Science

The Lightning Tree

So here’s what I’m reading about today: Lichtenberg figures.

I never realised that when they’re left on people, as scars resulting from lightning strikes, they’re also known as “lightning flowers”.

Seems pretty apt, really: utterly terrifying… but somehow incredibly beautiful.

Blinded by (sparkling) science

Stephanie Kwolek. Sophie Germain. Gillian Bates. Lise Meitner.

Marie-fucking-Curie.

And this is how we’re planning to attract young women into the field of science?

I wasn’t that keen on science at school. My little heart sank at the prospect of double chemistry, almost as much as it did before PE. I wasn’t as good at it as I wanted to be, and – to be honest – that frustrated me. I also found it boring.

However, it bored me because I wanted to be in English class, reading Faustus or Hamlet (true).

Saying I wasn’t as good at it as I wanted to be was not because I’m a girl and am therefore only interested in lipstick and poncing round in a pair of sunglasses: it’s because I’m Thicky McThick when it comes to science and I still can’t do a simple titration or explain how a blast furnace works*. I can, however, quote you chunks of Shakespeare and Marlowe, and tell you exactly why they have the effect on us that they do. I can read Anglo Saxon, I can give you a detailed (and mind-numbingly dull) description of the differences between the Insular and Continental traditions of early Arthurian literature.

I did not need a pink-tinted video to entice me into this.

Neither did the women whose names I’ve given above.

Like me, they chose to study and work in the fields which interested them; the fields in which they felt their talents lay. I chose arts and humanities, they chose sciences. End of debate. Boys do it too, but apparently we don’t need to try and entice them to become doctors by showing a bunch of consultants knocking back the beers or playing football, do we? And yes, that’s just as mindless a stereotype as the one in the video.

My younger cousin is about to go to university, hoping to study genetics. She spends her free time shopping with her friends and (if her Facebook page is anything to go by) making innuendo-laden comments about Justin Bieber. She goes to parties. She has an unhealthy obsession with Primark. She’s also an Air Cadet. She’s probably one of the coolest people I know, and I imagine if you asked whether her choice of future career had been influenced by that video, she would laugh at you.

And then punch you. (Because we do share some genes, after all…)

We don’t need to Barbie-ise science to get girls interested.

We don’t need to pinkify it, sprinkle it with unicorns and glitter, or insist that yes, women in science can wear heels zomgwtfkthnxbai.

We just need to tell them that they can do anything they put their minds to.

Because they can.

Marie Curie.
Scientist; woman.

*Incidentally, my physics, chemistry and biology teachers were all women…

Oxycontin Genocide

I picked up on an interesting article, originally published in the Guardian, via io9 this afternoon:

A pill to enhance moral behaviour, a treatment for racist thoughts, a therapy to increase your empathy for people in other countries – these may sound like the stuff of science fiction but with medicine getting closer to altering our moral state, society should be preparing for the consequences, according to a book that reviews scientific developments in the field.

Drugs such as Prozac that alter a patient’s mental state already have an impact on moral behaviour, but scientists predict that future medical advances may allow much more sophisticated manipulations.

My knee-jerk reaction was to check the date. Nope. Not the first. All good.

My next reaction was two-part, and it went something like this: “Wait… haven’t they heard of Pax?”… followed briskly by: “So, I should start brushing up on my gun kata then?”

While I’m fairly sure this is a highly selective & leading article, it did make me think. You probably heard it: that sound like a squid swallowing a rusty chicken? That was me.

This kind of research makes me deeply, deeply uncomfortable. I’ve always been very open about the fact that I’ve been on anti-depressants in the past, several times, and while I know they definitely did their job, I hated being on them with a passion.

Or, actually, with an absence of passion. Because I wasn’t chemically capable of feeling any kind of passion for anything. That’s how they work, after all. So I can tell you from personal experience that you won’t find me lining up to voluntarily take any kind of pill that messes with my brain which – and here’s the important bit – I do not need.

My moral compass generally points somewhere in the vague direction of north-ish, I’ve been known to give up my seat on the bus, and I’ve only bludgeoned irritating neighbours to death with a blunt instrument in my mind’s eye. So, in this instance, why would I agree to take medication for the sake of making me more moral(again, -ish) than I already am?

And that’s it, isn’t it? I wouldn’t. Not voluntarily.

Meulen also suggested that moral-enhancement drugs might be used in the criminal justice system. “These drugs will be more effective in prevention and cure than prison,” he said.

Now, you knew that was coming. We’d start by medicating the murderers…

Kahane does not advocate putting morality drugs in the water supply, but he suggests that if administered widely they might help humanity to tackle global issues.

“Relating to the plight of people on other side of the world or of future generations is not in our nature,” he said. “This new body of drugs could make possible feelings of global affiliation and of abstract empathy for future generations.”

… then we move to medicate the masses – because it’s all for the Greater Good.

Sure.

Thank you for the venom, right?

The full article is here.

If anyone wants to tell me that this is an April Fool, that’d be grand. And otherwise? I’ll get my (brown)coat and start stashing the art under the floorboards.

Pinch of Salt

I went all quiet again, didn’t I? Don’t panic: I haven’t been clobbered by yet more woe (although I have taken to walking along with one eye on the sky, one looking behind me and one looking at where I put my feet… just in case. You work that one out, because I can’t!) but instead I’ve been involved in a wonderful new project: Genre For Japan.

Driven by Amanda Rutter of Floor to Ceiling Books, the idea is to bring the genre community together to raise money for the British Red Cross’ Japan Tsunami appeal in the best way possible: by giving you a chance to buy Stuff.

And not just any old Stuff, either: thanks to the generosity of publishers, authors, agents and fans of SFF, this is Amazing Stuff. Stuff Which You Cannot Live Without, all with the genre fan in mind.

It’s humbling, seeing how many items have been donated, and also the phenomenal level of interest. If you spend any time on genre-focused websites, or you’re part of the same corner of Twitter as I am, chances are you know all about this already.

And if you don’t, the details are here.

Keep checking the site, too, as more information will be going up over the course of this week ahead of the auction launch next Monday. It’s an awesome cause, and there are incredible people getting involved. Please, please support us, and help us to raise truckloads of money for the Red Cross.

In other news, I watched Salt over the weekend. I was quite looking forward to it – when it was released, much was made of the fact it was a spy-action-chasey-shooty-thriller… but with a woman as the lead. And, let’s face it, there aren’t really as many of those as there should be: particularly given the main thread of the plot (without giving anything away) is a woman trying to outrun spies to protect her husband.

This is a neat reversal of the usual “spy races against the clock to save his impossibly beautiful, elegant, intelligent wife” – but boy, did it frustrate me. It wasted an opportunity to do something really interesting and ended up sort of making a hashed-up, mashed-up version of The Recruit meets Mission Impossible (perhaps not surprising, given that it was written by Kurt Wimmer and – if memory serves – was originally a Tom Cruise vehicle, rewritten for Angelina Jolie).

It could have said so many things about husband-wife relationships, gender-power balance, the role of women in dangerous places and jobs… but it felt like the rewrite went as deep as doing a search & replace, exchanging “he” for “she”.

And the ending just made me cross.

(Interestingly, my Other Half – sitting next to me and watching me seethe in the grip of femrage – laughed as discreetly as he dared, shook his head and said, “You’re getting worse.”)

And he’s probably right.

Tesla’s Revenge

So I guess I’m not the only one who likes the Tesla coils. They are pretty impressive.

A couple more hits from the sparkbox: the first is the lab scene from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” which I saw recently – it’s fun. It’s not necessarily good, but I liked it anyway.

(If you’re the type who follows such things, it features Nicolas Cage’s 3rd most improbable hairdo to date, sliding neatly in behind “Con Air” at number two, but coming nowhere near “Ghost Rider“, which is so firmly entrenched in the number one spot I don’t think anything’s ever going to shift it. Not even Nair. This one’s nowhere near as bad, but it’s, well… peculiar. And topped off with a hat–which actually seems to work. Maybe it’s magic?).

So. Yes. Watch it: you’ll like it. Where was I? Oh, yes: the coils are playing OneRepublic’s “Secrets”, so it had me at hello. Metaphorically speaking.

 

And on the subject of improbable hair (and even more improbable accents) the man himself even turns up in “The Prestige“. Alright, he’s David Bowie, but who’s arguing…?

 

If anyone has any more Tesla-centric movie moments, I’d love to know. Because I’m a geek – but we knew that already.

 

Zzzap! Crackle! Pop!

How do you start a year that follows the one I just had? I mean, I turned 30; went to my first convention back in March (WHC); liked it so much I went to a bunch more; met some wonderful new friends and even more great new people; had a handful of stories published and generally learned more about writing, publishing and–to be honest–life in about 9 months than I’d learned in the 9 years before them. I got to go to New York, too. That was pretty good.

And then there was the now-infamous “Marshall-Smith / Gaiman fangirl” incident in Brighton when one of my absolute heroes introduced me to the other of my absolute heroes and I melted. Seriously. There was hugging, and gibbering, and me generally failing to be cool on every conceivable level (and Vinny Chong is still taking the piss out of me for it.)

So, I ask you: how do you follow a year like that?

Well–you could do worse than to start with musical Tesla coils.

Lookit! It’s science, but better: it’s brilliant!

(It gets better, too: watch what happens when this guy starts jumping up & down…)

And that, ladies & gentlemen, is how we ring in 2011. With music that could kill you.

Dreamweaver

So. Who read the article about the virtual VCR for dreams (do we even talk in those terms any more? Should it be the DVR , or hard drive? The latter feels a bit Neuromancer for my liking… where was I?) that popped up yesterday with mixed feelings? Me, that’s who.

At first, I thought it was a great idea. Then I remembered some of my dreams.

Now, my Other Half, he rarely remembers the stuff that goes on in his head when he sleeps. But I can usually recall a good portion of my dreams, at least for a while after I wake. By lunchtime, the memory is normally buried under so much crap (“Ooh, shiny” or “Mmm. Biscuits” on a typical day) that it’s gone like smoke on the wind–but I know that for me to have a permanent record of my dreams would be a Bad Thing.

There’s the dreams which are designed to infuriate you. You know the ones: you’re talking to someone, but they’re really someone else, and you’re in a house which is also a pumpkin and if you touch it it will eat you and turn you into a goblin and you don’t know how you know that butyoujustdoOK? and then you’re suddenly back in your fifth form English class and the only homework you’ve brought is the Biology stuff. In Japanese.

Then there are the Other Dreams. The ones you’d rather forget. I’ve had my fair share of those, too–some of them, in all seriousness, quite horrific. I’ve had what we’ll refer to as (finger-quote) Episodes (finger-unquote) in the past, and these have always but always been preceded by a month of the kind of dreams which make me jealous of insomniacs. There’s no way I’d want those on record.

And then there’s the embarrassing ones, the ones that you wake up from and think, “No way. Not ever.” Fortunately, most of these were back in my hormone-raddled teens, but Christ, I bear the scars even at this distance. Would rather not know they’re knocking around on some hard drive somewhere.

Of course, I know the brain doesn’t work like that. Outside of Hollywood, you can’t just jack (hack?) into someone’s brain and download their dreams, however tricksy the tech. But the concept made me uncomfortable enough to realise I like the inside of my head to stay there.

Mind you, what do I know? Maybe there are dreams you’d want to keep, something you might like to look back on or show to another person… what would they be, I wonder–and what would you do with them?

Chill Pill

I saw Flatliners at an impressionable age, and it left me with a real interest in the idea of “controlled dying”. Not in the, umm, icky way, but in the methods used by surgeons to keep people alive as long as possible–even if it technically means killing them.

So when I saw this article about inducing deep hypothermia in cardiac patients to give surgeons more time to finish complex operations, or in cases where the more traditional heart-lung bypass method is unsuitable, I was pretty riveted. To use a word I already use far too frequently (and which in this instance makes a dreadful pun) it’s cool.

Well, it is.

The technique of extreme cooling is fascinating. It takes the moment of death and smears it out. By putting the whole body in a sort of metabolic slow motion it also slows the process of dying, buying clinicians and patients precious time.

But it is a double-edged sword. Cooling to these extremes is about as likely to kill you as it is to cure you and these hazards need to be negotiated.

The idea that the process of dying can be suspended–stretched and twisted and then through skill and medicotechnological jiggery-pokery, actually¬†reversed

It’s just… well. You know what comes next.