I try to spend at least an hour a day in the garden. It’s good for my daughter and it’s good for me. I’m sure it’s good for the garden too. As soon as the spring sun peeps from behind the last winter cloud, I don my sturdy boots and stiff new gloves and set to work pulling out all those weeds I was able to ignore when snow or leaves covered the ground.
When I lived in Texas, I battled with more than weeds. The previous year’s vegetable patch often continued to enjoy success in the form of tomato and cucumber seedlings popping up in the most unexpected places—usually the middle of the lawn. Often, I mused that if we went away for a month, we would return to find a tangle of cucumber vines covering the lawn, robust tomato plants poking up between. Sometimes, instead of plucking them out, I just mowed them down, curious to see if they would shoot back up by the end of the week. They did.
The fact the phrase “Let’s Talk about Science” is running through my head to the tune of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk about Sex” is probably a fair indicator I’m not qualified to talk about science. But, you know what? Science is the new sexy. It’s hot. And I’m going to talk about it.
At the moment, I’m listening to a series of lectures presented by one of our sexiest scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s called The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries. First of all, Tyson is a wonderful orator. He’s engaging and personable and his enthusiasm for his subject matter is infectious. Second of all, I haven’t listened to a lecture in about…well, it’s been a long time and we all know my math is spectacularly bad.
(here’s where I digress a little)
Sadly, my inability to cope with math is probably the reason I’m not a scientist. Yep, I thought about it. The idea of solving puzzles for the rest of my life held a lot of appeal to teenage Kelly. I didn’t really like biology but I loved chemistry. At the end of tenth grade, I applied to take Chemistry II. I was turned down because of my C average—and I get that math failures in chemistry can be really, really bad. But my advisor did ask why I wanted to continue studying something I wasn’t very good at. When I answered that I enjoyed it regardless, she suggested I try physics. I did, and I loved that too. I got another C, but my teacher, bless his heart forever, allowed me to advance to honors level physics in my senior year. Why? Because he knew I was trying really hard to get the math right, and most of the time I did. I could do pages of equations without missing a beat. Unfortunately, they were usually the wrong equations. He also understood that I loved the subject and that was why I tried so hard.
No college would have accepted me into a science program with my grades, but that wasn’t the point. My interest in science was encouraged regardless, and I am forever grateful. I’m also thrilled by the steady influx of science into our everyday culture. We have more science fiction on TV than ever before. Kids are reading it. Kids are practicing it! Have you seen The Martian yet? You should, because beneath all the science (not dumbed down but thankfully edited for cinema audiences), it’s an incredibly human story.
(okay, I’m back on topic)
We’re all interested in science, whether we develop a lifelong fascination with it or not. One of the first questions a child asks is “Why is the sky blue?” It’s a proven thing. It’s also a very human thing. Once we establish and become familiar with our immediate area, we look out and we look up. We’re endlessly curious about what’s over there, what that tastes like and why things like the sky change color—and don’t fall down on our heads. My definition of science is asking questions and looking for answers, which is why The Inexplicable Universe is such a fascinating listen. There are so many questions we haven’t answered.
When you start reading about science and figure out how much of it is guesswork and how much of it is proven through experiments that are completely bizarre, you have to wonder how some of our most eminent scientists lived long enough to pen their theories.
In a lot of instances, it goes something like this: (omg, I made a flow chart)
Okay, we know A exists because we can see it, but we don’t know why it does what it does. So, let’s say there is a force/particle/undiscovered something-or-other at work and test as if that exists too.
Option 1: Nothing happens, so a different test is devised.
Option 2: Boom.
Option 2a: The explosion reveals new information, resulting in the need for further experiments.
Option 2b: Really, there are endless options here…
Option 3: Experiments confirm something is there. We still can’t see it.
Option 3a: Name it, catalog it and devise a new series of experiments to further study it.
You’d be surprised how often Option 3a happens. Some of the best known things in the universe have never been seen. Their existence is proven, but no one knows what they look like. One of these things is the electron. Seriously, no one has ever seen an electron. We don’t even know what they’re made of. Current theory is that they’re so small, we may never see one. We may never even be able to describe how small they are. But we know they’re there. How freaking bizarre is that?
Think about how much of our understanding of our world is based upon something we can’t accurately describe.
Don’t be. I’m the sort of person who needs to touch something to figure it out. So it’s probably good I didn’t embark on a scientific career—poor grasp of mathematics aside. I’d have had a very frustrating life. But here’s where we get to the point of this ramble: I don’t necessarily to have to understand science to think about it. To read about it.
To write about it.
I write science fiction romance with my BFF Jenn Burke. Neither of us is a professional scientist. That’s okay! Back in 2008 I attended an SF Roundtable at the New York Comic Convention. I can’t remember all the authors there, but I do remember the question and answer that helped me decide I could write science fiction. The discussion/question began with the inevitable “How do readers react when you get it wrong?” They complain, of course. There are people whose entire existence is justified by pointing out how wrong you are. This led to the spin off question, and my reason for being: “So how do you make sure you’re getting it right?”
Reading, research, experiments, interviews, shoddy flow charts and something called the black box. If you don’t know how it works, stick in a box and say it works. Don’t describe the mechanism or the parts or, God forbid, the science, just call it a quantum celery actuator and tell us what it does. Forget the why. It’s a magic box.
The black box theory isn’t new. It’s a well-known thing used to…wait for it, describe the unknown. Hey, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. After feeling for a long time that I was not well-educated enough to write science fiction, I’d been given a remarkable tool, one that has been employed by such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton.
Now, I don’t shove everything into multi-colored boxes and call them flux capacitors. I’m still interested in science, in exploring it and explaining it. When preparing to write a scene that will involve knowledge of some fundamental scientific concepts—such as how explosions appear in space, and how far we can tweak an atmosphere before it becomes unbreathable—I do conduct research and my method is actually pretty scientific. I extrapolate and backward engineer stuff.
I also make stuff up all the time because that’s what writers do. (It’s also what scientists do.) I assume my characters are far better at math than I am and I take a lot for granted. But for the big stuff? I don’t need to tell you how the engine of the Chaos works. That’s not going to further my plot. But I can make it stop and make it go. I can have it confound my engineer, and mess with the day of my crew. I can theorise and tinker. Because story telling is something of a science too.
My fascination with cloning borders on the morbid. It’s akin to my terrible habit of looking up my symptoms on WebMD and diagnosing myself with meningitis. The ‘what if’ factor is just that extreme. I’m not alone, however. Cloning is the subject of much fascination, in fiction, television, and political debate.
Why do we find the idea of replicated humans so…creepy?
I think expectation plays a large role. As a whole, human beings are not fond of change. New science is often regarded with suspicion. It’s all dark magic until it becomes an indispensable part of our lives. Techniques such as artificial insemination are still considered immoral and unnatural by many, even though the term ‘test tube baby’ is no longer much of a slur.
But creating a whole human from a skin sample? It’s fascinating and scary. Fascinating because—wow, we can do this? Yeah, we can. Someone, somewhere, is cloning someone. They’ll be doing it to prove they can, because someone paid them to do it, in defiance of prevailing attitudes and laws, and because part of being human is exploration. Most of us are born with the need to see what’s over there, on top of that, and off the edge of the map.
Who they’re cloning, and why, is the scary part. I think the biggest question about clones, however, is identity. Who will they be? Kelly v2.0 or Kelly (July 21)—assuming my clone is born today. Or, will the new Kelly actually be dated from the skin sample (or cells) used to create her?
I was reading an article in Vanity Fair (August 2015, “Game of Clones”) about cloning polo ponies. The first page had a picture of a beautiful horse—and yet I couldn’t look at it without feeling slightly uneasy. The article is fascinating and when it lands on vanityfair.com you should check it out. The most interesting aspect, however, was the idea of cellular memory. The breeders noted that cloned foals seem more self-aware from a younger age. For instance, they can’t be kept with the other foals because they might try to fight or mate them—well before the age where hormonal behavior should become apparent. Another cloned horse is as afraid of garden hoses as her original.
These instances (and more) are cited as part of the reason this particular operation will not consider human cloning, despite having been approached by determined and wealthy individuals. Think of the implications of cellular memory in a newborn:
“Can you imagine having a baby that is born with memories of extreme happiness or extreme sadness? I think what you may do is have a child that is born insane because it cannot process what’s up there”…
(Alan Meeker, “Game of Clones”. Vanity Fair, August 2015)
Sobering thoughts, eh?
In a light-hearted example, Kelly 2.0 might have the memory of many, many stupid accidents. Kelly 1.0 is clumsy. Will this make my clone more or less careful? Will the memory (or not) of a few concussions (yes, really) prompt her to never leave her crib. Ever?
I’d rather not examine my mental foibles and what they could mean for a just-conceived version of me. I think that’s something we can all ponder on our own—and the process might be similar to looking up our symptoms online. Imprecise and frightening. Or, we could read a book (“Send in the Clones!” Tor.com, July 7), or hit up Netflix for past episodes of Orphan Black. Perhaps really scare ourselves with The Boys from Brazil. Ninety-four clones of Hitler, anyone?
It’s interesting to note that clone stories are almost universally cautionary tales or simply tragic. Of more personal interest is the fact I’ve read over half of Tor.com’s list of thirteen books about clones. I must really like scaring myself—it’s the concussions, I know. Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is one of those books that has haunted me since I read it, some thirty-five years ago. And thhough John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War does have fun with cloning, the essential message remains the same: who are these people, and what rights do they have?
The clone story that will always stay with me, though, like a bur under my skin, is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The book saddened me, the movie adaptation wrecked me. I think if ever there is an argument against cloning, that story is it. But, as I said before, we are explorers, and if we can think it, we will do it. Someone is already doing it—and they might be living in the United States, because while seventy countries have outlawed human cloning, it’s still legal here.
It’s not all bad. Cloned organs are saving lives. I don’t think I need to spell out the significance of that, however. Someone really needs to write a good, positive cloning story. If you’ve got one, or heard of one, I’d love to hear about it. 🙂
(Featured image for this post was sourced from freeimages.com and is credited to Flavio Takemoto)
Ever heard the saying: There is no such thing as a stupid question?
Ever hugged those words to your secret self while your cheeks flame and your lips tremble, while you wish, fervently, that a bus would appear out of nowhere and mow you down?
Rather than assume your imagination is a little less vivid than mine, I’ll go ahead and suggest you actually consider your questions before asking them.
I do, too. Sometimes. But odd questions keep dancing from my brain to the tip of my tongue and tripping through my lips before I can stop them. Thankfully, I have access to the internet.
I know, I know, I shouldn’t believe everything I read online and, trust me, I don’t. Even if the answers to my stupid questions seem utterly plausible and/or really cool. My bullshit sensor is finely tuned. I’m usually the one who points out the hoaxes to my friends. And when researching for a fictional project, I always check my sources.
But for a quick fix, for the answer to most questions, the internet is just the thing!
Take my most recent question: What would happen to a man trapped inside a hadron collider?
(It was a story idea, all right?)
After tossing around a few ideas with a friend (who is not only amazingly tolerant, but used to my odd theories), I opened a browser window and went surfing. To my delight, I found a wonderful video answering a question just like mine. A find like that always deserves a moment of jubilation. Not only am I not the ONLY person to have asked such a weird (stupid?) question, but someone else was sufficiently interested in the answer that they traveled to CERN to interview scientists!
Imagine my thrill. Go on, I dare you.
The video is a thing of awesomeness. Not only does it answer my question, in full and gruesome detail, but the reaction of the scientists is just priceless. NONE of them had considered such a question before. They were surprised anyone would. WHY would you even think about putting your hand in a hadron collider? Why not, I say. Isn’t that what science is all about?
I recently read an article highlighting the 150 or so things definitively smart people worry about. Actually, I didn’t finish reading it. I got bored by number thirty-one, mostly because I didn’t understand some of the answers and others seemed designed to make me feel stupid. Yet others questioned the question and a couple actually made me giggle. I started skimming after the reminder of small apocalypses. I worry about those all the time, I don’t need a reminder smart people are worrying about them as well.
The list, produced by an the online magazine called Edge—which has been described as smartest website in the world–has been condensed for better digestibility by Vice and begins with: The proliferation of Chinese eugenics, the concern of evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller. In the first instance, I had never heard of evolutionary psychology. I think I can nut that one out, though. In the second instance, I had to look up eugenics. The word was familiar and in certain context, I might have caught the meaning. Here? No. Thankfully, I have the internet. Right, according to Wikipedia:
So, wild guess: Mr. Miller is concerned about the (a) practice of genetic manipulation in China? I could be completely off the mark, but assuming I’ve hit the edge of the dart board, I sort of understand the concern. Genetic manipulation could produce some viable nightmares. There are moral issues, sure. It could also produce some pretty fascinating advances in health and medicine. From a writer’s perspective… There are too many ideas to write down. I’ll forget them all before Evernote opens. There is a full explanation of the answer available at Edge. Given I barely understand the concept, I’m not sure I’d understand the rest, however.
Am I being deliberately dumb? Not really, I’m just being lazy, and that’s another worry dictated by the list.