Communion Of Dreams


Go for a joyride in somebody’s brain.*

Carl Zimmer has put up a really interesting piece about recent developments which allow for visualization of brain structures which I would recommend:

Flying Through Inner Space

It’s hard to truly see the brain. I don’t mean to simply see a three-pound hunk of tissue. I mean to see it in a way that offers a deep feel for how it works. That’s not surprising, given that the human brain is made up of over 80 billion neurons, each branching out to form thousands of connections to other neurons. A drawing of those connections may just look like a tangle of yarn.

As I wrote in the February issue of National Geographic, a number of neuroscientists are charting the brain now in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. And out of these surveys, an interesting new way to look at the brain is emerging. Call it the brain fly-through. The brain fly-through only became feasible once scientists started making large-scale maps of actual neurons in actual brains. Once they had those co-ordinates in three-dimensional space, they could program a computer to glide through it. The results are strangely hypnotic.

Yeah, they are, and also very cool. One of the most interesting developments is a new program called the Glass Brain which is powerful enough to allow you to see how the brain is working in real time. From the article:

Imagine, if you will, putting on an EEG cap and looking at a screen showing you what’s happening in your brain at the moment you’re looking at it. That’s what this system promises.

The diagnostic and training potential is obvious. And if you consider the implications a bit, this could be a big step towards a true mind/machine interface. And then all bets are off for what could happen next.

 

Jim Downey

*Referencing Dust to Dust.

And a side-note. While I don’t make a big deal of it in Communion of Dreams, if you stop and think of the descriptions I use for the super-conducting ‘gel’ found on Titan, and what is revealed about it, you might notice that it would seem very similar to how neurons in the brain are structured and behave, though on a vastly different scale … ;)



Scraping by.

I’ve been entirely preoccupied with a big book conservation project which landed in my lap unexpectedly and needed attention right away (and trying to keep work going on St. Cybi’s Well), but a news item I saw the other day has been kicking around in my head. Er, so to speak. It’s the notion that the quality of dental hygiene & health in the modern era is *much* worse than it was before the advent of civilization. Here’s a good passage from one of the better articles which sums this up:

Our mouths are now a gentrified shadow of their former selves. And as Carl Zimmer described earlier this week, ecosystems with an impoverished web of species are more vulnerable to parasites. He was writing about frogs and lakes, but the same is true of bacteria and mouths. The narrow range of microbes in industrialised gobs are more vulnerable to invasions by species that cause disease, cavities, and other dental problems.  “As an ecosystem, it has lost resilience,” says Cooper. “It basically became a permanent disease state.”

Of course, current thinking is that this is due to a fairly radical change in diet between the two time periods, with our reliance now on domesticated grain crops.

But I know the real reason:

“He had a nutty theory that early man had been shortlived, but impervious to disease. Something about being able to trace back mutation clues to some proto-genes that suggested a powerful ability to heal.” Jackie frowned.

Yeah, that’s from almost the end of Communion of Dreams. And is a topic we’ll revisit in the prequel.

Hehehehehehehe.

 

Jim Downey



Moonwalk.

This is lovely.

 

Jim Downey



More words.

Following up from Sunday

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

* * * * * * *

There was a very interesting discussion on the Diane Rehm show the other day with Stuart Firestein, who is the chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University as well as a professor of neuroscience. The whole thing is worth a listen, but in particular there were a couple of particular bits I wanted to share. Here’s the first:

So in your brain cells, one of the ways your brain cells communicate with each other is using a kind of electricity, bioelectricity or voltages. And we’re very good at recording electrical signals. I mean, your brain is also a chemical. Like the rest of your body it’s a kind of chemical plant. But part of the chemistry produces electrical responses.

And because our technology is very good at recording electrical responses we’ve spent the last 70 or 80 years looking at the electrical side of the brain and we’ve learned a lot but it steered us in very distinct directions, much — and we wound up ignoring much of the biochemical side of the brain as a result of it. And as it now turns out, seems to be a huge mistake in some of our ideas about learning and memory and how it works.

* * * * * * *

I stared at the body, blinking in disbelief. We were in the shadow of the First Step, so the light was dull. The body lay about 10 metres from where I stood and was angled away from me. It jerked – a horrible movement, like a puppet being pulled savagely by its strings.

We had been on a well-organised and, so far, successful trail towards the summit of Everest, worrying only about ourselves. Now a stranger lay across our path, moaning. Lhakpa shouted down at me and waved me to move on, to follow him up onto the Step. I looked back at the raggedly jerking figure.

From here.

* * * * * * *

From about halfway through Chapter 6 in Communion of Dreams:

“But smart how?”

Jon looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there are lots of kinds of intelligence, and I’m not just talking about the reasoning/emotional/spatial/mechanical sorts of distinctions that we sometimes make. More fundamentally, how are they smart? Are they super-geniuses, able to easily figure out problems that stump us? Or maybe they’re very slow, but have been at this a very long time. Perhaps some sort of collective or racial intelligence, while each individual member of their species can barely put two and two together. There are a lot of different ways they can be intelligent.”

* * * * * * *

(Warning – the page from which the following comes contains gruesome images and text.)

Above a certain altitude, no human can ever acclimatize. Known as the Death Zone, only on 14 mountains worldwide can one step beyond the 8000 meter mark and know that no amount of training or conditioning will ever allow you to spend more than 48 hours there. The oxygen level in the Death Zone is only one third of the sea level value, which in simple terms means the body will use up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it.

In such conditions, odd things happen to human physical and mental states. A National Geographic climber originally on Everest to document Brian Blessed’s (ultimately botched) attempt at summiting, described the unsettling hallucinogenic effects of running out of oxygen in the Death Zone. The insides of his tent seemed to rise above him, taking on cathedral-like dimensions, robbing him of all strength, clouding his judgement. Any stay in the Death Zone without supplementary oxygen is like being slowly choked, all the while having to perform one of the hardest physical feats imaginable.

It makes you stupid.

* * * * * * *

Again, Stuart Firestein:

And in neuroscience, I can give you an example in the mid-1800s, phrenology. This idea that the bumps on your head, everybody has slightly different bumps on their head due to the shape of their skull. And you could tell something about a person’s personality by the bumps on their head. Now, we joke about it now. You can buy these phrenology busts in stores that show you where love is and where compassion is and where violence is and all that. It’s absolutely silly, but for 50 years it existed as a real science. And there are papers from learned scientists on it in the literature.

* * * * * * *

Update at 12:10 p.m. ET. Dragon Has Docked:

Dragon has finished docking with the International Space Station. That makes SpaceX the first private company to dock a cargo spacecraft to the space station.

That happened at exactly 12:02 p.m. ET, according to NASA.

* * * * * * *

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Last weekend four more people died attempting to summit Everest. Partly, this seems to have been due to the traffic on the mountain. Yeah, so many people are now attempting to climb the mountain that there are bottlenecks which occur, which can throw off calculations about how long a climb will take, how much supplemental oxygen is necessary, and whether weather will move in before climbers can reach safety.

In theory, everyone who attempts such a climb should know the odds. One in ten people who attempted the summit have died.

But we live in an age of accepted wonders. We think we’re smart enough to beat the odds.

Jim Downey

(PS: I hope to wrap up the third & final part of this set, get it posted this weekend.)



First contact.
December 27, 2008, 11:05 am
Filed under: Art, National Geographic, Science, Science Fiction, tech

No, not that kind.  Rather, first contact of a technological kind:

“First Contact With Inner Earth”: Drillers Strike Magma

A drilling crew recently cracked through rock layers deep beneath Hawaii and accidentally became the first humans known to have drilled into magma—the melted form of rock that sometimes erupts to the surface as lava—in its natural environment, scientists announced this week.

“This is an unprecedented discovery,” said Bruce Marsh, a volcanologist from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, who will be studying the find.

* * *

The drilling was being conducted for an existing geothermal power plant built to harvest heat from the world’s most active volcanic zone, Kilauea volcano, which has been spewing lava continuously since 1983.

Don Thomas, a geochemist from the University of Hawaii’s Center of the Study of Active Volcanoes, said it was just a matter of time until some drilling operation there struck hot magma.

OK, not exactly a borehole pressure mine (gods, I love that game), but still very very cool. Or hot, to be literal. 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit.

I’ve had an idea about using such a source for doing cast stone sculpture – pouring molten magma into heat-resistant forms – I wonder if they’d be interested in having an artist in residence?

Jim Downey



Well, we know the *real* reason . . .
November 1, 2008, 8:32 am
Filed under: Astronomy, NASA, National Geographic, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Titan

I’m still playing catch-up, so just found this news item of interest on the National Geographic site – an excerpt:

But a new study reports faint signs of a natural electric field in Titan’s thick cloud cover that are similar to the energy radiated by lightning on Earth.

Lightning is thought to have sparked the chemical reactions that led to the origin of life on our planet.

“As of now, lightning activity has not been observed in Titan’s atmosphere,” said lead author Juan Antonio Morente of the University of Granada in Spain.

But, he said, the signals that have been detected “are an irrefutable proof for the existence of electric activity.”

OK, the piece is actually about how Titan is known to have all the necessary “prebiotic” conditions needed for the beginning of life as we know it, and how electrical activity from lightning on the moon could provide the spark to initiate life.

But I thought it a bit fun to speculate that the electric field detected is actually evidence of the tholin superconducting gel at the heart of Communion of Dreams.

Another travelogue from my recent trip later today, if things come together as I hope.

Jim Downey



A bit of fun.
September 19, 2008, 8:31 am
Filed under: Art, National Geographic

Think you know geography?

Well, National Geographic is a great resource for expanding your Earth-based horizons a bit.  No surprise there.  But one thing my wife has been playing recently, and which has also sucked me in, are the puzzles that they have using maps.  You can set the difficulty level, making them appropriate for about any skill level.  And you might actually learn a bit more about our world.  A bit of fun – enjoy!

Jim Downey



Remember, it *always* pays to back-up your data.

Pretty much everyone has had the experience of having your computer crash and take out data you hadn’t backed-up properly. Whether it is some kind of hardware failure, or a virus, or a lighting strike, or even a malicious employee/spouse/whomever, at some point we have all lost stuff on a computer we thought was secure. If you’re *really* lucky, you don’t lose much, and you learn the painful lesson about keeping important information properly backed-up on recoverable media. If you’re not really lucky, you learn the hard way that you can lose years of hard work in just an instant, with no recovery possible.

And that’s the basic idea behind building a secure storage facility for the bulk of human knowledge, and perhaps even humanity itself, off-planet. The people behind the newly formed Alliance to Rescue Civilization want to do just that:

‘Lunar Ark’ Proposed in Case of Deadly Impact on Earth

The founders of the group Alliance to Rescue Civilization (ARC) agreed that extending the Internet from the Earth to the moon could help avert a technological dark age following “nuclear war, acts of terrorism, plague, or asteroid collisions.” (Read: “Killer Asteroids: A Real But Remote Risk?” [June 19, 2003].)

But the group also advocates creating a moon-based repository of Earth’s life, complete with human-staffed facilities to “preserve backups of scientific and cultural achievements and of the species important to our civilization,” saidARC’s Robert Shapiro, a biochemist at New York University.

“In the event of a global catastrophe, the ARC facilities will be prepared to reintroduce lost technology, art, history, crops, livestock, and, if necessary, even human beings to the Earth,” Shapiro said.

This idea is not new. Not at all – it’s been a staple of SF for decades in one form or another, and is even somewhat cliche. The previous version of Communion of Dreams had the impact of a .3 km meteorite in central China about 2026 as being the primary motivating force to pushing humankind to fully develop space-faring capability as a survival strategy. But the feedback I got from a limited group of readers was that such a second global catastrophe was a little hard to swallow, so I tweaked that in the current version to just be a limited nuclear war in that part of the world. I’m still somewhat ambivalent about this change, and would discuss with an editor whether or not to go back to the previous version.

Anyway, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first real effort to take this kind of precaution in even a preliminary form. It is based on the idea that a viable Moon base in the coming decades would allow for this kind of repository to be constructed almost as an afterthought to the other facilities. By tying it into whatever form of Internet develops in the future, it would be possible to keep it continually updated with minimal effort, meaning that the vast majority of knowledge could be archived for future access. Add in a proper seed bank, frozen embryos, and perhaps advanced storage of DNA/RNA samples, and you’d be able to repopulate & rehabilitate the earth even after a major catastrophe.

Let’s hope that we don’t as a species have to learn the lesson the hard way that it pays to back-up our data, even ourselves.

Jim Downey




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