Tag Archives: scifi

Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part IV: Nature vs. Nurture

15 Sep

No, this isn’t another biology post. This is a post about family — specifically, my family, and what they’ve taught me about being a nerd.

Let me start with a story. When I was around 8 years old, my grandpa lent me his copies of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. I guess in and of itself, that wouldn’t be much of a story, but the real point is, I didn’t see anything at all unusual about that. Reading mid-twentieth-century science fiction was just what you did, whether you were 8 or 70.

My mother and father, they taught me that reading is fun. I know. It’s ridiculous. In other words, I had no choice in the matter: I was always going to be a nerd.

That baby will be a neuroscientist someday. Also, a major nerd.

It took me a long while to realize that not everyone reads for fun. (High school, to be honest. And even now, sometimes I think it might all be a hoax. I mean, what do you do in those spare hours that you’re not reading? Just stare at things? Watch youtube videos? But if that’s the case, what did people do in the 90s? I sincerely want to know, and I’ve always been too embarrassed to ask.)

Being a nerd means being passionate about things. My parents may have missed out on a few life lessons (“how to change a tire” and “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” stick out), but they did teach me that when you care about something, care about it. Even if it’s not cool, even if it’s not important — what matters is that you care.

And on that note: Happy birthday to the only Dad in the universe who is cooler than Rory Williams & Bill Adama combined.


Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part III: Crafty

14 Sep

What’s the world of geekery without the commitment that comes from making things by hand? You have to find just the right project — maybe it should be subtle enough that you can show it off in public, but obvious enough that your fellow geeks will get it. Or maybe it should be so outrageously nerdy that it will earn you stares from the normals. Either way, there’s something wonderful about the overlap between nerdiness and craftiness.

I also really like having something that I can work on while watching movies or television, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting time — it’s gotten to the point where I can’t simply sit and watch a show without doing something else at the same time — preferably something crafty.

I made this, and got it signed by astronauts at #NASATweetup. Actual astronauts!

I learned to knit in high school, but only got really into it when I realized all the really clever things I could make.

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Of Neurons and Photons

17 Aug

I’m currently settling into my new apartment for senior year, but I did have time to see this headline this morning:  “Holograms Reveal Brain’s Inner Workings.”

Obviously, the first thing I thought of was this:

I mean, obviously.

The real article, as usual, is simultaneously cooler and less cool than science fiction. I love that the intro compares bringing neurons into sharper focus with bringing astronomical objects into view. I like to think we have two final frontiers, equally in importance but opposite in direction.

The article states that this new microscopy technique (Digital Holographic Microscopy, or DHM) “accurately visualizes the electrical activities of hundreds of neurons simultaneously, in real-time, without damaging them with electrodes, which can only record activity from a few neurons at a time.”

And “Accurately visualizing the electrical activities of hundreds of neurons simultaneously, in real-time” is kind of major. Our ability to monitor brain activity is honestly not that great. It’s been improving for decades now, but it’s still not what one could wish for. And it is the electrical activity that’s a big deal, not necessarily just the shapes and positions of neurons, which can be measured (although the measuring itself may damage or distort them) in usually more invasive and old-fashioned ways.

So, if there are no major drawbacks or flaws, this is a pretty important new technology, and could hasten the process of research in the field. (As opposed to the above Firefly scene, which is shiny, but really, what does that accomplish that a computer screen couldn’t accomplish? Also, Firefly + neuroscience + the level of scientific hand-waving I am willing to put up with in fiction for the sake of a good story is a whole different post.)

Literary Science Fiction

14 Aug

There are only a few phrases in the English language more beautiful than “literary science fiction.” Perhaps “the results supported our hypothesis.” Or “We are go for launch.” Anyway, “literary science fiction” is up there. NPR just released their not-very-scientific (which they have repeatedly admitted to) list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books. First of all: Yay! Here it is. (I love the robot graphic at the top.)

Seriously, love this robot.

I’m really excited about all of these book recommendations, but obviously, this is mainly interesting for its implications about the voters. This being NPR, they actually have an article about precisely that. I, like the author, would have loved to have separate science fiction and fantasy lists. But I’m also interested in the fact that this seems to reflect the reality of who’s reading what, purely as a popularity contest. Personally, I have read 7 of the top 10, but only 33 of the total top 100. I made you a graph!

Percent of books I've read by placement level on NPR's list.

Since the whole thing’s based on popularity, here are my favorites:

Dune (#4). Reading Dune was sort of my final step in allowing myself to embrace full and public nerdiness. If I can reference the Kwisatz Haderach without flinching, then everything else must be easy by comparison.

A Song of Ice and Fire (#5). This has consumed such a significant percentage of my summer this year. The show also happens to be one of the best things currently on television.

The Foundation Trilogy (#8). My grandpa lent me his old copies of these books when I was about 8. I remember reading and enjoying them, but I couldn’t remember them very well plot-wise, so I reread them last year–the ending still shocked me. Whether that says more about the quality of the story or me, I can’t say.

The Martian Chronicles (#27). Ray Bradbury’s writing is, in my book, about the closest that fiction comes to the emotions of the real-life Moon landing.

Contact (#50). Carl Sagan writing science fiction: what could go wrong? Plus, a strong, realistic female protagonist! Thank goodness.

And on the strength of repeated recommendations, I’ve picked up the Mars Trilogy (#95) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (#79).

“The dark ages of ignorance and fear”

12 Aug

This Wednesday was the last day of my internship. As I may have mentioned before, I spent this summer writing overviews of research and statistics on various social and medical issues as they relate to substance use and related disorders. I spent my last morning there researching parental substance use and childhood welfare. Which is quite the way to bring down your mood at lunch, to say the least. Here’s one graph I threw together:

The percent of all children in America living with a substance-using parent, as of 2005, via: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2005). Family Matters: Substance Abuse and the American Family. New York: Author.

On the one hand, it’s great that we are gathering this information and have access to this data, because that is the first step toward presenting it to people in such a way that policy can be made to improve the situation. On the other hand, the current situation is pretty painful even to read about.

On Thursday, the wonderful GirlHack (a fellow NASATweetup STS135 alumna) posted a link to this 2006 article by none other than Patrick Stewart.

There is something particularly gratifying about finding out that people you are admire are actually good people and/or support noble causes. (There’s also something gratifying, though perhaps somewhat petty, about finding out that people you admire agree with you politically.) The article is worth a read.

Sir Patrick ends his article thus: “Violence against women diminishes us all. If you fail to raise your hand in protest, then you make yourself part of the problem.” I think that about sums up any number of social issues: “If you fail to raise your hand in protest, then you make yourself part of the problem.”

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“I don’t think he’s even noticed she has a brain”

28 Jun

Fair warning:  this is a blog post about science, geekiness, and feminism.

Right now, I’m listening to Lori Garver and Mike Massimino talk about the future of NASA.  Someone asked the question that I ask myself daily:  “Will there be a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime?”  Not only did Lori Garver answer yes, but she added (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), “Not just a manned mission, but also some astronauts of the female persuasion.”

Unfortunately, only men walked on the Moon.  That made me think:  until the last few years, I never had many female role models.  To be fair, until the last few years, all my role models tended to be dead white males.  Tolkien.  Nabokov.  Faulkner.  Thoreau.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with any of the above.)  I guess, in a pinch, I could have said Jane Austen, but she’s hardly a paragon of female empowerment for the 21st century.

My sudden acquisition of female role models coincides precisely with my approximately 3-year-old love of science.  First it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and then Carolyn Porco, whose Cassini images helped me survive 2009.

Saturn is pretty much the coolest. Sorry, Earth.

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“Books, young man, books!”

15 Jun

As I began to prepare for my Florida-based adventure in July, I was reminded of an adventure earlier this year that led to an outdoor bookstore called Bart’s Books in Ojai, California.  If you ever have the chance to visit, you must.  There was a citrus tree we couldn’t identify growing right in the center of the store, and a cat that never moved, all surrounded by shelves and shelves of used books of every genre.

What I’m saying is, space is great, but Earth can be pretty nice, too.  Anyway, at Bart’s Books, I bought this pretty thing:

966 pages, 114 stories, $9.00. This is how the world should always work.

I am an unabashed fan of mid-twentieth-century science fiction.  To be fair, my grandpa lent me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series when I was about eight, so I never really had a choice.  I also have a wonderful used copy of a Ray Bradbury anthology in which someone else’s grandmother wrote “7/1/93 Have fun at Camp Love, Ga.”  I like to imagine the recipient was going to space camp. Continue reading