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.



Jim Downey

It’s the End of the Year as we know it…

So, the WordPress Machine informs me that I’ve had a fairly busy year blogging here.

* * * * * * *

As I mentioned a while ago, earlier this month I had fallen prey to the nasty bit of cold virus going around.  Turned out that the damn thing was even more stubborn for my wife, who is still struggling with a hacking cough and various other annoying symptoms.  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it, watching for signs of secondary pneumonia, which would call for antibiotic intervention, but I think she’ll get past this on her own.

Which is good, because there really isn’t much we can do to fight a virus. In this sense, medical science is at about the same place in viral treatments as we were in dealing with bacterial infection 70 years ago:

In 1941, a rose killed a policeman.

Albert Alexander, a 43-year-old policeman in Oxford, England, was pruning his roses one fall day when a thorn scratched him at the corner of his mouth. The slight crevice it opened allowed harmless skin bacteria to slip into his body. At first, the scratch grew pink and tender. Over the course of several weeks, it slowly swelled. The bacteria turned from harmless to vicious, proliferating through his flesh. Alexander eventually had to be admitted to Radcliffe Hospital, the bacteria spreading across his face and into his lungs.

Alexander’s doctors tried treating him with sulfa drugs, the only treatment available at the time. The medicine failed, and as the infection worsened, they had to cut out one of his eyes. The bacteria started to infiltrate his bones. Death seemed inevitable.

* * * * * * *

You may not have heard much about it here, but the norovirus is causing all kinds of grief in the UK. Cases are up 83% over last year, and are estimated to have hit over a million people already. In the UK the norovirus is commonly called the “winter vomiting bug” whereas here we tend to call it “stomach flu”.  As miserable as it makes people feel, it’s usually not a life-threatening disease for otherwise healthy people, and the best thing to do is just ride it out.

Of course, public health authorities have taken steps to try and limit the spread of the disease into populations where the virus could be life-threatening, and a lot of hospitals have curtailed or eliminated visiting hours. Furthermore, appeals have been made to the public to not to go see their doctors or go to emergency rooms for routine cases of the norovirus, since there is little that can be done to treat the virus and this just contributes to the spread of the disease.

Still, people get scared when they get sick, even when they know that it is a fairly common bug that’s going around — and one that most people have had before and gotten over just fine. So they tend to swamp available medical services, overwhelming the health care system.

Just think about what would happen if it was a disease which wasn’t known. And one which was killing people so quickly that they’d drop over in the street on the way home from work.

* * * * * * *

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, since it is an integral plot point to St. Cybi’s Well.  This isn’t a spoiler, since the advent of the fire-flu is part of the ‘history’ of Communion of Dreams.

But it is something which has had me in a bit of a quandary this fall, as I’ve been working on writing St. Cybi’s Well.

Howso? Well, because I kept going back and forth on making one final decision: where to end the book.

See, I know how the *story* plays out — I’ve had that all sorted since I first worked up the background for Communion of Dreams. But in going to write St. Cybi’s Well, I needed to decide exactly where in the story that book would end. Which is to say, I needed to decide how much, if any, of the onset of the fire-flu would be included. Because I could set everything up and have the book actually finish at the onset of the fire-flu — after all, the reader would know what was about to happen. Why drag the reader through that horror?

* * * * * * *

A week or so ago I made my decision, and I’ve been chewing it over since then as I’ve been busy with other things, making sure that I was comfortable with what I have decided, and why. I’m not going to give you the details, but you can safely assume from what I’ve said in this post that at least some of the pandemic will be portrayed.

I decided this not because I have a desire to write about the horror (in spite of what I may have said previously) but rather because it is critical for character development of the main character.

Poor Darnell.

* * * * * * *

So, the WordPress Machine informs me that I’ve had a fairly busy year blogging here. 293 posts (this makes 294), which is a faster pace than in some years. Of course, I’ve had a lot of promotional stuff do to with the launch of Communion of Dreams last January and everything to support that through the year, not to mention the Kickstarter for St. Cybi’s Well.

And while I’ve cautioned that I won’t be writing quite as much here on the blog as I’m working on St. Cybi’s Well, well, it does make for a nice change of pace.

So thanks for being along for the ride this year. Together we can see how things go in 2013.


Jim Downey



After the hype.

Today’s xkcd sums things up pretty well, I think: the actual discovery was cool, but the hype made it feel anticlimatic.

Above and beyond what this says about our press being driven by ASTOUNDING!! news and the failure to get even basic science stories right (with some very obvious and excellent exceptions), consider just what was behind the hype: excitement at the prospect of non-terrestrial life of any sort being discovered.

The initial speculation that NASA had proof of life on Titan swept like electronic fire around the world. It wasn’t just science fiction geeks. Or actual biologists. Or space buffs. It was pretty much the whole world, though some had more fun with it than others.

Why did this capture the imaginations of so many people? Easy: we’re hungry for this news, and have been for decades. It’s not just the countless science fiction books and movies which have fed this hunger (mine included) – it is also the very real science behind the search for extra-terrestrial life (or intelligence). Proof of the existence of life beyond our planet would likely be considered one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind, and the announcement of such a discovery would be a turning point bigger than even the first time that humans walked on the Moon.

It is easy in a time of recession, when money is tight for most people and the government is trying to figure out ways to cut expenditures, to under-value NASA or basic science research. And I am not arguing for this or that ‘big science’ program, per se. But all you have to do is look at what happened this week, to note the wonder and excitement which was launched by the merest possibility of the discovery of life elsewhere, to realize that this kind of knowledge is something that people around the world are waiting for with eager, almost palpable, anticipation. I think it is one of the very best things about humans that this is the case, and it should be encouraged and used.

Jim Downey

“The dollar bill in the couch.”
December 2, 2010, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Bad Astronomy, Brave New World, Carl Zimmer, NASA, Phil Plait, Science, Science Fiction

Well, it’s not life on Titan. But it is very damned cool nonetheless:

NASA’s real news: bacterium on Earth that lives off arsenic!

NASA scientists announced today an incredible find: a form of microbe that apparently evolved the ability to use otherwise toxic arsenic in their biochemistry!

To understand just how important this is, let’s turn to an analogy from one of my favorite science writers: Carl Zimmer.

The search for alien life has long been plagued by a philosophical question: what is life? Why is this so vexing? Well, let’s say that you’re hunting for change under your couch so that your four-year-old son can buy an ice cream cone from a truck that’s pulled up outside your house. Your son offers to help.

“What is change?” he asks.

“It’s…” You trail off, realizing that you’re about to get into a full-blown discussion of economics with a sugar-crazed four-year-old. So, instead, you open up your hand and show him a penny, a nickel, a dime. “It’s things like this.”

“Oh–okay!” your son says. He digs away happily. The two of you find lots of interesting things–paper clips, doll shoes, some sort of cracker–which you set aside in a little pile. But you’ve only found seventeen cents in change when the ice cream truck pulls away. Tears ensue.

As you’re tossing the pile of debris into the trash, you notice that there’s a dollar bill in the mix.

“Did you find this?” you ask.

“Yes,” your son sobs.

“Well, why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s not change. Change is metal. That’s paper.”

OK, I have just broken the usual standards of “fair use” and I hope Carl will forgive me. I’ll compensate by saying that you should go read the whole rest of the post, because it explains far better than I ever could what the full ramifications of this actually are. Seriously – go. I’ll write more tomorrow. Come back then.

Jim Downey

Better to just get it over with.
July 8, 2010, 11:26 am
Filed under: Carl Zimmer, Failure, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Science

I noted yesterday the decision from SEED Magazine/Science blogs to sell their credibility to Pepsi.

Well, word this morning that they have reconsidered, via Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers. From Pharyngula, here’s part of the statement from Adam Bly of SEED/Sb:

We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.

We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.

Good move. When you’ve screwed up that badly, and are taking damage for it from all sides, best to just reverse the decision and get it over with.

Jim Downey

Astonishingly poor judgment.

Part & parcel of being a science fiction author (at least from my perspective) is trying to keep up with recent scientific discoveries. One good way for me to do this has been to surf Science blogs regularly. This has mostly shown up here in linking to PZ Myers, but he is hardly the only one of the many Sb bloggers that I read.

Well, yesterday something happened which threatens that source – SEED Magazine/Science blogs decided to sell their credibility to Pepsi.

The world has not been kind in return.

This shows astonishingly poor judgment on the part of the management team at Science blogs/ SEED Magazine. As Carl Zimmer said:

Here’s the quick story: the powers that be at Scienceblogs thought it would be a good idea to sell Pepsi a blog of its own on the site, where its corporate scientists could tell the world about all the great nutrition science Pepsico is doing.

Yes. Really. I’m totally sober as I type this.

Good lord. What were these people thinking?

Money is tight, and every business has a hard time paying bills. Advertisement is a necessary evil (remember, I worked in advertising for about four years between college and grad school). But really – trading your credibility on independent science writing for some coin from PepsiCo? Really?


Jim Downey