Pharyngula

Peggy has an excellent discusion of the peculiar attitudes towards biology held by physicists and engineers, which includes this wonderful complaint by Jack Cohen:

In summer 2002, I was at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Lots of biologists presenting, for sure. But… one very popular event was a presentation by three famous astronomers: ‘Is There Life Out There?’ I prefaced my first question to them by a little imaginative scenario: three biologists discussing the properties of the black hole in the middle of our galaxy. It was very clear that the astronomers really believed that they could discuss ‘life’ professionally, whereas everyone saw biologists talking about black holes as absurd.

Oh, and let’s get started on how SF treats biology…

Authors, film producers and directors, special-effects teams go to physicists, especially astrophysicists, to check that their worlds are workable, credible; they go to astronomers to check how far from their sun a planet should be, and so on. They even go to chemists to check atmospheres, rocket fuels, pheromones (apparently they‘re not biology….), even the materials that future everyday clothes (not only spacesuits) will be made of. They do go to self-styled "astrobiologists", who are usually astronomers or astrophysicists who remember some Biology 1.01 (or think they could if pressed). Between them they invent reptiloid "aliens" (who are cold-blooded enough to do all those dastardly things no warm-blooded American male could do…), feline aliens (who have the psychology of the household cat writ large, especially by more mature female authors…), dinosaur "aliens"…. Or giant ants. Or were they mut-ants, I don’t remember (but how many screen mutations have you seen that change the recipient, not its progeny?). Or a vast array of "alien" human actors with a bit of wax, as easy on the Special Effects Dept as the Pure Energy aliens, or the Aliens on mid-day TV shows who magic things out of the air and see through clothing (do their eyes emit or receive X-rays?), and which otherwise free the writers from having to produce a consistent plot. Or Vulcans who can produce viable offspring with humans (when even our cousins the fish can’t – mermaids are even less breedable than Spock). These people know that they don’t know about physics, or astronomy, or chemistry. Those disciplines are real science. So they get help. But the biology seems so ‘obvious’ to them … and they don’t realise that it feels just the same to be sure and wrong as sure and right! Of course, those of us that agree biologists can see that all those anthropomorphs can’t be alien, they’re vertebrate mammals and must share our ancestry here on Earth. They can’t see that ET can’t be e-t, that the ‘Alien’ doesn’t work – except in its primary purpose, scaring the living daylights out of the audience with the bursting-out-of-chest routine (how can a parasite pre-adapt to immune-responses, and not being felt in the chest when it’s bigger than your heart?). Biology questions don’t seem professional to the people who design these scenarios; it’s like folk psychology or philosophy – everyone has "a right to" an opinion.

There just aren’t many SF authors who do good aliens or even good biology. Sterling and Cherryh come to mind; Brin and Vinge come up with some excellently weird aliens, but sometimes they don’t seem very organic to me, but more like little black boxes of biological contrivance (it’s even worse for authors like Niven—I get the distinct impression they’re just plugging weird components together to build an alien, as if they were assembled with bio-legos). Robinson really gets into ecology, and writes more like I imagine a real biologist would do SF. Bear gets a lot of press as someone who writes about SF biology, but I find his books unreadably wrong, right there in the uncanny valley of using a lot of biological terminology while not understanding the concepts very well.

But of course it’s all because biology is easy, it isn’t a hard science, it doesn’t have any math … all ideas that are completely false, but perpetrated on science-fiction convention panels as willfully and as routinely as you’ll find in creationist tent revivals.

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    Physics describes a deeper level of reality than biology. The regularities that it attempts to describe are limiting factors on what can be, including the structure of life, and its findings constrain what you may postulate.

    There’s also the matter of scope. We only know how life has developed in one particular way on one particular planet. The laws of physics are universal. As a biologist, your evidence is limited to this place, as is your expertise. Physicists’ expertise extends to every point in space-time.

    It’s not arrogance that you’re responding to. They’re just correct attitudes and positions that you don’t like the implications of.

  2. #2 Mrs Tilton, FCD
    June 30, 2007

    What about Niven/Pournelle’s Moties? Heaven knows I’m no sci-fi fan. But I really loved The Mote in God’s Eye. Not for its characters (cardboard cut-outs all; N&P were apparently hoping to achieve Patrick O’Brian In Outer Space, but failed miserably); nor for its portrayal of human society (a confused and unimaginative pastiche). But I was utterly captivated by the Moties. No idea whether such a species could in fact evolve in Real Life, but N&P started with an interesting premise — the Moties’ unusual biology (and if you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil things, but let’s just say their lack of bilateral symmetry is not the oddest thing about them) — and then thought through how this would affect everything about them, down to their politics. It’s one of those books I imagine I’ll be re-reading every five or ten years.

  3. #3 Russell
    June 30, 2007

    The problem, of course, is that science fiction doesn’t really want alien life. It wants monsters and godlings and weremen and vampires and fairies and fantastic races and all the other inventions of fantasy and myth, with the pretext that it really could be, because it is a science fiction story and not a fantasy story. Truly alien life would be wonderfully interesting to biologists. But likely not so useful for a science fiction story.

  4. #4 Russell
    June 30, 2007

    Caledonian:

    We only know how life has developed in one particular way on one particular planet.

    Unless a science fiction author wants to invent some new theory for how life comes about, it seems to me that any alien life ought at least be plausibly evolved.

  5. #5 wolfwalker
    June 30, 2007

    For a very long time, the basic problem with getting the biology “right” in SF was simple: nobody had any idea just how difficult the biology really was, so nobody realized how wrong they were doing it. You can see the same syndrome in the treatment of physics in pre-WW2 SF, especially FTL drives and weaponry. Current theory says FTL travel, even FTL communication, is flatly impossible. With current technology, or even realistically-theoretical technology, it’s impossible to build a hand-held laser weapon, and as for a “stun beam”, forget it. But such things are staples of pulp-era SF.

    But as knowledge of physics became more widely disseminated and the readers got savvier, that sort of thing disappeared, because readers wouldn’t believe it anymore. The same thing will happen with biology in SF. In fact it’s already happening — there’s been some decent biology-based SF published in just the last five or ten years, much more realistic than anything that came before it.

  6. #6 tim gueguen
    June 30, 2007

    The characteristics of TV and most movie aliens ultimately come down to money. Its a lot cheaper to create, and to film, an alien who is a human with a funny bump on their forehead, or antennas, or whatever, than to create alien looking aliens. And often when you do create alien looking aliens they look fake because of budget limitations. Still, people do try. The first season Space: 1999 episode “Dragon’s Domain” had a tenticled nasty that scared a lot of folks back in the ’70s, while the monsters in the season two two parter “Bringers of Wonder” were very obviously non-human, looking sort of like giant walking piles of slime.

    Star Trek: TNG actually came up with an explaination of why the various Trek universe races can breed. It turns out the first technological race in the galaxy were humanoids who spread their DNA hither and yon, where it resulted in the evolution of a bunch of humanoid races physically compatible with each other.

  7. #7 JJR
    June 30, 2007

    One of the things I loved about FIREFLY/SERENITY and their ‘verse, is it proved you don’t need weird aliens to do good SF…

  8. #8 Diatryma
    June 30, 2007

    I think some of the problem is that entry-level biology is easier than entry-level physics– at least, easier than entry-level physics people count as physics. In high school, biology was a lot of vocabulary and memorization, while chemistry was problem-solving and worse memorization, and let’s not even talk about physics when one doesn’t have calculus down yet. Physics begins with a block on a frictionless track, but people look at that and say, “No, it’s simplified so a normal person like me can understand it.”
    Biology includes math, but not at lower levels. Hardy-Weinberg and ecology statistics don’t affect seventh-graders the same way algebra does. We remember physics as impossible math; we remember biology as Punnett squares and matching the term to the definition.

    I’d add Czerneda to the biological SF list, with caveats; she falls into the trap of having almost too traditional of aliens. But if I’ll give SF a pass for FTL travel because it gets me to the right planet, I’ll give it a pass for improbable evolution because it gives me a character with a gun bolted to his carapace.
    Besides, her Species Imperative books have a string of moments like this–
    Dia, finishing book: Wait, there’s a gigantic biological stupid right there.
    Characters in Book 2: Yay!
    Another character: Um, guys? We have a gigantic biological stupid over here. Gigantic biological plot hole.
    Everyone else: Boy, the next three hundred pages are gonna suck.

  9. #9 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    Alas, Firefly got a long of physics wrong. And I’m not talking about their artificial gravity or fusion drives, I’m talking about things like gunpowder needing oxygen to ignite.

    It was speculative fiction, edging into fantasy with River, not ‘science’ fiction.

  10. #10 Jessica Guilford
    June 30, 2007

    I’m not really a sci-fi person, but the last sci-fi I read had an alien that was, psychologically, believably alien, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

    Blindsight, by Peter Watts

  11. #11 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    Firefly got a long of physics wrong.

    That should be *lot, and jen mei NAI-shing duh FWO-tzoo!

  12. #12 Guido
    June 30, 2007

    [quote]There’s also the matter of scope. We only know how life has developed in one particular way on one particular planet. The laws of physics are universal. As a biologist, your evidence is limited to this place, as is your expertise. Physicists’ expertise extends to every point in space-time.[/quote]

    That does not means that physicists can predict the outcome of certain dynamical systems that depends on initial conditions. Yes, you can talk about general things in all space time, no doubt, but when it comes to coplex systems Physics currently does not have that many things to say. And the interactions cease to be simple or trivial. You could say (well, we all, if we have our chemistry right) what are the potential limits of what life can or cannot do (Gasp! X Men are impossible!), but without proper training in Biology , in adaptabilty, back up genes and evolution, you would miss a lot of the picture. We could also talk about black holes and say “gravity is really strong there, you will fall inside and turn into a pulp, no way back”. Some of us could even come up with calculations about temporal dilation at relativistic speeds.

  13. #13 Stogoe
    June 30, 2007

    Personally, I care not for hard sci-fi. Give me your catgirls, your four-armed jumping slimers, whatever. ‘Aliens’ in fiction are just humans with different bits exaggerated, a shell over human agency, like elves and dwarves and fairies. They always have been, because we’re the only thing we know. And that’s okay.

  14. #14 lazybratsche
    June 30, 2007

    For good scifi that’s based on some solid biology, check out Peter Watts’ Blindsight. It’s dark, but good, exploring the implications of truly alien life. The video about vampires that you linked to way back here is actual a promo for that book. Best of all, Blindsight is available online under a creative commons license, so you can check it out for free.

  15. #15 Josh
    June 30, 2007

    If it makes you feel any better, us mathematicians think we’re better than all of you.

    (Said with tongue firmly planted in cheek)

    As for good biological sci-fi. What about Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage or Greg Bear’s Blood Music? I don’t actually know enough biology to know if they were accurate or not, but they seemed convincing to me.

  16. #16 Jessica Guilford
    June 30, 2007

    *cough*

  17. #17 Ritchie Annand
    June 30, 2007

    I certainly wouldn’t put a physicist above a biologist when it comes to life plausibility. Physics can be astoundingly reductionist, and their views on biology can be extraordinarily… weird. Well, weird to someone steeped in biology.

    You have Penrose, who thinks that biology alone is somehow insufficient for consciousness and tries to introduce quantum effects for pieces of a cell where the cell biology explanation is sufficient, you have Hoyle with his tornado-in-a-junkyard argument for panspermia, you have Hawking with his apparent view that DNA complexity is proportional to human intelligence, and the list goes on.

    Physics is a reductionist step away from chemistry, and even though physics has a lot to say about the laws underwriting chemistry, I wouldn’t trust most physicists to make pronouncements on even mildly complex chemistry.

    I daresay that biology is a step away, even from that.

    We may only know how life evolved here, but it has evolved in many different directions, and can give us some good plausibility clues. “How might that have evolved?” is a question a biologist can deliver a decent answer to, and even for fanciful creatures, a good analysis could produce some other insights.

    If you find one species being totally selfless towards another at its own expense, for example, evolutionary hypotheses would tell you that this is not a normal situation, and that it’s most likely to have come about via some other means like taking advantage of another creature’s altruistic tendencies towards tribe or child.

    Emotions are also very likely to play into any particular alien biology, for they are in some wise feedback tools to guide a creature into a better survival position.

    I’ve been enjoying some of the biological world in Julie Czerneda‘s Species Imperative series. Little things like my favorite scene where you find out whether it’s wise to use showers on board an alien ship of thick-skinned aliens. Curiously, the protagonist is a salmon biologist. Hmmm 🙂

  18. #18 Rugosa
    June 30, 2007

    Star Trek’s explanation of DNA compatibility between earthling and other-planet humanoids may be OK for a TV show, but it’s still a biological plot hole. It would be quite an evolutional stretch if populations isolated for thousands of years and living in very different environments didn’t speciate. Vulcans had copper-based blood, for example. It’s hard to imagine that such a major difference in body biochemistry, undoubtedly involving many genes, wouldn’t lead to reproductive incompatibility.

    The difficulties with SF would disappear instantly if SF writers could only admit they’re writing fantasy, not “science” fiction.

  19. #19 llewelly
    June 30, 2007

    I get the distinct impression they’re just plugging weird components together to build an alien, as if they were assembled with bio-legos

    Read N-Space – in which Larry Niven proudly describes himself as doing exactly that. Personally, I think it makes for great fiction, despite biological impossibilities. Niven’s ‘Known Space’ universe relies heavily on things like ‘reactionless drives’ and ‘magnetic monopoles’ which are appallingly bad physics, ‘psi’ – which is magic, FTL (which relies on ‘psi’ – great joke that), and numerous other offenses against every branch of science. Like most SF authors, Niven consulted physicists, astronomers, etc, but only listened if it made the story cooler. In any case, Niven’s best aliens – which are quite unlike his other aliens – are in Destiny’s Road .

  20. #20 Bruno Wroblewski
    June 30, 2007

    Simple solution:-

    Just get some “real” biologists to write some science fiction.
    (Or is it just easier to bitch how abused your concepts are by
    the current batch of writers?)

  21. #21 VJB
    June 30, 2007

    I particularly liked Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: ‘Red Mars’, ‘Green Mars’, and ‘Blue Mars’. It took terraforming Mars by fairly plausible methods over several centuries till the planet finally ended up with oceans! The evolution of the politics of the colonists was treated rather well too, I though. The last book ended suddenly with a little girl dropping her ice cream cone at the beach. Nice touch showing the distance from the beginning. I haven’t a clue about the biology really works and I would question the rates of oxygen and water recovery, but I was willing to suspend being overly critical as it was a good read back in the early 90’s. May read it again to see it it stands up.

  22. #22 TheJerrylander
    June 30, 2007

    Cal,
    shouldn’t firing a gun in a vacuum be absolutely plausible? I mean, we are not talking flintlock/gunpowder on pan here, but shells, which, AFAIK, contain oxidizer, so are not in need of atmospheric oxygen?

    Just wondering.

  23. #23 llewelly
    June 30, 2007

    What about Niven/Pournelle’s Moties?

    The Moties are Niven’s creation (he originally intended to use them in a universe of his own creation), the rest of that universe is Pournelle’s . His description of how he created them (I believe it’s in N-Space, as well as several other Niven collections) is entirely consistent with PZ’s line about ‘bio-legos’ . Mote is also one of my most favorite novels – but PZ’s complaints about SF abuses-of-biology-while-other-sciences-are-respected hit the Mote mark far better than most other SF; the only questionable physics in those novels are the Alderson Drive (which was designed by physicist Dan Alderson) and related gizmos.

  24. #24 Peggy
    June 30, 2007

    Biology includes math, but not at lower levels. Hardy-Weinberg and ecology statistics don’t affect seventh-graders the same way algebra does. We remember physics as impossible math; we remember biology as Punnett squares and matching the term to the definition.

    I would even argue that much of biology, at least at the cellular and organismal level, is too complex to describe mathematically. Or, I should say, too complex to be described by a relatively straightforward set of mathematical equations.

    Truly alien life would be wonderfully interesting to biologists. But likely not so useful for a science fiction story.

    I think that’s the real problem. From a story-telling perspective truly alien aliens are less likely to be interesting, since communication might not even be possible.

  25. #25 Jon
    June 30, 2007

    Alas, Firefly got a long of physics wrong. And I’m not talking about their artificial gravity or fusion drives, I’m talking about things like gunpowder needing oxygen to ignite.

    If I recall correctly, when Jayne needed to fire a gun in a vacuum he had it inside a spare space suit and fired it through the face plate.

  26. #26 PhysioProf
    June 30, 2007

    “The laws of physics are universal. As a biologist, your evidence is limited to this place, as is your expertise. Physicists’ expertise extends to every point in space-time.”

    What is the evidence that the laws of physics are universal and extend to every point in space-time?

  27. #27 CJ
    June 30, 2007

    For good bio-SF, check out Nancy Kress and Paul DiFillipo.

    Stephen Baxter wrote a novel called Evolution, which was pretty cool, I guess. Its protagonists are successive members of the lineage leading to humans –starting Way Back When. Entertaining while carrying some teleological baggage that probably only jumps out at you if you’re especially on guard against such notions –like anybody who’s used to dealing with ID.

    Agree in general that SF aliens are generally not all that interesting, but the idea that authors of SF aren’t really interested in exploring realistic possibilities in extra-terrestrial evolution is belied by the sheer volume of such explorations in the field. Octavia Butler, for one (farewell, Octavia!), crafted some truly weird, yet sneakily sympathetic, alien psychologies. Forget Star Trek –that’s not SF.

    I could go on and on (big SF reader for 25 years), but, in short, the good stuff is out there; it just isn’t alweays the best-known, or the most popular.

  28. #28 O
    June 30, 2007

    I realise that biology does use a lot of maths, and that professional biologists are very, very smart people indeed. It would be easier to make this case, however, if so many university biology professors didn’t seem to be functionally innumerate.

  29. #29 Physis
    June 30, 2007

    The trouble may be that authors feel that they can either do a good, engaging story or can go into exact detail about the science. In the biology, perhaps more so than the physics, this is important, as it determines what kinds of characters can be created.

    Of course, this is a false dichotomy; you can have the hard science and the story, if you choose (and are skilled enough to) to write that way.

  30. #30 The Pale Scott
    June 30, 2007

    Should check out the Rifters series by Ben Watts, a canadean marine biologist, Humans genetically modified to live at a deep sea rift, seeking useful anaerobes….

  31. #31 CJ
    June 30, 2007

    The difficulties with SF would disappear instantly if SF writers could only admit they’re writing fantasy, not “science” fiction.

    There’s a clear distinction to be made, though, certainly, only at the extremes; there’s overlap in the middle.

    If you don’t like the “science” in science fiction, call it “speculative literature.” Because, to my mind, that’s the distinction. SF, contra fantasy, begins with restrained speculation. There’s “magic” of a sort, but the author must have parameters for the use and effectiveness of the particular brand of the “ostensibly impossible” he’s evoking, and then, most crucially, he must remain true to those parameters as the story works itself out. Star Trek fails at all of this, and should properly be regarded as fantasy in scientific drag.

  32. #32 travc
    June 30, 2007

    Ooh, fun.

    Biology suffers from the fact that people deal with living things all the time, so they assume that they have a clue. Actually, education suffers from that problem too… everyone went to school, so they assume that their ideas are relevant/valid in general (but that is for a different thread).

    As for SciFi, we give film and TV a pass on the anthropomorphic aliens for financial/technical reasons. I remember JMS bemoaning the inability to have really alien aliens in B5.

    Some clever folks have worked around this. Joss’s Firefly where aliens are just not needed. Stargate where 90% of the random aliens really are just humans with a few thousand years of separation is my favorite (though some of the writers insist on introducing some annoying humanoid “aliens” too).

    For print, there really is no excuse except for laziness or using SF as a mere vehicle to write about alternative human society/psyc. Lovecraft’s aliens are pretty damn alien. Ursula K Le Guin had great alien(s) in “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” (which the best CIV game Alpha Centauri plagerized).

    Anyway, a number of authors do a good job of just having one or two discrete “breakings” of the laws of physics (FTL travel is most common probably), but then try to keep everything else on the level. Unfortunately, when it comes to biology, we get people like Greg Bear who derive some plot device which makes no sense biologically, then throw mounds of jargon around it to make it sound more plausible to the gullible. To those who have a clue, this technobabble makes add massive insult to injury (and invariably makes the technical errors/implausibility even worse)…

    A final word…
    Some works take a refreshing approach to technological “miracles”: they don’t try to explain them. B5 mostly did well on this point… JMS made a comment once about how the officers on a ship don’t try to explain how the engine or radar works to the captain. (Firefly had some great moments along this line too… “its broke”) The first few seasons of the Stargate TV show did pretty well with us poor earthlings being able to figure out how to use alien tech which did miraculous things, but not really understanding how it works.

    In the context of biology, I could easily forgive some unexplained violations of how reality works (as best we understand it) when they are left unexplained. They could be just common knowledge in the future, or a mystery that even in the future we haven’t figured out… Just don’t explain it incorrectly.

  33. #33 Christian Burnham
    June 30, 2007

    A physicist writes…

    About 30% of physicists I encounter think that evolution is a pile of crock.

    Anyone else find this?

  34. #34 Andrew
    June 30, 2007

    The best sci-fi has nothing to do with aliens in my opinion. Like Asimov and Herbert, but I tend to have to ignore the obvious problems with biology and just enjoy the story as an “alternate” universe where silly biology is possible.

    Some bad sci-fi biology off the top of my head:
    Asimov’s mind-reading/manipulation
    Card’s “Anton’s Key”
    Herbert’s genetic memory
    Hubbard’s “Virus-based” Psychlos with their own “special” air (and the worst movie in the history of film)

    As for TV:
    Star Trek is ridiculous on so many levels, but I watched it anyway.
    Battlestar is fun to watch but way too drawn out.
    Stargate is funny but the endless parade of enemies and mortal peril is a bit played out (hence the cancellation).
    Firefly had the most potential. Too bad nobody watched it.

  35. #35 K. Signal Eingang
    June 30, 2007

    Now this is what I call biology in science fiction…

    Anybody know if “Undifferentiated Tissue” is an old term for stem cells? I’ve always wondered.

  36. #36 Mike
    June 30, 2007

    PZ: maybe you can get some hints from Phil Plait on setting up a ‘Bad Biology’ site.

  37. #37 llewelly
    June 30, 2007

    As for good biological sci-fi. What about Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage …

    Track down Asimov’s essay – I think it’s The Incredible Shrinking People and read it. He describes many of his numerous infractions against science, including many against biology. He notes he hasn’t space (it was a originally a short editorial in a popular SF mag) to describe all the infractions he knew about, and furthermore, is lack of expertise and references in many areas, as wells as human imperfection, meant there were surely errors he was aware of. I know Asimov consulted biologists extensively for several of his non-fiction books, but I don’t think he did for his SF. However, he earned tenure as a professor of biochemistry.
    As Asimov pointed out again again in his numerous essays about his work, what is ‘plausible’ in fiction is about what the audience will accept, not what the evidence discoverable by the author will support. And the SF community had cultivated an audience which accepted FTL and biologically impossible aliens.

  38. #38 travc
    June 30, 2007

    BTW: regarding xenobiology… some physicists have done a good job of learning the basic mechanisms of evolution (which is really systems anyway) and merged it with planetary science and astrophysics. I’m sure there are biologists who have come at it from the other direction… but some physics specialties (or the rare lack of specialty) have a shorter trip. Evolutionary dynamics and auto-catalytic chemistry are really much easier to get up to speed on than geophysics, astrophysics, and such. The basic theories are simple, and the dynamics/math is so difficult that we haven’t been able to derive much beyond them.

  39. #39 SLC
    June 30, 2007

    Re Bruno Wroblewski

    Simple solution:-

    “Just get some “real” biologists to write some science fiction.”

    Excuse me, wasn’t Isaac Asimov a “real” biologist?

  40. #40 Mrs Tilton, FCD
    June 30, 2007

    Ha, yes, travc @30, may I just say that I too found Greg Bear’s stuff in Darwin’s Radio/Darwin’s Children (HERVs jump-starting a speciation event etc.) so much bollocks? (But less bollocks than Blood Music, for the love of Recombinant Jesus!) Too bad, really; he might have done something interesting with those odd bacteriophages…

  41. #41 Brandon
    June 30, 2007

    What is the evidence that the laws of physics are universal and extend to every point in space-time?

    The laws of physics are defined to be consistent throughout the universe. If we found a place where the physics was different, we’d conclude that our laws of physics aren’t good enough and rewrite them as necessary. That’s happening to us right now with the discovery of dark matter, whose gravitational fields repel instead of attract.

    The one exception to this rule is the universe at the very first itsy bitsy unit of time after the Big Bang, for reasons way too complicated to get into here.

    Now your next question is, “Why do we assume physics is universal when biology is not?” Because every object in the universe follows the same laws of physics. We can observe objects over 13 billion light-years away and see they behave according to the same rules as everything else. A physicist’s experimental playground is unfathomably larger than a biologist’s playground, so physics covers a much larger territory. If a SF story took place in another universe, physicists would be just as lost as biologists.

  42. #42 dorid
    June 30, 2007

    I have to grudgingly agree with PZ on this one, mostly because I admit to being guilty of the same beliefs in my misspent youth.

    I recall one year the NYS Regents exams had been stolen, and we could opt out of taking the test if we had a passing grade. I had a good solid A in chem, but I also had a bet riding on my regents test score (if I made 100% my chem teacher owed me 4 bucks) so I went to summer regents class, where I was taught by a biologist… freshwater inverts. It was a joint chem/ bio class (two weeks long) and I never studied, but was doing seat time so I could take the exam. I told the teacher up front that I was only there to win a bet (ok, unlikable ego problem at that age) then when he suggested I learn some bio I scoffed, and told him bio was easy. When he told me his field, I scoffed again, but agreed to take the course to PROVE to him that I could learn enough bio in two weeks to pass the regents.

    I got a “B” on the bio regents… having taken no more than the two weeks. Did my Chem regents in 15 minutes… and on the VERY LAST question I didn’t read the last few words but in a typical fit of 14 year old ego, jumped ahead and did the math… and lost my bet.

    My experience did nothing to convince me that biology was an admirable field of study, and even when my daughter started out in the field I was disappointed that she chose something that was “beneath her”

    Then, of course, being exposed to her work and reading some of the research to keep up with at least PART of her conversation, I learned otherwise.

    I’m not sure where the scorn for bio comes from, but it certainly seems to be something ingrained in our society.

  43. #43 dorid
    June 30, 2007

    BTW, went on to major in Astrophysics in College. I’m ashamed to say we looked down on EVERYONE.

  44. #44 Stogoe
    June 30, 2007

    Stargate is funny but the endless parade of enemies and mortal peril is a bit played out (hence the cancellation).

    No, Stargate got cancelled because SciFi Channel and their parent conglomerates had a hissy fit about DVR and viewers skipping the endless commercials.
    Although it didn’t help that RDA left the show..

  45. #45 Peggy
    June 30, 2007

    Just get some “real” biologists to write some science fiction.
    (Or is it just easier to bitch how abused your concepts are by
    the current batch of writers?)

    Some “real” biologists do write science fiction, such as Joan Slonczewski. (As for Asimov, he began writing full time in the 1950s and was made a full professor long after he stopped actually doing science to honor his writing). The trouble is that writing fiction is a totally different skill than being a scientist. There are few that have both the time and talent to do both. And there’s no reason why biologists need to do the writing to have the biology plausible any more than physicists are required to write fiction with plausible physics.

  46. #46 Mondo
    June 30, 2007

    Peter Watts is a post doc with his PhD in Biology.
    http://www.rifters.com/real/crawl.htm
    He also writes some of the best “hard” science fiction of today, and all his novels are CC and free to read from his website.

  47. Well, to be fair, the Astrobiology folks with SETI are multi-disciplinary, and they have more than a few biologists. I’d be happy to talk about the astronomical aspects of aliens life, just as a biologist could talk about the biological aspects of life on a given planet.

    I would need to hear more about what those three astronomers were discussing (and who they were; do any of them have biology experience?); if it was life itself, or just the conditions expected on other worlds, for example. I don’t think we have enough info from Jack Cohen to make a firm judgment.

  48. #48 Russell
    June 30, 2007

    Christian Burnham:

    About 30% of physicists I encounter think that evolution is a pile of crock.

    With absolutely no pretense that my sample is in any sense representative, and with the caveat that I’m not a physicist, I’ll volunteer that I have encountered quite a few physicists, and worked with a few, and have never met one who thought this. I’m sure that they are out there. But 30% seems quite high to me.

  49. #49 Scott Hatfield, OM
    June 30, 2007

    Caledonian writes: “Physics describes a deeper level of reality than biology.”

    That’s….true, in a trivial sense. We can think of chemistry as the branch of physics that’s concerned with the various ways that matter and energy can arrange themselves, and biology as a branch of chemistry.

    “There’s also the matter of scope. We only know how life has developed in one particular way on one particular planet. The laws of physics are universal. As a biologist, your evidence is limited to this place, as is your expertise. Physicists’ expertise extends to every point in space-time.”

    Um…nope. There are two issues here, one of rhetorical overreach and the other, which is missing the point.

    First, the overreach: while physics looks at the universe, that’s no guarantee that it’s ‘laws’ are universal. There are points in space-time about which virtually nothing is known: 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, for example, or what is beyond the event horizon in a supermassive black hole. Further, there may be more than one universe, and there may be universes which are not ‘lawful’ as presently conceived. As a practical matter, scientists typically start by assuming the lawfulness of the regularities they have discovered in operation in the areas of space-time in the one universe they have experimental evidence for.

    In other words, the scope of physics is greater than biology, granted, but let’s not imagine that its’ scope is either unlimited or even delimited. A little less hubris, if you please.

    Now, the second issue (missing the point). Biology is filled with emergent phenomena which have so far eluded reductionist explanations. This does not mean that reduction is impossible, or that physics has nothing to say about these phenomena. It does mean, however, that in studying these phenomena it is useful to adopt a holistic or systems approach, and biologists have special content, skills, craft knowledge which they gained by (ahem) actually doing biology. One can no more derive these on first principles from physics than one can pass the bar by studying neurosurgery!

    “It’s not arrogance that you’re responding to. They’re just correct attitudes and positions that you don’t like the implications of.”

    Caledonian, if a physicist thinks that they can derive all that is necessary to know of biology from first principles and the laws of physics, that is beyond arrogance.

    Also, your reticence is noted.

  50. #50 jeff
    June 30, 2007

    The real probably is not physics, but that celphalopod-like body plans are inadequately represented in scifi – especially when it’s obvious to any intelligent person that most ET life should be cephalopoid.

  51. #51 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    That’s….true, in a trivial sense.

    No, it’s true in a deep and very important sense.

    First, the overreach: while physics looks at the universe, that’s no guarantee that it’s ‘laws’ are universal.

    You’re confusing our understanding of the laws of physics, and the laws of physics.

    Now, the second issue (missing the point). Biology is filled with emergent phenomena which have so far eluded reductionist explanations.

    Ha! Ha! Ha! Speaking of hubris…

    if a physicist thinks that they can derive all that is necessary to know of biology from first principles and the laws of physics, that is beyond arrogance.

    I don’t know whether any particular human can – but it can be done. That’s what physics IS.

    Why don’t you treat us to an explanation of how your religious faith is compatible with a hard-nosed skeptical approach to reality?

  52. #52 Keith
    June 30, 2007

    Cohen’s complaint about astronomers talking about the possibility of life out there, and that being equivalent to biologists talking about black holes, isn’t equivalent in the least.

    Now not having been there one can’t say for sure what the discussion was, but if is was the possibility of life something as we know it (that is, the possibility of Earthlife conditions), the astronomers are immeasurably more qualified than a biologist to discuss the issue because they’re talking about settings where life as we know it can exist in the universe. Insolation, orbital stability, intersteller radiation levels, metal levels in star-producing regions.

    The easy analogy is to think of a biologist as a medical doctor and the astronomers as engineers. If the engineers are discussing the possibility of performing surgery in an undersea base, or a remote location in Antarctica, or in orbit, it isn’t because they’re trying to claim to be greater experts in surgery and medecine than the doctor, it’s because they’re the experts in what has to be done to get the doctor and patient and the supplies and necessities like power, air and heat in a situation where the doctor is the expert.

  53. #53 Bachalon
    June 30, 2007

    This is actually one of my pet areas of sf: books with extra-terrestrials that look and act like aliens.

    It’s rare indeed to find a book that can pull this off convincingly.

  54. #54 Bachalon
    June 30, 2007

    I forgot to toss out my recommendation.

    Check out “Celestis” by Paul Park.

  55. #55 Scott Hatfield, OM
    June 30, 2007

    “Excuse me, wasn’t Isaac Asimov a “real” biologist?”

    Technically, no. Dr. Asimov worked for the military and in academia as a chemist between 1941-1958. He earned a BS, MA and Ph.D in chemistry from Columbia, then taught biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine following WWII. His field of research was antimalarial compounds, but he published very little. After less than a decade, he gave up his teaching duties and salary but retained the title of Professor and devoted his energies to writing.

    Asimove was a polymath and surely understood the major theories and concepts in biology as well as any non-specialist and publicly defended evolution on more than one occasion. He was not, however, a biologist and he spent most of his life popularizing science and anything else that interested him, rather than actually doing science. Nothing wrong with that!

    Issac Asimov FAQ

  56. #56 daedalus2u
    June 30, 2007

    Physics is trivial compared to biology.

    It is contemplated that in the near term there will be a “Grand Unified Theory” in physics that will encompass everything. Is such a thing even remotely considered possible in biology? Of course not.

    Biology seems simple because billions of years of evolution that have made living systems remarkably robust. Do we understand the details of that? Not even close.

    Quantum mechanics has the advantage that everything is a linear superposition of states. Is anything in biology linear? No, nothing in biology is linear. How many coupled parameters are there in a single living cell? Several thousand? Several tens of thousands?

    How many coupled non-linear parameters does it take before a system becomes intractable to model? How many orders of magnitude more does the simplest biological system have?

    I think there is scorn for biologists because it is a much more diverse field than physics is. There are many physicists who can understand and work together on the mega projects. The whole physics community can understand and agree on what the priorities should be for research. Beyond sequencing everything (which is important but all it takes now is a big lab and lots of money), what are the “big” questions in research? Ask 1,000 physicists and you will get a handful of answers. Ask 1,000 biologists and you won’t get a handful of answers.

  57. #57 Felicia Gilljam
    June 30, 2007

    I actually recently wrote a blog post (in Swedish, alas) about treknobabble and the endless annoyances of actually knowing stuff about stuff. And yeah, one might wish that authors would actually know something of biology, but can we really expect biologists to be good writers, or good writers to be biologists? No. My idea is that when I’m finally a “real” biologist (just a student atm) I’m going to start a consulting firm. I’ll partner up with some other scientists and we’ll offer our expertise to authors of movies, tv series, books, games, you name it… Think it might work? 😉

  58. #58 Tanya
    June 30, 2007

    I recently read Ben Bova’s Jupiter, which had fascinating descriptions of life in the gas giant. I have no idea if it is “accurately possible” or not, but they were certainly not humaniod, not treated as monsters, and not energy-beings.

    Of course they had the human explorers breathing some sort of oxygen-goop and there was a talking gorilla.

  59. #59 Buffybot
    June 30, 2007

    I suspect that what underlies this attitude is residual sexism. Biology is often seen by non-biologists as science for women, with connotations of nurturing, gaia-style ecology, and watercolour sketches of flowers. At high-school level, my experience was that the girls avoided Chemistry and Physics, because we’d already been convinced of our inability to do maths, and as a consequence boys looked down on bio as easy girl stuff. That was my experience, and while I can’t speak for anybody else, I don’t imagine my high school was unusual. Many professions which have traditionally been associated with women, such as nursing, miss out on the respect they deserve, and I think biology cops some of this attitude.

  60. #60 Rugosa
    June 30, 2007

    Of course Star Trek was fantasy. That was my point. As you probably can tell, I’m not an SF fan. I was turned off by Asimov and Heinlein a long time ago, and never followed the genre after that. We English majors have higher standards about the actual writing than about content; we can happily suspend our disbelief about anything if the writing is good. Good fiction has parameters for the use and effectiveness of the particular brand of the “ostensibly impossible” [the author is] evoking, and then, most crucially, he must remain true to those parameters as the story works itself out. This is as true of Jane Austen as it is of SF. Her novels were essentially fairy stories with happily-ever-after endings, but we still lap them up a couple of hundred years later because she convinces us of the reality of her world.

  61. #61 Scott Hatfield, OM
    June 30, 2007

    “You’re confusing our understanding of the laws of physics, and the laws of physics.”

    No, I’m not. It’s the arrogant professional, who presumes that the present understanding of their profession is the final word, who is confused when they pooh-pooh other branches of science as poor stepchildren of physics.

    “That’s what physics IS.”

    Using your own personal definition of physics, one which conflates it with all of the sciences, is what I mean by ‘trivial’. You are trivializing important distinctions in the interest of reifying the meaning of the word ‘physics’. It’s clever, but not terribly helpful.

    “Why don’t you treat us to an explanation of how your religious faith is compatible with a hard-nosed skeptical approach to reality?”

    That’s a good comeback, but of course a person ceases to be a skeptic the moment they accept any claim without evidence. Faith isn’t compatible with reason, and both can be held only by some degree of compartmentalization. I would add, however, that both are very real human activities.

    Anyway, Cal, I’m not picking a fight with you to get you to justify yourself to me. My offer to you is sincere. Why don’t you take me up on it? Who knows? The platform I offer may be as advertised. If not, you can denounce me for my insincerity and expose me as a fraud.

    Hopefully…SH

  62. #62 Beverly Nuckols
    June 30, 2007

    Fair biology in the Jani Killian series, by Kristine Smith, Code of Conduct, etc.

  63. #63 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    I was turned off by Asimov and Heinlein a long time ago, and never followed the genre after that. We English majors have higher standards about the actual writing than about content; we can happily suspend our disbelief about anything if the writing is good.

    The issue here is that there were and are different standards of “good writing” in different genres. In my experience, English majors become excited about complex literary structures regardless of the value of the ideas being expressed in them. Golden Age science fiction didn’t concern itself with literary affectations at all, so it’s no wonder you didn’t like it much.

    This is as true of Jane Austen as it is of SF. Her novels were essentially fairy stories with happily-ever-after endings, but we still lap them up a couple of hundred years later because she convinces us of the reality of her world.

    Actually, Jane Austen is considered one of the best sources for information on what day-to-day middle class British life was like during the period. Happily-ever-after, yes – fairy tales, no.

  64. #64 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    No, I’m not. It’s the arrogant professional, who presumes that the present understanding of their profession is the final word,

    You’ve completely missed the point. Current physics is wrong, and we know that it’s wrong, because it isn’t even approaching complete. But introducing things that violate our current understanding of physics is still stepping away from science and towards fantasy, whether it’s perpetual energy or FTL.

    Using your personal definition of physics, one which conflates it with all of the sciences, is what I mean by ‘trivial’.

    Physics is the foundation of all the sciences, you fool. What it does not permit, the others may not touch. No matter of buzzword dropping and malappropriation of concepts like ’emergent behavior’ get around that.

  65. #65 RB
    June 30, 2007

    Speaking as both a biologist and a fiction writer myself, I must say that this article has opened my eyes. I can see now that it was my attempt to create plausible aliens that doomed my career in sci-fi. It disturbed all three of my readers and frightened the larger sci-fi cabal, who undoubtedly felt threatened by my keen understanding of biology.

    And I can see from the comments thread why I have also been largely unsuccessful as a biologist. I can put it in two words: physicist conspiracy. Physics has become so droll since quantum mechanics, and biology so very sexy since PCR and gene splicing, that physicists now have massive inferiority complexes. This causes them to lash out and sabotage the careers of budding young biologists, such as myself.

    Also, these observations explain why I can’t keep a relationship going, and why nobody wants to be around me.

  66. #66 Rick T
    June 30, 2007

    “‘Aliens’ in fiction are just humans with different bits exaggerated, a shell over human agency, like elves and dwarves and fairies. They always have been, because we’re the only thing we know.”

    Kind of like the gods we create. Isn’t it interesting that gods are simply exaggerated humans. It’s more than a coincidence that both SF creatures and gods don’t stray too far from the human mold. That’s because we are limited by our perception and experiences. Having developed the ability to see the world throught the eyes of another individual, which was a great step in cognative evolution, it would seem plausable that our imaginary gods would simply be a creation of our mind (our ideas projected through a made up god). Gods and aliens would of necessity have quailities limited by human imagination, and human imagination is limited by human experience.

  67. #67 xyz
    June 30, 2007

    Re #25, PhysioProf

    The evidence is astronomy; or rather astrophysics. Astronomers observe galaxies which are far away both in space and time and based on their observations they have a lot of evidence about the physics in these galaxies.

    The evidence mostly shows that basic physics is the same everywhere.
    Sometimes they have to invoke speculative physics to explain some observations: like dark matter where nobody knows
    what it is to explain the radial movement of galaxies. I personally
    like to call it the epicycles of the 21rd century because it
    sounds more like frantic tries to bandaid old theories in spite
    of evidence.

    Anyways, in spite of these problems there is a lot of evidence
    that physics is the same everywhere [the galaxy problem above
    applies to our Galaxy too]

  68. #68 molecanthro
    June 30, 2007

    At my undergraduate university (Middle TN State Univeristy) there is a professor in the physics astronomy dept, Dr. Eric Klumpe, whom I did take a physics course with and liked very much. I was very disappointed when, a few years later, after I had switched from a physics to a biology major, I heard stories about him talking to students about intelligent design. I then attended one of Massimo Pigliucci’s lectures about why ID isn’t science and Dr. Klumpe was there and asked the same tired, old questions about complexity and the eye and such.
    I then heard a rumor that the head of the physics dept, Dr. Robert Carlton, whom I took modern physics with, was an evangelic christian…which I didn’t believe until I went to try to change one of my courses, on speciation, and he, as acting dean, wouldn’t let me.
    Of course, that was Tennessee, but I was very disillusioned with physics after that.
    I think that people see biology as being easier because all of the maths are very easy at the beginning and into bio courses are mostly memorization of fairly disconnected facts.

  69. #69 Martin R
    June 30, 2007

    Quit complaining right now, biologists! From the perspective of us archaeologists, you’re indistinguishable from physicists and astronomers: well-funded, with clear truth criteria and no jargon-spouting social theorists or Continental philosophers to bog you down. (-;

  70. #70 Dr Pretorius
    June 30, 2007

    Biology questions don’t seem professional to the people who design these scenarios; it’s like folk psychology or philosophy – everyone has “a right to” an opinion.

    Speaking of people not noticing that certain academic disciplines are actual professional disciplines with all that that entails….

  71. #71 coturnix
    June 30, 2007

    Joan Slonczewski is a real biologist writing SF. Is Brin a biologist by training (I know he published papers)? I give Bear a pass – he knowingly did to the biology what he needed for the plot and he really did his homework on it (for DR and DC). Good old James Blish was pretty good for the times when he was writing. Will check out Watt…

  72. #72 Boosterz
    June 30, 2007

    “Aliens’ in fiction are just humans with different bits exaggerated, a shell over human agency, like elves and dwarves and fairies.”

    Well yes, but elf chicks are HAWT!

    🙂

  73. #73 Torbjrn Larsson, OM
    June 30, 2007

    I am a bit reluctant to answer the usual flamebait PZ throws out when he is blogging more sporadically. Especially on a weekend night when there is little time. But it is an interesting subject as such.

    Peggy’s whining isn’t pretty. Astrophysicists and astrobiologists are trying to get answers to questions that I am not sure biologists are interested in. Among them are the probability of habitable planets, the probability of life, signs of life, the probability of intelligent life, and signs of intelligent life.

    The same goes for biology in scifi. Every area of science is mistreated here, mostly as a plot device in soft scifi, in a few cases as ignorance in a very few hard scifi products out there.

    An illustration of the kind of suspension of disbelief necessary is the frequency of anthropomorfs and the mentioned crossfertility among them in the Star Trek universe. The explanation, such as it was, came in a spin-off series.

    But in some cases I expect scifi biology will improve. The conversion to animation makes it easier to put known physics (light, forces, et cetera) and biology (skeletons, hair, et cetera) into the objects than inventing new rules.

  74. #74 Torbjrn Larsson, OM
    June 30, 2007

    I am a bit reluctant to answer the usual flamebait PZ throws out when he is blogging more sporadically. Especially on a weekend night when there is little time. But it is an interesting subject as such.

    Peggy’s whining isn’t pretty. Astrophysicists and astrobiologists are trying to get answers to questions that I am not sure biologists are interested in. Among them are the probability of habitable planets, the probability of life, signs of life, the probability of intelligent life, and signs of intelligent life.

    The same goes for biology in scifi. Every area of science is mistreated here, mostly as a plot device in soft scifi, in a few cases as ignorance in a very few hard scifi products out there.

    An illustration of the kind of suspension of disbelief necessary is the frequency of anthropomorfs and the mentioned crossfertility among them in the Star Trek universe. The explanation, such as it was, came in a spin-off series.

    But in some cases I expect scifi biology will improve. The conversion to animation makes it easier to put known physics (light, forces, et cetera) and biology (skeletons, hair, et cetera) into the objects than inventing new rules.

  75. #75 PhysioProf
    June 30, 2007

    Caledonian’s sweeping generalities sometimes sound very profound and deep. But apply even a little scrutiny, and you find that the vast majority of them are either meaningless or wrong. He reminds me of myself when I was a first-year grad student.

  76. #76 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    Your pronouncements about my many, many errors would be more impressive if you actually demonstrated a few of them.

    Alas, people never bother. Methinks you protest too much.

  77. #77 Josh
    June 30, 2007

    Okay, physics grad student here, had to respond to #54, daedalus2u (“physics is trivial compared to biology”) and throw in my two cents.

    A Grand Unified Theory is not a Theory of Everything, it is a unification of several seemingly unrelated forces. Biology already has a GUT in the form of Evolution. In neither case are all questions trivial to answer. Also, its nice to know that quantum mechanics is easy; good thing biologists were around to discover and analyze non-linear systems so we’d have something to talk about. I have no idea how to quantify “more” but physics is plenty diverse. No one in, say, Condensed Matter can pontificate on Cosmology and vice versa and these are of course broad fields in themselves. In fact, Statistical Physics (an umbrella term again) is devoted to the analysis of large complex interacting systems for which a ground up “reductionist” approach is impractical. I understand techniques from this field have become quite useful in biological modelling. Who knew? And when has anyone, ever, in any large field agreed on the priorities for research, i.e. funding?
    More generally, I’m sorry if a physicist looked down on a biologist at some time. The reasons for this attitude are probably an emphasis on rote memorization in high school as noted above and a perceived lack of rigor. If you protest that biology is so complex it can’t be modelled then a biologist is at best a stenographer for nature. Of course this isn’t true so I see no need for antagonism. (And in my personal experience nowhere near 30% of physicist reject evolution.)
    On the actual topic of this thread, I don’t think SF disrespects biology particularly. As others have said, humanoid/improbable aliens reflect mostly the need to drive human dramatic narratives, to accomodate human actors, and lack of imagination. I don’t see any big difference for physics, chemistry, or computer science problems. Spaceships either look like big current spaceships or like completely impractical fantasy architecture, alien weapons behave like glowing earth weapons and can usually be commandeered by a plucky earth protagonist. Moreover, we have to deal with every action/adventure movie out there. My favorite trope is the idea that if you fall from a great height and someone catches you by flying/swinging/running in a vertical line mere inches from the ground, stopping your fall in an instant, you are safe. But I usually don’t let it bother me because accurate physics isn’t the point. And just for the record, humanoid aliens are only improbable, faster than light travel is impossible as far as we know. 🙂

  78. #78 DCP
    June 30, 2007

    Star Trek: TNG actually came up with an explaination of why the various Trek universe races can breed. It turns out the first technological race in the galaxy were humanoids who spread their DNA hither and yon, where it resulted in the evolution of a bunch of humanoid races physically compatible with each other.

    Yeah… Star Trek actually came up with an explaination. They always come up with an explaination, for anything. Everytime there’s a problem a new explaination is introduced, conveniently solving the problem, deus ex machina par excellence. These explainations mostly consist of some new exotic particles, some great new material or consist of “calibrating” the ship’s systems (or some such nonesense…). Of course everything is drenched in treknobabble (the Trek-esque kind of technobabble.).

    I can’t stand the way they deal with physics in that show, but I loath how they deal with engineering and of course with biology. Thinking that a humanoid race has sown it’s humanoid DNA all over the galaxy, which of course (after at least millions of years) turns out to generate a multitude of other humanoids, all native to vastly different eco-systems, who are able to interbreed with almost no difficulty at all, flatly contradicts everything known about evolution. This sounds more like an IDist’s version of “evolution”. Oh, and don’t get me started on the engineering of Star Trek…

    So what’s the point to all this rant? In SF less can be so much more. Less inane “explainations” which are simply wrong, but sound good to the gullible, would instantly make Star Trek more bearable (if it wasn’t for the two-dimensional characters, though.).

    Concerning the physicists snobbery… Here a short anecdote about my experiences with them during my time of secondary education in Germany.
    During the time of my Abitur I majored in Biology. Even though everyone looked down upon everyone else, but the Physics and Math majors were the worst. Well, in the sciences we were all nerds, but in my Biology class were also a lot of pretty (and smart) females, while the Physics and Math classes were almost devoid of these. While they had fun with their particles and numbers, we had fun with living organisms… if you know what I mean.

  79. #79 fardels bear
    June 30, 2007

    Cal’s claims that “Physics describes a deeper level of reality than biology.” and “Physics is the foundation of all the sciences” rest upon a metaphysical assumption that the sciences are unified and arranged hierarchically and that “true” knowledge is only at the “deeper” level. The metaphor of verticality is so ingrained in our language that we tend not to notice it.

    Take that first claim in his comments, about a “deeper level of reality.” What on earth does that mean? How is an atom more “deeply real” than a species? Why “deep?” Why not “different?” And why is “deep” a scientific concept anyway? Rather than a metaphysical one?

    We can easily flip our values so the “deeper” the knowledge the LESS valuable it is. The notion that the sciences were unified can be traced back to Comte in the 19th century, the man who gave us “positivim.” Of course, in Comte’ hierarchy physics was at the bottom because it did the simpliest things. Sociology was at the top because it addressed the most complex scientific issues. So, “deeper level of reality” simply meant “simplier” or perhaps, “least important.”

  80. #80 Boosterz
    June 30, 2007

    Caledonian seems to think that learning physics magically endows you with knowledge of everything. If that’s so, maybe he can help me out.

    I have a little problem at work. I have about 20 old backup tapes worth of MS exchange data that I need to be able to review for a legal matter. Each tape has an exchange information store that is around 15-20Gb or so. I only have enough room right now on my active Exchange server to only import in MAYBE one tapes worth of data. I do have a secondary exchange box right now, but it’s technically a hot spare. The Exchange services are not running on it at this time. It was basically setup as a clone of my first Exchange server and all the data was replicated between them using Double Take. I COULD turn on the exchange services on that backup server, eliminate all the copied data from it, and restore some of my backup information stores to that box. I couldn’t get them all restored, but I might be able to squeeze 4-5 at a time on there(if I keep it below 75Gb). I’m just not sure how Active Directory will respond to me bringing that exchange server live while I still have my primary exchange server running. I’ve also mulled building a separate box, using some of my MS Action Pack licenses to build a completely new exchange server. If I did that I could slap in a large enough drive to hold all of the data(if I have a copy of Exchange Enterprise), BUT I still have the same problem of how Active Directory is going to respond to another Exchange box coming online. I COULD setup the new box as it’s on separate domain(have to make it a domain controller as well as just an exchange box) but if I did that I’d have to keep it off the main network(if I had two totally different domain controllers on the same network I imagine the resulting carnage would be rather ugly). If I had to keep it off the main network then I have the problem of how do I restore my tapes to that box. That leaves me with either having to disconnect the tape carousel from the existing backup server and hooking it up to my new box(of course if I do that then I need a second copy of Veritas Backup Exec as well) or buying more tape drives. Any way I go about it, it’s likely to be a mess(damn lawyers).

    So, with all the advanced knowledge your understanding of physics has imparted to you, what should I do?

  81. #81 Rob
    June 30, 2007

    As a non-scientist (who follows science news closely), I certainly don’t think of physics as somehow being “above” biology, not in the slightest. To me physics sort of peaked in the first half of the 20th century, when physics knowledge was making profound, wonderful, and scary impacts on everyday life. Then along came computer/information science, which took over that role. Now biology and biotech is on the verge of doing the same.

    So to me, biology is the one in the limelight, the one that is attracting the real geniuses who will change the world.

    There are still plenty of unknowns in all fields of science, the more important question to me is which field has the most interesting and useful fruit to bear, and I’d say biology wins on that hands down.

    Maybe when a physics person claims to be too smart for biology, you could ask him or her to take a short break to cure cancer and AIDS, since its so easy and all.

  82. #82 llewelly
    June 30, 2007

    Is Brin a biologist by training (I know he published papers)?

    Brin was a physics professor until he reached the point where his novels made him more money than his professorship.

  83. #83 Scott Hatfield, OM
    June 30, 2007

    “Physics is the foundation of all the sciences, you fool.”

    Yeah, yeah, I got that. I teach it to my students that way, a hierarchical pyramid with physics at the base (the entire pyramid rests on mathematics). The level above physics is chemistry, a level above that is biology, a level above that is the social sciences. Saying that something is foundational, however, doesn’t tell you everything about the domain above it.

    To continue with the metaphor of the pyramid, we will not expect a stable summit (some theory in biology, say) of a greater size than the base (physics). But the existence of a well-described base does not, in any way, dictate the actual shape of the summit. That will have to be discovered by experiment and observation, not predicted in advance by physics types. ‘That’s what physics IS’ implies that physics, as a whole, is determinative for all individual outcomes, but that’s not the case. You can’t predict the universe from first principles, mate.

    “What it does not permit, the others may not touch.”

    Not quite. What it proscribes, the others may not introduce. The difference matters! I can not, for example, introduce arguments in biology that clearly violate conservation laws. But I can propose ideas (about selection, say) that may or may not be true but which do violate any known laws. Physics, in other words, doesn’t tell biologists what they should find. It tells them what they should not expect to find.

    “No matter of buzzword dropping and malappropriation of concepts like ’emergent behavior’ get around that.”

    I wasn’t aware that you had a patent on the phrase ’emergent behavior’. (slyly) With Niels Bohr, I think we agree more than either of us might admit. In the context of this exchange, the following remark by the Nobelist Szent-Gyorgyi:

    “In my quest for the secret of life I started my research in histology. Unsatisfied by the information that cellular morphology could give me about life, I turned to physiology. Finding physiology too complex, I took up pharmacology. Still finding the situation too complicated, I turned to bacteriology. But bacteria were even too complex, so I descended to the molecular level, studying chemistry and physical chemistry. After twenty years’ work, I was led to conclude that to understand life we have to descend to the electronic level and to the world of wave mechanics. But electrons are just electrons and have no life at all. Evidently on the way I lost life; it had run out between my fingers.”

  84. #84 Kirkinson
    June 30, 2007

    It always seemed to me that the easiest way for Star Trek to explain away species interbreeding would be to say that it’s not a natural process. Imagine that two beings from different species want to have a child, they can go to some sort of genetic specialist who will engineer the child for them based on samples provided by the parents. Given the current state of genetics, it doesn’t seem totally off the wall to suggest that such a thing might be possible 300 years from now — at the very least, it seems within the realm of speculation acceptable in this series.

    But then Star Trek does have a particularly poor record in biology. There was an especially egregious NextGen episode in which a virus caused everyone on the crew of the Enterprise to “de-evolve” (the term they used) into ancestral forms of life. This involved one human crew member mutating into a half-spider, and Data’s house cat turning into an iguana. Very robust research was done for that episode, I’m sure.

    Forgive me if this has been linked to before (I don’t remember where I first heard about it, so for all I know I may have encountered it on this blog in the first place) but here’s an entertaining article called “The Biology of B-Movie Monsters”:
    http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/2/21701757/

    As an aspiring filmmaker, I promise that I’ll always consult biologists for plausibility if I’m in a situation that calls for their expertise. I can’t think of any stories I’m currently dying to tell that would require it, but you never know how things will turn out.

  85. #85 stellar ash
    June 30, 2007

    I’ll give SF/F biology a much more tolerant leave than I will the physics, but not an unending leave. I won’t read anything else by Stephen Baxter due to the way he ended Titan.

    As much as I hate to admit it, Michael Crichton (I can’t read his books anymore, too much fear mongering of science) probably had it mainly correct in Sphere, when the one character deduces that the sphere is a thing of human creation because of the illumination, colors, temperature, etc. If it was truly alien, nothing in it would have likely made sense.

    We are simply not wired to imagine the truly alien. Even the “alien” aliens are usually based on invertebrates.

    It is quite possible that we would not recognize an alien as another being or the reverse. In the case where we and the alien were able to tell that each other we alive beings, the odds of communicating are astronomical (science pun intended). We can’t even communicate with dolphins, who share our mammalian heritage, except in a most basic manner, due to incompatibilities in the range of audible frequencies used for communication (I think it more likely that the dolphins will figure a way to talk to us before we figure a way to talk to them).

    The point being that SF/F would be pretty boring if laws of biology, physics, anthropology, psychology insert your branch of science here, were not bent, twisted and occasionally broke. It’s all in how that happens and what the story is about.

    If the story and characters are great, I can forgive a gaff here and there: The rifle “having” to be fired with an atmosphere in Firefly; The idea of Sheridan and Delenn having a “naturally conceived” child in Babylon 5.

    If the story is so-so, see the above reference to Titan: The science and tech was very interesting, the characters flat, the last chapter HORRIBLE.

    Where I’m coming from:
    My wife has a BA in archaeology, BS/MS in biology. Also is a SF/F author (http://www.onecrow.net) Shameless plug 😉
    Myself: BS electrical engineering.

  86. #86 matt
    June 30, 2007

    Given the context, I find it pretty amazing no-one has yet mentioned Cohen’s own ventures into SF with mathematician pal Ian Stewart. Wheelers and Heaven are both bloody good, the former having splendid exobiology and the latter a pretty hard line on the tropes of religion.

    As someone belatedly learning the business of mathematical biology, I have to say that some of the above characterisations of each side of that intersection are a bit vexing. Maths and physics are clearly “better” than biology when it comes rigour; biology is undeniably much more complicated than pretty much any other problem domain that the “hard” sciences deal with. Which is exactly why they belong together.

    Much of biology has traditionally been what Rutherford dismissed as “stamp collecting” — and rightly, because there is so much fucking detail that it’s impossible to make any plausible attempt to model it without being informed by substantial data sets. All those dilettante naturalists counting butterflies or whatever were — and are — doing important work.

    Nevertheless, as we all must understand in this post-Popperian age, data itself does not lead magically to understanding. A terrifying number of biologists — and even more so, medics — seem either unwilling or unable to abstract from the particular to any kind of general theory. And yet such abstraction is so necessary to life that it is, as best we can make out, wired into our consciousness as standard rather than a luxury upgrade.

    Sometimes I really do wonder what kind of mental aberration is necessary to practice medicine: to encompass such a breathtaking quantity of detailed knowledge without the basic reasoning skills of an undergraduate logician. I suspect that the ability to build complex mental models as actually disadvantageous to a doctor. Many bright sparks get through despite that, of course — but they have to work so much harder than those who would simply be automata…

  87. #87 Bobryuu
    June 30, 2007

    If I weren’t already on the five year plan with this Physics/Fine Arts double major, I’d sign up in a second to be a Physics/Fine Arts/Biology major and become some sort of astrobiology guru for teh Hollywoodzors.

  88. #88 PeteK
    June 30, 2007

    Surely the point is that biologists and chemists and physicists are all scientists, united by science, and the scientific method. There are no epistemological barriers between any of them. Non-scientists should treat any scientific musings as equally useful, compared to a layman’s.

  89. #89 Dennis
    June 30, 2007

    I call it physics envy. I studied physics as my first major in college. Changed my major to geophysics because I was failing, and geophysics is applied physics which is understandable to me. Science that is mostly theoretical or deals with things too small to see and must be representented strictly mathematically – really difficult to me. But, physics has a lot of credibility and mystique because it’s ineffable, nobody understands it (even physicists) but everyone know it works. But, they don’t know how it works, so they assume it applies everywhere – it doesn’t!

    I am also an armchair bioligist. I worked at the armies chem/bio command at Edgewood arsenal. I am good with chemistry, and needed to understand biology, and have read a lot. I am not a biologist! I have the basics – only. I read this and other blogs in awe of what biology has come to understand, and the future is so amazing thanks to biology. enough of me!

    Biologists are posed as the evil scientists in many sci-fi scripts from Frankenstien on (lightning flashing, electricity coursing) – over 100 years of evil biologists even if they didn’t call them biologists but implied they were physisists. I would be jealous too.

    I can understand why biologists would be upset! Your evil is not properly represented or attributed! But you have to face reality the most dangerous thing a biologist could construct would be a bug no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence that destroyed mankind. How can that compete with a nuclear powerful dinasaur or spider bigger than a building or a supersized hottie – all the result of physics gone bad.

    Physics is just Bad!

  90. #90 Graculus
    June 30, 2007

    Alas, people never bother. Methinks you protest too much.

    Well, it’s hard to know where to start, being as you never support any of your assertions, so we don’t know where you went wrong.

  91. #91 Mark Borok
    June 30, 2007

    In the film “Mimic”, I was quite impressed that the genetically mutated cockroaches developed lungs to allow them to breathe after they grew to human size. It was a nice touch, especially given that this was a horror movie and nobody was really expecting any versimilitude from it at all. Plus, it was a pretty cool movie in general.

  92. #92 Dennis
    June 30, 2007

    I call it physics envy. I studied physics as my first major in college. Changed my major to geophysics because I was failing, and geophysics is applied physics which is understandable to me. Science that is mostly theoretical or deals with things too small to see and must be representented strictly mathematically – really difficult to me. But, physics has a lot of credibility and mystique because it’s ineffable, nobody understands it (even physicists) but everyone know it works. But, they don’t know how it works, so they assume it applies everywhere – it doesn’t!

    I am also an armchair bioligist. I worked at the armies chem/bio command at Edgewood arsenal. I am good with chemistry, and needed to understand biology, and have read a lot. I am not a biologist! I have the basics – only. I read this and other blogs in awe of what biology has come to understand, and the future is so amazing thanks to biology. enough of me!

    Biologists are posed as the evil scientists in many sci-fi scripts from Frankenstien on (lightning flashing, electricity coursing) – over 100 years of evil biologists even if they didn’t call them biologists but implied they were physisists. I would be jealous too.

    I can understand why biologists would be upset! Your evil is not properly represented or attributed! But you have to face reality the most dangerous thing a biologist could construct would be a bug no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence that destroyed mankind. How can that compete with a nuclear powerful dinasaur or spider bigger than a building or a supersized hottie – all the result of physics gone bad.

    Physics is just Bad! Just don’t think about the things we do at Egewood!

  93. #93 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    I teach it to my students that way, a hierarchical pyramid with physics at the base (the entire pyramid rests on mathematics).

    Got it wrong, again. Physics is what we do mathematics with.

  94. #94 daedalus2u
    June 30, 2007

    Josh, #74, What fraction of physics research funding is used on mega projects? What fraction of biology research funding is used on mega projects? Vastly more physicists understand and have a common vision of what “the next step” should be in physics research than do biologists. The field of biology is simply vastly more complicated. Too complicated for a large fraction of biologists to have a common vision of what the next steps should be.

    In no way is evolution a GUT. The vast majority of the genome (of any genome) remains of unknown function(s). Saying evolution is a GUT is like saying the Laws of Physics are E=MC^2, F=MA, and you can’t push a rope.

    Boosterz, #77, what you do is put together a budget for what each of these different options will cost, then go to the lawyers and ask them which one they want to fund.

  95. #95 John Morales
    June 30, 2007

    I particularly dislike SF where alien life is assumed to be DNA-based.

    In passing, I refer Brandon (#39) to Asimov’s The Gods Themselves.

  96. #96 Devin
    June 30, 2007

    I have seen a lot of good sf writers listed here, but I’m somewhat puzzled at not seeing any of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space books included. His novels are full of stunning concepts pulled from cutting-edge science. The man should know, he worked for the European space agency before taking up writing full time.

  97. #97 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    Star Trek: TNG actually came up with an explaination of why the various Trek universe races can breed. It turns out the first technological race in the galaxy were humanoids who spread their DNA hither and yon, where it resulted in the evolution of a bunch of humanoid races physically compatible with each other.

    So “the first technological race in the galaxy” came from Earth? Because we come from Earth, there’s no way around that.

    ———————

    Classical gunpowder contains salpeter, a nitrate — there’s your oxidizer. That’s why it explodes! A mixture of charcoal and sulfur alone would burn nicely, but not explode under normal circumstances.

    ———————

    What is the evidence that the laws of physics are universal and extend to every point in space-time?

    Look at the stars. Take a long, hard look, and then do the math.

    dark matter, whose gravitational fields repel instead of attract.

    You’ve confused it with dark energy. Dark energy is the supposed reason for the accelerating expansion; dark matter is that which, though lacking a light and a dark side, holds the galaxies together and lets them spin like wheels instead of whirls.

    if a physicist thinks that they can derive all that is necessary to know of biology from first principles and the laws of physics, that is beyond arrogance.

    I don’t know whether any particular human can – but it can be done. That’s what physics IS.

    Well. I agree that everything that happens in biology can in hindsight be described by quantum electrodynamics and a bit of gravity theory. But how much of it can be predicted? As Scott Hatfield said: physics tells biologists some of what not to expect, but not what to expect.

    ——————

    Quit complaining right now, biologists! From the perspective of us archaeologists, you’re indistinguishable from physicists and astronomers: well-funded, with clear truth criteria and no jargon-spouting social theorists or Continental philosophers to bog you down. (-;

    That slope continues within biology, too. “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”

    ——————-

    During the time of my Abitur

    That’s the great big exam at the end of… well, to call it highschool would be an insult. Passing that exam gives you the right to enroll at a university.

    ——————-

    How is an atom more “deeply real” than a species?

    Ouch. Take anything, but not “species”. There are at least 25 species concepts out there, all of which, when applied, lead to contradictory results in many cases. Indeed, some want to abolish the term altogether and just recognize smaller and smaller clades. Just remember ring species: species are considerably less real than atoms are.

    (Clade: an ancestor plus all its descendants. The adjective is “monophyletic”.)

    —————-

    It always seemed to me that the easiest way for Star Trek to explain away species interbreeding would be to say that it’s not a natural process. Imagine that two beings from different species want to have a child, they can go to some sort of genetic specialist who will engineer the child for them based on samples provided by the parents. Given the current state of genetics, it doesn’t seem totally off the wall to suggest that such a thing might be possible 300 years from now — at the very least, it seems within the realm of speculation acceptable in this series.

    Ouch. That would still require that all have DNA with A, C, G, and T, for starters. What if on Vulcan they are less stupidly designed and have a protein backbone instead of a fragile sugar phosphate one? What if they have pyridine bases with metal ions inside that do lots of interesting enzymatic chemistry? There are so many possibilities out there…

  98. #98 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    Star Trek: TNG actually came up with an explaination of why the various Trek universe races can breed. It turns out the first technological race in the galaxy were humanoids who spread their DNA hither and yon, where it resulted in the evolution of a bunch of humanoid races physically compatible with each other.

    So “the first technological race in the galaxy” came from Earth? Because we come from Earth, there’s no way around that.

    ———————

    Classical gunpowder contains salpeter, a nitrate — there’s your oxidizer. That’s why it explodes! A mixture of charcoal and sulfur alone would burn nicely, but not explode under normal circumstances.

    ———————

    What is the evidence that the laws of physics are universal and extend to every point in space-time?

    Look at the stars. Take a long, hard look, and then do the math.

    dark matter, whose gravitational fields repel instead of attract.

    You’ve confused it with dark energy. Dark energy is the supposed reason for the accelerating expansion; dark matter is that which, though lacking a light and a dark side, holds the galaxies together and lets them spin like wheels instead of whirls.

    if a physicist thinks that they can derive all that is necessary to know of biology from first principles and the laws of physics, that is beyond arrogance.

    I don’t know whether any particular human can – but it can be done. That’s what physics IS.

    Well. I agree that everything that happens in biology can in hindsight be described by quantum electrodynamics and a bit of gravity theory. But how much of it can be predicted? As Scott Hatfield said: physics tells biologists some of what not to expect, but not what to expect.

    ——————

    Quit complaining right now, biologists! From the perspective of us archaeologists, you’re indistinguishable from physicists and astronomers: well-funded, with clear truth criteria and no jargon-spouting social theorists or Continental philosophers to bog you down. (-;

    That slope continues within biology, too. “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”

    ——————-

    During the time of my Abitur

    That’s the great big exam at the end of… well, to call it highschool would be an insult. Passing that exam gives you the right to enroll at a university.

    ——————-

    How is an atom more “deeply real” than a species?

    Ouch. Take anything, but not “species”. There are at least 25 species concepts out there, all of which, when applied, lead to contradictory results in many cases. Indeed, some want to abolish the term altogether and just recognize smaller and smaller clades. Just remember ring species: species are considerably less real than atoms are.

    (Clade: an ancestor plus all its descendants. The adjective is “monophyletic”.)

    —————-

    It always seemed to me that the easiest way for Star Trek to explain away species interbreeding would be to say that it’s not a natural process. Imagine that two beings from different species want to have a child, they can go to some sort of genetic specialist who will engineer the child for them based on samples provided by the parents. Given the current state of genetics, it doesn’t seem totally off the wall to suggest that such a thing might be possible 300 years from now — at the very least, it seems within the realm of speculation acceptable in this series.

    Ouch. That would still require that all have DNA with A, C, G, and T, for starters. What if on Vulcan they are less stupidly designed and have a protein backbone instead of a fragile sugar phosphate one? What if they have pyridine bases with metal ions inside that do lots of interesting enzymatic chemistry? There are so many possibilities out there…

  99. #99 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    The vast majority of the genome (of any genome) remains of unknown function(s).

    Naaah. The vast majority of any genome is known to have no function. For example, half of ours consists of defunct retrotransposons that nobody has cut out of our genome.

    In no way is evolution a GUT. The vast majority of the genome (of any genome) remains of unknown function(s). Saying evolution is a GUT is like saying the Laws of Physics are E=MC^2, F=MA, and you can’t push a rope.

    Could you elaborate on why you think so? Isn’t evolution more like the Standard Model?

  100. #100 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    The vast majority of the genome (of any genome) remains of unknown function(s).

    Naaah. The vast majority of any genome is known to have no function. For example, half of ours consists of defunct retrotransposons that nobody has cut out of our genome.

    In no way is evolution a GUT. The vast majority of the genome (of any genome) remains of unknown function(s). Saying evolution is a GUT is like saying the Laws of Physics are E=MC^2, F=MA, and you can’t push a rope.

    Could you elaborate on why you think so? Isn’t evolution more like the Standard Model?

  101. #101 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    Make that “the vast majority of just about any eukaryotic genome”. Bacteria especially tend to be nearly junk-free. Stronger selective pressure on smaller genomes, it seems.

  102. #102 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    Make that “the vast majority of just about any eukaryotic genome”. Bacteria especially tend to be nearly junk-free. Stronger selective pressure on smaller genomes, it seems.

  103. #103 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    For smaller genomes”. Good night. <yawn>

  104. #104 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    For smaller genomes”. Good night. <yawn>

  105. #105 wrg
    June 30, 2007

    Scott Hatfield:

    Caledonian, if a physicist thinks that they can derive all that is necessary to know of biology from first principles and the laws of physics, that is beyond arrogance.

    Even in mathematics, where one ought to be able to work out the theory of the specialized subdisciplines (inverse problems, number theory, differential geometry, etc.) in terms of the basics, those who study foundations aren’t really going to have the same understanding of, say, probability as someone who works in the area.

    Because it’s all about definitions and their consequences, a skilled mathematician who spends time on it should be able to pick up a new discipline with time and effort. Mind you, a physicist could actually go study biology. But going into a graduate class thinking “Hey, I know naive set theory, so it should be easy to figure this out” doesn’t work; I’ve tried. 🙂

    Physics has some really nice models, with some fundamental consequences. However, I’m not at all confident that it’s feasible to apply these to compute everything we want to know about complex things like organisms or populations as they interact with their environment.

    Caledonian:

    I don’t know whether any particular human can – but it can be done. That’s what physics IS.

    Physicists who presume that their knowledge of physics is just as good as study of biology couldn’t really justify that belief without demonstrating that not just any human, but they can work out biology from physics. I wouldn’t be surprised if working out even a bit of biology from basic physical principles would qualify as significant research.

    Even if we don’t worry about human limitations, I’m not sure this confidence is justified. Computation gives us lots of problems that are theoretically verified to be infeasible or even noncomputable. Many of these are easily stated and one classic example of an NP-complete problem (for which, consequently, no polynomial-time algorithm is known) is the traveling salesman problem, which might seem, intuitively, like something that shouldn’t be unreasonable to answer.

    Possibly there wouldn’t be any such thorny problems in trying to determine the physics of biology. However, their very existence leads me, when conjecturing about what we may some day figure out, to think more that humanity may eventually solve some problem than that we will inevitably solve that problem.

  106. #106 Ben Abbott
    June 30, 2007

    With all the generalities (prejudice?) being posted, I thought I’d add my own 😉

    In much of science, math is used (in part) to filter out the inplausible hypotheses/ideas from plausible.

    Biology doesn’t yet have this ability (crutch?). Biologists survive based upon the character of their insight and judgement.

    I’m personally convinced that intuition is much more important to the Biologist that it is to the astophysicist, but only because of the nature of the field.

  107. #107 Robert
    June 30, 2007

    Speaking of “alien” intelligence, what’s the latest in studies of cephalopod psychology?

  108. #108 PMembrane
    June 30, 2007

    Authors, film producers and directors, special-effects teams go to physicists, especially astrophysicists, to check that their worlds are workable, credible; they go to astronomers to check how far from their sun a planet should be, and so on. They even go to chemists to check atmospheres, rocket fuels, pheromones (apparently they’re not biology….), even the materials that future everyday clothes (not only spacesuits) will be made of.

    The physics in Star Trek was laughable, Stargate was no better although but at least did not take itself too seriously. Where is all this accurate SF physics that I’ve been missing?

    RE: Alien aliens

    No-one has yet mentioned Stanislaw Lem–

    Solaris features a “living ocean” in which where biochemical evolution led to intelligence without ever devising individual cells.

    Fiasco has a civilization of sessile ground-dwellers.

    In His Master’s Voice a U.S. government commission investigates science fiction for possible clues to understanding a transmission originating from interstellar space, only to conclude that aliens in SF were invariably thinly-veiled depictions of historical human societies calculated to appeal to the puerile interests of an adolescent target market.

  109. #109 wrg
    June 30, 2007

    Got it wrong, again. Physics is what we do mathematics with.

    Whoops, forgot to address this. I do mathematics. I hardly know any physics, except freshman material like introductory kinematics, a little about forces and work, and very basic electrostatics and gravity. I don’t think I do mathematics with physics, even though some of what I know (e.g. analysis and linear algebra) has applications in physics.

    If “we” doesn’t refer to everyone, then who are those of you who do math with physics? How do you do this? Mathematics is no doubt informed by our experience, but it’s formally based on abstract definitions and logic. Physics is about modeling the real world, while mathematicians don’t really experiment. (Sure, some crunch numbers, but that’s “experimentation” with abstractions rather than objects.)

  110. #110 Jaycubed
    June 30, 2007

    “Physics describes a deeper level of reality than biology.”
    Posted by: Caledonian

    If physics “describes a deeper level of reality”, then that “level of reality” would have to include an understanding of any “lesser” levels of reality in its description.

    Physics fails to do that, miserably, despite its ability to predict some physical phenomena with extreme accuracy.

    In fact, physics has been able to shed little light on biology until recently, with the increasing use of high tech tools to observe biological processes in situ and at tiny scales finally providing insight & testability to a broad range of biological phenomena.

    These insights have not been derived from the physical processes used by the tools, they are incidental. Any insights are derived from the biology backgrounds of those scientists who are doing the research.

  111. #111 PhysioProf
    June 30, 2007

    “Take that first claim in his comments, about a “deeper level of reality.” What on earth does that mean?”

    It means nothing. It’s fancy-sounding bullshit.

    Maybe once Cal passes his quals and actually starts having to do science, he’ll grow out of his compulsion to grandiosity. Real scientists almost always do.

  112. #112 Graculus
    June 30, 2007

    No-one has yet mentioned Stanislaw Lem–

    I think only Lem captured the essence of the problem, that the truly alien is truly unknowable.

  113. #113 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    It means nothing. It’s fancy-sounding bullshit.

    You mean someone as well-educated and knowledgeable as yourself isn’t familiar with the concept of ‘level of analysis’? Or even ‘level of implementation’, which is based on the same idea?

    How… extraordinary.

  114. #114 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    I do mathematics. I hardly know any physics, except freshman material like introductory kinematics, a little about forces and work, and very basic electrostatics and gravity. I don’t think I do mathematics with physics, even though some of what I know (e.g. analysis and linear algebra) has applications in physics.

    So how do your calculators work? Your computers? Your nervous tissue? You think these things aren’t physical?

    You’re confusing our theories about physics with physics itself.

  115. #115 fardels bear
    June 30, 2007

    Except Cal, you didn’t claim either a “level of analysis” or a “level of implementation.” You claimed, “a deeper level of reality.” And you have been asked at least twice on the list to explain what that means. You seemingly cannot.

    So, once again, what does “a deeper level of reality” mean?

  116. #116 JRY
    June 30, 2007

    “A deeper level of reality” = dealing with fundamental laws, energy and particles which everything is built upon.

    Or so I am guessing.

  117. #117 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    They’re the same thing, described differently.

  118. #118 Justin Moretti
    June 30, 2007

    Rugosa, you said:

    The difficulties with SF would disappear instantly if SF writers could only admit they’re writing fantasy, not “science” fiction.

    They can’t, because the “fantasy” genre is the personal property of those who write in an almost exclusively feudal/medieval world, with no technology very far beyond 1000 A.D.

    Sci-fi went into the category it did because the little we understood at the dawn of SF failed to reveal to us how implausible it all was. But it is easier to leave what is better called “science fantasy” in the sci-fi category, than to create a new category that puzzles everyone.

    I have always believed that yesterday’s SF is tomorrow’s fact. If you had described a battleship like the Dreadnought of 1906 to Horatio Nelson, he would have put that in the realm of fantasy (while wishing fervently for one). A hundred years later, there it was.

    If you’d told Admiral Jellicoe at the Battle of Jutland that one day there would be devices that would not only help him not to lose the German fleet in the mist, but also direct aerial torpedoes to wreck it at a range of a hundred miles, he would say the same thing. That only took fifty years.

    If you’d told the embattled Royal Air Force in 1940 that pretty soon they could line themselves up approximately behind their target at the range of two or three miles (instead of 300 yards) and destroy an enemy bomber with the touch of a button, they’d still have thought you were speculating a little too hard. That took somewhere between fifteen and twenty five years.

    I won’t buy SF aliens (not most of them anyway), but I refuse to say what isn’t possible in terms of technology.

    But if we must stick to science fantasy, and if we are talking about aliens, even (especially?) totally implausible aliens, E.E. “Doc” Smith wrote the best. He puts George Lucas in the shade, even forty two years after his death.

  119. #119 Azkyroth
    June 30, 2007

    Cal: Is it really possible that you would have expended more time and energy explaining, clearly and explicitly, what you’re trying to say, than you have so far expended attempting to explain why you shouldn’t have to?

  120. #120 Caledonian
    June 30, 2007

    The problem with trying to explain very basic ideas it that it’s usually harder to do so than more complex and less fundamental concepts.

    So no, I couldn’t do it in ten times the amount of space I’ve already expended saying why I shouldn’t do it.

    Here: look at this Conway’s Game of Life applet, get a feel for the nature of the automata, and open the pattern example called UnitCell. Read the description, and play around with it for a bit.

  121. #121 raven
    June 30, 2007

    I have seen a lot of good sf writers listed here, but I’m somewhat puzzled at not seeing any of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space books included.

    Reynolds is good. Stross is good. A lot of good British space opera these days.

    I’m a bit bemused by this whole discussion. Many SF authors were and are scientists of one sort or another. Most of them conclude that having a story someone wants to read comes first. As long as the aliens aren’t interfertile with humans (without some ad hoc semi plausible explanation), I don’t worry about it. Since no one even knows if real aliens exist much less what they would be like, who is to say what is realistic or not.

  122. #122 Skemono
    June 30, 2007

    A while ago I read a book on this–a couple of people dissecting the biology of science fiction and trying to come up with something truly alien but that had believable biology. I think it was called, What Does a Martian Look Like?

    I don’t know enough biology to know if everything they recommended was realistic, but it was an interesting find nevertheless.

  123. #123 RamblinDude
    June 30, 2007

    On an earlier blog the subject is artificial evolution. Soon we won’t have to depend on our imaginations for strange and alien life forms, technology will ‘evolve’ them for us, right on the computer screen. And maybe even for real!

  124. #124 Graculus
    June 30, 2007

    They can’t, because the “fantasy” genre is the personal property of those who write in an almost exclusively feudal/medieval world, with no technology very far beyond 1000 A.D.

    Quibble… very, very little fantasy uses technology *before* 1000 AD, and technology levels have absolutely nothing to do with the definition of fantasy, it’s just that the ones you are most familiar with tend to be set late medieval.

  125. #125 Billy
    July 1, 2007

    Like other commenters, I’m not a biologist so maybe I’m not qualified to judge, but for me Poul Anderson has written numerous believable aliens. Sure, he’s done his share of Star-Trekish species, but he’s also written stories where the plot revolves around a species’s natural history. “The man who counts” comes to mind (originally published as “War of the wing-men” despite the author’s objections), as does the haunting story, “The horn of time the hunter.”

  126. #126 Solomon
    July 1, 2007

    I disagree with one of the basic premises here. Sure, SF tends to get the biology wrong; but, when it comes right down to it, it really does no better with physics or astronomy. I mean, year after year it seems like the movie theaters are filled with “SF” movies which break the laws of physics with their very premises. Things like “The Day After Tomorrow” or “The Core.” And then there’s this link a friend just sent me:

    Sunshine

  127. #127 Torbjrn Larsson, OM
    July 1, 2007

    Of course everything is drenched in treknobabble (the Trek-esque kind of technobabble.).

    Technobabble is one of Star Trek’s two best plot device inventions for accelerating the story, the other being the transporter.

    Before Star Trek scifi had long lacunae where rocket landings or complex technical explanations took place “to be scifi”. (And aliens had to be painstakingly shown, et cetera.) Remember Forbidden Planet which lacked tempo around technique, otherwise a great classic with effectively told story.

    After Star Trek the plot and its tempo took the central position, as it should.

  128. #128 Torbjrn Larsson, OM
    July 1, 2007

    Of course everything is drenched in treknobabble (the Trek-esque kind of technobabble.).

    Technobabble is one of Star Trek’s two best plot device inventions for accelerating the story, the other being the transporter.

    Before Star Trek scifi had long lacunae where rocket landings or complex technical explanations took place “to be scifi”. (And aliens had to be painstakingly shown, et cetera.) Remember Forbidden Planet which lacked tempo around technique, otherwise a great classic with effectively told story.

    After Star Trek the plot and its tempo took the central position, as it should.

  129. #129 Scott de B.
    July 1, 2007

    Quibble… very, very little fantasy uses technology *before* 1000 AD, and technology levels have absolutely nothing to do with the definition of fantasy

    They absolutely do.

  130. #130 Graculus
    July 1, 2007

    They absolutely do.
    – Scott de B.

    Sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to support that statement.

  131. #131 poke
    July 1, 2007

    I don’t really see a problem with what Caledonian has claimed. Biology is a special case of chemistry is a special case of physics. Reductionism of this sort is unfashionable at the moment in philosophy because its denial is necessary to defend the unlikely “autonomy of psychology” thesis. (The idea being that cognitive scientists can ignore neuroscience and biology and chemistry and physics because there are independent “levels” of reality or something – or at least we don’t know that there aren’t.)

  132. #132 BillCinSD
    July 1, 2007

    Anybody else remember “Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials”. The great alien races (up to ~1980) drawn for all to see.

  133. #133 Different Josh
    July 1, 2007

    Barbara Ehrenreich has a biology PhD and wrote an SF novel.

  134. #134 TNGpedant
    July 1, 2007

    Thinking that a humanoid race has sown it’s humanoid DNA all over the galaxy, which of course (after at least millions of years) turns out to generate a multitude of other humanoids, all native to vastly different eco-systems, who are able to interbreed with almost no difficulty at all, flatly contradicts everything known about evolution. This sounds more like an IDist’s version of “evolution”.

    In the TNG story, the antetype humanoids didn’t just sow its humanoid DNA all over the galaxy. They actually actually used some unspecified godlike understanding of biology to constrain the evolution of their seedlings towards the eventual generation of intelligent humanoids — so it was explicitly ID. Note that if we did observe a multitude of other humanoids all native to vastly different eco-systems etc., it would be excellent evidence for ID. .

  135. #135 Rugosa
    July 1, 2007

    ooh, Caledonian noticed me. I’m flattered. Austen’s works were full of acute observation of her society. The middle-class ladies who don’t land a man with an income are fated to be governesses, or spinsters living on relatives’ sufferance. That’s why Charlotte Lucas in P&P marries the obnoxious clergyman even though there is no love in the relationship. The heroines always get their men, love, and financial support – that’s the fairy tale part.

    Justin up in #111 – Some SF may describe stuff that just hasn’t happened yet, but that’s ascribing an awful lot of predictive power to fiction. The labeling is kind of a problem, sort of like how Christian fundies don’t consider Catholics Christian, while Catholics say, Whoa, of course we believe in Christ, and have believed in him since long before your sect was formed. Anyway, I’m speaking out of turn because I really haven’t read any recent SF. If time permits, I should read some of the recommended books in this link. Martin – did you have some?

  136. #136 notruescotsman
    July 1, 2007

    I don’t really see a problem with what Caledonian has claimed. Biology is a special case of chemistry is a special case of physics.

    If that’s all Cal was claiming, I don’t think any feathers would be ruffled. But Cal also said:

    As a biologist, your evidence is limited to this place, as is your expertise. Physicists’ expertise extends to every point in space-time.

    It’s not arrogance that you’re responding to. They’re just correct attitudes and positions that you don’t like the implications of.

    He seemed to be defending some physicists’ assumption that they are competent to address questions of biology (“correct attitude”), but totally failed to respond to the argument that biology is many levels of abstraction away from physics, and key biological concepts require study and experience in order to make sensible biological statements.

    Cal also ended a sentence with a preposition. Better: “They’re just correct attitudes and positions that you don’t like the implications of, bitch!”

    Cal made this rather sweeping statement:

    The laws of physics are universal.

    That’s simply an assumption that lets us get on with it. It’s logically possible that we could observe data that no consistent set of laws could explain. We haven’t yet AFAIK, so we proceed on the (highly plausible, in my view) induction that it won’t happen.

  137. #137 llewelly
    July 1, 2007

    Many SF authors were and are scientists of one sort or another. Most of them conclude that having a story someone wants to read comes first.

    David Brin, who was a physics professor until SF became more profitable, included dozens of implausible FTL drives, ‘psi’, and numerous other violations of good science in his ‘Uplift’ universe, precisely for the reason you give. I still count those books as some of the best fiction I’ve ever read.

  138. #138 llewelly
    July 1, 2007

    If you’d told the embattled Royal Air Force in 1940 that pretty soon they could line themselves up approximately behind their target at the range of two or three miles (instead of 300 yards) and destroy an enemy bomber with the touch of a button, they’d still have thought you were speculating a little too hard. That took somewhere between fifteen and twenty five years.

    If you had told fusion researchers of the 1960s that in 2007 the world’s top fusion researchers would be forecasting controlled fusion power was 40 or 50 years away, the fusion researchers of the 1960s would have nonetheless sworn up and down you were wrong, and surely controlled fusion power would be viable by the 1980s or 1990s at the latest. (Of course, they might have trouble believing in google scholar.)

  139. #139 ken
    July 1, 2007

    The ultimate in sci-fi hubris occured in Niven’s “Footfall”, where the president, faced with an alien invasion, convenes a meeting of science fiction writers so he can get some input from “out of the box” thinkers.

    I get the feeling that Bear really believes he’s onto something with his jive about transposons and intelligent bacteria…he’s used that in more than one novel. Write enough books with enough wacked-out ideas, and one of them will actually pan out, and you’ll be remembered as a prophet.

  140. #140 Rugosa
    July 1, 2007

    I’d like to add just a little more to the discussion of “good” writing. Cal thinks there are different standards for good writing, which is true if you compare writing fooikp;[llllll r science journals with fiction writing. Writing in fiction, however, has common qualities whether it’s mainstream fiction or genre fiction. If characters are one-dimensional or if the plot is a warmed-over cliche, 0———————-98

  141. #141 archgoon
    July 1, 2007

    Caledonian, kindly remember that your words and definitions are not the necessarily shared by everyone here. It would be helpful if you were to clearly define what exactly yours are. Scott Hatfield I believe has asked you to do this on his blog. Granted, I’m sadly beginning to suspect that you prefer to be obtuse, as it gives you an excuse to attack others.

  142. #142 CaptainBooshi
    July 1, 2007

    notruescotsman, as has been stated several times, we do have at least some confirmation that the laws of physics are universal, by doing some very clever astrophysics. Of course, the farther away something is, the farther in the past it is, but it’s less of a stretch to say that if the laws in the past there match our present laws here, then they’ll still match now than to just say that we’ve never observed data that contradicted those laws.

    Of course, that doesn’t apply to anything outside of our universe (if it exists), or to the current limits of our solid theories (like inside a black hole). Although there has been some interesting (but completely hypothetical) work done about what conditions outside our universe might look like if something does exist.

  143. #143 Ted
    July 1, 2007

    I can’t believe in this very long thread that no one mentioned the Rama series of sci-fi books, started by Arthur C. Clarke. Most believable aliens I’ve ever seen constructed for fiction.

  144. #144 Bob Dowling
    July 1, 2007

    The book “What does a martian look like?” is also known as “Evolving the alien” and is by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, previously mentioned for “Wheelers” and “Heaven”.

    I liked all three books.

    On the subject of aliens, the only Star Trek species Cohen and Stewart had any time for were the tribbles.

  145. #145 nemo ramjet
    July 1, 2007

    Olaf Stapledon’s “Star Maker”, although a bit outdated and a little too full of telepathy, nevertheless has some of the most biologiacally-accurate aliens I’ve ever read.

    I think all good sci-fi needs “brackets of disbelief”. What makes today’s works inaccurate and clumsy is that such brackets are set inside the story, rather than around it.

    If our world is all that we know biologically, creative writers could go for maximum accuracy AND wonder by writing tales of alternative natural history. After all, a story where the permian extinction did not happen is still as reality-bending as one where men meet aliens via FTL.

  146. #146 Sam t'C
    July 1, 2007

    There are two issues here, I think.

    First: that mathematicians often thought “if you can’t do the maths on a problem, it’s not interesting” whereas biologists knew that when people barged in and did the maths, that problem was usually uninteresting or trivial (life is complex and squidgy, not a set of first order differential equations) and the mathemetical model was probably irrelevant (no, the environment is not uniform!). Statistical analysis was, of course, useful but “real” mathematicians tend not to like that dirty work. Of course, some models (e.g. Lotka-Volterra predator-prey equations) were useful for generating insight in the days (I’m thinking decades ago, last millennium) when many biology students were kids who wanted to be scientists but didn’t really have adequate abstract modelling skills (mental or mathematical). Biologists are much better educated nowadays.

    Second: that mathematicians sometimes found themselves with a skill but no application area and depressingly limited knowledge outside their subject area, so would leap onto biology and think they were they first to discover “hey, we can model this!”. They fell into the category of “incompetent” discussed some days ago: they were incompetent (and hence annoying) but were unable to recognised their own incompetence. A couple of years ago, I heard a computer scientist repeatedly talking about the sequence of amino acids in the DNA of a gene (and he didn’t mean the triplets, he meant bases) — but would he have recognised that this slip was as serious and damning as a biologist confusing the concepts of differentiation and integration in a mathematical context? I think that’s a corollary of Jack Cohen’s point.

    My view used to be that once you can make a valid mathematical model, the problem ceases to be interesting (the opposite of the mathematicians’ view!) but clearly the world has moved on as genetics and biochemistry are feeding us with much better, harder data, and mathematical methods are now valuable and insightful tools. Just as long as the mathematicians remember: it doesn’t matter how good the mathematical part is if the biological part of the model is rubbish.

    But I think we biologists should retain our “show me!” approach. Yes, pretty picture on your screen, could be interesting, where’s the evidence?

  147. #147 Bunjo
    July 1, 2007

    I love good sci-fi and fantasy, but they are just stories. Most fiction is based on the narrative structure of:
    1) Expositon – where the chief protagonist(s) is introduced
    2) Complication – where the normal order of daily life is upset and our protagonist responds
    3) Resolution – where the chief protagonist earns his/her reward (good, or more rarely, bad)

    I suspect that this structure reflects some of our deepest human traits – the detection of agency, identification with another’s travails (sympathy), the basic drive to punish cheaters and reward non-cheaters.

    Aliens, as the chief protagonist (rare) or part of the ‘complication’, are still subordinate to the satisfication of our expectations of human behaviour because we are fine tuned to infer human agency. Which is why we are less critical of technical kludges (faster than light travel etc) which fall outside our day to day expectation of basic physics.

    Similarly I believe there are human traits behind the widespread belief that “my expertise in a particular field validates my mastery of your field of endeavour”. Which is why we get accountants that think they can run companies by spreadsheet, physicists who look down on biology, brain surgeons who “know what’s wrong” with evolution, and of course people who comment on blogs…

    Ain’t life grand.

  148. #148 Rugosa
    July 1, 2007

    sorry about comment #130. I meant to cancel it, but had a cat helping me.

  149. #149 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    In much of science, math is used (in part) to filter out the inplausible hypotheses/ideas from plausible.

    Biology doesn’t yet have this ability (crutch?). Biologists survive based upon the character of their insight and judgement.

    Oh boy, that was the case in the 19th century. Soon after, multivariate statistics was developed for population genetics — not just biology in general, but evolutionary biology in particular. From ecology over biochemistry to phylogenetics, there’s math everywhere in biology nowadays.

  150. #150 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    In much of science, math is used (in part) to filter out the inplausible hypotheses/ideas from plausible.

    Biology doesn’t yet have this ability (crutch?). Biologists survive based upon the character of their insight and judgement.

    Oh boy, that was the case in the 19th century. Soon after, multivariate statistics was developed for population genetics — not just biology in general, but evolutionary biology in particular. From ecology over biochemistry to phylogenetics, there’s math everywhere in biology nowadays.

  151. #151 travc
    July 1, 2007

    Ok, I have to jump ahead and comment on the Physics is “more fundamental” vs Bio is too complex (at this point) for a reductionist approach flame war. Yes, and yes.

    The dynamical systems describing even very simple cases of evolution are generally *intractable* with current mathematical methods. There are a few exceedingly simple and unrealistic cases with closed form solutions, and a few more with computationally tractable numerical approaches if you are only really interested in the equilibrium state (which real world biology is very far from in almost every case). Physicists using the tools / methods of physics have very little they can contribute at this point.

    On the upside, some physicists (like the bloke I used to work for) have pushed the frontiers of Biology a little bit by using hard-core math (sadly, most biologists are like me and lack those skills). Specifically, the application of thermodynamics and information theory to evolutionary dynamics (of very simple systems) actually pulls some aspects together in a much more intuitive and consistent framework (IMO). However, almost every fruitful endeavor along these lines has been a close collaboration between a physicist and a biologist, not solo work.

    For a good example, look up Luria and Delbrck.

  152. #152 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    The heroines always get their men, love, and financial support – that’s the fairy tale part.

    Point taken. I retract my earlier comments.

    If you’re looking for science-compatible fiction, try Greg Egan. The science in many of his stories is hard as a rock – ‘Diaspora’ is a particularly good example.

  153. #153 daedalus2u
    July 1, 2007

    poke, #122, if you consider the previous post that PZ made

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/06/artificial_evolution_looks_an.php

    They found that the “evolved” system didn’t confine itself to using only a certain level of abstraction. The FPGAs used everything. No doubt some biological systems do too.

  154. #154 raj
    July 1, 2007

    I stopped reading SciFi in the 1970s, but it seems to me that the primary reason that SciFi is primarily physics and chemistry, and not biology, is that SciFi developed from the gadget world. Gadgets are physics and chemistry (actually, more engineering), not biology. Modern SciFi was literally invented by E. E. “Doc” Smith (an engineer) and perfected by John Campbell (a physicist).

  155. #155 WCG
    July 1, 2007

    Note that David Brin’s aliens in his Uplift Universe series of books didn’t evolve, they were “intelligently designed.” With the exception of the first intelligent species long, long ago – and the possible exception of homo sapiens (most of the galaxy doesn’t believe we’d evolved on our own) – all other intelligent races had been “uplifted” to full sapience,… and often heavily modified along the way. The nice thing about this is that the aliens didn’t have to be especially logical from an evolutionary perspective. You could even have wheeled creatures. If Brin’s aliens don’t seem very “organic,” this is likely the reason for it. His is a (fictional) universe in which ID is REAL,… more or less.

  156. #156 Strider
    July 1, 2007

    I thought Niven, Barnes, and Pournelle’s “Legacy of Heorot” contained some good ecological principles even if the Grendels were just Komodo Monitors on PCP with a stegosaur’s tail.

  157. #157 Nix
    July 1, 2007

    Jessica, Watts himself points out in the afterword that his scramblers are reminiscent of brittlestars. (But personally I find the similarities to be rather minor. I’m not even sure you could call the scramblers living organisms as such: they’re more like half a living organism, or maybe even less than half.)

    Anyway, Blindsight is an amazing book, strongly recommended. Run out and get a copy. 😉

  158. #158 ospalh
    July 1, 2007

    I quite like Robert Sawyers books:
    In one of them, “Frameshift” genetics plays the central role, and in others he at least tries to make the aliens, well, alien. I think this scene from “Calculating God” is priceless. A human and an alien discuss hunan concepts of aliens, with Star Trek:

    “Spock there is only half-Vulcan; the other half is human.”
    “How is that possible?”
    “His mother was a human; his father was a Vulcan.”
    “That does not make sense biologically,” said Hollus. “It would seem more likely that you could crossbreed a strawberry and a human; at least they evolved on the same planet.”

  159. #159 N.Wells
    July 1, 2007

    I really enjoyed the biology in James White’s Space Hospital (‘Sector General’) novels. To be honest I was sufficiently impressed by the stories and his imagination at work not to think too hard about the plausibility of his aliens. I had the same response to all John Scalzi’s aliens in his wonderful “Old Man’s War”. You can ask for more from an SF novel, but that’s already more than sufficient.

    For whatever it’s worth, physicists have a long history of ignoring geologists, just as they do with biologists. Physics is impressive in terms of the strength of the reductionist approach, their success in coming up with so many grand answers, and their facility with math, but less so with regard to they handle complex systems, multiple causes, emergent properties, and incomplete data sets (and how they can ignore relevant literature not in their field, such as when they are rediscovering grain flows and crossbeds). It’s not that geologists and biologists are vastly better at all these complexities, but we tend to have a better idea of our limitations and are perhaps less prone to making really silly scientific pronouncements outside of our fields. (Of course, we did get a bit unnecessarily cheesed off over their whole asteroid extinction contribution.)

  160. #160 Peter Ashby
    July 1, 2007

    Sam in #136 wrote:
    “There are two issues here, I think.
    First: that mathematicians often thought “if you can’t do the maths on a problem, it’s not interesting” whereas biologists knew that when people barged in and did the maths, that problem was usually uninteresting or trivial (life is complex and squidgy, not a set of first order differential equations) and the mathemetical model was probably irrelevant (no, the environment is not uniform!).”

    You have hit the nail on the head. I have a book by Ian Stewart in which he details a computer model of birds flocking in flight (think those huge aggregations of starlings wheeling like a school of fish in the air). He thought that by doing so he had explained how they do it. However he did it by making a huge number of assumptions and gross simplifications. For eg the whole messy idea of what actually happens between the eyes and the flight muscles in individual birds was reduced to one variable. He also fell into the trap of assuming that the simplest, lowest entropy way of doing something was how living things did it, if only. Natural selection does not measure mechanism, it can only measure output (assuming the energetics of the mechanism are not deleterious). Anyone who has ever looked at molecular or develpmental mechanisms as PZ detailed recently wrt segmentation in Drosophila, will have seen how ad hoc and sub optimal these mechanisms are. We see the same thing when we evolve electronic circuits.

    Why does this pathway use an activator but this one does it by inhibiting and inhibitor to switch the gene on? Because at the time of the selection of the outputs of those pathways those were the variations available. If a biologist discovers that protein A is involved in the pathway under study they would know that assuming it must work the same as in other pathways is not valid. You would certainly be remiss if you did not test that hypothesis, but you must also test for other possibilities. For those in the know the canonical vs the non canonical Wnt signalling pathways in vertebrates is a case in point.

  161. #161 themann1086
    July 1, 2007

    All science is physics. Everything else is stamp collecting 😉

    Just teasing. I love biologists. It’s the damn chemists I can’t stand 😀

  162. #162 Arnold
    July 1, 2007

    Boosterz, I have solved your tech problem with nothing more than introductory kinematics. Review the tapes one at a time. Physics reigns supreme! 😉

  163. #163 poke
    July 1, 2007

    notruescotsman: I didn’t think Cal was defending the idea that physicists can meddle in biology as they please. He was just saying current biology is limited to Earth, whereas physics applies everywhere, so the argument that physicists discussing astrobiology is like biologists discussing black holes is incorrect. I think some people have overlooked the strength of the claim PZ quoted. I think Cal’s correct: Physicists addressing astrobiology usually are setting physical limits on the potential for life. The analogy doesn’t hold up.

    Claims about the “arrogance” of physicists are often like this. Penrose’s arguments are often used as an example. But if it did turn out the brain used quantum effects, the first thing any biologist would do is go see a physicist. The hierarchy of sciences (with physics at the foundation) is not only true: it’s absolutely essential to the practice of science. When we discover something that requires a lower-level of explanation we know exactly where to go.

    As for the claim that physics is universal. I think his point was that by definition physics is universal. (He later clarified by saying he was speaking of physical laws and not our understanding of them.) If the current laws of physics are shown not to hold in some other place then they are shown to be some special case of some other laws of physics that are universal. This would be true even if we never obtain the ultimate law of physics. (It’s difficult to see how you’d establish otherwise.)

  164. #164 Graculus
    July 1, 2007

    They absolutely do.

    – Scott de B.

    I’m afraid I’m going o have to ask you to support that assertion, as it occurs in no definition or descripotion of “fantasy” that I have ever seen. Including the fantasy I’ve read that has been set in a high tech future.

  165. #165 Joe Fulgham
    July 1, 2007

    My wife’s physics professor used to say: “Biology is really Chemistry. Chemistry is really Physics. Physics is really Math, and Math is really hard.”

  166. #166 JP Stormcrow
    July 1, 2007

    For whatever it’s worth, physicists have a long history of ignoring geologists, just as they do with biologists.

    It’s not that geologists and biologists are vastly better at all these complexities, but we tend to have a better idea of our limitations and are perhaps less prone to making really silly scientific pronouncements outside of our fields.

    In the late ’70s or early ’80s I read a nice little book which walked through a number of instances of this. I recall the late 19th century age of the earth estimates, and early Continental Drift (and yes there were plenty of geologists lined up against that one as well) being covered. The authors even coined?/referenced? a maxim which went something like Hard science tends to prevail over soft science, even when the soft science is more appropriate. I unfortunately did not note the authors or title at the time and have been unsuccessful in my attempts to re-find it. I thought it a great little book, and have the ulterior motive in this comment of hoping that someone in this knowledgable audience can identify it.

  167. #167 Pierce R. Butler
    July 1, 2007

    I just finished reading Greg Egan’s Teranesia last night, which can certainly be recommended as good biological sf (at least, it didn’t set off my amateur’s bs-detector in the way Greg Bear’s deplorable Darwin’s Radio did (and thanks to all here who confirmed my suspicions!)). Egan sets up a problem (radically different species suddenly appearing in the Moluccan islands) and solves it (with a resort to physics which did trigger my bs-ometer) within a purely naturalistic framework, in a way reminiscent of 1940s puzzle stories. His greater challenge was in telling a good story around that – natural processes don’t make a very nuanced antagonist – which he overcame by crafting believable and sympathetic foreground characters.

    Rugosa: if you’re interested in sf with respectable lit’ry values, start with Gene Wolfe’s work, esp. short stories & novellas such as “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories”, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, etc. Work your way up to his Book of the New Sun; consider its sequels (Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun particularly if interested in a virtuoso exercise of flashback narrative technique. (Note: the Book of… titles each refer to a set of novels: though some have been collected within a single set of covers, I’ve just thrown 10 books in your general direction.)

    You might also appreciate Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, the short stories of James Tiptree, Jr (most of the best gathered in And Her Smoke Rose Up Forever), some of the later works of Brian Aldiss, Alasdair Grey’s Poor Things and others, perhaps books by Richard Grant or Richard Powers, possibly stories by Kate Wilhelm, Thomas Disch, or Harlan Ellison, probably those by Terry Bisson or Howard Waldrop. John Clute’s Appleseed also belongs in this list, but you’ll probably miss most of it if you’re not sf-sophisticated – sorry…

    Oh yeah, don’t overlook Vonnegut.

  168. #168 llewelly
    July 1, 2007

    The ultimate in sci-fi hubris occured in Niven’s “Footfall”, where the president, faced with an alien invasion, convenes a meeting of science fiction writers so he can get some input from “out of the box” thinkers.

    Jerry Pournelle, his co-author (for Footfall and other novels), was influential within the Citizen’s Advisory Council On National Space Policy. Their third report was quoted in Reagon’s 1983 SDI speach. From this and other activities I get the impression that Jerry Pournelle spent quite a bit of energy attempting to gain for himself and a few other like-minded SF authors substantial influence on space-related policies. (Note Pournelle’s degree in political science.)
    Possibly unrelated, Pournelle has expressed doubt about evolution and the cause of AIDS, and for a long time rejected global warming outright.

  169. #169 jf
    July 1, 2007

    Schrdinger broke the ice for physicists wishing to meddle in biology with What is Life?, didn’t he? It was very well-received, although I don’t think he had any training in the subject.

  170. #170 Nullifidian
    July 1, 2007

    archgoon:

    Granted, I’m sadly beginning to suspect that you prefer to be obtuse, as it gives you an excuse to attack others.

    Indeed, that’s always been the case with Caledonian. I can’t understand why people continue to engage him, but you’re spot on about his motives. If he explained himself using terms which were meaningful to others, and not just to himself alone, we would all see that every one of his ‘insights’ which isn’t trivial is flat wrong.

    I wonder if we are grown so desperate that we’re willing to entertain any contrarian who happens to not be an evolution-denier and can write sentences in proper grammar.

  171. #171 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    I can’t understand why people continue to engage him, but you’re spot on about his motives.

    They just don’t have your preternatural ability to divine the motives and intentions of others, I suppose. So I troll the boards with outrageous and untenable claims like “the laws of physics are universal” and “physics is more fundamental than biology”, and people act as though reasonable statements are being made.

    If only there were some way you could share your wisdom with them – a means of communication by which you could present arguments and open their minds to the trivially obvious truths about me. But alas! such is not the case.

  172. #172 Rick Cook
    July 1, 2007

    Would it surprise you to know that SF writers get similar criticisms from physicists and other hard scientists all the time? I’d say biology doesn’t have a monopoly on being misunderstood.

    But that doesn’t mean that scientists understand science fiction either. This is more obvious in the case of biology because it’s more directly related to the plot and development of the story. Believe me, there is a lot in the physical sciences in even the best science fiction that is very wrong as well.

    The first thing to understand is that the purpose of any kind of fiction is to tell a story. This usually involves various putting various strains and contortions on reality to make the story come out right. That includes the scientific background.

    For example, you can poke a lot of holes in the aliens in “Symphony for Skyfall”, the story I wrote for “Analog” with Peter Manly about the impact of a comet strike on Jupiter. But we needed intelligent aliens in the upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere or we’d have no story. So we ignored the problems and pushed on.

    The second thing to realize is that most aliens in SF aren’t. They’re humans in funny suits, usually being used as a form of social commentary rather than as actual explorations of biology. (See for example my crypto-Graeco-Chinese hydraulic civilization in my novel Limbo System.Ignore the aliens on the cover. There’s a story behind that.) There are very few authors who actually try to create truly aliens. C.J. Cherryh is the classic example of someone who tries for real aliens. But even she distorts things in order to make the story come out right.

    What’s more, the further you move from human-like characters in normal environments, the more of a problem you’ve got in building empathy between the readers and the characters. As a first approximation, the more alien the environment and the greater the difference between the alien and human biology, the more you have to give the characters human-like reactions to make the aliens comprehensible to the readers.

    And of course ignorance plays a major role. Sometimes the writers don’t care — and there are an awful lot of careless SF writers, even some very popular ones. For some reason it’s a lot easier to get help from astronomers, physicists and such than it is from life scientists. The physical scientists seem more willing to play with ideas and postulate scenarios that the biologists and such. (Exception in my experience: Anthropologists.)I’d be hard pressed to come up with a biological scientist who would be willing to postulate a scenario as bizarre as the one an astrophysicist helped Larry Niven work out for the “Smoke Ring”

    As for ‘astrobiologists’ who don’t come out of the physical sciences. Well, I won’t say there aren’t any. But I will say they’re damn rare birds. The closest I’ve been able to come are some of the guys who work on exotic metabolism bacteria (coincidentally the subject of my first appearance in a national SF magazine)and black smokers. And the ones I have known have been disinclined to speculate.

    Oh yeah, while I generally agree about Niven’s aliens, the Moties in “The Mote In God’s Eye” are strongly implied to be the products of genetic engineering, not natural evolution.

    Finally, I’ve got a challenge for the biologically inclined among you. There are fairly strong reasons for believing that there is an ocean of liquid water under the ice covering Europa. If so, what would the life forms be like?

    –Rick Cook

  173. #173 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    The first thing to understand is that the purpose of any kind of fiction is to tell a story.

    Like the earlier post that claimed strong characterization was essential to every kind of fiction, this claim is just wrong. Fiction can have other purposes than telling a story.

  174. #174 pete
    July 1, 2007

    The first comment mentioned that the laws of physics are universal and true for all points in spacetime. I don’t know if anyone responded (and I don’t have the time to go through all the comments; though I skimmed some), but this is not the “whole truth”. Laws of physics are true for all points in spacetime, but only ceteris paribus. Ask a physicist to describe the exact trajectory of a leaf falling from a tree. Even Laplace’s demon cannot solve this problem. What biologists do is the equivalent of physicists trying to explain the trajectory of a leaf.
    And as some comments implied, physicists (through no fault of theirs) cannot handle anything more complicated than a hydrogen atom.

  175. #175 guthrie
    July 1, 2007

    Raven at comment #116 has it about right. SF authors by now have mostly run out of interesting science to use, and will admit that their aliens have little basis in reality.

    One of the restrictions is that yoru aliens have to ultimately be understandable to your readers. Therefore it is very hard to make them really alien, without annoying so many readers that no one will buy your book. Leaving aside some of his science abuse, Frank Herbert had some very hard to understand aliens, as have a few other writer whom I cannot think of just now.

  176. #176 Peter Ashby
    July 1, 2007

    Rick Cook in #165 asked:
    “Finally, I’ve got a challenge for the biologically inclined among you. There are fairly strong reasons for believing that there is an ocean of liquid water under the ice covering Europa. If so, what would the life forms be like?
    –Rick Cook”

    Firstly I have a lot of trouble thinking about Europa without getting goosebumps. They started the moment I saw decent evidence for the ocean (the upwellings at the cracks in the ice cover). Firstly it is likely any organisms down there will be anaerobes, which tends to make multicellularity hard. However this biosphere tells us hard is easy with Natural Selection and enough time. Remember multicellularity, in both plants and animals (including the funghi) required that an anaerobic cell went into a deep symbiosis with what was probably its prey, an aerobic bacterium. IOW our mitochondria. Mind you that happened twice, plants did with a cyanobacterium to get chloroplasts and photosynthesis. So if there is multicellular life it may be symbiosis between more than one organism. This could be a colony rather than full multicellularity but I understand that among the cnidaria (jellyfish) it is hard to tell just be looking which are colonial and which multicellular. IOW if there is life, Rick it will not be as we know it.

    The real interest is actually not at the cellular level but the molecular. If they are a truly independent biosphere do they use only levoratatory amino acids? do they use A,C,T & G (and or U?). Which amino acids do they use? What is their genetic code? Info from another ‘creation’ will greatly inform how ours probably got started.

    Peter

  177. #177 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    They just don’t have your preternatural ability to divine the motives and intentions of others, I suppose. So I troll the boards with outrageous and untenable claims like “the laws of physics are universal” and “physics is more fundamental than biology”, and people act as though [un?]reasonable statements are being made.

    Those claims aren’t the problem, as I’m sure you’ve seen from reading this thread. The problem is your implication that astronomers without training outside their discipline can more meaningfully talk about life than likewise restricted biologists about black holes.

    It would be great, though, if you took advantage of Scott Hatfield’s offer. Most of the time you only tell us what is wrong, not why, and not what you consider right either.

    Finally, I’ve got a challenge for the biologically inclined among you. There are fairly strong reasons for believing that there is an ocean of liquid water under the ice covering Europa. If so, what would the life forms be like?

    No idea.

    Well, I can come up with a small number of things that they won’t be like, and a number of suggestions almost only limited by my imagination. That’s because life on Earth only uses a very small number of well-known possibilities: we all have DNA, RNA, and proteins, with the same bases and the same amino acids across all of Life As We Know It, yet we don’t know a reason other than inheritance from a common ancestor for why that’s the way it is.

    Firstly it is likely any organisms down there will be anaerobes

    Yes, but I’m not sure if photosynthesis is the only way to make oxygen. And if it is, breathing oxygen is just one of a very large number of possibilities known to be used by Life As We Know It.

    I understand that among the cnidaria (jellyfish) it is hard to tell just be looking which are colonial and which multicellular.

    Er, no, all are obviously multicellular. In some it’s difficult to tell if they should be considered one multicellular individual or a colony of lots of multicellular individuals.

    Also remember that being eukaryotic and being multicellular is not the same, though multicellular prokaryotes are very rare on Earth.

    If they are a truly independent biosphere do they use only levoratatory amino acids?

    That, actually, is likely because polarized UV light from stars produces a lot more L than D amino acids. I forgot where I read that years ago; could be Nature or Science.

  178. #178 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    They just don’t have your preternatural ability to divine the motives and intentions of others, I suppose. So I troll the boards with outrageous and untenable claims like “the laws of physics are universal” and “physics is more fundamental than biology”, and people act as though [un?]reasonable statements are being made.

    Those claims aren’t the problem, as I’m sure you’ve seen from reading this thread. The problem is your implication that astronomers without training outside their discipline can more meaningfully talk about life than likewise restricted biologists about black holes.

    It would be great, though, if you took advantage of Scott Hatfield’s offer. Most of the time you only tell us what is wrong, not why, and not what you consider right either.

    Finally, I’ve got a challenge for the biologically inclined among you. There are fairly strong reasons for believing that there is an ocean of liquid water under the ice covering Europa. If so, what would the life forms be like?

    No idea.

    Well, I can come up with a small number of things that they won’t be like, and a number of suggestions almost only limited by my imagination. That’s because life on Earth only uses a very small number of well-known possibilities: we all have DNA, RNA, and proteins, with the same bases and the same amino acids across all of Life As We Know It, yet we don’t know a reason other than inheritance from a common ancestor for why that’s the way it is.

    Firstly it is likely any organisms down there will be anaerobes

    Yes, but I’m not sure if photosynthesis is the only way to make oxygen. And if it is, breathing oxygen is just one of a very large number of possibilities known to be used by Life As We Know It.

    I understand that among the cnidaria (jellyfish) it is hard to tell just be looking which are colonial and which multicellular.

    Er, no, all are obviously multicellular. In some it’s difficult to tell if they should be considered one multicellular individual or a colony of lots of multicellular individuals.

    Also remember that being eukaryotic and being multicellular is not the same, though multicellular prokaryotes are very rare on Earth.

    If they are a truly independent biosphere do they use only levoratatory amino acids?

    That, actually, is likely because polarized UV light from stars produces a lot more L than D amino acids. I forgot where I read that years ago; could be Nature or Science.

  179. #179 jeff
    July 1, 2007

    All science is physics. Everything else is stamp collecting 😉

    But none of it would matter without consciousness, which is biology! Consciousness is at least as deep as the deepest physics.

  180. #180 Ichthyic
    July 1, 2007

    “Finally, I’ve got a challenge for the biologically inclined among you. There are fairly strong reasons for believing that there is an ocean of liquid water under the ice covering Europa. If so, what would the life forms be like?
    –Rick Cook”

    check out the entries on hydrothermal vents and cold seeps on wiki.

    that will introduce you to the current thinking (based on known organisms) as to what multicellular organisms might be able to thrive in the proposed environment on Europa.

    entire ecosystems based on chemosynthetic metabolic pathways have been known for decades.

    no photosynthesis necessary, even for biotic input from an external source (marine snow).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_seep

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrothermal_vent

  181. #181 Scott Hatfield, OM
    July 1, 2007

    Some attempts at dialogue reviewed:

    #92: “Got it wrong, again. Physics is what we do mathematics with.”

    Hmm. I taught high school physics for three years, and I’m pretty sure that we use the tools of math to express the concepts of physics, not the other way around. If you’ve taught physics at any level, Cal, perhaps you could tell us how the latter could be done? More charitably, is it fair to say that some of us here are not using the word ‘physics’ the way you mean it?

    #100 and #104: wrg, with reference to the above comment, are you confident that Cal is using the word ‘physics’ to mean the same thing you are writing about? Please explain.

    #109: “You’re confusing our theories about physics with physics itself.”

    If, by ‘theories about physics’ you mean the everyday usage of the term ‘physics’, as a scientific discipline, and by ‘physics itself’ you mean something like ‘Nature’, I suppose. That seems archaic, almost Arisotelian to me, but I imagine you have a good reason for using the term in this way. Care to explain?

    #112: “They’re the same thing, described differently.”

    Yeah, but how would you describe them? How does this ‘deeper reality’ relate to your usage of the term ‘physics’? Are they equivalent, or not? Again, care to explain?

    #114: “Is it really possible that you would have expended more time and energy explaining, clearly and explicitly, what you’re trying to say, than you have so far expended attempting to explain why you shouldn’t have to?”

    A fair question. Cal answers:

    “The problem with trying to explain very basic ideas it that it’s usually harder to do so than more complex and less fundamental concepts.”

    I agree with that, but Cal then adds:

    “So no, I couldn’t do it in ten times the amount of space I’ve already expended saying why I shouldn’t do it.”

    I have to say that this reply puzzles me. Clearly, the definitions of concepts are important to Cal, so much so that the old Scot continually rails against our stupidity in failing to adopt his understanding. Continually. And yet, they are NOT important enough for him to take the time to explain.

    Perhaps Caledonian is afraid that the length required would derail the thread. Understandable. But, here’s the thing: I’m providing a thread for that purpose, because I am sincerely interested in hearing his views, and the old Scot hasn’t taken me up on it, so far. Not so much as a peep. Curious, and disappointing.

  182. #182 Ichthyic
    July 1, 2007

    … one of the current interesting questions, of course, being whether the fauna inhabiting these systems evolved entirely independently, or whether they are evolved genera of species that previously existed in photosynthetic biomes.

    I haven’t read the most recent stuff, but I’d be willing to bet there have been attempts to do some molecular genetics to try and find out.

  183. #183 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    The problem is your implication that astronomers without training outside their discipline can more meaningfully talk about life than likewise restricted biologists about black holes.

    That’s fairly obviously true, yes. If you see that as a problem, there’s really nothing further to be said in that direction.

  184. #184 NelC
    July 1, 2007

    FWIW, Strider @ 149, Jack Cohen worked on the biology of the grendels for Beowulf’s Children, the sequel to Legacy of Heorot.

    Caledonian @ 166, I don’t have a Cal anti-fan axe to grind, but that really is an obtuse remark. The claim wasn’t made that fiction was story-telling and nothing else. Of course, it can provide moral instruction and whatever you have in mind. But, you know, fiction:story-telling, they’re practically synonymous to most people who use the English language and human logic. You’re not one o’them there aliens, are you, with their confounded alien logic?

    Cohen and Stewart have some interesting things to say about man as a story-telling animal in one of their books, btw (might even be one of their collaborations with Pratchett, I dont recall just now).

  185. #185 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    entire ecosystems based on chemosynthetic metabolic pathways have been known for decades.

    Ehem… they may eat hydrogen sulfide, but they do breathe oxygen, and the oxygen comes from photosynthesis in higher water layers.

    … one of the current interesting questions, of course, being whether the fauna inhabiting these systems evolved entirely independently, or whether they are evolved genera of species that previously existed in photosynthetic biomes.

    That has never been a question. The bacteria that eat hydrogen sulfide and breathe oxygen can be found in lots of other places (like the deeper layers of seashores), and, well, they’re bacteria, not a new form of life. The animals, well — clams, annelids, crabs… The tube worms with the big red gills are gutless annelids that consist mostly of the second segment.

  186. #186 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    entire ecosystems based on chemosynthetic metabolic pathways have been known for decades.

    Ehem… they may eat hydrogen sulfide, but they do breathe oxygen, and the oxygen comes from photosynthesis in higher water layers.

    … one of the current interesting questions, of course, being whether the fauna inhabiting these systems evolved entirely independently, or whether they are evolved genera of species that previously existed in photosynthetic biomes.

    That has never been a question. The bacteria that eat hydrogen sulfide and breathe oxygen can be found in lots of other places (like the deeper layers of seashores), and, well, they’re bacteria, not a new form of life. The animals, well — clams, annelids, crabs… The tube worms with the big red gills are gutless annelids that consist mostly of the second segment.

  187. #187 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    Caledonian @ 166, I don’t have a Cal anti-fan axe to grind, but that really is an obtuse remark. The claim wasn’t made that fiction was story-telling and nothing else.

    That’s a stupid criticism. I wasn’t responding to the claim that “fiction was story-telling and nothing else”, because no one’s made that claim – rather, the claim was that the purpose of fiction is story-telling. Story-telling doesn’t have to be the purpose of fiction. It doesn’t even have to be, period. You can have fiction without it.

    Constantly twisting the arguments that you’re responding to isn’t the best way to get the people making them to view you and your requests favorably. Comprende?

  188. #188 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    That’s fairly obviously true, yes. If you see that as a problem, there’s really nothing further to be said in that direction.

    So you don’t even try to explain your position?

    You know, I in your place would teach people basic knowledge and basic logics. Why on the planet are you content with saying “no, that’s wrong, and you’re all stupid for not noticing”? I don’t get that. Why don’t you say “no, that’s wrong, and you’re all stupid because you haven’t noticed the obvious points A, B, C, and D”? Can’t you type with 10 fingers?

  189. #189 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    That’s fairly obviously true, yes. If you see that as a problem, there’s really nothing further to be said in that direction.

    So you don’t even try to explain your position?

    You know, I in your place would teach people basic knowledge and basic logics. Why on the planet are you content with saying “no, that’s wrong, and you’re all stupid for not noticing”? I don’t get that. Why don’t you say “no, that’s wrong, and you’re all stupid because you haven’t noticed the obvious points A, B, C, and D”? Can’t you type with 10 fingers?

  190. #190 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    In order to avoid making an ad hominem argument, remember to distinguish “you” and “your requests”.

  191. #191 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

    In order to avoid making an ad hominem argument, remember to distinguish “you” and “your requests”.

  192. #192 Ichthyic
    July 1, 2007

    That has never been a question.

    yes, it has.

    perhaps not from the level of the chemosynthetic bacteria, but from the level of up from there, yes it has.

    wiki certainly isn’t going to go into much detail, but I used to work with some of the physiologists examining hydrothermal vent systems, and funny, they seemed to think it an interesting question.

    Ehem… they may eat hydrogen sulfide, but they do breathe oxygen, and the oxygen comes from photosynthesis in higher water layers.

    call it energy independence, then, if you wish, but since we do have numerous facultative anaerobes, there is nothing to suggest that larger scale life based on anaerobic metabolism, is impossible, just less likely if oxygen is present.

    the point is, that chemotrophic organisms of higher order do exist, and the energy input in maintainting those biomes has nothing to do with the sun.

    hence, the reason that macrobiotic life has been proposed for Europa that might resemble the chemotrophs we have here, since there can’t essentially be much light input in an ocean under miles of ice, on a moon so far from the sun anyway.

  193. #193 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    You know, I in your place would teach people basic knowledge and basic logics.

    Perhaps people who lack rudimentary knowledge of a subject, and can’t even manage the most basic aspects of logic, should refrain from arguing about it.

    Have you even considered that a certain minimum level of competence is required before a person can expect to be considered as an honest seeker of truth? Can you truly not see that people who can’t manage basic reading comprehension challenging the arguments of others is an insult? Why exactly should I expend myself dealing with people who can’t be bothered to think and yet demand that I make things comprehensible to them?

  194. #194 Ichthyic
    July 1, 2007

    Why exactly should I expend myself dealing with people who can’t be bothered to think and yet demand that I make things comprehensible to them?

    that’s an excellent question, since you apparently commonly think most of the posters here follow that exact description, and yet you post more than any other single person in this whole forum.

    I too have often wondered why you DO expend yourself so much, considering.

  195. #195 NelC
    July 1, 2007

    Cal @ 178, get some sleep, man. You don’t know what you’re writing any more.

    Rick Cook said: “[T]he purpose of any kind of fiction is to tell a story.”

    You said: “You’re wrong.” And proceeded to tell us that fiction had other purposes.

    I pointed out that other purposes didn’t exclude story-telling as a purpose, i.e. that you’re wrong to claim that Cook is wrong.

    Now I expect you’re going to chop logic and re-energise it as some sort of Frankenstein monster to prove that you never get anything wrong or ever contradict yourself. And doubtless that I’m stupid for misintepreting your clear words as meaning anything but what you wanted them to mean.

    You weren’t clear in your writing, and I doubt that you are clear in your thinking on this. Go to bed.

  196. #196 JackGoff
    July 1, 2007

    All science is physics.

    All your quarks are belong to us. Mwahahaha! 8^D

    But yeah, this seems like a borderline playground fight to me. It’s so sad that Caledonian is taking it so seriously.

  197. #197 Kaleberg
    July 1, 2007

    Zola claimed that all fiction, by its nature, is experimental. The author sets up an environment, a situation, and characters and then lets the story unfold. Science fiction stories are constructed by bending scientific laws at various levels in the pursuit of a good story. The goal is some level of internal consistency and a believable narrative of cause and effect. Physics may rule out faster than light space ships, but London geography rules out the existence of 221B Baker Street.

    How far we allow the author to bend or deny the laws of physics depends on our conventions, and in the case of science fiction, what we know about about science. Edgar Rice Burroughs could get away with Martian air ships powered by the sixth ray. Why not? People were building airships using de-ionized alpha rays, that is, helium atoms. Still, his Mars books are great stories, even though we know that the Mars he describes is not the Mars of Spirit and Opportunity.

    As for me. I’ll go for interesting setups, emphatic characters and good stories. As for the line between science fiction and fantasy, I’ll go with Dr. Who’s Law – “Any magic sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from technology.” I always prefer libraries and video collections where they just put everything on the shelf and don’t make me guess the genre.

  198. #198 Kaleberg
    July 1, 2007

    I’ll recommend Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite for biological fiction. The biology isn’t perfect, but it is definitely good enough. The setting is appropriately exotic. The characters are a lot of fun. Not only is there a good story, but the book holds up an interesting mirror.

  199. #199 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    Rick Cook said: “[T]he purpose of any kind of fiction is to tell a story.”

    You said: “You’re wrong.” And proceeded to tell us that fiction had other purposes.

    I pointed out that other purposes didn’t exclude story-telling as a purpose, i.e. that you’re wrong to claim that Cook is wrong.

    1) Speaking about a concept in the definite singular limits discussion. The phrase was “the purpose”, not “a purpose”.

    2) Storytelling is not required in order for a piece of writing to be fiction. It is not necessarily the primary purpose of the writing, nor does it have to be any purpose of the writing.

    It’s parochial and hidebound thinking by people who want to restrict literature to the genre conventions and styles they prefer, and so judge all forms of writing by the standard of their prejudices.

  200. #200 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    Returning to the ostensible topic at hand:

    Astronomers with no special training in biology or chemistry can still deduce some requirements for life-as-we-know-it from basic knowledge: the melting point of water, the presence of certain elements, etc. They’d be qualified to make educated guesses about which solar systems would be likely to bring those requirements together, where in the systems such conjunctions would take place, the likelihood of planets having such conditions, and so on and so forth.

    Biologists with no special training in astronomy or astrophysics could say very little more about black holes than the average layman. Maybe a little more from greater general knowledge, supposing that scientists in any field are likely to be smarter and more knowledgeable than the public at large. But pronouncements that go beyond what is already generally known? Improbable, and attempting them would be the height of hubris.

    Just face facts: physics is special, in a way that biology can never touch. That doesn’t make it better – it makes it essential.

  201. #201 Chris Bell
    July 1, 2007

    I recommend Ribofunk by Di Filippo

  202. #202 NelC
    July 1, 2007

    Cal @ 188, it limits the discussion if you interpret all communication as an exercise in binary logic. I think most people would understand the definite article in this case to be non-exclusive, and if they wanted to make a point about the other purposes of fiction, they would say, “Other purposes of fiction are…” and then make their point, without feeling the need to be rude about it.

  203. #203 Chris Bell
    July 1, 2007

    Oh yes, and someone else mentioned Octavia Butler. Start with Dawn

  204. #204 Ichthyic
    July 1, 2007

    They’d be qualified to make educated guesses about which solar systems would be likely to bring those requirements together, where in the systems such conjunctions would take place, the likelihood of planets having such conditions, and so on and so forth.

    in other words, little more than the average layman, who spent any time at all looking at the basic building blocks of life.

    your argument is beyond weak here, and makes the gross assumption that biology is indeed little more than stamp collecting.

    I see little point in you trying to continue in this avenue, but if you wish to make a fool of yourself to anyone who actually HAS a graduate degree in biology, feel free.

  205. #205 PhysioProf
    July 1, 2007

    “Perhaps Caledonian is afraid that the length required would derail the thread. Understandable. But, here’s the thing: I’m providing a thread for that purpose, because I am sincerely interested in hearing his views, and the old Scot hasn’t taken me up on it, so far. Not so much as a peep. Curious, and disappointing.”

    Is there something about “I am a vacuous dipshit” that you are having trouble wrapping your mind around?

  206. #206 Kaleberg
    July 1, 2007

    One reason biology is treated a bit differently is that physics and chemistry are in some ways ahead of biology. I was recently reading a 40 year old booklet on subatomic particles, and the physics looks very familiar. People were talking about quarks and unifying forces, but it hadn’t all come together yet. Now it has. The situation in chemistry was also rather similar. There has been huge progress. We are just entering the golden age of materials science which is built on physics and chemistry, but biology seems to have changed a great deal more in the same period.

    Forty years ago biology was just shucking off the old taint of vitalism, the belief there was a mystical life force. When DNA and the genetic code were discovered, that was something completely different. It was like the first Periodic Table of the Elements which had been around for 100 years back then, and is still used today. But the enzymes copying DNA were still drawn as vague blobs, and not because the artists were lazy, but because no one knew how DNA was copied. Now we have built vast libraries of protein structures, mechanisms and interactions. We know those blobs are chemical machines with levers and cogs and rubber bands. So much is going on, and so quickly, that it is hard to absorb culturally.

    Of course some of the stuff I read in science fiction magazines, like the AAAS journal, are pretty amazing. All DNA based life may have descended, with modifications, from DNA viruses, and those DNA viruses evolved from RNA viruses to protect them from RNA cell immune systems. Darwin’s guidelines are still holding up nicely, but there is still so much to learn.

    Unfortunately, as fascinating as I find The Tales of the RNA World, it’s rather hard to turn it into drama.

  207. #207 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    in other words, little more than the average layman, who spent any time at all looking at the basic building blocks of life.

    Bwa?! The average layman couldn’t calculate the habitable zone around given stellar spectral classes if his life depended upon it.

    This “you think biology is stamp collecting” strawman is becoming annoying. The nature of their respective expertises makes astronomers more qualified to talk about extraterrestrial life than biologists are to discuss black holes. That’s reality – learn to acknowledge it.

  208. #208 birniguy
    July 1, 2007

    How is it that no one mentioned William Gibson /Neuromancer? Interesting, stretches the mind a bit, a bit prophetic. Fun read too.

  209. #209 JeffF
    July 1, 2007

    Physicists are most certainly arrogant. Nonetheless, my take on the “biologists and black holes” example is that a physicist is clearly more justified in speaking about life than a biologist is about black holes. This isn’t true in all particulars, of course – a given physicist probably knows too little to speak intelligently about much of biology. Nonetheless, a physicist has learned a great deal in their education that is broadly applicable to biological problems, while a biologist has learned essentially nothing that is relevant to understanding black holes. I’m not saying physicists know more about everything, just that the comparison is a bit unfair.

    That said, I can note the experiences of my wife and several classmates with physics educations who had a very easy time switching to biological fields. Though they often encountered biology and biophysics faculty who were annoyed at their arrogance, they really did find the subject easier. Biology is a very complicated subject, but our current understanding of biology is much simpler and less abstract than our understanding of physics.

  210. #210 Ichthyic
    July 1, 2007

    Bwa?! The average layman couldn’t calculate the habitable zone around given stellar spectral classes if his life depended upon it.

    funny, I’m a physics layman (only 1 year college physics), and I could. That’s because I’m a biologist.

    seriously, it’s become readily apparent to anyone with half a brain that your pattern over the years in many threads is to pose the most binary stereotype you can think of, obviously in order to yank chains. In fact, you deliberately chose the very stereotype PZ was railing against, just in order to see how many chains you could yank. Most likely just to pump your own adrenaline levels.

    the strawmen are all of your own making, cal.

    seriously, it gets boring after a while, even though you are quite good at it.

    Do you actually really care about anything, or do you really just post for the adrenaline rush?

    here, I’ll play along:

    How many astrophysicists could figure out how to produce a polio vaccine?

    how many theoretical physicists could figure out how a certain species of shark acts as a keystone predator for a given ecosystem?

    special, you say?

    shall we compare the number of lives saved by biologists and physicists?

    is that a measure of special?

    your entire argument is bunk, and you know it.

  211. #211 Rick Cook
    July 1, 2007

    “Firstly it is likely any organisms down there will be anaerobes, which tends to make multicellularity hard. However this biosphere tells us hard is easy with Natural Selection and enough time.”

    I wonder about that. Granted that various forms of anaerobic life tend to have less energy to work with, but I wonder how much of the limit on multicellularity we see in anaerobes on Earth is the result of differential competition. Given that there’s no aerobic competition, I wonder how complex such life could get on Europa.

    Of course low temperatures are a problem energetically as well, but I suspect there are probably a lot of active geothermal vents on the bottom of Europa’s oceans, which would provide higher temperature zones to harbor life.

    I like the notion of symbiotic or colony organisms.

    And of course any life on Europa is not likely to be life as we know it. Change conditions far enough and we’re almost by definition dealing with life as we (almost) don’t know it.

    –Rick Cook (who has a Scuba T-shirt that says “Dive Europa”)

  212. #212 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    Oh, please. I see no point in being a yesperson, and so I only post to oppose rampant stupidity. PZ’s point was superficial, reflexive, and incorrect – as are yours. I suspect the only reason you’re reacting so very badly is that you’re offended by the general disregard people have historically had for your field of expertise and the high regard given to physics, and so you’re piqued by an accurate description of their respective places in the way of things.

    I oppose sloppy thinking and argumentation in all of its forms, in all of its manifestations, no matter who’s doing it or what they stand for. The umbraged biologists, yourself included, are showcasing sloppy thinking. Honest seekers of truth are usually grateful for being shown that they’re wrong. Self-exalting ego fluffers are usually resentful.

    shall we compare the number of lives saved by biologists and physicists?

    Since virtually every technology that feeds, clothes, shelters, and manufactures vital medicines for people relies utterly upon a good understanding of physics to construct, you might not find the comparison quite to your liking. Shall we see how much of our civilization would remain if everything dependent upon advances in physics were abolished?

  213. #213 Graculus
    July 1, 2007

    Since virtually every technology that feeds, clothes, shelters, and manufactures vital medicines for people relies utterly upon a good understanding of physics to construct,

    I wonder how good an understanding of physics a farmer needs to not only plant his crops, but to select the best of breed for next years sowing. It seems like that, as well as fabric production, metallurgy, etc, existed for a long time before there was any understanding of physics. Anyhow, let’s how much good those advances in physics are without food.

    You haven’t shown anyone that they were wrong, you’ve asserted that they were wrong, but shown nothing.

    That is why you are a prat.

  214. #214 JackGoff
    July 2, 2007

    Wow, Caledonian. Why do you want this to be a pissing contest? This is ludicrous.

  215. #215 Ichthyic
    July 2, 2007

    PZ’s point was superficial, reflexive, and incorrect

    nice bit of projection there.

  216. #216 Ichthyic
    July 2, 2007

    Wow, Caledonian. Why do you want this to be a pissing contest? This is ludicrous.

    yes, it’s not even a matter of seeing that cal likes to start inane pissing contests frequently, it’s only a matter of why.

    I do so doubt his claim that he is playing devil’s advocate just because PZ is being “superficial, reflexive and incorrect”.

    I rather lean towards the:

    let’s see how many chains I can yank for my own amusement theory.

    seriously, I haven’t seen a one discipline vs. the other argument since high school.

    frankly, I have to admit to only being slightly interested in the answer to the “why” question any more.

    and on that note.

  217. #217 Scott Hatfield, OM
    July 2, 2007

    Re: #194

    “Is there something about “I am a vacuous dipshit” that you are having trouble wrapping your mind around?”

    Eh. Call me a hopeless optimist…:)

    Speaking of which, Caledonian, would you say that it was physicists, or biologists, which have taken the most lives? Not that the utility of the field has any bearing on the question of what is fundamental.

    I’ll concede that point, since I don’t really doubt that physics is fundamental in some sense, but I have to point out that your usage of the word ‘physics’ seems to morph to suit your needs. I don’t see, for example, that passages like “relies utterly upon a good understanding of physics” can possibly refer to the natural world as a whole, for example.

    Besides, history seems to suggest your utility argument if overdrawn, anyway. What was the ‘physics’ involved in Jenner’s cowpox vaccine, Lister’s use of carbolic acid or Wells’ employment of nitrous oxide? There were no forces described or observed, no appeal to basic concepts, no math, no molecular modeling, etc…..just observation, inferences about causal relationships and experiments.

  218. #218 Emma
    July 2, 2007

    Someone mentioned:
    “Cohen and Stewart have some interesting things to say about man as a story-telling animal in one of their books, btw (might even be one of their collaborations with Pratchett, I dont recall just now).”

    That would be in “The Science of Discworld II” co-written with Terry Pratchett, I read it recently. This story about asking astronomers what they thought of biologists discussion black holes is also brought up in the third book in this series, “Darwin’s Watch,” a very entertaining discussion of the development of Darwin’s theories.

    Getting biology wrong in films is one of my pet peeves. I remember watching “Red Planet” a few years ago (I know, what was I thinking?) and nearly screaming the screen when they described the very beetle-like creatures they encountered as “nematodes” and listing the four bases of DNA as A, G, T, and “P”. They should be able to get high-school level biology right, surely?

  219. #219 George
    July 2, 2007

    You know what? Inter-discipline snobbery is everywhere. The “hard sciences” look down on the social sciences. Researchers think they know more than clinicians. Cell/molecular people consider themselves more hardcore than the eco/evo people. Nobody respects gender studies.

    I feel like this is a type of culture that arises after devoting a lot of time and brainpower into a field. One naturally feels that one’s own field is difficult and important.

    As a wise friend once told me (after I complained that the grad students seem to think med students are idiots), “It doesn’t matter whether everyone respects you. It’s more important to be respected for the right reasons.”

  220. #220 Mithrandir
    July 2, 2007

    It seems that the discussion of Caledonian’s post at #1 has gotten sidetracked. The original issue of PZ’s post was whether physicists are qualified to discuss matters of biology at a high level of sophistication.

    And for all that biology cannot be fully understood without a strong grounding in chemistry, which in turn cannot be fully understood without elementary physics, the fact remains that physicists are generally NOT thus qualified. This is because biological systems are in practice, at present, intractable to model at the level of elementary physics.

  221. #221 Peter Ashby
    July 2, 2007

    Rick wrote in #200:
    “I wonder about that. Granted that various forms of anaerobic life tend to have less energy to work with, but I wonder how much of the limit on multicellularity we see in anaerobes on Earth is the result of differential competition. Given that there’s no aerobic competition, I wonder how complex such life could get on Europa.”

    Well anaerobes were dominant on Earth until the cyanobacteria got wise to sunlight and photosynthesis. There is apparently a band of iron oxide marking the episode, the cyanobacteria had to oxidise all the iron before atmospheric oxygen began to rise, once it had all those anaerobes had to run and hide. The vast majority of the subsequent evolution here was in an oxygen dominated environment. It has even been higher than today.

    We simply don’t know what an extra 3Billion years of uninhibited, uncontested anaerobic evolution might throw up. I do agree though that life is likely to be slow if it there is any on Europa. My bet is the most complex things we find will be microbial mats of interconnected specialists. Nothing will move unless there are predator/prey interactions. You don’t have to move when the food runs out remember, you can just sporolate.

    “–Rick Cook (who has a Scuba T-shirt that says “Dive Europa”)”

    😉 Now I would like one of them!

  222. #222 DCP
    July 2, 2007

    [#178] Constantly twisting the arguments that you’re responding to isn’t the best way to get the people making them to view you and your requests favorably. Comprende?

    Yes, it isn’t the best way to make them see one’s requests favourable. But why, I wonder, do you expect people to get your point right, when you don’t give them enough information to actually see your point? A “twisted” understanding of your points is a very probable outcome. And since their requests mostly consist of asking what your points are, they are justified.

    [#182] Can you truly not see that people who can’t manage basic reading comprehension challenging the arguments of others is an insult? Why exactly should I expend myself dealing with people who can’t be bothered to think and yet demand that I make things comprehensible to them?

    Well, the problem might not be the reading comprehension of these people. But it’s, once again, more a problem of ill-defined terms. How can you expect them to understand what you are trying to say, when you don’t bother to define your terms to them?

  223. #223 Caledonian
    July 2, 2007

    The original issue of PZ’s post was whether physicists are qualified to discuss matters of biology at a high level of sophistication.

    No, the original issue was whether physicists (or more precisely, astronomers) were qualified to discuss exobiological issues. Given the state of the field, the most sophisticated aspects are well within their professional knowledge. Biologists are in fact at a disadvantage on that topic.

  224. #224 Ian H Spedding FCD
    July 2, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    No, the original issue was whether physicists (or more precisely, astronomers) were qualified to discuss exobiological issues. Given the state of the field, the most sophisticated aspects are well within their professional knowledge. Biologists are in fact at a disadvantage on that topic.

    As I understand it, astronomers can identify stars which have planets and infer how big those planets are likely to be and how far they are from the parent star. From that they can infer broadly how conducive conditions there are likely to be for life as we know it to exist. That’s all. That’s not a sophisticated understanding of biology, it’s astrophysics.

  225. #225 Caledonian
    July 2, 2007

    1) There’s no such thing as a sophisticated understanding of exobiology at present, because we’ve found no alien life to study. Biologists don’t actually have any special qualifications in it – they do all their work with a single planet, with lifeforms all descended from one another, that use the same information-storage system and (in the vast majority of cases) the same biochemistry. Biochemists might be able to speculate about alternative chemical bases for life-not-as-we-know-it, but that’s chemistry – biochem focuses on water-and-carbon based work, and even then we don’t fully understand the capacities of the life that we CAN study.

    2) Astronomers can determine how likely it is that a planet or moon would have liquid water, whether it would be internally heated by radioactivity or tidal stress, the types of substances likely to be present, the stellar distribution of complex elements, and the general probability of Earthlike worlds. Those are all relevant to exobiology. What aspect of biology is even remotely related to the study of black holes?

  226. #226 commissarjs
    July 2, 2007

    I like fantasy and sci fi literature, but suspension of disbelief is key to enjoying it. It’s no different than just accepting that for the purposes of Night of the Living Dead that the dead really can get up, walk around, and eat people. I’ve yet to hear anyone complain about Terry Pratchett’s novels in the same way they complain about sci fi.

    Humanoid aliens in scifi literature are meant to be pastiches of humanity. The authors take a few traits and then take them to an extreme. That’s why you end up with Vulcans that are extremely logical but emotionless, Klingons that are extremely aggressive but lack empathy, and Romulans that are extremely arrogant but just can’t seem to win. Through interaction with these species the human protaganists learn something about themselves. Or with more humanocentric authors teach the aliens about how it’s much better to be a “balanced” human.

    At it’s core sci fi, like all literature, is about the protagonists. Everything else is window dressing. Besides FTL travel is the biggest load of pure crock in any sort of fantasy sci/fi literature.

    1 gram of matter traveling at the speed of light has the kinetic energy of about 10.7 kilotons of dynamite. Which is about half the strength of the nuclear weapon which destroyed Hiroshima. 1 gram of matter traveling at 1000 times the speed of light is equivalent to about 10.7 gigatons of dynamite. If I can reasonable believe, for the purposes of a story, that space ships can withstand being subjected to energy of this magnitude just to travel then I can reasonable believe that a vulcan can breed with a human.

    Unless it’s a crappy story involving the holodeck or Wesley Crusher.

  227. #227 llewelly
    July 2, 2007

    They should be able to get high-school level biology right, surely?

    Having seen all too many action flics an cop shows where a shootout involves someone firinng over twenty rounds from a six-shooter without reloading, no, I don’t think you can expect high-school biology to be ‘right’ on TV or in movies. See also car crashes and fireball sizes.

  228. #228 Albert
    July 2, 2007

    RE: Firefly – there is only one time when they shoot a gun in vacuum and they have it in a spacesuit, as noted. In an interview Joss Whedon said that they later found out that they didn’t actually need the spacesuit for the gun to theoretically have worked. I don’t know if it’s true, but, as someone pointed out earlier, shells have their own oxidizers in them. (I know nothing about guns, so that could be totally false, but it makes sense to me.)

    What I love about Firefly most from a science fiction perspective is that they kept space silent! Very little sci-fi does that. Any physical infelicities are incidental, though. Firefly is more of a western than anything else; space and interplanetary travel exist for setting. Actually, in probably most, or at least much, sci-fi, science isn’t the point. When it is, the books are usually pretty boring, and the characters flat.

    Characters and plot are more important to me than science, in novels, which is why I usually read fantasy or “soft” or “social” science fiction when I read speculative fiction rather than “hard” or “SF” novels.

  229. #229 Zwirko
    July 2, 2007

    Why is it so common for us to want or imagine our aliens to be “truly alien”? If any characteristic of a screen/literature alien can be easily discerned as obviously paralleling something here on Earth, then we are quick to cry foul. It must be utterly bizarre to be accetpted as credible… simply stealing something from the vast repetoire available from our own planets evolutionary endeavours seems to be frowned upon. Is there any real justification for making that assumption? I’m not suggesting that any aliens would be even vaguely humanoid or anything, but it woould seem to me that there is a limit to what sort of body plan and environment that would be conducive to developing a technology-wielding alien. I would imagine that any space-faring alien species would have more in common with us than with the “utterly alien”.

  230. #230 Zwirko
    July 2, 2007

    Scott, re your post #82… wouldn’t this metaphorical pyramid be more useful if it was turned upside-down to rest upon its tip? With maths down at the narrow end and biology at the wide “head”? In that way everything seems to flow more naturally.

  231. #231 windy
    July 2, 2007

    Back to the original post…

    They can’t see that ET can’t be e-t, that the ‘Alien’ doesn’t work – except in its primary purpose, scaring the living daylights out of the audience with the bursting-out-of-chest routine (how can a parasite pre-adapt to immune-responses, and not being felt in the chest when it’s bigger than your heart?).

    A creature with “molecular acid” for blood probably doesn’t need to worry about our immune responses. People carry around huge tumors and parasites all the time without feeling them. Better questions would have been, how and why does a creature with such a weird chemistry utilize humans as food, and what the heck is molecular acid anyway?

  232. #232 Scott Hatfield, OM
    July 2, 2007

    “… wouldn’t this metaphorical pyramid be more useful if it was turned upside-down to rest upon its tip? With maths down at the narrow end and biology at the wide “head”?”

    I suppose it depends on your audience, and what you’re trying to achieve, and I think you have to be careful with metaphorical diagrams.

    (explanation of my pedagogical practice) I introduce the hierarchical pyramid as a way of presenting the relationship of the sciences to my (high school) students. But later on I introduce another hierarchical pyramid for taxonomy, after Aristotle’s scala naturae, but I warn students that this perspective may get them in trouble. I explain that Aristotle thought that the elephant was the ‘second-noblest’ creature after man, which they find amusing, and then I make the observation that Darwin tried to avoid using expressions like ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in his discussions of ‘organic beings’ and that the metaphor biologists since Darwin have preferred is one of a tree.

    (And, of course, that metaphor has some limitations to, since it doesn’t acknowledge all the messy things that can happen: endosymbiosis, lateral gene transfer, hybridization etc. But this is a high school class, after all.

  233. #233 Hypocee
    July 2, 2007

    Good grief. I’m sorry folks, but I just cannot read through all of this. Who’da thunk that an Internet discussion about sci-fi would encounter an expansionary epoch?

    My favorite biological sci-fi novel is Niven/Baxter’s Legacy of Heorot, with a fun monster based on a real frog species which forms its own algae-to-apex food chain.

  234. #234 grendelkhan
    July 2, 2007

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Heroes, which I should finish the first season of at some point. It wasn’t so much the implausible X-Men-style mutations that bothered me; it was the way that Mohinder traveled around the country, showing that specific mutations show up in places predictable from his magic computer model, you know, exactly the way that they don’t in the real world.

  235. #235 grendelkhan
    July 2, 2007

    1 gram of matter traveling at the speed of light has the kinetic energy of about 10.7 kilotons of dynamite.

    commissarjs #215, I feel compelled to bring in Morbo. Morbo?

    Morbo: RELATIVITY DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT!

    Thank you, Morbo. Do you have anything to add about the way Mohinder keeps talking about “the next stage in human evolution”?

    Morbo: EVOLUTION DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT!

    I feel much better now.

  236. #236 Matt Jarpe
    July 2, 2007

    windy: “what the heck is molecular acid anyway?”

    All of them.

  237. #237 commissarjs
    July 2, 2007

    commissarjs #215, I feel compelled to bring in Morbo. Morbo?
    Morbo: RELATIVITY DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT!

    Thank you, Morbo. Do you have anything to add about the way Mohinder keeps talking about “the next stage in human evolution”?

    Morbo: EVOLUTION DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT!

    I feel much better now.

    Why does every discussion about science fiction end up just like this? Everyone tries to outgeek each other with who has the greatest understanding of the minutae involved. No, the progeny of the irradiated spider would not share it’s size. The spider would not regress to some giant spider ancestor from a shot of gamma radiation. It had no giant spider ancestors. The gamma rays would have killed it or at least rendered it infertile. That ray gun could not have generated gamma rays and that spider isn’t native to that habitat. I’m not aware of any universities involved in spider size enhancing research…

    But anyway;

    1) I am well aware that as an object approaches the speed of light its’ mass approaches infinity.

    2) I am well aware that time dilates as an object approaches speed of light.

    3) I am well aware that the length of an object decreases as it approaches the speed of light.

    4) I am well aware Before any object could reach the speed of light it would be ripped apart by the force of its’ acceleration.

    5) I am well aware that objects with mass cannot reach the speed of light.

    I apologize for offending your sensibilities by utilizing KE=0.5*m*v^2. I should have known better but I was reading my email and drinking my first cup of cofee for the day.

  238. #238 Kseniya
    July 2, 2007

    Don’t feel bad, Commissar. I don’t even know who this Morbo guy is. However, you will be incarcerated for however long it takes you to read The Eye of Argon by lamplight while you subsist on stale Wonder Bread and cold instant coffee. That’ll teach you!

  239. #239 RavenT
    July 2, 2007

    I’m not aware of any universities involved in spider size enhancing research…

    Judging where my mind went when I read this sentence, I’ve clearly been getting way too much spam lately…

  240. #240 Glen Davidson
    July 2, 2007

    It was very clear that the astronomers really believed that they could discuss ‘life’ professionally, whereas everyone saw biologists talking about black holes as absurd.

    I’m not going to deny snobbery on the part of physicists. But I think that it’s unavoidable that physics would have bearing on life, and the reverse cannot be said for biology.

    There have been some deliberate attempts to get physicists interested in biology because physics has a potentially (it is believed, anyway) useful view of life. In the interest of this, there have been a few meetings between biologists and physicists (and Physics Today sometimes touches on biology). I really cannot imagine physicists being reciprocally interested in what biologists think about black holes, however.

    Perhaps this is also why physics journals sometimes weigh in on the assaults on biology by IDists/creationists. They’re eminently suited to shooting down Sewell’s nonsense, for instance, and should be able to explain why the IDists’ “non-material” minds make no sense in science.

    It is not necessarily snobbery for physics to make at least some statements about biology (Hoyle demonstrates the perils when they get into areas in which physics per se isn’t the issue (rather, evolution and probabilities are), but he’s a relative rarity in that respect), then, while it would generally be out of line for biologists to tell physicists what to think about stars and cosmology.

    There ought to be no “physics envy” or “physics snobbery,” because ultimately it’s all just physics anyway. It is not unlikely that on average less intelligent folk graduate with biology degrees than those who graduate with physics degrees, but that’s neither here nor there, really (I bring it up because it feeds the prejudice, yet there is no excuse for this prejudice). Some physicists are brilliant, some biologists are, and the weirdness of QM, for instance, does not make physicists into some priests privileged to know “God’s thoughts” any more than understanding evolution extremely well does.

    Anyway, the heyday of physics snobbery is probably in the past by now. The new discoveries aren’t coming like they used to do, and what is probably the best “theory of everything” out there now, string theory, remains in evidentiary limbo thus far (even if it wins out empirically someday, that may really put physics into decline). Indeed, this may be why there is more interest in biology among physicists today, for no longer are they too busy finding out the “big things” and the “weird things” to consider how physics can change some of the questions asked in biology.

    Glen D
    http://geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  241. #241 changcho
    July 2, 2007

    “And in my personal experience nowhere near 30% of physicist reject evolution.”

    So I am a little late to the discussion but I must comment on this. I know NO physicist who rejects evolution, so this 30% seems wildly exaggerated by at least an order of magnitude.

    On the rest of the stuff – good post PZ, which got a lot of comments. I agree that it’d be great to have Hollywood/SF writers check with biologists on the possible appearance of any hypothetical aliens.

    Like the Bad Astronomer posted, let’s recall that generally Astrobiology institutes are multidisciplinary and include several biologists.

    ANd yes, I do believe that Physics is the basis of all other sciences. If a biologists wants to discuss black holes, by all means; just do the homework beforehand.

    Ah, and mathematics is NOT science – but it is incredibly useful and beautiful.

    That’s my 2 cents.

  242. #242 windy
    July 2, 2007

    “what the heck is molecular acid anyway?” All of them.

    Rephrasing: which acid was it? 🙂

  243. #243 Chet
    July 2, 2007

    Physicists don’t even work in the real world. All their problems are “frictionless pulleys” and “ideal gases” and the like. It’s not really a real science; the things it describes are mathematical models based on simplified features of the real world.

    Biologists have no such luxury. For every weird corner-case phenomena you think you might be able to discard for a simplified model, you find an organism that has evolved to take advantage of that corner case.

    Biology can’t help but be the study of real things. Physics, it seems like they try as hard as they can to work with anything but the real world – rather, idealized situations.

    Given the state of the field, the most sophisticated aspects are well within their professional knowledge.

    Cal – then why do they get it so hilariously wrong?

  244. #244 windy
    July 2, 2007

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Heroes, which I should finish the first season of at some point. It wasn’t so much the implausible X-Men-style mutations that bothered me; it was the way that Mohinder traveled around the country, showing that specific mutations show up in places predictable from his magic computer model, you know, exactly the way that they don’t in the real world.

    Actually I think it’s a slightly different nonsensical argument they are making. The superpower gene is the same “genetic marker” or gene with different “alleles” in each person.

    Although I’m not sure if the same superpower gene will turn out to have originated multiple times, which would be even sillier than the different mutations interpretation.

    They are also using the wrong database, the HGP is not very useful unless you suspect Craig Venter has a superpower…

  245. #245 Stephen Wells
    July 2, 2007

    This particular physicist is currently studying structure and function in proteins, which is really quite bio if you think about it.

    Of course the first thing I’ve done is approximate the structures as molecular frameworks (in the rigidity-theory sense) and classify them into rigid and flexible regions… and generally abstract as much messy reality out of the problem as I can 🙂

  246. #246 Arnosium Upinarum
    July 2, 2007

    Chet (#232), with all due respect, you have no idea what the hell you are talking about.

    As for Caledonian, yeah, he often grates on my nerves too, but on this issue, I agree with him. The gist. He’s not wrong ALL the time, y’know.

    An otherwise potentially interesting topic (“the peculiar attitude towards biology held by physicists and engineers”) got hopelessly muddied by bringing up science fiction. Too bad.

    1. Engineers aren’t scientists. TECHNOLOGY isn’t SCIENCE. And when engineers try to act like scientists, they are apt to pull off howlers like this recent example reported in NewScientist: “Mars rover finds “puddles” on the planet’s surface”:

    http://space.newscientist.com/article/dn12026-mars-rover-finds-puddles-on-the-planets-surface.html

    Those guys thought they could do planetary geology. They wrote a paper that was ACCEPTED by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (since retracted, but THOSE guys acted as if they could peer review GEOLOGY!).

    The irony is that these guys bill themselves as PHYSICISTS at Lockheed Martin (an ENGINEERING firm). No competent physicist OR biologist (with geological training that comes with paleontology) OR EVEN an engineer who knows how to SEE would have made such a hilarious goof. What is even funnier is that NewScientist was alerted to the ridiculous claim of standing puddles on Mars by LAYPERSONS (some of them teenagers), who know as well as any PhD that water does not pool at a slope approaching 30 degrees.

    2. PZ wrote (loosely summarizing Cohen), “There just aren’t many SF authors who do good aliens or even good biology.”

    True enough. But its equally true that there just aren’t many SF authors who do good physics or astronomy either. (You can throw in engineering too). In fact, most SF authors are HORRIBLE at the SCIENCE part of “science fiction” generally across the board. Not especially adept at the nuances of fiction story-telling either. Never mind the abominations of film and tv “sci-fi”. Those are basically clumsy space/monster/superhero fantasies, fit for 12-year-olds who might otherwise have developed a tad more reading acumen by sticking to DC Comix.

    I never encountered any physicists or astronomers or “astrobiologists” snobbing on biologists. Never. Where does that notion come from? I hate to say this, but I do think that maybe there’s a bit of a perceived inferiority complex amongst a small portion of the biological community. THAT I HAVE noticed, and I seriously wonder why its so.

  247. #247 Caledoinan
    July 2, 2007

    As for Caledonian, yeah, he often grates on my nerves too, but on this issue, I agree with him. The gist. He’s not wrong ALL the time, y’know.

    Thank you, Arnosium, for that backhanded compliment. I think.

    ***

    Life has too many options open to it for biologists to be able to predict much about alternate incarnations of it. There just aren’t enough constraints on what it could be and become.

    We should also acknowledge what the original scenario is actually about. It’s not about astronomers giving a talk on some randomly-chosen topic in biology – they wouldn’t be qualified for that. It’s astronomers giving a presentation on the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

  248. #248 Kelly Roney
    July 2, 2007

    Philosophy is foundational for all science, even physics. To take one example, if we don’t inquire into the meaning of words, we can’t even have a conversation.

    Yeah, right, a good laugh. I thought so at one time but eventually learned better. I’m sure scientists everywhere are relieved that they don’t have to take epistemology as fundamental.

    The problem with Caledonian’s arguments is that they are not physics; they’re metaphysics. Well, metaphysics when they’re not bald assertion.

    A few rebuttals:

    Physicists’ expertise extends to every point in space-time.

    No, their subject, not their expertise. Further, even their subject does not extend to every aspect of every point in space-time. Just because biology is built on physics does not mean that physics subsumes biology.

    I don’t know whether any particular human can – but [deriving all facts from first principles] can be done. That’s is what physics IS.

    A two-fer! This is a bald assertion of a metaphysical claim. It can’t be falsified because it has no empirical implications. It’s a statement of faith. Even if the universe is deterministic, this view assumes without evidence that there is a more efficient means of computing its outcomes than the universe itself continuing in time.

    This is the physics that can’t even pin down a freaking electron. I bow to the great and powerful Oz! (Sorry, that’s just rhetoric, but a guy can have some fun, right?)

    Current physics is wrong, and we know that it’s wrong, because it isn’t even approaching complete.

    So, let’s see, something presumed – the god-physics – that no one knows is required for physics to derive biology? Is that the structure of the “argument”? This is what justifies physicists asserting their ability to imagine exobiology?

    So how do your calculators work? Your computers? Your nervous tissue? You think these things aren’t physical?

    You’re confusing our theories about physics with physics itself.

    This is pure rhetoric. It confuses physical objects with physics itself (the Platonic Form of physics?) – or at least with our theories about physics.

    The average layman couldn’t calculate the habitable zone around given stellar spectral classes if his life depended upon it.

    As others have argued, the astrophysicist’s ability to do this relies on biological assumptions.

    The nature of their respective expertises makes astronomers more qualified to talk about extraterrestrial life than biologists are to discuss black holes.

    The comparative hides reality. Each is unqualified, even if the astronomer is negligibly less unqualified.

    Life has too many options open to it for biologists to be able to predict much about alternate incarnations of it. There just aren’t enough constraints on what it could be and become.

    Substitute ‘physicists’ for ‘biologists’ and you’ll begin to see why deriving biology from physics remains a metaphysical quest. Some physicists ardently believe it’s possible, but they can’t actually do it.

    Honest seekers of truth are usually grateful for being shown that they’re wrong. Self-exalting ego fluffers are usually resentful.

    Yup.

    Cal reminds me of Mark Ethan Smith – intelligent, rhetorically gifted, intransigent, and fundamentally narrow. And if you know who MES is (was?), you’ve spent too much time surfing the ‘net, like me.

    So, Cal, go ahead, disparage my reasoning. I can take it. After all, no Ph.D. here. I’m guessing you don’t have one, either. I can’t see you ever passing orals.

  249. #249 Caledonian
    July 3, 2007

    No, their subject, not their expertise.

    Wrong. If the laws we’re found are really laws, physicists know some of the fundamental aspects of every place and every time in the universe.

    Further, even their subject does not extend to every aspect of every point in space-time.

    I think you should read some of the previous posters, who have pointed out in excruciating detail why this argument is so mind-bogglingly obviously incorrect.

    Just because biology is built on physics does not mean that physics subsumes biology.

    Woo, boy. I’m not even going to touch that one.

    A two-fer! This is a bald assertion of a metaphysical claim. It can’t be falsified because it has no empirical implications.

    A statement about what can be derived from what has no empirical implications?!

    It’s a statement of faith. Even if the universe is deterministic, this view assumes without evidence that there is a more efficient means of computing its outcomes than the universe itself continuing in time.

    Wrong, and wrong. Neither of those two claims has anything to do with the point they’re supposedly refuting – they’re non sequiturs. Probably generated because you’re too stupid to understand the point properly, and substituted some pathetically simple argument in its place.

    This is pure rhetoric. It confuses physical objects with physics itself (the Platonic Form of physics?) – or at least with our theories about physics.

    Physical objects ‘run’ on physics itself, you twit.

    As others have argued, the astrophysicist’s ability to do this relies on biological assumptions.

    Also wrong. The concept refers to life-as-we-know-it, and the zone is based on (among other things) the presence of liquid water. It’s not an assumption that life we’re familiar with requires liquid water. And we’re not assuming that life must have liquid water.

    The comparative hides reality. Each is unqualified, even if the astronomer is negligibly less unqualified.

    Wrong. Astronomers are perfectly qualified to discuss astronomical facts that have obvious implications for the possibility of life in general or life-as-we-know-it existing elsewhere. There aren’t many subjects in which they’d be so qualified, so if they were giving a talk on the Moon’s effect on grunion spawning, they’d be out of their subject.

    Biologists discussing a randomly-chosen astronomical phenomenon – say, black holes – would also be unqualified.

    Biology deals only with the details of life as it has developed upon this planet. There are very few constraints that limit how life might have developed elsewhere, even if we limit the types of life we’re discussing, but those constraints are things that astronomers study. Nothing in biology has any relationship whatsoever with black holes.

    Substitute ‘physicists’ for ‘biologists’ and you’ll begin to see why deriving biology from physics remains a metaphysical quest. Some physicists ardently believe it’s possible, but they can’t actually do it.

    It’s possible by definition – if biology can’t be derived from the ‘laws of physics’, they’re not the laws of physics. If they are, it can. Those laws are what define the possibility space available to life.

    How stupid do you have to be not to understand that?

  250. #250 Renato Santana
    July 3, 2007

    The discussion started by Caledonian is valid in itself, but not necessary to show the siliness of this whole “physicist’s arrogance” business.

    Was not the book “What is life” by the PHYSICIST Schrodinger that started the modern genetics, including the discovery of DNA, etc? Where would biology be without this?

    As a side comment, sentences like “I am not a crook” are not good for one’s own image, specially when speaking to a large audience. When followed by an explanation/ complain/ accusation, they look even worse.

    This much I heard from political commentators, and I remembered this when I read the “we do not envy the physicists; it is them that are so arrogant and stuff…”

    Best Regards,
    Renato.

  251. #251 Caledonian
    July 3, 2007

    Was not the book “What is life” by the PHYSICIST Schrodinger that started the modern genetics, including the discovery of DNA, etc? Where would biology be without this?

    The physicist and mathematician Schroedinger (don’t remember the code for umlauts at present) was the one who pointed out that the information conserved in heredity would have to be stored in an aperiodic crystal. Yet I don’t think he had much training in biology. I guess he must have been totally unqualified to make the statement. Odd, then, that one of the central principles of (Earth-centered) biology turned out precisely as he said.

    Thank you for the point, Renato. It’s an excellent example.

    Let’s face it, people: you’ve been giving the Courtier’s Reply. You’ve been saying that no one can make statements that touch in some way upon biology unless they’ve studied the field, which is patently untrue. It’s a common reaction among people belonging to a group which requires long study and mastery of a complex (and sometimes arbitrary) dataset. There’s no fundamental difference between the complaints about astronomers speaking about the possibilities of exobiology and theologians complaining about Dawkins speaking about the flaws of religion and theology.

    In a discussion about Hitchens, people made that point that adopting rationalistic thinking on one topic doesn’t mean you’ll use it for all, and that is PRECISELY what we’re seeing here. Quite a lot of you have a button under this particular subject, and as soon as it’s pushed you degenerate into irrationality, poor arguments, and umbrage.

  252. #252 Keith Douglas
    July 3, 2007

    Actually, I’ve said it before, but biologists have it good relative to sociologists, psychologists and others in the social and mixed sciences and their associated technologies. For example, why is Deanna Troi always talking about psychoanalysis? Doesn’t anyone check what clinical psychologists actually do?

    Peggy: Ah, but who said math is limited to equations? Take the theory of computation, for example. The study of Turing machines is often done algebraically or topologically and various other ways. One doesn’t need numbers for math.

    travc: On the other hand, JMS did bring us Vorlons, Shadows, N’grath, the other First Ones (think the walker at Sigma 957), etc.

    SLC: He was a chemist. I’ve glanced through his book on boron.

    Rick T: Which is why mixed and social science in SF and speculative/fantastic literature in general is also so unlikely …

    stellar ash: Remember though that Delenn was changed by the triluminary (which is basically magical, even in the story itself), so her conception isn’t the weird thing, but the triluminary.

    daedalus2u: Can’t push a rope??

    David Marjanovi?: I would say (as an outsider to both physics and biology) that the Modern Synthesis is like the Standard Model.

    poke: Only in a distorted sense of special case. The laws of physics are presupposed (in some ontological sense) in chemistry and so on, but the boundary conditions aren’t. So for example, the whole notion of chemical stability (essential to any chemist) is dependent crucially on temperature, pressure, relative humidity, etc.

    jf: Depends on how you count. Descartes, for example, might count as both a physicist and a biologist.

  253. #253 Kelly Roney
    July 3, 2007

    It’s possible by definition – if biology can’t be derived from the ‘laws of physics’, they’re not the laws of physics. If they are, it can. Those laws are what define the possibility space available to life.

    This is the structure of another false philosophical argument, Anselm’s ontological “proof” of the existence of God. Because you can imagine the existence of such physical laws, you believe they must exist “by definition”. The words do not mean what you think they mean.

    How stupid do you have to be not to understand that?

    Obviously, not as stupid as you. You know a lot, but you’re too immature, too arrogant, and too unaware of your own ignorance to grasp the limits to what you know.

  254. #254 Rick Cook
    July 3, 2007

    I’ve previously commented on the paucity of speculation by biologists about exobiology. (With a few exceptions such as the one or two responses I got on the possible nature of life in the oceans of Europa — thanks guys.)

    Let me offer a contrasting example of astronomers and astronomy geeks speculating on an important exobiological issue — how common are Earth-like planets.

    http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=1329

    The speculation here is a lot richer and more free-flowing. In my experience this is the pattern. And that is a major part of the explanation for why there are so many physical scientists who are working on exobiology compared to life scientists.

    By the way, I saw pretty much the same thing at the Contact conferences I attended, which mix scientists, especially anthropologists, and science fiction writers for a mind-blowingly intense weekend of world building and scenario creation. Lots of SF writers, physical scientists and anthropologists and not many life scientists. As a result the life science jobs, like evolutionary biologist, tend to get filled with amateurs, with all that implies.

    Should people speculating about exobiology know more about biology on Earth? Undoubtedly. But if you leave an attractive vacuum in the knowledge space someone’s going to fill it.

    And keep in mind that exobiology is speculation and nothing more. It’s not even where the idea of extra solar plants was 25 years ago.

    I believe the other issue that complicates this for life scientists is that I don’t think we can realistically assume that extraterrestrial life will be DNA based. It simplifies things when you’re writing stories, but I would expect that conditions on life-bearing planets would be different enough that the life won’t be based on DNA.

    That makes it extremely difficult for life scientists, I think.

    –RC

  255. #255 Kseniya
    July 3, 2007

    I believe the other issue that complicates this for life scientists is that I don’t think we can realistically assume that extraterrestrial life will be DNA based. It simplifies things when you’re writing stories, but I would expect that conditions on life-bearing planets would be different enough that the life won’t be based on DNA.

    This sounds like a job for EA.

  256. #256 Christophe Thill
    July 3, 2007

    Well at least, no one (not even physicists) deny that biology is a science.

    So you biologists are very lucky, compared to social sciences. Sociology? Economics? Political science? Hey, who needs real knowledge in these fields, or even logic? We all live in a society, don’t we? So just look around you, and use your intuition, and voil, you can invent a society that feels real, or a political system that would work…

  257. #257 Caledonian
    July 3, 2007

    This is the structure of another false philosophical argument, Anselm’s ontological “proof” of the existence of God.

    Well, you don’t understand philosophy.

    Because you can imagine the existence of such physical laws, you believe they must exist “by definition”. The words do not mean what you think they mean.

    Or physics, the nature of empirical science, and logic.

    But it seems you’ve seen “The Princess Bride”, so you’re not a total waste.

  258. #258 beccarii
    July 3, 2007

    We have a new barber in town, and both I and a friend from our physics department (I’m a chemist) have tried out his services. My friend had just returned from the haircut experience a few days ago, and found an e-mail from me with a link to this thread.

    The barber likes to try to guess the occupations of his new customers, and he correctly guessed that my friend was a college faculty member (there’s a certain frowzy aura involved).

    He further guessed this: “You’re either a scientist or a biologist.”

    That’s an exact quote.

    Interesting coincidence…

  259. #259 Anton Mates
    July 3, 2007

    The physicist and mathematician Schroedinger (don’t remember the code for umlauts at present) was the one who pointed out that the information conserved in heredity would have to be stored in an aperiodic crystal. Yet I don’t think he had much training in biology. I guess he must have been totally unqualified to make the statement.

    Just as Darwin and Lyell, a biologist and a geologist, were totally unqualified to make statements about the ages of stars and planets?

  260. #260 Caledonian
    July 3, 2007

    Totally, totally unqualified, just like Schroedinger.

    In fairness, Darwin considered the geological knowledge of his day to be something of a problem for his theories, which required much more time than was thought to be available. If geology had found that the Earth was much younger than we know it to be, Evolutionary theory would probably have been abandoned out of necessity.

    But, of course, the Earth is quite old, and Darwin had reasoned correctly.

  261. #261 changcho
    July 3, 2007

    Caledonian wrote: “Physics is the foundation of all the sciences, you fool. What it does not permit, the others may not touch”

    I basically agree, except that Mathematics can go where it damn well pleases (but then again, Mathematics is not Science). And so can SF writers and philosophers. And I would not say “you fool” – makes you sound like one of the bad guys in some cheesy cartoon.

    With respect to Darwin – I don’t agree at all that he was unqualified to comment about the age of the Earth; of course he was. He reasoned that the (correct) theory of natural selection required much longer time scales (a few hundred, or a few billion years) than what the geologists at those times attributed to the age of the Earth (a few tens of millions of yrs). Hence, by observing a part of the physical, natural world (i.e., by doing Science) he deduced a longer age for the Earth than what was then the accepted value. Of course, later geological and astronomical evidence proved Darwin right.

  262. #262 Anton Mates
    July 3, 2007

    He reasoned that the (correct) theory of natural selection required much longer time scales (a few hundred, or a few billion years) than what the geologists at those times attributed to the age of the Earth (a few tens of millions of yrs).

    Not quite accurate; the contemporary geologists, such as Lyell, generally agreed with him. In fact, much of his own evidence for the Earth’s great age was geological. It was the physicists and astronomers who strongly argued for a (comparatively) young Earth.

  263. #263 Anton Mates
    July 3, 2007

    And a young Sun, I should add.

  264. #264 Kelly Roney
    July 3, 2007

    Cal, you have a piece of paper and a pencil, right? So go ahead, get started on deriving biology from physics. That would be an existence proof for the still-metaphysical physical laws that you take as unarguable axioms. That would prove me wrong.

    There are two or three Nobels in it for you.

    Crickets: Chirp, chirp.

    See ya, Vizzini. P.S. You might consider avoiding wine.

  265. #265 Anton Mates
    July 3, 2007

    Now not having been there one can’t say for sure what the discussion was, but if is was the possibility of life something as we know it (that is, the possibility of Earthlife conditions), the astronomers are immeasurably more qualified than a biologist to discuss the issue because they’re talking about settings where life as we know it can exist in the universe.

    But we don’t know the full range of settings under which even life-as-we-know-it can exist. The known range is constantly expanding as biologists study both modern extremophile organisms and the traces of the earliest organisms on Earth.

    Case in point: UC Berkeley’s Jere Lipps (who only springs to mind because my wife worked in his lab). His primary areas are the biology and paleontology of marine protists, and he applies that expertise to the question of life on Europa.

    They’re complementary jobs. Astrophysicists can take currently known organisms and search for extraterrestrial environments which could support similar critters. Biologists can take currently-known extraterrestrial environments and search for organisms which could survive in them. The more you know about said environments, the more it becomes a biology problem.

  266. #266 Johan Richter
    July 4, 2007

    The article cited would be more persuasive if it didn’t appear to claim that physics generally gets a good treatment in pop culture. The physics in Star Trek (to take an example the article uses) is for example completely laughable, with FLT and no attempt to square it with the very well demonstrated theory of relativity.

    Or just take the way basically every action movie violates the laws of Newtonian mechanics. And I don’t tink computer scientists are very happy about they movies usually portray hacking. The truth is movies and tv-series get every area of science wrong. (And other areas as well, like law.) Biologists should unite with physicists and other scientists to decry the poor treatment of science (or at least make people aware that the treatment is poor) not make fools of themselves by claiming Hollywood gets the physics right.

    I should finally point out that as a mathematician I am neutral in the debates between soft sciences light biology and physics 🙂

  267. #267 David Marjanovi?
    July 4, 2007

    # 212:

    No, the original issue was whether physicists (or more precisely, astronomers) were qualified to discuss exobiological issues. Given the state of the field, the most sophisticated aspects are well within their professional knowledge. Biologists are in fact at a disadvantage on that topic.

    # 214:

    Astronomers can determine how likely it is that a planet or moon would have liquid water, whether it would be internally heated by radioactivity or tidal stress, the types of substances likely to be present, the stellar distribution of complex elements, and the general probability of Earthlike worlds. Those are all relevant to exobiology.

    Yes, but first the biologists need to tell the astronomers what conditions are necessary for life. You mention liquid water, and indeed all known life requires liquid water. But what if other polar liquids work, too? What if, as some have suggested, life elsewhere uses liquid hydrocyanic acid or liquid ammonia instead? Under our atmospheric pressure ammonia boils at -33.3 C, so generally ammonia-based life would require much lower temperatures than water-based life, which would mean the habitable zones for it would not be in the same place as those for water-based life.

    In other words, if astronomers want to talk about biology, they need to learn some biology first (especially biochemistry, BTW). The same holds for biologists who want to talk about black holes.

    # 182:

    You know, I in your place would teach people basic knowledge and basic logics.

    Perhaps people who lack rudimentary knowledge of a subject, and can’t even manage the most basic aspects of logic, should refrain from arguing about it.

    Have you even considered that a certain minimum level of competence is required before a person can expect to be considered as an honest seeker of truth? Can you truly not see that people who can’t manage basic reading comprehension challenging the arguments of others is an insult? Why exactly should I expend myself dealing with people who can’t be bothered to think and yet demand that I make things comprehensible to them?

    If you think you are talking to a wall, why do you keep talking?

    Apparently you do want us to understand your arguments. If so, it is logical to assume that you would explain them.

    But you don’t. You make lots of tacit assumptions without mentioning them. Because you think they are obvious anyway, you assume any reading comprehension problem is caused by stupidity on our part.

    Why hasn’t it ever occured to you that your writing is maybe not perfectly lucid?

    # 189:

    Astronomers with no special training in biology or chemistry can still deduce some requirements for life-as-we-know-it from basic knowledge: the melting point of water, the presence of certain elements, etc. They’d be qualified to make educated guesses about which solar systems would be likely to bring those requirements together, where in the systems such conjunctions would take place, the likelihood of planets having such conditions, and so on and so forth.

    Biologists with no special training in astronomy or astrophysics could say very little more about black holes than the average layman. Maybe a little more from greater general knowledge, supposing that scientists in any field are likely to be smarter and more knowledgeable than the public at large. But pronouncements that go beyond what is already generally known? Improbable, and attempting them would be the height of hubris.

    In my experience you tend to be very precise about the definitions of terms, so I was quite surprised to see you throwing around such wishy-washy terms as “basic knowledge” and “general knowledge”.

    To keep the same example, I suppose it has by now become “general knowledge” (among well-educated people, but obviously that’s what astronomers are) that life as we know it requires nothing but liquid water, any energy source, and any source(s) for the elements it consists of. What if that piece of general knowledge is not quite right, as speculated above? It’s not the astronomers who will tell us that.

    (Hey, what if any polar liquid will do, as long as there’s another source of hydrogen? Is a carbon monoxide ocean imaginable? That’s for the astronomers to tell me — but whether life is imaginable in it is for the biochemists to tell me. Or what if, as the chromatographers would say, straight-phase instead of reversed-phase life is possible, with polar cell membranes and an unpolar liquid? Hydrocarbon oceans are imaginable, liquid hydrocarbons are known to exist on Titan, and there are at least a few carbon-rich planets out there, as opposed to silicon-rich ones like ours.)

  268. #268 David Marjanovi?
    July 4, 2007

    # 212:

    No, the original issue was whether physicists (or more precisely, astronomers) were qualified to discuss exobiological issues. Given the state of the field, the most sophisticated aspects are well within their professional knowledge. Biologists are in fact at a disadvantage on that topic.

    # 214:

    Astronomers can determine how likely it is that a planet or moon would have liquid water, whether it would be internally heated by radioactivity or tidal stress, the types of substances likely to be present, the stellar distribution of complex elements, and the general probability of Earthlike worlds. Those are all relevant to exobiology.

    Yes, but first the biologists need to tell the astronomers what conditions are necessary for life. You mention liquid water, and indeed all known life requires liquid water. But what if other polar liquids work, too? What if, as some have suggested, life elsewhere uses liquid hydrocyanic acid or liquid ammonia instead? Under our atmospheric pressure ammonia boils at -33.3 C, so generally ammonia-based life would require much lower temperatures than water-based life, which would mean the habitable zones for it would not be in the same place as those for water-based life.

    In other words, if astronomers want to talk about biology, they need to learn some biology first (especially biochemistry, BTW). The same holds for biologists who want to talk about black holes.

    # 182:

    You know, I in your place would teach people basic knowledge and basic logics.

    Perhaps people who lack rudimentary knowledge of a subject, and can’t even manage the most basic aspects of logic, should refrain from arguing about it.

    Have you even considered that a certain minimum level of competence is required before a person can expect to be considered as an honest seeker of truth? Can you truly not see that people who can’t manage basic reading comprehension challenging the arguments of others is an insult? Why exactly should I expend myself dealing with people who can’t be bothered to think and yet demand that I make things comprehensible to them?

    If you think you are talking to a wall, why do you keep talking?

    Apparently you do want us to understand your arguments. If so, it is logical to assume that you would explain them.

    But you don’t. You make lots of tacit assumptions without mentioning them. Because you think they are obvious anyway, you assume any reading comprehension problem is caused by stupidity on our part.

    Why hasn’t it ever occured to you that your writing is maybe not perfectly lucid?

    # 189:

    Astronomers with no special training in biology or chemistry can still deduce some requirements for life-as-we-know-it from basic knowledge: the melting point of water, the presence of certain elements, etc. They’d be qualified to make educated guesses about which solar systems would be likely to bring those requirements together, where in the systems such conjunctions would take place, the likelihood of planets having such conditions, and so on and so forth.

    Biologists with no special training in astronomy or astrophysics could say very little more about black holes than the average layman. Maybe a little more from greater general knowledge, supposing that scientists in any field are likely to be smarter and more knowledgeable than the public at large. But pronouncements that go beyond what is already generally known? Improbable, and attempting them would be the height of hubris.

    In my experience you tend to be very precise about the definitions of terms, so I was quite surprised to see you throwing around such wishy-washy terms as “basic knowledge” and “general knowledge”.

    To keep the same example, I suppose it has by now become “general knowledge” (among well-educated people, but obviously that’s what astronomers are) that life as we know it requires nothing but liquid water, any energy source, and any source(s) for the elements it consists of. What if that piece of general knowledge is not quite right, as speculated above? It’s not the astronomers who will tell us that.

    (Hey, what if any polar liquid will do, as long as there’s another source of hydrogen? Is a carbon monoxide ocean imaginable? That’s for the astronomers to tell me — but whether life is imaginable in it is for the biochemists to tell me. Or what if, as the chromatographers would say, straight-phase instead of reversed-phase life is possible, with polar cell membranes and an unpolar liquid? Hydrocarbon oceans are imaginable, liquid hydrocarbons are known to exist on Titan, and there are at least a few carbon-rich planets out there, as opposed to silicon-rich ones like ours.)

  269. #269 David Marjanovi?
    July 4, 2007

    Oops, blockquote tags in the wrong places. My comments to # 182 begin with “If you think you are talking to a wall”, everything above that belongs to the quote.

    # 181:

    That has never been a question.

    yes, it has.

    perhaps not from the level of the chemosynthetic bacteria, but from the level of up from there, yes it has.

    I don’t understand. What do you mean by “level” and “up”?

    I’m talking about the fact that all living beings discovered so far at hot vents and cold seeps belong to “life as we know it”: sulfur-eating bacteria like AFAIK those in the plaques on human teeth, annelids, bivalves, crustaceans, vertebrates and so on. Obviously they aren’t derived from a separate origin of life. It is, on the other hand, possible that the origin of known life happened at a hot vent.

    Ehem… they may eat hydrogen sulfide, but they do breathe oxygen, and the oxygen comes from photosynthesis in higher water layers.

    call it energy independence, then, if you wish, but since we do have numerous facultative anaerobes, there is nothing to suggest that larger scale life based on anaerobic metabolism, is impossible, just less likely if oxygen is present.

    the point is, that chemotrophic organisms of higher order do exist, and the energy input in maintainting those biomes has nothing to do with the sun.

    The energy in hot-vent ecosystems comes from burning sulfur with oxygen, like the energy in conventional ecosystems comes from sunlight.

    Of course there are bacteria and archaea that don’t breathe oxygen. But those that are the primary producers in hot-vent ecosystems happen not to breathe nitrate or sulfate. They breathe oxygen, and that oxygen comes from above — from photosynthesis. Energy-independence from the sun is possible, and known to exist*, and probably a hot-vent ecosystem could be built upon it, so such a thing might exist under Europa’s ice, but all known hot-vent ecosystems lack it.

    * Simple example: There are plenty of archaea that eat hydrogen and breathe carbon dioxide, producing methane, and there are bacteria that eat methane and breathe nitrate and/or sulfate (I forgot which one, if it’s just one). All you need for this to be a complete ecosystem is a volcano that pumps out hydrogen.

  270. #270 David Marjanovi?
    July 4, 2007

    Oops, blockquote tags in the wrong places. My comments to # 182 begin with “If you think you are talking to a wall”, everything above that belongs to the quote.

    # 181:

    That has never been a question.

    yes, it has.

    perhaps not from the level of the chemosynthetic bacteria, but from the level of up from there, yes it has.

    I don’t understand. What do you mean by “level” and “up”?

    I’m talking about the fact that all living beings discovered so far at hot vents and cold seeps belong to “life as we know it”: sulfur-eating bacteria like AFAIK those in the plaques on human teeth, annelids, bivalves, crustaceans, vertebrates and so on. Obviously they aren’t derived from a separate origin of life. It is, on the other hand, possible that the origin of known life happened at a hot vent.

    Ehem… they may eat hydrogen sulfide, but they do breathe oxygen, and the oxygen comes from photosynthesis in higher water layers.

    call it energy independence, then, if you wish, but since we do have numerous facultative anaerobes, there is nothing to suggest that larger scale life based on anaerobic metabolism, is impossible, just less likely if oxygen is present.

    the point is, that chemotrophic organisms of higher order do exist, and the energy input in maintainting those biomes has nothing to do with the sun.

    The energy in hot-vent ecosystems comes from burning sulfur with oxygen, like the energy in conventional ecosystems comes from sunlight.

    Of course there are bacteria and archaea that don’t breathe oxygen. But those that are the primary producers in hot-vent ecosystems happen not to breathe nitrate or sulfate. They breathe oxygen, and that oxygen comes from above — from photosynthesis. Energy-independence from the sun is possible, and known to exist*, and probably a hot-vent ecosystem could be built upon it, so such a thing might exist under Europa’s ice, but all known hot-vent ecosystems lack it.

    * Simple example: There are plenty of archaea that eat hydrogen and breathe carbon dioxide, producing methane, and there are bacteria that eat methane and breathe nitrate and/or sulfate (I forgot which one, if it’s just one). All you need for this to be a complete ecosystem is a volcano that pumps out hydrogen.

  271. #271 David Marjanovi?
    July 4, 2007

    Oh yeah, I forgot the point about Schrdinger. DNA certainly is aperiodic, but would you really describe DNA in vivo as a crystal?

  272. #272 David Marjanovi?
    July 4, 2007

    Oh yeah, I forgot the point about Schrdinger. DNA certainly is aperiodic, but would you really describe DNA in vivo as a crystal?

  273. #273 Caledonian
    July 4, 2007

    Yes, but first the biologists need to tell the astronomers what conditions are necessary for life. You mention liquid water, and indeed all known life requires liquid water. But what if other polar liquids work, too?

    Biology can’t tell us that. Biology can’t tell us anything that life, here, on this planet, hasn’t already worked out. Exploring the possibility space for life relies on quantum chemistry.

    In other words, if astronomers want to talk about biology, they need to learn some biology first (especially biochemistry, BTW). The same holds for biologists who want to talk about black holes.

    Biologists who want to talk about black holes need to learn biochemistry?! I suspect you meant to say something slightly different.

    But to address your intended point: the astronomers aren’t talking about biology, because many of the factors involved with whether there’s life elsewhere aren’t within that field.

    If you think you are talking to a wall, why do you keep talking?

    Because you’re not ALL idiots. And those that are aren’t necessarily irredeemable.

    Apparently you do want us to understand your arguments. If so, it is logical to assume that you would explain them.

    If the meaning is obvious, further explanation is unlikely to be helpful.

    You make lots of tacit assumptions without mentioning them.

    Yes, because I’m presuming that I’m not addressing ignorant morons, and so the audience already understands the more obvious constraints.

    Why hasn’t it ever occured to you that your writing is maybe not perfectly lucid?

    Because a simple examination of my writing reveals that the necessary data is there, because the smarter the people I’ve conversed with the less likely I’ve found that I need to explain myself, and because my tested verbal comprehension can’t be measured on existing scales?

    Why hasn’t it ever occurred to you that you’re actually just as intellectually lazy and/or incapable as I say you are?

    To keep the same example, I suppose it has by now become “general knowledge” (among well-educated people, but obviously that’s what astronomers are) that life as we know it requires nothing but liquid water, any energy source, and any source(s) for the elements it consists of. What if that piece of general knowledge is not quite right, as speculated above? It’s not the astronomers who will tell us that.

    True. Given that the life already found has only certain rudimentary things in common, that general knowledge can only be so wrong. In any case, the existence of the known necessary conditions, and any conditions that we may eventually find to be necessary, isn’t something that biologists can tell us.

    If, as some astronomers suspect, the Sol system is in the middle of an extremely element-rich supernova remnant cloud, the conditions suitable for any kind of life even remotely similar to our own may in fact be vanishingly rare.

  274. #274 Sean Craven
    July 4, 2007

    Hey!

    I’m working on a novel now, and I’ve got an exchange between a couple of characters on this very subject… is it nonsense?

    “You know what Rutherford said.” Carl set his beer down on its coaster and reached into his pocket. “Physics is the only real science and everything else is bug collecting.”

    I decided to look that quote up next chance I got; it sounded off to me.

    “But isn’t that one of the ultimate goals,” I said. “Get to the point where you can describe the bug collecting in terms of physics?”

    Carl wrinkled his forehead at me, and I could tell that I was close to saying something stupid. The lines of the grid were heaviest, clearest where they emerged from his body; he was the center.

    “Okay,” I said. Don’t be stupid in front of a Dartmouth grad! “So Rutherford’s got a good point in that science is at its strongest, its purest if you will, is at the point where it interfaces the most directly with mathematics – where the physical world can be successfully modeled using math. That’s physics.”

    Carl nodded; I was making it.

    “When you can actually describe a butterfly – and when I say butterfly, I don’t just mean its physical structure from the Planck level up, I mean its behavior, the way it fits into the ecology, all the ways in which it exists – and describe it in the mathematics of physics, then you’ve achieved real, substantial scientific knowledge of the world.”

    Carl clapped his hands. “Very inspirational. But butterfly collecting is still butterfly collecting.”

    “It’s all part of the big project of understanding the world,” I said.

    “If it doesn’t come down to math…”

    “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but how much of that applies straight to us as human beings? The life sciences are where we’re gonna find out the most about ourselves.”

    “Like that’s what’s important.” Carl was grinning, and when he sat up and scooted to the edge of his seat the grid moved a notch toward me with a perceptible click. “Okay, let’s do it. You can write me a check for yard work, but I ain’t dealing with Willy and Joey, I’m dealing with you.”

  275. #275 Kelly Roney
    July 4, 2007

    Thought I was done with this thread, but I missed something in:

    Those laws [of physics] are what define the possibility space available to life.

    True, but can anyone tell me the cardinality of the possibility space?

  276. #276 Chet
    July 4, 2007

    Chet (#232), with all due respect, you have no idea what the hell you are talking about.

    I don’t find that terribly respectful, oddly enough, but I think my comments are accurate. Even in freshmen-level chemistry they’re learning models of the atom where electrons spin around the nucleus in little orbits.

    Physicists simplify the world around them and study those simplifications. At best, biologists have to discover simple organisms in the real world if they want to simplify problems.

  277. #277 Chet
    July 4, 2007

    I’m working on a novel now, and I’ve got an exchange between a couple of characters on this very subject… is it nonsense?

    No, I think it’s the way these things usually go.

    But consider me someone who sees it in exactly the opposite way. Science is at its strongest and purest the closer it gets to the real world, and the farther away it gets from the mathematical abstractions physics deals with.

    Biology is the purer science because it is bug collecting; the bugs exist in the real universe. The point-sized masses of negative electrical charge we model as “electrons” to describe the chemical behavior of atoms don’t exist. They’re abstractions.

    Science is the study of the universe in which we live. Mathematics is the study of a universe that is assumed to exist, and assumed from the get-go to have the properties that front-load it with whatever conclusions you’d eventually like to arrive at. To the extent that bugs are real, collecting them is the true science. Describing them using mathematical constructs that are just abstractions of what’s real is something else.

  278. #278 Sean Craven
    July 4, 2007

    Thanks for the reminder that much of hardcore physics is abstract rather than concrete. Wavicles, anyone? Having the lead character turn the argument around on that basis would work well for me.

    Heh. Of course, the novel is a fantasy… and Carl may well turn out to be Hapheastus. But fantasy fiction doesn’t have to be, uh, stupid. Right?

  279. #279 Caledonian
    July 4, 2007

    Biology is the purer science because it is bug collecting; the bugs exist in the real universe. The point-sized masses of negative electrical charge we model as “electrons” to describe the chemical behavior of atoms don’t exist. They’re abstractions.

    What you need to understand is that the bugs you study are also abstractions. They’re no more real, and just as real, as the electron models.

  280. #280 Sean Craven
    July 4, 2007

    Caledonian, is your point that while we may feel that we’re directly observing the bugs, we are actually dealing with brain-based reconstructions/approximations of them rather than directly contacting reality? Or is there some other subtlety that my untrained mind is missing?

    It does seem to me that there is a certain authority to observations that may be carried out with our native abilities, but I have no idea how valid that idea actually is.

  281. #281 Stanton
    July 4, 2007

    What you need to understand is that the bugs you study are also abstractions. They’re no more real, and just as real, as the electron models.

    Criminy: are you go on about the whole “Reality is an Illusion” crap?
    Would you still be able to claim that bugs are illusions if you were to have a live assassin bug spit very painful venom right into your eye, or worse yet, get bitten by a hungry kissing bug and go into anaphylactic shock?

  282. #282 Caledonian
    July 4, 2007

    that while we may feel that we’re directly observing the bugs, we are actually dealing with brain-based reconstructions/approximations of them rather than directly contacting reality

    Well, that’s also true. But biology constructs descriptive models of the bugs, just as physics constructs descriptive models of electron properties, and the model never becomes identical to the thing it’s about.

    So not only do we never experience the reality of the bugs, biology never manages to describe them, either. In their relation to the things they study, physics and biology are more similar than we’d like to admit most of the time.

  283. #283 Sean Craven
    July 4, 2007

    Ah! This is not a pipe/the map is not the territory. Gotcha.

    But isn’t it possible to observe a bug (sic) more immediately and more accurately than an electron? If not, there have been some advances made in particle physics since the last time I stuck my head through the door…

    Here’s what I’m confused about. What point is there to setting up this kind of hierarchy? What is gained? How does our collective knowledge of the universe benefit? Because if it’s a matter of status or cool, than paleontology wins hands down over any other science, purely on the basis of monsters — the same way that atheism beats religion if punctuation and spelling count.

  284. #284 windy
    July 5, 2007

    Even in freshmen-level chemistry they’re learning models of the atom where electrons spin around the nucleus in little orbits. Physicists simplify the world around them and study those simplifications. At best, biologists have to discover simple organisms in the real world if they want to simplify problems.

    Well, no. Ever heard of the Lotka-Volterra equations? Or the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium?

  285. #285 Anton Mates
    July 5, 2007

    Of course there are bacteria and archaea that don’t breathe oxygen. But those that are the primary producers in hot-vent ecosystems happen not to breathe nitrate or sulfate. They breathe oxygen, and that oxygen comes from above — from photosynthesis. Energy-independence from the sun is possible, and known to exist*, and probably a hot-vent ecosystem could be built upon it, so such a thing might exist under Europa’s ice, but all known hot-vent ecosystems lack it.

    I think cold seeps would qualify, though. Apparently the primary producers are anaerobic methane-oxidizing archaea and sulfate-reducing bacteria; no free oxygen necessary. I’m not sure whether the sulfate they use is the direct product of some other ongoing aerobic reaction, but it certainly doesn’t have to be; there’s sulfate deposits on Mars and Europa.

  286. #286 Renato Santana
    July 5, 2007

    “Oh yeah, I forgot the point about Schrdinger. DNA certainly is aperiodic, but would you really describe DNA in vivo as a crystal? Posted by: David Marjanovi? ”

    This is petty, and this does not change the facts. Everything DNA started with a physicist putting his arrogant nose in Biology and giving instructions about what to look for to uncover the secret of life.

    (Refer to the autobiography of James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA, if there is any doubt about this.)

  287. #287 Effeminem
    July 5, 2007

    Butterflies? Of course they don’t exist. They’re just masses of particles that interact according to the basic laws of physics. Heck, the particles even get changed out over time. The butterfly is just a pattern, and the species is just a complex wave that has propagated for millenia and will eventually attenuate out.

    I’m not really sure what Cal’s been going on about, but he sounds sincere so I’ll agree with him.

  288. #288 Keith
    July 5, 2007

    But we don’t know the full range of settings under which even life-as-we-know-it can exist. The known range is constantly expanding as biologists study both modern extremophile organisms and the traces of the earliest organisms on Earth.

    If the extremophiles exist on Earth, by definition they live in Earth-like conditions. Therefore, if one can figure out where Earth-like conditions may be, you’ve got it covered.

    Again this is all irrelevant. As has been pointed out several times, astronomers, astrophysicists and the like are more qualified to talk about where Earth-like life might be found in other places other than the Earth than biologists because they are better able to identify where Earth-like conditions might be found. This is a simple, undebatable point. You need no training in biology AT ALL to do this. Why? Because one can look out the window and see life. There’s life here, so where else can we find places that are sort of like here? I don’t need to know anything about life at all other than that it exists in a given set of circumstances to be able to discuss where similar other circumstances may be.

    A biologist can not do the reverse with the trivial first step. One cannot look out the window and see stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis and stable orbits and all the other things required to create the circumstances.

    This is not to say that one is better than the other. It’s simply that some specialties, because of the way they work, can give some insight into another specialty without it necessarily being a reciprocal arrangement.

    Think of an exact analogy. A biologist can tell a geologist what the local environment must have been like when a reef was laid down a few million years ago (which is basically modern) because biologists know what conditions are necessary for a modern reef to form. That doesn’t mean the geologist has to know anything about the details of the reef ecosystem.

  289. #289 changcho
    July 5, 2007

    Post #253: “Cal, you have a piece of paper and a pencil, right? So go ahead, get started on deriving biology from physics.”

    Easy; here you go:

    Quantum Mechanics (Physics)-> Biochemistry (Chemistry)-> Life (Biology). You can fill in the details…but beauty lies in the details, so if you can discover them, please publish them for all of us to see and you can earn that Nobel prize!

    😉

  290. #290 changcho
    July 5, 2007

    W.r.t. comments 251-252: Thanks for the clarification; you are right.

  291. #291 Glen Davidson
    July 5, 2007

    I ran across this recently in Science:

    Today, the subject of ecology is rich in quantitative reasoning, built on a strong theoretical foundation, in large part because of an infusion of mathematicians and physicists who–enchanted not with the simplicity but with the elegant complexity of the subject, and deeply committed to the fundamental ecological and evolutionary issues–became biologists.

    Simon A. Levin. “Remodeled Foundations,” a review of the book Theoretical Ecology which is edited by Robert M. May and Angela R. McLean. v. 316 p. 1699. 22 June 2007 Science

    Just thought it was relevant to the idea, given in the quote in the blog piece, that physicists are no more at home in biology than vice versa.

    And see, Dembski’s right in line to comment on biology. Hee hee. No, I trust that most can see the difference, a respect for both ecology and evolution in the real scientists, thus an appreciation for the complexity of both (and not the simplistic calculations of a Dembski), and (can you believe it?), physicists and mathematicians who actually studied biology before proclaiming themselves to be experts in the subject.

    Anyway, yes, mathematicians and physicists initially coming from beyond the biology sphere have enriched biology. It’s not the main point being discussed here, but the cross-fertilization from physics needs to be respected.

    Glen D
    http://geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  292. #292 Anton Mates
    July 6, 2007

    This is petty, and this does not change the facts. Everything DNA started with a physicist putting his arrogant nose in Biology and giving instructions about what to look for to uncover the secret of life.

    Not really. Far more significant was Avery, McCarty and MacLeod’s discovery at almost the same time that DNA was in fact the carrier of heredity. And they were all biologists (Avery was also a medical doctor.) They really should have gotten a Nobel for it, and Hershey shared one later for building on this work.

    Schrdinger’s insight was very valuable for establishing the physical structure of DNA, certainly.

  293. #293 Anton Mates
    July 6, 2007

    If the extremophiles exist on Earth, by definition they live in Earth-like conditions. Therefore, if one can figure out where Earth-like conditions may be, you’ve got it covered.

    Which is not massively helpful unless you know which parts of the Earth are inhabited. Should space scientists be looking for Earth-like environments such as seas of molten iron and nickel? Clouds of nitrogen, helium, monatomic oxygen and hydrogen at very low pressures? Ideally, one wants to narrow the search parameters a little more than that.

    Again this is all irrelevant. As has been pointed out several times, astronomers, astrophysicists and the like are more qualified to talk about where Earth-like life might be found in other places other than the Earth than biologists because they are better able to identify where Earth-like conditions might be found. This is a simple, undebatable point. You need no training in biology AT ALL to do this. Why? Because one can look out the window and see life. There’s life here, so where else can we find places that are sort of like here?

    Which would be simple, if we had any chance of finding another planet which looked exactly like the Ohio lawn outside my window. Since we don’t, it’s up to the biologists to say what aspects of “sort of like here” are actually relevant to the chance for life.

    As you say, this is not up for debate. Go look at the list of focus groups of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, or the breakdown of relevant scientific fields on NASA’s main astrobiology page, or the ESA’s page. Or just look at the front page of the Astrobiology Web. This is a field heavily dependent on ongoing biological research.

    Think of an exact analogy. A biologist can tell a geologist what the local environment must have been like when a reef was laid down a few million years ago (which is basically modern) because biologists know what conditions are necessary for a modern reef to form. That doesn’t mean the geologist has to know anything about the details of the reef ecosystem.

    That’s actually a poor analogy, since astrobiologists are not searching space for an exact duplicate of a particular Earth organism or ecosystem. For that matter, neither are paleontologists who study any time other than the recent past, which is one reason why biologists do paleontology. And they actually go out there and hunt down the fossils; they don’t just wait for geologists to locate and retrieve them.

    Think about the team that discovered Tiktaalik. They put a lot of thought into the question of what the ecosystem containing a transitional tetrapod would look like, and where to look for fossil remnants of that ecosystem on the modern Earth. And it worked. Now, take a minute to find out what scientific fields the principal investigators represent.

  294. #294 homunq
    July 6, 2007

    Yeah, biology is really just a branch of physics. And people are really just a branch of fish. (Any physicists who don’t understand that one, ask a biologist about clades. Note: that is not as contemptuous a statement as it sounds, I would never tell a biologist who doesn’t understand why there are 3 generations of particles to “just ask a physicist about the standard model”, the math is way too hard for me myself.)

    Back in the real world: physics is physics, and biology is biology. One is a lot closer to math than the other, with all that implies – harder to study up on, more objective, more attractive to minds that prefer the possibility of certainty…

    But I think that the real point is that a good scientist, and a good SF author, knows two things that make her realize that this is all a false dichotomy.
    1. She knows what she doesn’t know – it’s easier for a physicist to become a good biologist than vice versa, but that doesn’t mean that every physicist is a fair biologist, and a decent one knows it.
    2. She is comfortable with the fact that any branch of science, as an enterprise, has both subjective and objective elements. Even physics – special relativity would be exactly the same by now if Einstein had never existed, but Feynman diagrams might well not exist if it weren’t for Feynman. The artificial enthroning of physics-style objectivity as the ideal of science has been obviously damaging to biology (behaviorism, anyone?), but more subtly so to physics (one example: nuclear power plants just don’t work they way they’re supposed to, with actual long-term waste storage, partly because physicists, and their engineer groupies, expected geology and politics to be as easy as physics.)

  295. #295 Agent Smith
    July 7, 2007

    #84 and #241:

    Sheridan and Delenn’s half-breed was the indirect result of some very heavy duty biological re-engineering courtesy of (presumably Vorlon) high level biotech in the triluminaries. It was well established that Delenn’s biology was reconstructed specifically to make cross breeding possible. B5 did not suggest that the various species were capable of interbreeding without extreme technological assistance.

    The biggest insult to biology in B5 would be its commitment to vitalism.

  296. #296 Caledonian
    July 7, 2007

    Not just vitalism: sentient vitalism. The soul doctrine.

    As for behaviorism – oh, please. For all the flaws of old-school behaviorism – which has been replaced by more modern forms – it’s quite superior to the old subjectivism that crippled so much of the very early work in the field.

    People who complain about movements in science that they find aesthetically or ethically offensive usually don’t understand the historical processes that created them.

  297. #297 Jim Thomerson
    September 2, 2007

    For many years, I was an avid science fiction fan. However, in 1980 I terminated my 30-year subscription to Analog and have read not much scifi since. The idea of making the science in science fiction a more or less reasonable extention of known science (FTL being an exception)worked well enough for me when talking physics or chemistry. I think many sifi writers were informed enough on those two subjects to get by. However, as the importance of biology in our future became better understood, I began to have more and more trouble suspending disbelief. Most science fiction writers of the late 70’s knew very little biology in comparison to their grasp of chemistry and physics.

    Life as we know it is highly constrained by chemisty, physics and statistics. I find it hard to picture life as we don’t know it. One writer I did like was Hal Clements. He made up plausable places for aliens well adapted to those places to live.

    If you have not read Asimov’s two part autobiography, I recommend it.

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