Blog

Did you know astronauts have a shipment of red wine they aren’t allowed to touch?

Marcos Hernandez Article

Astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) received dozens of bottles of wine as part of an experiment studying the aging of multicomponent liquids during long-term storage in space.

Just one problem: they can’t drink any of it

There are too many tasks to be completed and potential risks for astronauts to unwind with a glass of wine, or any alcohol for that matter.

The experiment left a bottle of the same wine on Earth so they could study the differences after one year in space. The biggest requirement of the study is that the two bottles are kept at the same temperature.

I’ve wondered about the aging of wine in space for a while now. Could it be possible to age a bottle of wine by sending it into space? How far would the bottle have to travel in order to age it enough to make it worth it? Would it ever be feasible, if technology could make the travel cheaper? 

There are two ways time can be affected relative to the Earth: through high speed and through decreased gravity. Crunching the numbers could lead to an interesting short story, and an interesting business model, if and when the cost of space travel drops to levels low enough to make the business worth it. 

The trick would be to take advantage of gravitational time dilation, which would speed clocks up. If they are traveling at high speed, the resulting time dilation would be because of special relativity, making the clock slow down on board the moving craft and making the experiment pointless. 

This could be an interesting short story, or full blown novel, about a space program completely fueled by the consumption of alcohol.

Did you know horse hair can be made into fake rhino horns?

Marcos Hernandez Article

In an effort to stymie poachers in their quest for Rhinoceros horns, scientists have been able to reproduce believable fake horns using horse hair.

Rhino horns are used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine. With both men and women alike always looking for an edge in the bedroom, the demand won’t die down anytime soon. 

The poaching of rhinos for their horns threatens the already endangered animal. In 2018, the last male northern white rhino died, leaving only two females of the subspecies alive. The only hope for their return is artificial insemination

Five subspecies of rhino still exist. These are the ones scientist hope to save with the introduction of the fake horns.

Rhino horn is itself a dense mass of fused hair. The scientist have found a way to form horse hair to make a believable horn, even when cut. Their hope is to flood the market with the fake horn and slow down the illegal trade.

Some don’t believe the scheme will work. The fear is that the fakes will only drive up demand for the real thing. 

At the end of the day, all attempts to save a species from extinction are worth investigating.

This could provide an interesting background for an international thriller, a young scientist swept up in stopping a large-scale organization. There could be multiple animal species involved. The fakes created by scientists could provide the entrance into the group, and the infiltration could be orchestrated by a secret society tasked with saving the Earth’s species. Maybe throw in biblical references to Noah’s ark and this could be a Dan Brown style page-turner.

Did you know companies are offering DNA testing to find your optimal cannabis strain?

Marcos Hernandez Article

In a glimpse of the future, there are now companies who use your DNA to come up with what they call your “optimal” way to get high. This is based on the unique properties of  different strains, the ratios of THC, CBD, and terpenes.

THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis, CBD has been linked to a reduction in pain and inflammation, and terpenes are what give different strains their distinctive smell and flavor.

The companies get your DNA from a cheek swab and use the information to figure out how different components of cannabis will be processed by your body.

Cannabis is currently a schedule 1 drug, along with heroine, meaning it’s highly addictive. For reference, cocaine is a schedule 2. What this means is that it’s hard for scientists to properly study the drug without jumping through mountains of paperwork. This difficulty could result in a lack of quality from the recommendations.

In my opinion this could only work if people are opting for the service in large numbers. With a large enough sample size, the correlations would increase in their strength and provide more accuracy for prospective users.

Imagine if this service was offered for everything, from optimal time to go to bed to the best way to eat. Of course, there are companies who already claim to infer these recommendations from the data present in a person’s DNA but it would be more effective it there was a large adoption of the technology and results were based on the evidence found from a large sample size. With some minimal guidance from initial guesses, supported by a large group of users, recommendations could be optimized based on not only DNA but also lifestyle factors.

This is where AI comes in. There’s no way humans can crunch the data required but an AI could search through the data to come up with the best recommendations.

This implies a large adoption of DNA sequencing, using a central service. As terrifying as it is, this is where a surveillance state could actually be of use. The possibilities of it turning out poorly for anyone who opts out could be fodder for a new book/series, but for now the thought that there’s an “optimal” anything out there, based on my DNA, makes me think it might be worth it, even if it’s something as trivial as what’s the best way to get high.

Did you know a gene might be responsible for NOT getting Alzheimers?

Marcos Hernandez Article

An elderly woman in Colombia had been unaffected by Alzheimers even though many members of her family had developed dementia in middle age. At the age of 73 she was flown to the United States so researchers could figure out why. 

They knew she posessed the same genes which caused many of her family to succumb to the disease but they wanted to know if another gene variation could be protecting her. 

It was found that she had a mutation of the APOE gene. Nobody can be sure only gene is responsible for the maintence of her health but the signs are promising. 

The APOE gene is involved in the metabolism of fats in the body and has been known to affect the onset of Alzheimers. Three versions of the gene exist: one lowers the risk, one doesn’t affec the risk, and one increases the risk.

The thought is that even though the woman has a family history of dementia, the one genetic variant helps her combat the disease.

The APOE gene consists of 3597 base pairs on chromsome 19. Chromosome 19 spans more than 58.6 million base pairs, and humans have 23 chromosome pairs. It speaks to the level of technology avaiable to humans that such a small portion of the DNA sequence can be studied and manipulated.

This is an interesing development in the study of genetics and may provide some clues as to the future of genetic manipulation. It means it might be possible to alter one gene and affect a human who might be at risk for a negative outcome otherwise. 

Taking this concept further, what if there are other conditions that can be subjected to this sort of genetic editing? A whole range of conditions could, in theory, be affected by the manipulation of the genome. This is actually the subject of a trilogy about to be released next year. In the books, the editing of humans is commonplace, making them happier, healthier, and smarter. This is a vast oversimplification of the current state of technology but an interesting premise to explore.

Did you know scientists are growing lumps of human brain in the lab?

Marcos Hernandez Article

In a news story that sounds like it came directly from Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, scientists have grown lumps of brain tissue then implanted them into animals

For those not familiar with Atwood’s Oryx and Crake series, there is an animal called a pigoon which was created to host human organs for transplantation. When society collapsed, these animals were able to terrorize the remaining humans because of their increased intelligence.

The brains lumps grown in the lab are developed from stem cells and end up the size of a pea. They are used to investigate all sorts of disorders and conditions, from schizophrenia to Parkinsons.

The terrifying part, and the reason this story is in the news in the first place, is that the pieces of brain tissue have developed spontaneous brain waves, like those found in premature babies.

The question: where is the line between a test on brain tissue and human experimentation?

Neuroscientists are split, some believing the ethical line is coming too close and saying the experiments are harmless.

My question: how would the researchers know if the piece of brain was sentient?

Think about any story ever told about artificial intelligence. Over time, the coninfed intelligence gets out. What if a lump of brain was the focal point of this type of story?

Related, could a duplicate brain be made from stem cells at birth? So every human has their brain, and another brain lying in wait. Then, when the government decides the human is powerful/smart enough to keep around, they could use the lab-grown brain to host the consciousness of the human they want to duplicate, creating a sort of AI based on biology, a mind without a body. Furthermore, if there was a whole warehouse of these minds, there could be a unified network of them all, living in a simulated reality.

If you find this sort of thought experiment interesting, read Phil Dick’s Ubik, where the minds of the dead exist in a sort of altered state and can be communicated with while they decay over a period of years.

Did you know the next generation of cameras could be inspired by spiders?

Marcos Hernandez Article

In an effort to downsize phone cameras, scientists are looking to the natural world. 

The challenge: how can the next generation of cameras still see in 3D while taking up as little space as possible?

The answer might lie with spiders. Jumping spiders, in particular. The tiny arachnids don’t have the same room in their heads the camera on your phone occupies, but they are still able to see in three dimensions.

Instead of using multiple eyes to capture slightly different images and comparing the differences, each eye has multiple layers of retinas, each able to see the object with various clarity.

Researchers at Harvard have used this concept to create a system that can sense depth without traditional camera components. This has led to an extremely efficient and compact system, providing a glimpse of what might be possible in the future.

When I read this, I immediately think about the difference in tech between what the government has access to and what the public knows about. While this paper was publsihed by Harvard, what if this tech was already developed for the government? Put your conspiracy theory hat on think it through.

With small, tiny cameras, that are ultra efficient, there could be all sorts of surveillance systems in place, drawing on everything from light to chemical energy. While this is a reach, it could create a plausible surveillance state for a dystopian story. This would be a small part of the story, an explanation for how the tiny cameras were developed, but small details like this give a science fiction story some semblance of being grounded in reality. 

This could also be used to explain the next generation of camera phones. Without so much of the processing power going to the camera, it would be possible to commit more energy to other tasks, like increased location accuracy for an alternate reality.

Did you know an American plane spent over two years in orbit?

Marcos Hernandez Article

The United States Air Force spaceplane, the X-37B, landed at the Kennedy Space Center after spending 780 days in orbit

A spaceplane is a vehicle which can move like a plane in Earth’s orbit and like a spacecraft in space.

The craft was launched into orbit by a carrier rocket and spent it’s time circling Earth powered by solar energy. 

It was designed to spend 270 days in orbit but shattered that mark. It’s purpose was to test reusable space tech.

This got me thinking. Because of relativity, clocks on Earth move slower than ones further away from the surface. So, a clock on the X-37B would move faster than one on the surface of the planet. Anyone who has seen Interstellar would be familiar with the phenomenon. 

There is a good chance the data collected during the craft’s time spent orbiting the Earth will help in the development of existing GPS technologies. Satellites that measure position on Earth have to take these time differences into account in order to be accurate. Information is power, after all.

But what if there was an experiment that took place? Maybe the growth of quickly-proliferating cells, or numerous iterations of fruit flys testing the change in one gene. The payload of the spaceplane is classified but extrapolating the possibilities in this way could provide for some interesting story ideas.

In fact, this could explain the genesis of a pesticide-resistant crop, after it spent time on the orbiting craft, and after it’s reintroduced it takes over/chokes out native plants.

Or, perhaps more interesting, a supervirus that developed a resistance to anitbiotics. Zombie apocalypse anyone?

Did you know SAS troops play video games to warm up for combat?

Marcos Hernandez Article

In what seems like a publicity stunt for the newest iteration of the Call of Duty franchise, it has been reported that British SAS troops play the game for hours. 

They were inspired by race car drivers playing racing games.

The benefits of playing the game are twofold. First, troops are able to have multiple lives to analyze why they made certain decisions while clearing houses or being ambushed. Second, and a more direct benefit, is that troops become wired after playing the games. 

You’ve heard blue light/screens are bad for you. Now imagine your character’s life is in the balance, and it all hinges on your decision/skill. Playing the games brings elevates the nervous system, turning it into a fight-or-flight, a state which troops would find desirable before going into combat.

This concept could easily be included in a story about future combat on Earth or a military sci-fi thriller. To be honest, it has shades of Ender’s Game mixed in, which makes the fact that it was written in 1985 all the more impressive. There could be a sci-fi novel based on random video games, similar to a West World, where users can pay to visit the world of their favorite game. Set in the backdrop of a Japanese city/seedy underbelly of a futuristic city, with a black market of illegal simulations, like committing the perfect murder.

Did you know that astronauts have made beef in space?

Marcos Hernandez Article

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have created synthetic meat in space. I say created on purpose, because the meat wasn’t harvested, grown, or butchered. It was 3D printed. 

By using a 3D printer to stack layers of meat molecules on top of each other, the scientists were able to create the meat. It’s easier to 3D print meat in space due to the lack of gravity; it can be made without an underlying support structure, allowing the cells to stack in all directions.

No word if the astronauts conducting the experiment gave the meat a try.

There are obvious reasons this is interesting. Given enough source cells, meat could be created during long journeys. Not just meat for consumption, meat for human implants. Lost a finger working on the shuttle? Let’s grow a finger. Develop liver problems after years in space? Grow a new one and implant it ASAP!

These ideas assume the current technology can be scaled up but with a large supply of stem cells there’s no reason to think that any type of meat could be created in space. If there was a way to transplant consciousness, maybe there’s a way a brain could be 3D scanned, providing safe transport over vast timescales, until the human arrived at the destination where a body is 3d printed for the brain to inhabit. That way, a consciousness could travel without the limits of a human body.

Did you know indigenous Argentinians have lost their land because of natural gas?

Marcos Hernandez Article

In a tale familiar to many indigenous populations, the Argentinian government has denied the Mapuche people the rights to their land after finding the area rich in natural gas. They believe the area’s natural resources will help kickstart their struggling economy.

Hundreds of fracking wells have been in operation on a plateau where the Mapuche have grazed their livestocks for generations. 

The Mapuche had to deal with discrimination for their heritage before the natural gas was discovered, but now that they have a potential claim to the land their status isn’t recognized.

The Mapuche claim the oil companies contaminated their water, resulting in their livestock being born with deformities.This would be a great backstory for a villian, maybe a terrorist responsible for striking back against the capitalist machine. A remake of Robin Hood comes to mind, a lawless version in a dystopian future where the anti-hero is responsible for a measured level of chaos. Thinking about it, there could be another, more evil character, someone who used to be best friends with the protag, and his more radical approach causes the hero to fight for equality, not just revenge. This would be a perfect story to end as a tragedy.