Sunday, March 31, 2013

Who's Your Distant Ancestor?

Back when I was in grade school, I remember one of my sisters preparing a display for her high school science fair project. In that project, she compared Neanderthals to Cro-Magnons. I don’t remember what kind of grade she received, but I found her project fascinating. Two types of humans, living at the same time! I wondered what their interactions would have been like.
Since then, the same question has been explored in various medias. Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear made a big splash with readers as it followed the life of a young Cro-Magnon, also known as a modern human, who was raised by Neanderthals, if I remember correctly. Various educational shows on TV have been made about the Neanderthals, the Homo Sapiens, how they were different, how they were alike, and how they might have interacted before the Neanderthals died out.
The impression I’ve gotten over all these years was that scientists didn’t feel these two species of humans had interbred, and I wondered why they thought that way. Neanderthals are depicted as kind of squat, hairy, with a heavy brow, broad noses and receding chins. I could look around and see people who had those attributes, although it’s usually one per person, not all of them. But no, it seemed we were determined to blame our own ancestors for killing the last of the Neanderthals.
At last, a skeleton has been discovered in northern Italy that appears to be that of a mixed breed. Although mostly that of a modern human, the jaw displays a receding chin. The DNA reveals this person had Neanderthal mitochondrial (maternal) DNA. So it would seem the two species did interbreed, at least once.
Which opens up a whole new mess of ancient ancestors we didn’t realize were in the gene pool.
Sometimes when I’m working out the background for a story, I pick 2 or 3 genetic things to track throughout the population and then work out how those attributes manifest in the population over the generations. The gene for dark hair, for instance, will dominate a gene for lighter hair, and blond will dominate red hair. But after a few generations of almost all the people having dark hair, you will start getting a generation or two of lots of blonds, and a few redheads will crop up. The number of blonds will ebb and flow; the number of redheads tends to remain fairly steady.
I never thought to track the occurrence of receding chins.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

When Science Catches Up with Science Fiction

When I was young and first started exploring the universe through reading, science fiction was considered far more fiction than science. In those stories, ships routinely traveled throughout our own solar system and to planets far away that were either colonized by humans, had its own intelligent population, or both.

By now, people are aware that cell phones were inspired - at least in part - by the communication devices portrayed on the original Star Trek series. We also now have a space station orbiting Earth, as imagined by so many sf authors last century. And thanks to the Kepler telescope, we are becoming aware that our planetary system is not the only one.

In fact, the Kepler telescope has only examined a tiny fraction of our galaxy, and has already discovered thousands of planets, including some that are possibly earth-like, of the proper size in the ‘Golden Zone’, within the distance range from their star to support liquid water. They could be suitable for colonization. Or they might already have an intelligent species we could trade with. Whether we trade artwork and merchandise or bullet-equivalents remains to be seen.

It appears that when we are ready to start exploring outside our own solar system, there will be plenty of places for us to go, just like there were in all those sf books I read as a kid. Science is catching up with science fiction.

At the same time, science has created new branches to explore, which today’s sf writers are using as a springboard to create their futuristic tales. In a few more decades, we get to see science catch up with some of those stories.

I can’t wait.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

If it Walks Like a Duck...

I’ve been reading magazines like Archeology and Popular Science, trying to learn The State of Science So Far. Many of the articles in these magazines are fascinating and could serve as a spring board for stories.

One article was about a group who were designing robot legs that could walk like a human. The legs don’t exactly look human; there’s a couple kevlar straps (used as muscles) in the back that - when contracted - are outside the thigh, connected to the calf by a plastic flange. But the results move much more like a human leg than other robots have managed.

I was very excited a few years back to hear about Asimo, a child-sized humanoid robot that could walk. But I was disappointed when I actually saw it in motion. Slow motion, that is. Asimo would lean to the right a bit, pick its left foot up straight for about an inch, move the left foot forward a couple inches and put it down, repeat for the other side. And at all times, the foot remained parallel to the floor. It was a strange gait, rather painful to watch.

Besides a different system of ‘muscles’, the new method of robot walking also makes use of something like a human’s subconscious. A human learns to walk, and then leaves the actual giving of instructions to a corner of the mind. We don’t have to actively think, ‘Lean, lift by bending, swing foot forward, lower, adjust balance...’ The people making this new robot gait removed such calculations from the robot main processor and gave this skill to a separate processor.

This particular robot only has legs and feet right now, but I am beginning to anticipate a real android - a robot made to look (and act?) like a human. Data of STNG, the androids in the Alien movies would be examples, although I swear I remember old tv comedies about robots paired with a human to see how well they ‘blended in’. Could that happen soon in a neighborhood near you?

I was also amused to read in this article that one problem the team had to solve was that the hard plastic of the feet’s soles could not grip the floor. They debated about other materials to use for the soles until somebody put a pair of Keds on the robot.

If it walks like a human, it deserves the right footwear, don’t you think?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What a Character

There was a point in my life when I read a lot of westerns. I read so many, I began to recognize authors I liked. And then I realized I had read a number of books by one particular author who had only one main character.
Each protagonist had his own name, and the details of his existence differed (slightly) from all the other protagonists, but as far as the character of all these characters, they were the same person; taciturn, gentle, logical, intelligent, even-handed, knowledgeable, frugal, probably secretly rich, and when push came to shove, the best tracker, the best horseman, the best and fastest shot in the west. Reading about such a ‘superman’ once or twice is kind of fun. But I can’t relate to a superman protagonist, can you? I don’t want them as a solid diet; I’d rather read about people who are more like me – complex and not perfect.
I try to keep this in mind when I’m working with my characters. Luckily, all my characters have different life histories, different things they want to accomplish, different problems to overcome. I even go so far as to figure out what their birth order was. I am well aware that a youngest child and only daughter will act differently than the eldest adopted daughter or the middle, unusual daughter who didn’t fit in.
I have a lot of characters living in my mind. They move in before I start writing about them, tell me their story as I write it down, and then stick around, occasionally whispering a tidbit they ’forgot’ to tell me before. You’d think my mind would be housing a huge fight, it’s so crowded, or else a big party. Well, okay, each has happened, upon occasion. But one thing I haven’t been able to avoid is that all these characters have a little bit of me in them, so most of the time, they quietly get along.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Superhero Romances

Not too long ago, I was reading Publisher’s Weekly magazine when I came across an article about Marvel Entertainment and Hyperion Books are teaming up to produce 2 novels. They will be aimed at women readers by starring 2 of Marvel’s super heroines, She-Hulk and Rogue, who will not only fight villains, but also search for a decent guy they can date.

My first thought was, ‘They have got to be kidding!’ Why does that old myth still exist, that even the strongest, most independent women are really just looking for a man who will complete them as a person?

Then I remembered that this was Marvel, the company that almost went overboard (in my opinion) in showing that their super heroes had the same emotional overload as regular people. And most ‘regular’ women do enjoy having people – and a particular partner – with whom they can share their life; someone they can laugh with who will be there to help them get through the hard bits that sprinkle everyone’s life.

Romance is the largest genre of books sold. So I suppose I can’t be too surprised if Marvel – who originally aimed to entertain males with tales of super heroes – now wants to broaden their audience by whispering tales of romance. I have been known to put some romantic tones in what I write, too.

On the other hand, both Marvel Entertainment and Hyperion Books are owned by Disney. Disney has taken some of the grimmest fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers and cleaned them up into quintessential romances, where the young woman in question is rescued by her very own Prince Charming, and they live Happily Ever After.

This is not what I want to happen to She-Hulk and Rogue.