Monday, February 29, 2016

Snowball Earth

Science fact and science fiction walk hand in hand, and this particular cross-fertilisation affected me directly.

Imagine planet Earth locked in a never-ending ice age: a giant, lifeless snowball encased in 3-kilometre-thick ice sheets with an average temperature of minus 50 degrees Celsius at the equator. It almost happened a number of times in our pre-history. The most severe of these was the Sturtian glaciation 716 million years ago when, it’s theorised, a super-volcano eruption on the primeval continent of Rodinia spewed vast amounts of basalt onto the planet’s surface which were then broken down by the weather, running into the seas and creating a chemical reaction that sucked CO2 (that greenhouse promoter) into the ocean, locking it away so that temperatures rapidly dropped.

When I learned about Snowball Earth, I immediately stole the idea to use as the reason why the titular planet in my novel Horizon was so devoid of indigenous life. It too had suffered a ‘snowball epoch’ from which it was emerging when my hapless stellarnauts arrived there.

Back in the real world, some scientists had a problem with the volcanic theory, wondering how those basalt deposits could have eroded so quickly to run into the water and change the ocean’s chemistry. It’s kind of serendipitous that a new theory has arisen proposing that the rapid dispersal of CO2-eating chemicals into Earth’s ocean was due to extensive marine volcanic activity, releasing the chemicals directly into the water.

I say serendipitous because in my novel, Horizon was in the grip of another climate-changing event when my stellarnauts arrived: a stable hypercane that would soon make the planet uninhabitable for humanity. The culprit behind this storm was unusually high ocean surface temperatures driven by an undersea volcano…

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Humanity 2.0

(not actual tCDS)
The stuff of science fiction, is becoming science fact. Developments in electronics and genetics mean we are on the cusp of changing humans. Not just future generations, but ourselves here and now.

I’ve blogged before about Grinders, those brave or foolish humans that conduct surgery on their own bodies to implant microchips and other devices to augment their interactions with electronic devices. Now there’s a more direct way to join with the machine. You may have seen adverts for electric brain stimulation machines. More correctly, transcranial direct current stimulation (tCDS) has been shown to stimulate neurons in your brain to fire more frequently. You can build your own with plans off the internet, a 9v battery, spongy electrodes and salt water. But if you don’t apply the electrodes correctly, or use it for too long you could just as easily impair brain function.

The next iteration of tCDS machines are becoming cleverer at interpreting brain signals, and very soon the machine could become your wingman. Imagine a wearable computer that doesn’t interrupt you with an incoming email because the high oxygen levels in your brain tells it you’re concentrating on something. So it waits till the levels drop before bothering you. Or maybe it knows you have a deadline to meet and delivers a small jolt of electrical stimulation to boost your concentration when it sees your attention flagging. Other machines might soon be reading the electrical activity of your body, such as smart watches that interpret twitches in your arm muscles to open your email in-box or send an sms.

Along with tCDS advances, we now have CRISPR gene editing. What the acronym stands for won’t enlighten you, but CRISPR is an extremely precise method of deleting or replacing specific gene sequences in your DNA. The control it affords means within the next decade scientists will target and edit out viruses like HIV, as well gene-related diseases like diabetes, and making organ transplants less open to rejection.

With the ability to hack our bodies electronically and genetically. Humanity 2.0 is here to stay.

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -