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 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.

  3. #3 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.

  4. #4 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.

  5. #5 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 .

  6. #6 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.

  7. #7 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.

  8. #8 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.

  9. #9 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?

  10. #10 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.

  11. #11 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..

  12. #12 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.

  13. #13 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.

  14. #14 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.

  15. #15 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?

  16. #16 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.

  17. #17 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.

  18. #18 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

  19. #19 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.

  20. #20 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? ;)

  21. #21 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.

  22. #22 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.

  23. #23 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

  24. #24 Beverly Nuckols
    June 30, 2007

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

  25. #25 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.

  26. #26 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. (-;

  27. #27 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!
    :-)

  28. #28 Torbjörn 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.

  29. #29 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.

  30. #30 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. :)

  31. #31 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?

  32. #32 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.

  33. #33 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.

  34. #34 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.

  35. #35 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…

  36. #36 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!

  37. #37 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.

  38. #38 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.

  39. #39 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.

  40. #40 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…

  41. #41 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…

  42. #42 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?

  43. #43 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?

  44. #44 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.

  45. #45 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.

  46. #46 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    For smaller genomes”. Good night. <yawn>

  47. #47 David Marjanovi?
    June 30, 2007

    For smaller genomes”. Good night. <yawn>

  48. #48 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.

  49. #49 Robert
    June 30, 2007

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

  50. #50 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.

  51. #51 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.

  52. #52 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.

  53. #53 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.

  54. #54 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!

  55. #55 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

  56. #56 Torbjörn 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.

  57. #57 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.

  58. #58 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.)

  59. #59 BillCinSD
    July 1, 2007

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

  60. #60 Different Josh
    July 1, 2007

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

  61. #61 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.

  62. #62 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.

  63. #63 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.)

  64. #64 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.

  65. #65 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.

  66. #66 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.

  67. #67 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?

  68. #68 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.

  69. #69 Rugosa
    July 1, 2007

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

  70. #70 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.

  71. #71 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.

  72. #72 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 Delbrück.

  73. #73 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.

  74. #74 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).

  75. #75 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.

  76. #76 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. ;)

  77. #77 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.”

  78. #78 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.)

  79. #79 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.

  80. #80 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.

  81. #81 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.

  82. #82 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

  83. #83 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.

  84. #84 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.

  85. #85 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.

  86. #86 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

  87. #87 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.

  88. #88 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.

  89. #89 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

  90. #90 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.

  91. #91 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.

  92. #92 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.

  93. #93 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.

  94. #94 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?

  95. #95 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?

  96. #96 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?

  97. #97 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

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

  98. #98 David Marjanovi?
    July 1, 2007

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

  99. #99 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.

  100. #100 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.

  101. #101 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.

  102. #102 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.

  103. #103 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.

  104. #104 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.

  105. #105 Chris Bell
    July 1, 2007

    I recommend Ribofunk by Di Filippo

  106. #106 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.

  107. #107 Chris Bell
    July 1, 2007

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

  108. #108 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.

  109. #109 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.

  110. #110 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.

  111. #111 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.

  112. #112 JackGoff
    July 2, 2007

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

  113. #113 Ichthyic
    July 2, 2007

    PZ’s point was superficial, reflexive, and incorrect

    nice bit of projection there.

  114. #114 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.

  115. #115 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!

  116. #116 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.

  117. #117 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.

  118. #118 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?

  119. #119 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.

  120. #120 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.

  121. #121 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?

  122. #122 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.

  123. #123 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.

  124. #124 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.

  125. #125 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.

  126. #126 Matt Jarpe
    July 2, 2007

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

    All of them.

  127. #127 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.

  128. #128 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

  129. #129 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?

  130. #130 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 :)

  131. #131 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.

  132. #132 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.

  133. #133 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.

  134. #134 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.

  135. #135 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.

  136. #136 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.

  137. #137 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?

  138. #138 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.

  139. #139 Anton Mates
    July 3, 2007

    And a young Sun, I should add.

  140. #140 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.

  141. #141 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.

  142. #142 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 :-)

  143. #143 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.)

  144. #144 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.)

  145. #145 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.

  146. #146 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.

  147. #147 David Marjanovi?
    July 4, 2007

    Oh yeah, I forgot the point about Schrödinger. DNA certainly is aperiodic, but would you really describe DNA in vivo as a crystal?

  148. #148 David Marjanovi?
    July 4, 2007

    Oh yeah, I forgot the point about Schrödinger. DNA certainly is aperiodic, but would you really describe DNA in vivo as a crystal?

  149. #149 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.”

  150. #150 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.

  151. #151 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.

  152. #152 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.

  153. #153 Renato Santana
    July 5, 2007

    “Oh yeah, I forgot the point about Schrödinger. 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.)

  154. #154 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!
    ;-)

  155. #155 changcho
    July 5, 2007

    W.r.t. comments 251-252: Thanks for the clarification; you are right.

  156. #156 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

  157. #157 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.

    Schrödinger’s insight was very valuable for establishing the physical structure of DNA, certainly.

  158. #158 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.

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