Archive for January, 2012

SMON and the Destruction of a Career

Have you ever heard of SMON?  I have.

SMON stands for subacute myelo-optic neuropathy.  The disease doesn’t exist anymore, but it was prevalent during WWII in Japanese soldiers in the Pacific Theater of War.  Nobody knew what caused it until after the war when it was found to be caused by a diarrhea medicine given to the soldiers.  The medicine had side effects on the nervous system leading to blindness and other neurological complications.  At one point, it was the most common neurological disease in Japan.

Well, it turns out that three companies in Japan manufactured the drug and when the Japanese government announced the cause of the disease in, I believe, the late 60’s or early 70’s, two of the companies agreed with the government and ceased production of the drug.  By this time, the disease had spread to the civilian population because in Japan, physicians were allowed to receive royalties from the drugs they prescribed.  Kickbacks, if you will.  But one company refused to accept the government’s decree and it set out to find a different reason for the disease.  They enlisted a researcher named Inoue, and gave him free rein to do what he had to to come up with a different cause.  Inoue was a friend of the chairman of the Virology Department at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston where I was employed at the time, Joe Melnick.  Melnick got me to work on the project and introduced me to Inoue.  By this time, Inoue had decided a virus caused the disease, and even identified the general virus group he said it belonged to, the herpes virus group, related to the virus that causes cold sores in humans.

I got a few samples of Inoue’s “virus” and the tissue culture cells he grew it in and began my own tests.  It turns out the virus was non-existent.  It didn’t exist then, now or ever.  When a virus grows in cells in culture, most of the time it produces visible changes in the cells, that is, they get sick and die and turn all sorts of weird shapes that are characteristic of the virus.  But when I inoculated “SMON” virus  into his cells, the only changes were due to the fact that the cells were dying because they were getting old and they’d used up the nutrients in the liquid medium they were immersed in.  I tried many tests to identify the presence of a virus in those cultures, but I never could come up with anything that looked like a virus at all.  Not even close.  I left the project after a year and a half and got into environmental virology, and about another year and a half later, Dr. Melnick refused to renew my yearly appointment and I left Baylor.

But Melnick and Inoue didn’t stop.  They had money and it rolled out their ears and into their laboratories.  Eventually they became so sure of the presence of this virus they named it after themselves, the Melnick-Inoue virus.  Talk about arrogance–naming it afer themselves.  The scientific papers of the virus still exist; go to PubMed and look up the name.  I don’t think any of the papers have been retracted; as far as I know the “virus” still exists, but only in their imagination.

After that, I got into clinical virology in Cincinnati.  I was all set to have a career in environment virology, but it didn’t work out.  In any event, I eventually got into writing and here I am now, blogging on something that happened over thirty years ago and trying to get a couple of novels published.  Oh, well, enough said.  Back to work.

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“It’s A Wonderful LIfe,” well, most of the time.

A few days ago I decided to make a list of my favorite movies, around a hundred in all.  This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment deal, I’d made a list several years ago, but I put it on some older type of media, like a 3 1/2 or 5 1/4 inch disk, or perhaps a Zip disk, and now the computer I’m using won’t read any of that media, so it’s essentially out of reach.  That means I had to make another list and generate it all over again from scratch.  I’ve got about 60 titles so far.

If you looked at the title of today’s blog, you might just assume that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is on the list, maybe even at the top.  Well, it’s not.  Either place. Were I to make a second list of the movies that didn’t make my top 100, that movie might be on it.  The reason it’s not in my top 100 is because there’s one thing I’ve never been entirely satisfied with in that movie.  After Clarence (the angel sent to Earth to help George Bailey with his troubles) takes George into an alternate reality in which George has never been born, George runs around trying to make sense of it all, never believing that Clarence really had the power to make it happen.  George never believes it.  Personally, I’ve always found this section of the movie a little unbelievable.

But not that Clarence couldn’t do it; I can accept the premise of the movie that Clarence has the power to make that kind of transition, I just never accepted George’s insistence on not believing it.  I can understand his reluctance to believe it at first, but after a few hours of being confronted with the fact that no one in the town of Bedford Falls knows him, remembers him, or cares about him, and everything, including the town name, has been changed, his insistence on continuing to not believe it seems dreadfully unlikely.  Were I in George’s position, I’m sure I’d come to the eventual conclusion that something has really happened, and then I’d probably play along with Clarence and at least act like I believed it.

Recently I’ve seen some of the old Twilight Zone episodes from the 1950s and 1960s (yes, I know how long ago that was–the episodes are in black-and-white) where a character has been transformed in some way, and so often the writers of the episode push–like George Bailey–believability to the limits and force the character into more and more unrealistic situations.  It seems to me the average person will begin to realize he’s been ripped from his usual life and forced into something else reasonably soon after it happens.  At that point, he’d stop and try to figure out how to get back, or if that isn’t possible, how to live within the new situation instead of continuing to fight it like good ol’ George.

Believability is important in a work of fiction; even events and people in science fiction have to have a ring of authenticity to them.  The reader has to be immersed in a consistent, credible plot line in order for the story to work in his brain, alternate reality or not.  On the other hand, if a character does act weird, there’d better be a damn good explanation.

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Kirk and McCoy–Let’s Get Real

Over the years since it premiered in the mid-1960’s, Star Trek has been on TV almost continuously.  (I’m talking about the original series, not one of the spin-offs.)  I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve lived since that time and have always enjoyed it.  I watch it over and over.  It seems timeless, and except for the limited budget sets and cheap special effects, it is still as relevant today as then.  But recently, now as I am learning to write novels and stories and becoming acquainted with the techniques and processes of writing, I find myself looking beyond what the writers put into the script, that is, into the reasons behind their choices of words and actions.

Most of what the writers did I have no quarrel with.  They made a good sci-fi TV series, and I’m not here to critique it to death.  But I do have one point to comment on, a point which arises in novel writing, and even in short-story writing.  This is the idea that there must be “conflict on every page.”

I’m somewhat against that notion, though not totally opposed to it.  In order for a novel or story or drama to capture and hold an audience, conflict, or at least some sort of tension or disagreement or contention must be going on, if not out in the open at least simmering under the surface.  Otherwise the story is too dull to be interesting and readers will put it down and not care.  But what the writers of Star Trek did goes well beyond the “conflict on every page” routine.  So often, I’ve noticed as I watch many of the episodes for the umpteenth time, Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk are involved in a yelling match (usually it’s McCoy who starts the argument because of an order that Kirk has given) for no real reason.  I get the distinct feeling that the writers put the argument in because they were expected to produce some sort of tension or conflict to keep the audience’s attention during what ordinarily would be a low point in the script.  Many of the arguments are obviously forced; the order that Kirk gives which sends McCoy into a spasm of distemper is so often a small decision which frequently follows Starfleet’s SOP and isn’t something to get indignant about in the first place.  I’m frequently nonplussed by McCoy.

This is why I don’t subscribe to the “conflict on every page” theorem.  Not because it’s not a good idea, but because it can result in forced conflict, placed there simply to follow the dictum.  Conflict, if it exists in a novel, should flow naturally from the story; a good story will generate its own conflict and it won’t require the author to find something for the characters to argue about simply to make sure there’s conflict on the page.  I’ve tried to follow this procedure as much as possible in my writing.  I’ve got two novels finished (but not published–stick around) and I’ve tried to make any conflict logical and reasonable and arising from within the plot.  Not easy to do all the time; it results in some low points every now and then.

Then again, maybe that’s why my novels haven’t been published.  Any agents reading this?  What do you think?

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Clyde Tombaugh and Pluto

Much has been said and written over the past several years about the downgrading of the planet Pluto from its position as the ninth planet in our solar system to what is now called a “dwarf planet.”  In other words, it just didn’t quite make the grade as a planet.  Astronomers like planets that do predictable and sedate things, like orbiting the sun in a nice, almost circular orbit, and sweeping the area around them clear of debris.  Pluto just didn’t do that.  It’s so small, almost a small as the Earth’s moon, and it orbits the sun in a weird ellipse that actually crosses over the orbit of the next planet inside it, Neptune.  This frustrated classic astronomers and they reacted by downgrading Pluto to dwarf status.

That really upset the friends and relatives of the person who discovered Pluto in the first place, Clyde Tombaugh (1907-1997).  How could they do that, they wail.  How can you call a planet a planet one minute, and then pull the proverbial rug out from under it the next?  Well, I have to say I agree with the astronomers on this, although I do sympathize with Tombaugh’s supporters.  Here’s why.

This downgrading of Pluto shouldn’t be looked on as a demotion of Tombaugh, nor as a denigration of his work, nor as a minimizing of his contribution to science and astronomy, it should be thought of in a whole new sense.  Tombaugh is still a great astronomer, still deserving of all the accolades he accumulated.  His work still stands alone.  After all, he discovered Pluto in 1930, when astronomers had far fewer instruments to help them in their sky searches.   He knew what he was doing.  The discovery of Pluto wasn’t an accident; he didn’t find it while he was doing something else.  He knew exactly where to look in the sky because he calculated where it should be based on its gravitational effects on the planet Neptune.  He spent hundreds of hours looking at photographic plates of the sky, comparing one with another to see if anything changed from one night to the next.  And he honed in on it like a cat on a mouse.  (Okay, bad analogy, but you get the point.)

All of this actually increases Tombaugh’s status in astronomy, not decreases it.  Yes, I said increases.  The reason is, he discovered, not a planet–and here is why I agree with the astronomers–but the first of a whole collection of objects that orbit our sun way out beyond Neptune and even beyond Pluto, called Kuiper belt objects.  There are thousands, probably even millions of them out there, most so small they can’t be detected very easily.  Pluto is the largest, and it’s so close in (relatively speaking) it could be discovered and tracked.   Many comets that enter our solar system come from this belt; Halley’s comet is probably a Kuiper belt object because it swings in around the sun then travels back to the belt.  That’s why it takes so long from one appearance to the next.  This was a great accomplishment for an astronomer working in the 1930’s and we shouldn’t be lightly tossing it away.  Kudos to Tombaugh.  But we who are inheritors of his legacy need to see him in the correct light.

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A Book or Two…

Well, it sure feels good to get back to blogging again after a week off for Christmas.  Now that the new year has arrived, it’s time to look back at the old year and summarize just what it was that made the year good or bad or indifferent.  In a personal sense, of course.  (The economy and Kim Kardashian’s exploits notwithstanding.)  Personally, I think that’s a better way to use my time than setting up unrealistic resolutions that get broken in less than a month.

First, I got a good critique of the manuscript of my first sci-fi novel from a well-known book doctor which led to a major revision and now a really tight manuscript that should be attractive to an agent or editor.  Let’s hope so.  I’ve been sending out query letters to agents, and just recently got the manuscript printed out and ready to send to a publisher.  The publisher wants the whole thing, and I expect to mail it in a day or two.  I’m hoping for a better reception by a publisher than an agent.  With no other publishing credits in fiction (scientific papers don’t count), attracting an agent is an iffy proposition.  I may spend this year trying to get some short fiction published.

Second, I got a lot of good reading done.  The following is a list of the books I read this year.  These are new books, and this list doesn’t count the older books, purchased in years past that I delved into for either information or entertainment.  First, the non-fiction books (in no particular order).
    Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach  If you want to know how to take a crap in outer space, this book’s for you.  And other things otherworldly, of course.
The Black Hole War, by Leonard Susskind.  His war with Stephen Hawking over black holes and quantum mechanics.
Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides.  The epic story of Kit Carson and the conquest of the American West.  Highly recommended.
A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.  The premiere primer on the environmental movement.  Highly recommended.
A Stolen Life, by Jaycee Dugard.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.  A convenient history of the universe, DNA, and lots of other stuff.

And fiction, of course.  Again in no particular order.
The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman
Busted Flush, edited by George R.R. Martin and written by a group of people too numerous to mention here.
Embedded, by Dan Abnett
Hidden Empire, by Kevin J. Anderson.  The first in the Saga of the Seven Suns series.
Dark Space and Chaos Space, both by Marianne de Pierres.  The first two books of her series, The Sentients of Orion.
Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi
The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin.  I have to comment here.  This is not her best work; it doesn’t measure up to The Left Hand of Darkness, or even The Telling, both of which I read several years ago.  I was disappointed in the style; so much of the story is merely told to you as the reader, instead of letting the characters act it out.
Solar, by Ian McEwan  Highly recommended.
A Matter of Time, by Glen Cook
Transition, by Iain M. Banks
Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya.  Not science fiction, a coming of age story about a boy growing up in eastern New Mexico on the Llano Estacado (the “Staked Plain”) in the years after WWII.  Highly recommended.

Now it’s time to get back to reading.  I have six books on my reading table (actually it’s just a table at the end of the couch), one of which, Regenesis, by C.J. Cherryh, I have just started.  I’m looking forward to this year.  It’s shaping up well.

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