copies of scrolls and codices were lost in the burnings of the Library of Alexandria? Such questions make good material for historical fiction - I deal with some of them in the sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates (which I'm currently at work on). But I also worry about them in our real lives.
Well, maybe worry is too strong a word. I certainly think about them. What cures for our illnesses were discovered in ancient times and then forgotten? The Bible (Psalm 51) says, "cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean" - hyssops has antibiotic qualities. But we did not discover antibiotics until Fleming was struck by what the mold on his bread did to bacteria in his petrie dish, in the 20th century.
And trips across the
But until we dig up some evidence - hey, every excavation for a parking lot has that possibility - the answers will be blowing in some ancient pre-mass media winds...
Category:Technology & Society -- posted at: 12:54am EDT
Fri, 27 July 2007
I mentioned in my Conversation with science fiction author Rob Saywer here a few weeks ago that we might have gotten to Mars in 1965.
Here are some further details, as Freeman Dyson laid them out at the Guggenheim in
In the immediate aftermath of the Sputnik 1 in October 1957, the door was wide open in
Project Orion was one of those projects. Use atom bombs not as weapons but fuel for a rocket to the solar system. The rocket would travel fast enough to get us to Mars in two swift months. With a cargo hold as big as an auditorium.
The project had drawbacks. People were concerned about political fallout that would result from nuclear fallout from the fuel. Of course, in those days - the 1950s and 1960s - nuclear testing was already dumping lots of dangerous radiation into the atmosphere. Orion's contribution to that would have been neglible. But it was too much, politically.
The project also died of competition from Apollo. Politicians had one-track minds in those days - commitment to one space project was more than enough. Orion got an initial green light in 1958, only to be killed by JFK in the early 1960s - the same JFK who set us on a trip to the Moon via Apollo.
Is it too late for Orion to be resuscitated? According to Dyson, its time has passed. Nuclear power is still too slow a propellant for trips to the stars. Laser sails are better for that. And although it still takes four times longer to get to Mars by chemically-launched vehicles today than it would have by the nuclear-powered ship Dyson and his colleagues were building, we've mastered the production of our current chemical ships to the point that it wouldn't pay to go back to Project Orion.
So it's history, now. A moment in time when Dyson apologized to his little boy George that there probably wouldn't be room on the ship for him - Freeman Dyson was that serious about making the trip himself.
A moment in time. A golden opportunity. Lost.
We need to make sure we don't let that happen again.
Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship George Dyson's account of his father's project
And on the need for us to get out into space, far more than we already have, you might also enjoy...
Category:Cosmos -- posted at: 8:00pm EDT