Archive for May, 2015

The Alien Paradox

Enrico Fermi is credited with asking the question that forms the basis for “Fermi’s Paradox.”  That is, where are all the aliens?  Why haven’t we been visited here by aliens from another planet?  There are so many stars in our galaxy, and many of those stars, even perhaps all of them, have planets orbiting around them.  Surely some of those planets must have life existing on them that has developed the capability of traveling the galaxy and visiting other stars and planets.  With hundreds of billions of stars and maybe ten times that in planets, where are they?  Why haven’t we seen them?  Why hasn’t someone landed and said, “Take me to your leader?”

I’ve seen articles recently that attempt to answer the question by postulating several hypotheses.  One of the most common is, “It’s too far—they can’t get here.”  That hypothesis usually falls to the argument that a sufficiently advanced civilization should be able to build and send out a ship large enough to allow space explorers to live out their lifespans and spawn ancestors as the ship sails through space.  A sort of “Genesis Ship.”  Any visitors to our planet could be descendants of the original spacefarers.  That would take an immensely large ship, but who’s to say it couldn’t be done?

That hypothesis also falls to the argument that perhaps an advanced civilization has learned how to open a wormhole, or failing that, to use an already existing one, and travel from one section of the galaxy to another with just a short hop.  Who’s to say that couldn’t be done?

Generally, we tend to argue ourselves out of almost any supposed block to long distance space travel.  It can be done, we confidently assert.  And, we continue, here’s how.  And we launch into detailed explanations of how they could get here.  So, where are they?

Let me throw out a different possibility: perhaps we have been visited here.  Maybe they’ve come in droves, and they’re all around us.  Maybe they came many thousands of years ago and left, muttering something to themselves about nothing here worth visiting.  Perhaps they set out space buoys to warn other travelers away.  “Don’t go to that blue planet.  It’s worthless.”  After all, we still do see UFO’s in the sky.  Not all UFO’s have been identified.  Some are balloons, some are government projects, some are airplanes, some are blimps, and so on, but what about the ones we can’t identify?  It seems logical to me that if aliens were to visit us here, they’d want to keep their presence quiet.  For whatever reason.  How can you read the mind of an alien if you don’t even know whether it exists in the first place?

Any alien capable of traveling the galaxy, or through a wormhole, might also have developed the capability of masking his presence to the point that we don’t even know he’s here.  In that sense, the Romulan cloaking device of Star Trek might not be so farfetched.

Here’s looking at you.

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The Bell-Shaped Curve

As an unpublished writer, I don’t have the experience of seeing reviews of my books on Amazon or some other web or paper-based site.  Perhaps soon, though.  However, I’ve heard from and spoken to a few writers who seemed to be surprised at the reviews they’ve gotten, especially negative ones.  I’ve decided to steel myself against reviews, both bad and good, by retreating to the information tucked away in the bell-shaped curve.  I suspect most of you who read this blog are familiar with that curve: it’s high in the middle, and tapers off to almost nothing at each end.  It describes so much of human life.  We hear how professors in college grade on the curve so that most of the middle grades will fall in the center where the curve is largest, while the extremes of grades, the A-pluses and the D-minuses will fall at each end.  The assumption is that students in a class are concentrated roughly in the center, near the B-minuses and C-pluses.

I’m going to make another assumption too, that reviews of my books will fall on a similar bell-shaped curve.  I may be wrong in the long run, but that’s my expectation right now.  I figure that most reviews will be moderate, and fall in the center.  I may get several excellent reviews, and there almost certainly will be those who take in inordinate amount of pleasure in panning my books, as well as others, and give them totally despicable reviews.  I feel that anyone who publishes a book must realize that reviews are going to be both good and bad.  So, I figure, why sweat it?  There will be positive and negative reviews, sure, and some in the middle.  Certainly, a writer would like his reviews to be skewed toward the good side.  After all, no one wants bad reviews (even though they say bad reviews can help a writer by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies.)  But you have to take the bad with the good and look for a variety of reviews.

I’ve heard some writers say “Never check your Amazon reviews.  It’ll just drive you crazy.”  I haven’t decided whether I want to be the type of writer who checks his reviews repeatedly and incessantly, or ignores them altogether.  But I am assuming the reviews will fall somewhere along the bell-shaped curve.  If they do, I won’t be surprised.

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Most of the time now, I’m retired from a life of research.  I worked with viruses most of my professional life.  Now I’ve moved on to trying to write science-fiction novels.  Writing is more than an excuse to keep busy, though; it’s a permanent part of my life and I enjoy the time spent in front of a computer creating characters and situations and locations for them to act out.  New planets and suns, and asteroids and moons—these are my life now.

But there’s a part of my life that I’ve somewhat outgrown recently.  That is, my hobbies.  I still maintain that hobbies are essential for a complete lifestyle and are a good way to help take the mind off the frustrations of the daily grind.  I have several that I indulge in more or less frequently, but the most important and the longest-lasting hobby I’ve ever had was model railroading.

I’ve had an interest in trains since I was old enough to know what they were.  I’ve always enjoyed riding them or watching them or taking pictures of them.  And it seemed natural many long years ago to start building models of them and to set up a model railroad in the basement or a spare room or wherever I could find the space.  But model railroading is more than just a diversion from novel writing.  There are actually a lot of similarities.  First, however, let’s look at the overall concept of model railroading.

Building a model railroad comes under two broad, general headings: use a real railroad (usually referred to as “the prototype”) as a system to model, or devise a fictitious railroad and make up things as you go along.  I’ve done the second most of the time.  This is where the similarity to novel writing begins.  People who model a real prototype frequently make models of real objects and events.  They make their engines and cars resemble the prototype.  They use place names of real towns and geographic features.  And so on.  But those of us who make up fictitious railroads have to come up with fictitious towns and all the other things that populate a railroad.  We generally use concepts and operating practices from prototype railroads, but we put everything in a fictitious situation.  And that’s a lot like developing a novel.

A novel is a fictitious story, but placed in a recognizable world.  Even in science fiction, a world has to be realistic and consistent.  It won’t do to have alien creatures living within the core of a star somewhere where the temperature can reach millions of degrees.  Likewise, in a model railroad, the layout has to be realistic.  It has to feature not only the railroad, but houses, stations, industries, stores, towns, bridges, rivers or arroyos, mountains and hills, valleys and depressions, and so on.  It must sit in a lifelike environment or be totally unbelievable.  So I’ve graduated from building fictitious worlds on a board in a spare room with choo-choo trains running round and round, to placing those worlds on a computer screen and going round and round with readers, critics, editors, and other publishing personnel.  There are frustrations, sure, but overall it hasn’t been such a bad transition.

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Jurassic Park

There’s a new Jurassic Park movie coming out this summer, and it brings up a question I’ve had percolating in my mind ever since the first Jurassic Park movie was released.  I liked that first movie—I thought it reasonably well done.  It had excellent special effects and a believable story line, at least for a sci-fi movie.  It wasn’t a war type or superhero sci-fi movie either.  Some of the attempts of tension and conflict were a bit overdone, but the one thing I’ve wondered about ever since I saw that movie is whether the science that upholds the story would actually work.  Is it possible to recreate dinosaurs in our time?  My answer is an overwhelming no.  Here’s why.

The premise of the movie is that we take the contents of the stomach of a blood-sucking insect such as a mosquito who just ate a blood meal from a dinosaur and got trapped in amber (a form of fossilized resin) and held there for 65 million years (since the dinosaurs died out).  We humans extract the DNA and use it to recreate the dinosaur it came from.  It sounds reasonable, but there are several caveats that suggest it isn’t likely to work.  First, we have to assume that the insect has been in that amber for all those 65 million years.  Just because an insect is encased in amber doesn’t mean it came from the dinosaur era, unless we can identify it as an insect that lived only during the time of the dinosaurs.  Second, even if it lived then, the DNA in that insect’s stomach has also been there for 65 million years.  That’s one helluva long time, and it’s extremely unlikely the DNA would still be in a form we could work with.  It will be so degraded it won’t look like DNA anymore.  It would be almost useless.  DNA has to be stored at a very low temperature to remain workable for any length of time.  That’s the way I treated it when I worked with it in my lab, and that’s standard procedure for all labs that work with DNA.  That piece of amber would be exposed to high variations in temperature for all those millions of years—hot, cold, hot, cold, etc., and that can damage DNA.  No telling what that DNA would look like when we got ahold of it.

Third, when that insect took a blood meal, it treated the blood as food.  As soon as the blood got into its stomach and intestines, the digestive enzymes began to work on it and degrade it.  Even if that insect got trapped in amber within a few seconds after its meal, the enzymes would continue to work for a short time until the death of the insect stopped them.  By then, a lot of the DNA could be so would be useless.

Fourth, the protocol for recreating a dinosaur assumes that we extract the DNA and fill in any holes with modern-day reptilian DNA such as alligator or turtle or snake DNA. But if the dinosaur DNA is as badly damaged as I suspect it may be—let’s assume at most one percent of the dinosaur DNA remains (and that’s a big assumption)—then ninety-nine percent will be modern-day reptile DNA.  In that case, all we’ll get is a modern-day reptile with a little bit of dinosaur DNA.

I say forget the science behind Jurassic Park.  Just enjoy the movie.

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Pike’s Peak Writers Conference – 2015

I made my yearly trip to Colorado Springs this past weekend to the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference, and I thought I’d make a few comments about the meeting.  Overall, it was one of the best writers conferences I’ve attended, and I’ve been to several.  My criteria in judging a conference is based on the percentage of the number of talks and discussions I attended that were actually helpful to me in my writing or publishing or marketing.  This year, all I attended were.  (In previous meeting they haven’t always been.)  Since there were many more sessions available that I could attend in the three days of the meeting, I had to select the ones I thought would be most effective for me.  That wasn’t difficult.

I attended sessions on writing short stories, writing combat in science fiction (that’s right), how to pace a novel (excellent), constructing a critique group (eye-opening), a great session on the essentials for powerful fiction, one on using personification and metaphor, and even an enlightening session on shams and scams.  All were filled with delicious tidbits of information essential to the burgeoning writer.  Any one of which I could expand into a full blog post.

But what I want to concentrate on for this post is a comment that was made in one of the sessions that a protagonist, in order to feel real—that is, three dimensional—must be many things.  The example the presenter gave was Sherlock Holmes.  Make no mistake, Holmes is many things.  Conan Doyle went out of his way to make sure.  Holmes is a brilliant analyzer of human activity, yet he’s addicted to cocaine.  He can be gracious to his guests, but at times can be maddeningly discourteous.  He can be alternately brooding or pleasant.  He sometimes takes his friend and colleague Dr. Watson into his confidence, but sometimes doesn’t.  In short, Holmes has many dichotomies.  He can be one or another.

So often in learning how to write, we are taught to be consistent.  Consistency is important, to be sure, but not in every case.  This frequently comes up in science fiction.  If we construct a fictitious world on a dry, barren desert planet, it wouldn’t do to have the hero of the story step out onto a green meadow in a spring rain.  Our protagonists and even antagonists must be consistent in their actions and responses, we are repeatedly warned.  But the example of Sherlock Holmes indicates that consistency is not always the best case.  All people, especially the protagonists of our stories, are a bag of contradictions.  It’s not enough to have a person with a brilliant mind as the hero.  That person must be made real.  And one very effective way to do that is through the use of dichotomy.  A brilliant university professor might beat his kids at home.  Superman was afraid of kryptonite.  Dichotomy is the key.  Don’t be afraid to present opposites in your characters.  All humans are flawed, regardless of what they think or say, and bringing this out in the story only humanizes them.


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