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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Filtering by Category: Entertainment

A Little Gene Music (Eine Kleine Nukleotid Musik)

John Rennie


It won't be Lady GaGa. But maybe a little Lady GAGATCAGCTCATTCGAC...?

On Tuesday at the British Royal Society of Music, the New London Chamber Choir will publicly perform a new choral piece with the lilting but jargony name "Allele." The genetic allusion isn't a superficial conceit: it is genuinely genomic music. Each of the 40 members of the chorus will be singing a score based on part of his or her own DNA.

The project began with geneticist Andrew Morley and the Wellcome Trust's "Music from the Genome" project, which had sequenced the DNA of 40 gifted singers to learn whether they had any distinctive genetic commonalities that might be indicative of musical ability. The findings of that genomic study have not yet been published. In the interim, however, Morley—who had sung with choirs in his youth, according to the BBC—decided to use the genomic sequences as the raw material for an artistic work.

He turned the data over to composer Michael Zev Gordon, who first translated the strings of nucleotides into notes, then rendered them musical through his selection and rhythmic arrangement of them. The poet Ruth Padel provided the lyrics for the singers. As Pallab Ghosh of the BBC writes:

To begin with, there is a single voice singing a simple rhythmic phrase; but as the piece develops, more voices join in - conveying the biological idea of replication and reproduction. At its climax, each member of the choir is singing their own unique genetic code - resulting in everyone singing a subtly different song.

Morley and Gordon seem not to be the first to think of translating genome sequences into music. Indeed, some artist-scientists have attempted the maybe even more intriguing trick of turning music into DNA and inserting it into living cells.

Research fellow Gil Alterovitz at M.I.T. and Harvard Medical School has developed a computer program that translates information about cells' gene and protein expression into musical sequences. His purpose is scientific rather than aesthetic, however. Because our brains are particularly adept at picking up patterns in the sounds we hear, Alterovitz hopes that his system could help researchers identify subtle derangements in the synchrony of gene expression that might underlie disease states.

For example, since the 1990s, musician Peter Gena seems to have been developing compositions based on DNA, with the assistance of geneticist Charles Strom. For the multimedia installation Genesis, they worked with Eduardo Kac, who created a synthetic gene sequence based on a Morse code translation of a line from the eponymous chapter in the Bible: "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." The DNA representing that sentence was inserted into bacteria and grown in a petri dish; fluorescent proteins helped to show how the plasmids holding the synthetic DNA spread throughout the cell population, moved horizontally into other cell lines and mutated over time.

In the past decade, fungal microbiologist Aurora Sánchez Sousa of Madrid’s Ramón y Cajal Hospital and Richard Krull have similarly used genetic sequences as the baselines for musical compositions, which were then elaborated upon further in accordance with Krull's inspirations. The results of their labors are available on the Genoma Music site.

Back in 1998, musician Susan Alexander of Sacramento worked with biologist David Dreamer to make music out of the molecular vibrations of DNA in response to illumination by various wavelengths of light.

And currently, poet Christian Bök is working on writing poetry that can be translated into DNA and then inserted into bacteria as a working gene (not just junk DNA filler). Just to add an additional level of difficulty to the project, though, he also wants the amino acid sequence in the protein made by this gene to itself be comprehensible as a poem different from the one in the DNA. Yikes.

By the way, the bacterium into which Bök wants to insert his multilayered genetic composition? It's the extremophile Deinococcus radiodurans, well known for its near invulnerability to radiation damage. D. radiodurans is a good choice because the DNA-repair properties that give it high radioresistance also make it extremely resistant to mutation—which means that if Bök succeeds, he won't have to worry as much about mutation reducing his genomic art to gibberish.

Of course, that will also mean that Bök's creation should be able to survive for a long, long time. That's one way to achieve artistic immortality.

A personal request: Perhaps one of you readers can help me with a request that no amount of racking my memory or searching online has yet solved. While writing this article, I was reminded of an anthologized science fiction story that I read, oh, probably 35 years ago. It concerned an inventive genius and music lover who feared that when civilization collapsed (as it surely would), all the beautiful musical works of genius would be lost forever, because recordings would perish and musical notation would be inscrutable. He therefore invented a machine that, when it received musical input, produced living creatures; his idea was that these creatures would survive in the wild and somehow preserve the music until such time as someone invented a similar machine that could change the beasties back into music again. The creatures in question all had traits that somewhat reflected the qualities of the music or its composers: I remember that the "wagner beasts" were threatening and wolflike. As you might imagine, this scheme did not work out well.

Can anyone identify the name and writer of this story? Not remembering it has bothered me for eons. Thanks.

Marmaduke and Other Box-Office Dogs

John Rennie

The scathing review of the movie Marmaduke on begins by describing it as "so self-evidently bad that slamming it would be tautological," and then it just gets nasty. (The justification for reviewing Marmaduke on a science fiction site? "A sentient Great Dane who holds his family hostage falls well within the boundaries of speculative fiction — it's more or less like Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, but without the semen farming.") But never mind that. More intriguing was the link to a page on Box Office Mojo listing the fifty "Worst Wide Openings" since 1982.
I'm not sure what strikes me as most remarkable about this list. Obviously, it consists entirely of films that did awful business; even so, I don't think I'd ever imagined just how badly some of them had done. For example, if I think of science fiction films starring Eddie Murphy that did abysmally, The Adventures of Pluto Nash first leaps to mind. But that's not even on this list. Instead, Meet Dave—you remember, the one with Murphy playing an Eddie Murphy-shaped spaceship full of little people?—lands at number three: it opened with $5.2 million in 3,011 theaters and ultimately grossed only $11.8 million. Those are slit-your-wrist awful numbers.
On the other hand... when you consider that these are the worst movie openings in 30 years, what shocks me (as a complete outsider to the movie biz) is just how much money most of these films made. No doubt most of them did lose money—probably great buckets of money. But it also seems as though if producers can manage to get a film into 3,000 theaters for its opening weekend, they are almost guaranteed to open with $10 million and to gross at least $35 million.
Again, those are clearly not earnings sufficient to offset gigantic losses. But what seems more amazing? That even something like The Bad News Bears remake could earn about $33 million? Or that Battlefield Earth couldn't even bring in $22 million?

Posted via email from Rennie's Other Last Nerve

Why Stephen Hawking is Wrong

John Rennie

(If this post had a subhead, it would be: Dr. Strangehawking, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Aliens.)

The Discovery Channel’s new series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking debuted last night with an episode about Aliens. I’ll plead guilty to not having seen it—the clips appearing on Discovery’s web site seemed full of both CGI goodness and speculation relatively unencumbered by annoying facts, so I’m not sure what to make of it. But one of the claims that Hawking apparently makes in the program has drawn considerable media attention, as in this BBC story:

Aliens almost certainly exist but humans should avoid making contact, Professor Stephen Hawking has warned.

In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was "perfectly rational" to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere.

But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.

Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.

He explained: "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."

Hawking’s concern seems to be the Independence Day scenario: that spacefaring species might roam the universe in gigantic motherships, pillaging planets for their resource wealth and exterminating those worlds’ inhabitants in the process. (So for the rumored sequel to Independence Day in the works, does this mean Hawking could take Jeff Goldblum’s role? Or Brent Spiner’s?)

Naturally, Stephen Hawking’s speculations on most matters are probably far more likely to be right than are mine, but in this case I’ll argue that he’s most probably wrong about alien conquests of this sort being a meaningful danger. First, though, I have to make two asides.

  • If we’re suppose to start worrying about dangers from space, I refuse to give one second’s attention to the possibly dubious threat from aliens until after humanity starts taking seriously the statistical certainty that an asteroid will eventually cause a catastrophe on earth again unless we avert it.
  • Back in the ‘70s, Carl Sagan argued in The Cosmic Connection, as other scientist-authors did elsewhere, that any alien civilization advanced enough to contact and visit us would surely have evolved past its own barbaric, warlike phase and would therefore meet us in peace. That view may seem naïve in retrospect, but given how little the available facts have changed, the current bent toward a more paranoid outlook probably says something about how society has changed in recent decades.

Most biologists and astronomers would probably agree with Hawking’s analysis that, in so far as we can make informed guesses about the odds, alien life is probably out there: the Milky Way alone probably brims with at least tens of billions of planets and unguessable numbers of moons; niches conducive to life’s evolution are likely to be legion; the galaxy’s 14 billion year age offers plenty of time for civilizations to rise (and fall). In fact, the numbers so lopsidedly favor extraterrestrial life that the greater conundrum is the Fermi paradox: why haven’t we already seen clear evidence of alien intelligence? But put that question away for now.

Let’s also assume that Sagan was wrong and that an advanced alien civilization can be hostile to us, either through active malevolence and desire for conquest or through the utter disregard we would show for an anthill on a lot zoned for a shopping mall. Let’s completely stipulate the existence of Hawking’s resource-hungry aliens. When would they be trouble?

If the hypothetical aliens are motivated purely by malice and must on principle exterminate us if they know about us—Daleks, ahoy!—then by definition they are a threat. But that argument begs the question: it just posits the existence of the baleful aliens we’re wondering about. They’re not impossible, but we know nothing about their probability a priori.

On the other hand, if these aliens are motivated by a need for resources, we can ask, “What resources do we Earthlings have that they would want so much?” And in those terms, it’s not obvious we have much to offer.

Water? The Oort cloud is lousy with the stuff. Earth’s oceans of water probably came from cometary bombardments during the early days of the solar system. Why wouldn’t they go to the original aquifer?

Minerals? University of Arizona planetary scientist John S. Lewis has estimated [pdf] that just one asteroid about a kilometer wide would contain about 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of metal cobalt and 7,500 tons of platinum. The solar system may have a million asteroids of roughly that size. One good-sized metallic asteroid could contain dozens of times as much metal as has ever been mined out of the earth. True, the asteroids are dispersed across a huge volume of interplanetary space—but for an alien civilization capable of getting to our solar system, finding, capturing and mining an asteroid should be elementary. And remember, all this mineral wealth is instantly available to them without the trouble of pulling it all back out of Earth’s gravity well.

Uranium? The inner solar system may be richer in uranium than the asteroids and outer planets are. But that would mean the aliens would have the options of going to Mercury, Mars and our moon, all of which are smaller and lower gravity and where they wouldn’t be faced with a pest eradication problem, as on earth.

Would the aliens want to conquer earth so they could eat our biomass? That’s hard to imagine. I’m not at all sure that truly alien life would be able to metabolize terrestrial meat or vegetation: their biology could be based on different amino acids, sugars with different stereochemistry or countless other subtle differences.

Would they want humans as slave labor? Surely they would have the ability to build robots or other machines (or genetically engineer new organisms, if you prefer) that could work for them much more efficiently and under a far wider range of environmental conditions.

That seems to leave the possibility that the aliens might just earth for its real estate value. Might they be driven by uncontrollable population pressures? Maybe, but it seems like special pleading to imagine that the advanced aliens would see conquering other planets as a simpler, better solution than either reining in their reproduction or just building more of those giant spaceships.

Yet once again, even if we grant hypothetically that the aliens would want earth for its land (or for its other resources), I think it only highlights where Hawking is most incorrect: in recommending that “humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.” If the aliens want earth for its resources, contact with us will be irrelevant to them. The aliens won’t bother to listen for radio signals or other evidence of intelligence in the universe; they will scan the cosmos for earthlike planets around yellow suns, ones with atmospheres that show evidence of photosynthesis and oxygen production, and so on. After all, primitive as we humans are, we’re already on the verge of building telescopes and other instruments capable of finding other earths. The aliens will have detected earth long before our own communications technology existed; if they want our resources, they will have target our planet no matter what we do.

So perversely, Hawking’s reasoning leads me to almost the opposite conclusion: we should definitely be trying to contact any aliens within the sound of our radio voice. Because if those resource-hungry, planet-poaching alien invaders are out there, we may want to line up some other alien allies in a hurry.

Update: Phil Plait and Sean Carroll have their own reactions to Hawking's argument. Oh, and also Ethan Siegel at Starts with a Bang.

Update, Part Deux: This story has more legs than a Denebian sandspider, my friends. Here's still more divergent  commentary on Hawking and the aliens from Chad Orzel, PZ Myers, and ERV. I'd agree with the possibilities of alien contact having disruptive or destructive effects on our species in various incidental ways, but those differ mightily from the misplaced concern that maybe Mars Needs Coal.

Seafood Sampler

John Rennie

Much to my surprise, the Walt Disney Company has released a film that is chock full of fish, not one of which talks or sings. Strictly speaking, Disneynature, an independent Disney label based in France, is the outfit responsible for Oceans, which opened in celebration of Earth Day. (Here's the film's official site, but warning: brace for flashy multimedia overload.) And strictly strictly speaking, this is actually the English international release of Océans, which debuted in France last year.

As you might expect, the cinematography is spectacular, especially during the film's first hour. (It's probably equally good during the last third, but there may be limits to just how much gorgeous underwater imagery the human brain can absorb without growing scales.) In contrast, the informational content connected to all that beauty is disappointingly low. The narrative carries viewers from ocean to ocean, pole to equator, surface to sea bottom; the individual moments seem to link together at least loosely but there's no clear sense of a master plan or theme guiding it. Pierce Brosnan's narration works so hard to be lyrical that all the earnestness starts to grate, and the writing lets its attitude of wonder overrun any genuine curiosity about the subject.

Scientific American's Steve Mirsky and I both emerged from a preview screening of Oceans last month with the same thought: the film should really be called Ocean Life. Almost the entire running time is occupied with showing fish, whales, sharks, jellies, coral, diatoms, crabs, cetaceans, anemones, kelp—living stuff. But aside from some beauty shots of angry waves breaking over rocks, seascapes under different temperaments of sky, icebergs calving into the sea and so on, the film shows almost no interest in nonbiological matters of oceanography. If you want to know more about currents, seafloor spreading, the chemistry or even the origins of seawater... make your own movie.

The cynic in me also couldn't help but wonder about some other things:

  • Can one really watch rocket launches from the shores of the Galapagos Islands? The film seems to imply as much, showing Galapagos marine iguanas crawling across rocks while a rocket takes off in the distance? I genuinely don't know, and perhaps there is an equatorial floating launch platform that has held that position.
  • Oceans has extraordinary sequences that show, for example, schools of small fish attracting schools of larger ones, which in turn draw flocks of seabirds, and then shoals of sharks. It's a brilliant, bloody frenzy. Did the photographers simply get amazingly lucky about documenting this event from start to finish? Did they know how enough to improve their chances somehow? Or did they somehow make it happen? I gather that the filmmakers behind these new Disneynature productions take exceptional journalistic integrity in compiling their footage honestly, and I would want that to be true. Still, given the long record of fakery in wildlife documentaries described in this Audubon magazine article by Ted Williams, I do have to wonder.

All in all, Oceans is worth seeing as eye candy and as a gorgeous enticement to learn more about its subject, but I can't help but wish that Disney had included a few talking fish. They might have answered some questions that the filmmakers didn't.

Halo is in the Eye of the Beholder

John Rennie

Sure, not that anyone asked, but I'm happy to be the last person in the digiverse to voice an opinion on something that every sentient lifeform in the galaxy with a joystick and a keyboard has already exhausted: what's all this, then, about Roger Ebert saying video games can't be art?

After all, my perspective on this burning controversy is strikingly important because, in addition to having awful taste in art (beautiful! moving! inspiring!), I have played video games less than almost anyone in my generation who isn't Amish. Fact! Having learned as a young man that I lacked the hand-eye coordination to master the intricacies of Pac-Man and Pong, I decided to sit out a couple of decades worth of arcade action. And because I've mostly owned Macs since the early 1990s, my handiest hardware was outside the gaming mainstream. And because I'm fairly sure gaming consoles crawl around your home at night and suck the dreams out of your sleeping brain, I don't have one of those, either. I am an enormous amount of fun to be around.

Anyway, as someone too ignorant about the state of games to discuss their artistic achievements or lack thereof, I am sorry that the eternally awesome Ebert decided to ignite this particular conversation in these terms. Arguments about whether XXX is or isn't Art inevitably turn into wrestling matches over definitions of art or "good" art vs. "bad." The problem with those definitions isn't that they hinge on subjective judgments. It's that they almost always invest the definition in the artistic object itself. The value of art (whatever it is) emerges from the intentions of the artist and the audience's responses to the artwork, and how those two correspond. Hissing over whether something is really art or whether it's simply good or bad is uninformative. By far, the more interesting approach is to skip the labeling and to concentrate instead on how the artwork does or doesn't achieve certain ends.

For example, to say that Thomas Kinkade is not an artist is meaningless except as shorthand to others who share your tastes. By any reasonable, impartial definition, Kinkade is an artist. But he's also a stylistically bland, kitschy sentimentalist whose choice of landscape subjects is all text and no subtext; his landscapes always look like they are waiting to be peopled by a van full of sad clowns and teens from a Christian youth ministry.

You may feel differently (and of course, if you do, you are dead wrong). Yet a disagreement on those terms is far more enlightening about what we each think than any is-it-or-ain't-it-art spat.

Ebert speaks his mind on why he thinks video games fail as art, so he is at least going far past the simple name-calling. I have no idea of whether he's right in his evaluation of video games to date. On the face of it, though, I can't help but think that writing off the potential reach of an entire medium's artistic achievement for the foreseeable future is rash. A big part of his argument seems to be that the interactivity and gameplay aspects of video games compromise their ability to function as art, but I don't see a really convincing argument of why that should be the case based on principles, just examples of failed games. I'd hate to bet against what games might do down the line. But on the other hand, Ebert might well be entirely right in his dispassionate assessment of how games stand to date.

Then again, maybe that's a judgment that ought to come from somebody who ever played Donkey Kong.