The Others Out There

A few weeks ago I finished reading David Waltham’s book, Lucky Planet, and I’d like to comment on it in this blog post.  This is not in the nature of a book review, although I do recommend the book if you’re into the question of life on other worlds.  (It was published by Basic Books in 2014).  Dr. Waltham’s main point is that our Earth has had a phenomenal run of luck during its 4-billion-plus lifespan, and that has allowed life not only to arise about two billion years ago, but to flourish and result in the development of us humans.  He notes that the conditions on Earth have been remarkably constant for the past two billion years in spite of asteroid impacts and mass extinctions, constant enough that although many life forms have gone extinct, at no time has life ever been totally extinguished, and other forms have been able to take the place of the extinct species.  Temperatures have certainly fluctuated on Earth, but never has the temperature gone so high or so low that life was ever wiped out once it got started.  It is an amazing set of circumstances.  I never thought of it that way until I read his book.  It is this stable climate that is at the heart of Dr. Waltham’s book.

Dr. Waltham goes into some detail about his theory that Earth has been extremely lucky over the past several billion years, and I won’t try to summarize the arguments.  I’m not sure I followed all of them, anyway.  He does state near the beginning of the book that if we take all the different facets of evolution that have led to the development and maintenance of life on this planet, such as being in the habitable zone, having a magnetic field that protects us from radiation, having an atmosphere, having a moon that stabilized Earth’s orbit, having large outer planets in our solar system that gobbled up stray asteroids to prevent them from bombarding us too often (but not so often that life wasn’t shaken up now and then), and so forth, and if we add all those up, the number of conditions would be so large that the presence of life on Earth would not only be unique in our galaxy, but perhaps in all galaxies.  With the number of planets in our galaxy alone (in the range of hundreds of billions) that probably isn’t very likely.  But it is possible that our planet has been just lucky enough to allow life to develop and thrive, perhaps lucky enough that there aren’t any other planets that have achieved the same result.

More recently, in the past few weeks, astronomers have begun to say that they are confident they will find life on another world within twenty years or so.  Seems a little like braggadocio to me, considering how long we’ve been looking for life on other worlds and not found squat.  I have no doubt that life will be found on another planet or moon sooner or later.  But I’m only saying “life of any sort.”  A few bacteria-like organisms would fulfill that prediction.  I’m not talking about intelligent life capable of traveling the galaxy.  Life is fabulously complex, and the emergence of intelligent species will take time.  Lots of time, and that requires conditions on the birthing planet to be constant and mild for a very long time.  How many other planets out there will fulfill those requirements?

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Bugs On Other Planets

One topic that comes up frequently in discussions of life on other planets is the question of how life got started on Earth in the first place.  Did it develop here all by itself under the pressure of the energy present in sunlight, or was it dropped here by an asteroid or comet or passing piece of space rock that landed and seeded the infant Earth?  No one has the answer to that question right now, and many years may pass before anyone can give a definitive answer.  But simply raising that question puts us here on this little blue planet in a rather awkward position.

We Earthlings will eventually journey to other worlds.  We’ve already been to the moon and no doubt left some of our germs there.  That probably isn’t a terrible situation since none of our germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi and fungal spores, etc.) are likely to survive there for more than a short time.  The moon is so inimical to life that a problem probably doesn’t exist.  True, some bacterial and fungal spores may last for a long time, but unless they were seriously protected, the radiation from the sun likely killed everything soon after the Apollo astronauts left.

But eventually Earthlings will travel to other planets and moons, and the sterility problem may not be so straightforward.  Some moons of the outer planets in our solar system are thought to possess large amounts of water, in some cases in the liquid form, which could potentially be the breeding grounds for microorganisms.  In that case, an Earthling spacecraft landing there could potentially introduce Earth organisms.  The spacecraft would have to be decontaminated, but I’m not so sure that total decontamination of a spacecraft, even unmanned and remotely operated spacecraft, could ever be achieved.  How can you guarantee such a decontamination?  How do you take a “decontaminated” spacecraft on a trip from Earth that far out into the solar system and guide it down to the surface without getting it contaminated?  Decontamination would have to result not only in the killing of microorganisms, but in their total removal as well.  The process of decontamination usually only kills microbial life, it doesn’t necessarily remove it.  Foreign, if denatured, DNA and RNA could still be present on a spacecraft even if all the tests we usually do to check for it (viability, microscopic, PCR, etc.) come up negative.  And seeding DNA in any form on a pristine planet is the most egregious form of Earthling arrogance I can think of.

Therefore, I propose that Earth-based spacecraft stay away from any moon or planet which could have water, such as Europa.  Don’t seed the planet with a “decontaminated” spacecraft, however well-intentioned.  One tiny microbe may be all it takes to “seed” a planet or moon.  Let’s maintain the sterility of the system.  Flyby missions which only take pictures and make scans are okay.  The Moon and Mars are already contaminated, much to our chagrin, and should be allowed to remain the only two.  We have walked on the moon, and we will walk on Mars, and may even walk on asteroids and other waterless, atmosphere-minus planets.  Let’s leave it at that.  I would hate to see Europa or Callisto or Titan or others pockmarked with Earth probes.

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The Mask, Revisited

Back on April 11, 2011, I wrote a blog on using a mask (like, for example, a surgical mask over the nose and mouth) to protect yourself from the obnoxious and dangerous things that sometimes foul our air.  I noted that there are different types of masks, and each must be used properly for it to work.  Pollution requires one type of mask, surgery another, dust another, protection from organic vapors still another.

But as I watch television of disasters, generally in other countries because Americans are not big on wearing masks, I still notice that most people who use masks don’t use them properly.  The major guiding principle in wearing a mask is that in order to work, the air must pass through the matrix of the mask.  A mask doesn’t work if there are holes in it, or if it is worn improperly so that it doesn’t fit the face.  It has to be air tight all the way around.  I see so many people wearing the old-fashioned rectangular surgical-type mask in inappropriate situations, and with an opening on each side.  The air that person is breathing is flowing in and out through those openings, not through the mask itself, and as a result, the person is getting absolutely no protection at all.  Why wear a mask if you aren’t going to use it properly?

(By the way, most hospitals now use masks that fit tightly around the nose and mouth, and have stopped using the older, rectangular masks.)

So, what should you do if you want to wear a mask to protect yourself from bad airborne stuff?  First, get the proper type of mask.  Second, read the directions and fit the mask to your face so that it is air-tight all the way around.  The most common mask, the type that used to be worn in surgery, can protect you against some airborne particulate matter such as dust, and perhaps even pollen, but not all, assuming you get it fitted tightly.  It won’t protect you against air pollution since air pollution consists not only of particulate matter, but also of gasses such as oxides of nitrogen and sulfur and other unpleasant stuff, and that type of mask won’t filter out airborne gas.  If, on the other hand, you’re working in a woodworking shop where wood dust predominates, get a mask that will filter out that type of dust.  If you are exposed to organic vapors, as I was when I was staining and finishing some wood projects I’ve made, then a mask with cartridges that absorb organic vapors would be the right choice.  In short, get the right type of mask and wear it properly.  Just throwing on a surgical mask may not work in all situations.  Just saying…

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The Agent/Writer Disconnect

I’m no expert on the topic I’m going to talk about here today, but I do have an opinion, and like all of us opinionated bloggers, I’m going to share it with you.  I’ve been trying to interest a literary agent (or publisher) in my science fiction novels for many years now, more than I care to admit.  So far, nothing has happened.  I haven’t published any novels yet and I don’t have an agent, so I can’t be considered terribly knowledgeable or qualified in this topic, but I would like to point out something that I feel sometimes (perhaps a better word would be “frequently”) gets lost by many writers in the same situation as me, i.e., those still looking for an agent.

When I read over the stories I’ve written, whether it be a part of one of my novels, or a short story or novella, (or blog post) I read for certain specific things.  I look for grammatical errors such as misspellings, comma faults, verb/noun agreement, proper pronoun antecedent, and so on.  Also I look for smooth writing, that is, can it be understood easily by someone else.  I look for redundant words or phrases.  I look for inconsistencies, for example, if I say someone has red hair on page 7, does that person still have red hair on page 307?  I look at each word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter and ask if each of these items is absolutely required.  Does it advance the plot or show a person’s character or give essential background information?  All of these are important in a novel or short story.

The same goes for any other person’s writing which I may have the opportunity to read.  A writer’s critique group will examine other’s writing in the same way.  It’s always good to have another person(s) look at your writing.  You can’t see everything in it.

But–and here’s where my lack of experience comes in–I suspect an agent looks at a book somewhat differently.  Granted, any agent is going to look at the writing with an eye toward the aforementioned topics, but that’s not all.  It’s an agent’s job to sell the book to a publisher, and to do that, he/she is going to want that book to be the best it can be.  But it also has to be saleable.  It has to meet that agent’s idea of what constitutes a book he/she can actually sell.  If zombies are selling now, a zombie book may catch an agent’s eye better than something else.  Agents have to sell it; they won’t get paid if they don’t sell the book to a publisher who, in turn, has to take a chance on it.  That’s an extra layer of discernment an agent applies to a book that most writers don’t think about.  I certainly didn’t understand that for a long time until I began to look at my works from an agent’s point of view.  I’ve gotten many rejections from agents which say “I’m not the one to represent this book” (or words to that effect), which means, basically, “I don’t think I can sell this book,” or “it wouldn’t be commercially viable.”  I’m not sure that my re-evaluation of my works in this light has done any good, though it has led to some changes I might not have otherwise made.  Perhaps to the better, perhaps not.  But if you’re starting to query agents, remember they add another layer of evaluation.  Just saying.

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Write What You Know

The title of this little post is a command issued to all new writers as they first try their hand at putting clear, compelling words, sentences and paragraphs on paper.  “Write what you know,” they’re told over and over  At first glance it sounds reasonable, even a little obvious.  But it comes back to bite and sting if a person gets careless and tries to “fake” knowledge.  If I can put it more broadly: you’ve got to know what you’re talking about.

Suppose you want to write about medicine (to use a field I’m familiar with).  Let’s say you’ve got a novel going and one of the characters is a doctor.  Whether a main character or secondary, it doesn’t matter.  In order to be taken seriously as a writer, all of the details about that doctor, including dialogue, mannerisms, actions, habits, and so forth, have to be realistic and correct.  You will have to do some research about doctors and nurses and medicine in general before you can write convincingly enough to keep from having your readers throw your book down as silly and absurd.  You have to know what you’re talking about.  For example, I can remember seeing some old movies and early television shows where the writers obviously didn’t know what they were talking about, and many of the doctor and medical shows had several really obvious and glaring errors in them.  They didn’t do their homework and it showed.

It isn’t all that difficult to find out a few important facts and figures about the subject you’re writing about.  A little research goes a long way.  Whether you use the internet, the library, one-on-one interviews, e-mail interviews, or whatever, the important thing about doing research is that then you will know what you are talking about.  Even knowing a limited amount about a subject is better than going into it blank.  You will have the knowledge, you will have the expertise and your stories will be all the better for it.  The concept, “Write what you know,” will still be as valid as ever.  If you don’t know much about medicine, you’d be really stupid to try to wing it.

In many cases, it may turn out that you don’t use all the knowledge you’ve accumulated, but you should know enough that what you do write will be accurate.  Take the time to do the work and it will show.

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Zero

Have you ever considered the zero?  (0)

The zero is a unique digit.  It indicates nothing, that is, that nothing exists.  It’s the starting point for counting, or to put it differently, before the counting has begun, and even though the first element in the counting process is one, zero is where we begin.  “One” is the first of the counting, true, but we have to start at the zero in order for everything to come out correctly.  It’s also the midpoint in the list of numbers from positive to negative.  It holds a place where nothing exists, and it forces the decimal point to move either to the right or left, depending on where it is placed.  A lot of zeros indicates either a really large number, such as 1,000,000,000, or a very small number, such as 0.00000000002.  In short, zero occupies a special place in our numbering system.

Apparently the first use of the zero was in India, around the seventh to ninth centuries, AD.  I did a little research on this unusual digit, and found out a lot about it, but I wasn’t able to find out much about the thing that, for a long time, I’ve considered most unusual about it.  That is, how did the zero get to be used to indicate a multiple of ten?

Our decimal numbering system uses ten digits.  But we don’t use ten digits to indicate the ten fingers we have on our hands (which is a common reply to the question of why we have ten digits in the first place.)  The ten digits are 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.  But logically, if it were up to me to design ten digits to represent our ten fingers–and in the absence of any other numbering system–I would have made: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and some other digit to represent the tenth finger (the pinky on the left hand?)  But that’s not how our system works, and I can’t figure out how zero came to be used in that manner.  Or, to put it differently, why do we repeat a digit and add a zero to get to the “tenth” digit?  It isn’t logical.  Granted we’re very familiar with this system we call the decimal system, and we’ve used it to make some astounding discoveries.  But the zero must have some unusual history behind it.  Anybody got any ideas how zero came to be used that way?

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Normal…Or Not?

I finished reading a science-fiction novel a few days ago, a book I enjoyed reading and highly recommend.  It’s called The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, originally published in 2002.  The book concerns an autistic man (his name is Lou) who is given the chance to become “normal.”  That is, he can take advantage of a procedure that will remove his autism and make him like everyone else.  The chance to become “normal” is presented near the beginning of the book, and the majority of the book concerns Lou’s difficulty in deciding whether to take advantage of the treatment.  (I won’t give away the ending, I suggest you read the book and find out if he accepts it.)

Elizabeth Moon, I found out after I read the book, has an autistic child, and her knowledge of autism certainly shows in the structure of the plot.  She gets into the head of Lou in an exceptionally strong manner, and we are treated to a highly educated treatment of autism.  I know little about autism, but what goes through Lou’s head, at the very least, sounds realistic.  Lou is a part of a group of about six very high-functioning autistic people who work for a large corporation, but they have their own special section and do specialized work that “normal” people either can’t do or would have considerable difficulty doing.  Lou looks for patterns in materials presented to him on a computer screen, patterns that “normals” wouldn’t see, because he notices patterns in everyday life on a regular basis.  He lives by himself, drives a car, commutes to work daily, does his own shopping, and generally functions well in life’s routines.  Lou’s struggle to decide whether to take the treatment stems from the probability he would lose his pattern-recognizing ability.  He would become “normal.”

But as I read the book, that word, “normal” became somewhat of a problem for me.  I wondered if it was being used correctly in that sense, and that’s why I’ve been putting it in quotation marks.  To me, “normal” is an absolute.  Something or someone is either “normal” or he/she/it isn’t.  The other side of normal is “abnormal,” and the point was made in the book that Lou and his friends were certainly not “abnormal.”  They were neither  “normal” nor “abnormal.”  Lou got along with others well, and had many “normal” friends.  Clearly there’s a disconnect here.

The problem stems from the fact that humans, in terms of behavior and mental capacity, fall into a very broad spectrum, and there’s a very fuzzy line between normal and abnormal in that spectrum.  The term “normal” doesn’t allow for that spectrum.  I’m not a psychiatrist nor any sort of mental health worker, but schizophrenia is clearly “abnormal.”  Some schizophrenics can be totally in their own world and don’t react to our world at all.  But who’s to say someone like Lou is “abnormal?”  He certainly has abilities most of us don’t, but does that make him “not normal?”  I think the word “normal” is to blame for the problem.

My thesaurus defines “normal” as “common” or “usual” in one sense, and as “sane” or “rational,” in another.  It also gives other synonyms for normal, but I tend to gravitate toward “usual” or “average” as a better term than “normal” for Lou’s situation.  “Average” has quantitative connotations not present in “normal.”  “Normal” is so absolute; “average” implies a bell-shaped curve centered around a midpoint.  Lou isn’t “average,” and he would be well to one side of the midpoint, but he isn’t “abnormal.”  If we use the term “average,” it’s a lot easier to see where Lou, and other autistics, reside in relation to the rest of the population.  Normal doesn’t do that.  “Average” is what the treatment he struggles to decide about would make him.  It would bring him closer to that midpoint where the majority of us exist.

Are you “normal” or “average”?

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