De scripturae romanicos physicales

Thoughts upon subjects directly or indirectly relevant to the writing of science fiction.
  • People seem to think DNA records information. But it doesn't. DNA is no more an information-storage medium than a player-piano or Jacquard loom is a computer—because that's what DNA is, a very complicated, chemical version of the rolls in a player-piano or the cards in a Jacquard loom (and no, none of those is actually "information" either). DNA and RNA do not "tell" anything how to make a protein; particular regions of them actually make the proteins—"template", the term used in polypeptide synthesis, is a manufacturing term, not a computer term. There is no information involved.

    There's a reason this misconception exists; it's a constant refrain in the grim dirge of human history. Humor theory came into existence in an era when hydraulics was cutting-edge tech. Descartes's "ghost in the machine" was in the heyday of clockwork, when half the cities in Europe were competing over who could build the most elaborate Glockenspiel. And this idea that DNA is information comes when the cutting edge of technology is computers. (If we enter an age dominated by biotech, I expect we'll see a Renaissance of hylozoism.)
  • I have elsewhere mentioned that the Bechdel test is worthless. But I thought it would be fun to illustrate why. Queen's Blade passes it. Triage X passes it. The anime of Blade and Soul passes it. Sekirei even passes it, and it's a harem/super girlfriend show.

    See, the Bechdel test is based upon a proxy-measure, so, like all proxy-measures, it's extremely unreliable, and can yield disastrously or at least ludicrously false positives. (That aspect of proxy-measures is why all "litmus tests" are suspect, religious tests for public office as much as stupid checklists for writers.)
  • I must correct myself: the time-dilation planet in Interstellar is not that way due to the planet's gravity. It's that way due to the gravity of the black hole it's orbiting. (Its time-dilation is "one second inside is seven years outside", which is to say a factor of 220,903,200.)

    Not that the origin of the time-dilation changes much; that level of time dilation means they can probably literally stick a hand out and touch the event horizon. The tidal effects at that distance mean the planet would probably have crumbled up and fallen into the black hole, leaving nothing behind but a plume of hard radiation. Long before that, the gamma-ray Hawking radiation as the black hole dissolved would've fried the planet into a lifeless cinder. Which is also what would happen to any ship approaching it. Also, that close to the black hole? The escape velocity is so close to lightspeed, it pretty much is lightspeed for all intents and purposes.

    Christopher Nolan should be known henceforth as Christopher J. Nolan—to commemorate the fact he obviously belongs to the Bert I. Gordon/Robert L. Lippert/Edward D. Wood, Jr. school of sci-fi filmmaking. (It's kinda like "Mark David Chapman" or "Lee Harvey Oswald" or "James Earl Ray". Actually, in "quality cinema" terms, it's exactly like that.)
  • Zledo, given their size and the fact they're in many respects more like a bird than a mammal, have a significant advantage in space-travel—and dogfights. See, apparently what determines your odds of going into G-LOC ("g-force loss-of-consciousness") is your blood-pressure: the higher the better. And if zledo are more like birds than like mammals, well, their "mean arterial pressure", given they're the same mass as an ostrich, is 145.5 mm Hg (ostriches in one study had a MAP of 165-220, while in another they ranged from 60-137; the average is 145.5).

    Humans' MAP ranges from 70 mm Hg to 110 mm Hg, so the average is 90. (I would use a more typical "systolic over diastolic" number, but that's not the format I get ostrich blood-pressures in, so I'm using the same stat for humans to get an apples-to-apples comparison.) Also notice that all but the lowest value for the ostriches is higher than the highest healthy one for humans; the 60 mm Hg ostrich (which is the minimum safe MAP for a human) was probably in some kind of trouble. (Not unlikely given those ostriches were sedated—you go take the blood-pressure of a conscious 300-pound omnivorous dinosaur, if you got a problem with that.)

    Huh, logically, that means women would have higher g-force tolerance...but only after menopause. (At which point I would imagine their risk of bone trouble more than makes up the difference, given that ejector-seats will literally make you shorter.)
  • Has anyone else noticed that all of the female villains in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are that way because of something men did to them? Whedon got precisely what he deserved from Twitter feminists (not because there was anything wrong with Black Widow in Age of Ultron, but because when you ally with cannibals, eventually you wind up on the menu). While he might be a good little feminist ideologue, he actually doesn't seem to like women all that much.

    Now, in reality, of course, all villains should be motivated by something sympathetic; everyone in the real world is, with precious few exceptions. No, that historical figure you just thought of isn't an exception; that minor psychopath who makes his private life a living hell, that that other one of you thought of, might be one. But also, the fact is that women are much more likely to do things on behalf of other people than for abstract principles; study after study shows a marked difference in how the sexes conceptualize things like "duty". So it's quite likely that a female villain is likely to be acting from obligation to someone else, to protect those she loves or because of the ideals and goals of some other villain. Lady Macbeth was not something Shakespeare just made up.

    But that is not the same thing as every female villain only being that way because of abuse by men. Hell, most of Whedon's heroines are the same way; River, everyone in Dollhouse, Buffy herself when Whedon feels like denouncing his own characters and setting for things he made them do. (You know, like how the problems with Alien 3 and Resurrection are the fault of the director not spinning the straw of Whedon's script into gold.) You could chalk this up to Whedon being a by-the-book academic Marxist feminist theorist—the class-war arises from the oppressor (even in revolt the proles are dependent, in case you needed another reason to hate Marxism). But it's interesting that even a lot of feminists are starting to realize the problem, although (like Western Marxists confronted with the gulags) they claim it's because Whedon was never really a feminist, rather than because feminist ideology actually has a very low opinion of women.
  • Why do people in science fiction always age weirdly quickly? Not, like, in an Oisin/Urashima Tarô "what do you mean time-dilation isn't fairyland" kind of way; I mean how they die or are ancient at ages that are relatively young now. The lady running the station that gets Compiled in Halo 4 is supposed to be 51—but she looks a bit old to be early 50s by modern standards, let alone 26th-century ones. Or how Ripley's daughter died of old age, in Aliens? Yeah, well apparently in 2179, "old age" means 67, because Alien was set in 2122 and the kid was 11. People don't usually die of old age at 67 now!

    It's hard to find realistic projections of future lifespan, what with all the transhuman cultist-cranks running around, but it is quite reasonable to project lifespans over 100 years by the middle of this century, and probably a few decades longer for the 22nd-24th. On average, I mean; there would be people living for decades longer, just like we don't particularly raise our eyebrows at the occasional 90-year-old or centenarian.

    In order to determine what is or is not "old" for your setting, in terms of how characters are viewed by other characters of their society, what you do is, you take your projected future lifespan, and you compare it to modern ones. Say, e.g., that a woman in your future can expect to live to 114, where now she can expect to live to 81. Well, the average age of menopause now is 51, for your future setting, you divide 51 by 81, and multiply it by 114—menopausal women in your setting are just under 72, so, quite literally, their 50 is our 35. (Not sure where you put menarche: it happens earlier now than in most previous eras, between our better nutrition and the hormones in our water from contraceptives, among other things.)
  • The aforementioned transhuman cultists and their silly ideas about immortality (it's just barely conceivable that humans might someday live to 300, but immortality...not so much, or rather, snerk, not so much), are just one of many ways that people reveal themselves truly unable to cope with the scale involved in this cosmos. You see it also with environmentalists (many of whom are admittedly transhumanists). They really do think humanity can actually do something to "nature". In reality, even something like the Chicxulub impact is far beyond our capabilities—our entire planet's nuclear arsenal has a yield of 7,000 megatons, i.e. 7 gigatons. But Chicxulub was 100 teratons, i.e. 100,000 gigatons—i.e. 14,285 and 5/7 times our entire nuclear arsenal. And as you may have noticed, life on Earth survived Chicxulub (you could strip the planet's surface of life by nuking all of it, perhaps, but the relatively few detonations involved even in a major Mutually Assured Destruction nuclear exchange would leave the vast majority of the planet essentially untouched).

    The simple fact is that, physically speaking, human beings are, individually, 70 kilos of volatile chemicals in an equilibrious arrangement, and collectively, we don't even mass half a trillion kilos (490 billion is 10 billion short). Yes, we can screw things up, causing drastic problems for local ecosystems wherever we are. But life on Earth as a whole? It barely knows we're there. Hell, if you don't happen to be looking at the night side of the planet, when all our electric lights are lit up, you wouldn't be able to tell there was a technological species on this planet. Did you think it was odd that the very same people who embrace transhumanism's promise of giving humans godlike power should also espouse the environmentalist ideology's belief that humans are evil? Nonsense. Both ideologies are two sides of the same coin: total overestimation of humanity's capabilities. Or as House put it, "Technical term is narcissism. You can't believe everything is your fault unless you also believe you're all powerful."

    Speaking of human beings and their flawed estimations, how many environmentalists do you think understand that our conception of "normal" for this planet's climate is completely off-base? All human civilization—indeed, most of the genus Homo—has existed in an interglacial of the Quaternary Ice Age, which started 2.6 million years ago. But for most of the planet's life-history, there haven't been any ice-caps; the Antarctic one formed in the early Oligocene (33-odd million years ago), while the estimates for the Arctic one range between 700,000 years ago (the middle Pleistocene), and 4 million (the early Pliocene). Antarctica was in much the same place it is now, in the Cretaceous, but there was no ice-cap. (The other Ice Ages were the Huronian, which lasted from 2.4-2.1 billion years ago, right after the Great Oxygenation Event; the Cryogenian, AKA "Snowball Earth," which lasted from 850-635 million years ago and included the greatest glaciations in Earth's history; the Andean-Saharan which lasted from 450 to 420 million years ago; and the Karoo Ice Age, which lasted from 360 to 260 million years ago.)
  • People need to knock off the comparisons between freefall and diving. This was occasioned by a discussion of whether any astronauts had ever had sex in space, and someone said "Well, if divers do it..."

    But divers might as well be home in bed, compared to freefall. First off, if you're floating in water, you are by definition not falling. Does nearly everyone when they first get into the water, diving, throw up? Because that's what people do when they first get into freefall. Your circulatory system is also messed up, because the whole thing is used to having to push against a gravity well; you get blood pooling in your upper extremities. Possibly because of something with your circulation, or because of something else being out of whack, you also lose a lot of immune function.

    (Incidentally, it's extraordinarily unlikely that anyone has ever had sex in space, or ever will until we develop some kind of artificial gravity; certainly there is no evidence for it, other than one proved hoax and one, possibly two, totally unevidenced and very doubtful rumors about particular astronauts. Aside from the fact that for the first few weeks, people spend a lot of time "just having thrown up", which is not exactly sexy...you have the, uh, circulatory issues. Blood-flow is kinda important to sex, you know? And finally, there's basically no privacy up there. Maybe enough for changing clothes, but for sex? Very doubtful.)