Let’s Take A Closer Look

One evening in 1978, when I was in medical school, I described to a few dinner companions a fantasy/sci-fi machine for diagnosing illnesses.  CT scanners (which provide multiple computer-generated cross-sectional views, or tomographs, of the body using x-rays) had only recently been invented, and MRI (using NMR technology taught to us in physical chemistry classes at the time) was still a few years away.

My dream machine, I explained to my dinner mates– whose eyes I could see were beginning to glaze over– would compile all the tissue cross-sections to generate a 3-D picture, a hologram.  At that time, CT’s limited resolution showed us the organs and tissues, but what if we could greatly increase the resolution with a different type of energy beam, something other than x-rays?  Radar?  Microwaves?  Cosmic rays?  Who knew?  We would see not only tissues but cells, then drill down to the level of cell nuclei, mitochondria, chromosomes, even individual genes.  The resolution of the imaging technique was the rate-limiting step.

With my dream machine, abnormal cells would stand out right away; combine that information with indicators of tissue metabolism (PET scanners would come along later) and even images of gene sequences, and before you knew it, surgical biopsies of live tissue– for example, to diagnose cancer– would no longer be needed.  “You could examine the hologram from all different angles, then perform a virtual biopsy!” I exclaimed (stimulated by the excellent wine we had with dinner).  The computer, having obtained all necessary data from the high-resolution scan, could “biopsy” pieces of the 3-D image, then project them on a screen for the pathologist:  this could be repeated over and over, without any pain to the patient.

Well, the dream machine is one step closer.  This week– only 36 years later– a newsletter from the dean of Yale Medical School announced the arrival of a high-resolution cryoelectron microscope with tomographic capabilities, enabling researchers to view specimens in 3-D from multiple angles (unfortunately you still have obtain a specimen, as nobody has figured out how to put a whole patient into the machine).  It can tell us the atomic structures of membrane proteins– now that is small!  By the way, the three scientists most responsible for developing cryo-EM received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month.

(Not making any claims to the Nobel Prize– just saying).  Here’s an excerpt from my science fiction novel, Fourth World:

Lora stepped out of the Pan-Bio Analyzer, commonly known as the Probot, and reached for her paper robe.  Her skin was flushed and tingling- it felt like a Sonicspray, she thought, only without the blowing sensation.  The Probot scan, which produced a detailed analysis of anatomy and organ function- it would have detected a gastric ulcer, sinus infection or brain tumor, for example- was the final part of the physical evaluation required of all students, and she had passed without a hitch.  So had Benn and Sool, who were already on their way to the first formal lecture for the incoming class of interns, scheduled to begin in Cushing Hall in just a few minutes.  After a week of organizational meetings and introductory talks, it was a much-anticipated moment.

Lora nodded to the technician seated at a control panel, hurriedly crossed the cold Probot Chamber to the adjacent dressing room, and exchanged the robe for her standard-issue orange bodysuit.  Almost everyone attending YaleConn Med- not only the lowly interns- wore those bodysuits to class, so Lora shrugged off their resemblance to the prison uniforms worn by PsySoc reformees back at Tharsis One.  In a way, Lora was disappointed that the computer hadn’t found anything wrong with her:  no explanation for the distracting noise, that persistent insect buzz that had kept her up for part of the night.  It was faint, but intermittently took on a pronounced throbbing pattern- quite annoying.  Neither Benn nor Sool seemed to hear that noise, whatever it was:  A blood clot?  Eustachian tube dysfunction?  Seizure activity?  The Probot said no, no and no.  Meaning that there wouldn’t be an easy remedy.




Welcome to Our Planet

Eight months ago, coincident with our Chaos President’s dark and threatening inauguration speech about “American carnage” (see my previous post, Inauguration Blues), six people entered an isolated environment on the Big Island of Hawaii, a NASA-run simulation of life on Mars.  Amazingly, their eight months separated from the world have passed, and yesterday the four men and two women emerged to discover that Donald Trump is still the Chaos President, still denying climate science, still unable to build the Great Wall of Mexico.  They will find the world unsubtly and unsettlingly different, however:  while they were gone, the US has withdrawn from TPP and the Paris Agreement, circling its wagons and surrendering its leadership position worldwide; multiple hurricanes, boosted by warm ocean waters and rising sea levels, have laid waste to the Caribbean and parts of Texas and Florida; DACA has been rescinded, exposing 800,000 young people while 11 million undocumented immigrants continue to live in fear; North Korea has launched missiles over Japan and tested a hydrogen bomb; the President has blustered at the United Nations that we may have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea; he has also doubled down on his statement that neo-Nazi white supremacists and those protesting against them are equally to blame for violence; a parade of White House officials have departed in disgrace; a special prosecutor is closing in on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia to influence the election; the GOP is cynically trying for the fifth (or is it the sixth) time to bring their cruel and destructive healthcare agenda back from the dead (see my previous posts Vive le Healthcare and Kill Bill 3)– Trump wants this bill, which would result in millions losing healthcare coverage, passed by next week, before the Congressional Budget Office and other expert groups can provide any analysis of its dire consequences.

In Inauguration Blues, I advised the six Martians-in-training, when they finally came out of isolation, not to utter the classic line, “Take us to your leader.”  But I’ve changed my mind; they should absolutely see our Chaos President, if only to demand of him, “What’s happening to our world?  Why are you doing this?”

Mars or Bust II

It’s really happening.  Among Earthbound, upward-gazing humans, there has always been a deep-seated fascination with outer space; witness the huge popular reaction to the recent solar eclipse.  But efforts by SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and other commercial companies to fly folks into low Earth orbit in conjunction with NASA signal an acceleration of that interest, or what has been called a “new space race.”  When rocket factories, cargo missions, passenger flights and space exploration open up “a whole new world of business,” you know that momentum will build.  According to a NASA director, a manned mission to Mars is “the pinnacle of Mt. Everest” at this point– but once Everest has been scaled, what will keep the momentum going?

In my science fiction novel Fourth World, NASA’s Tharsis Colony on Mars is left stranded when a great war results in the formation of one world government (the PWE) and the elimination of NASA.  Here’s an excerpt:

“At other times, Mr. Walker suggested that the colony’s downfall actually preceded the PWE, that the slow death- he termed it the “apoptosis”- of Tharsis Colony was encoded in its DNA at the very moment it was conceived.  To explain this apoptosis, Mr. Walker would use his guiding principle:  follow the water.  The second manned mission to Mars, launched in 2049 (thus nicknamed “The New Forty-Niners”) discovered significant quantities of liquid underground water, which had only to be mined in order to allow large-scale colonization. Of course, water was necessary for supporting life, but beyond that, water was found in perchlorates, hydrated salts which could be converted to solid rocket fuel (this was before the harnessing of nuclear fusion, Mr. Walker reminded them).  The seminal discovery of water, he said, sweeping both arms dramatically to his left, then to his right, essentially divided the history of humanity on Mars into the pre- and post-Forty-Niner eras.”

Regarding the former, Mr. Walker reviews for his second-grade class the decades-long history of Mars exploration:

“… Many other missions contributing to the ultimate colonization of Mars, such as Mariner, Pathfinder, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity and Spirit, were never forgotten by history.

Also never forgotten:  the fact that the United States agency NASA had been responsible for all of these missions.  Sure, Mr. Walker allowed, successful probes were launched by Russia, Europe, China, India, Brazil, New Zealand, and even private enterprises.  But only the United States had the means to access the water- to monopolize this most vital of natural resources- and establish a full-fledged colony.  Tharsis was a triumph for the United States, but to the rest of the world, it was only the latest example of American empire-building and colonialism.”

But merely finding the means to colonize Mars doesn’t explain the need to colonize, does it?  There have to be assets to exploit once you get there (and in Fourth World, it turns out, there are valuable resources to discover).  Absent such assets, would escaping Earth justify the trouble and cost of such a long journey?  Despite Hurricane Harvey’s devastating effect on Texas and the startling rise in the number of 500-year floods in just the past decade, climate-change deniers in Congress and the White House still determine US policy.  It seems we will continue to prop up the coal industry until all the coal mines are under floodwaters.  In the original Mars or Bust (which appeared on this blog January 7th, while I was still in post-election shock), I coined a name for the manned SpaceX mission to Mars:  Elon’s Ark.  Let’s hope commercial space flight literally takes off:  when climate change can no longer be reversed, we’re going to need a lot more than one Ark!


China On The Rise

Last night, Harvard Prof. Graham Allison gave a talk, moderated by former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, at the Commonwealth Club in SF.  The topic was his new book, Destined for War:  Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?  Five centuries BC, Thucydides noted that the threat from a rising power, Athens, as perceived by Sparta- the ruling power in ancient Greece- led to the Peloponnesian War.  He drew a parallel with US/China relations- acknowledging some of the shortcomings of such a comparison, which have been amply pointed out in various reviews of the book.  China, he said, has caught up with the US in every major parameter, and surpassed it in some.  For example, when Reagan was president, China’s GDP was 10% that of the US, and now it is 110%.  In many aspects of technology, China is taking the lead:  social media, AI, robotics, clean energy, electric vehicles etc.  The US still leads by far in the military arena, but China may not care as much as we suppose (Allison reminded us that, when US and South Korean troops once pushed back a North Korean invasion almost to the Chinese border, China used conventional weapons to fight the sole nuclear power on Earth, all the way down to the 38th parallel).  Economic “warfare” is just as important these days, and as the US withdraws from the world stage (see TPP), you have to wonder:  which country now represents Sparta, and which Athens?  Sharing common interests- such as avoiding nuclear holocaust and preventing global warming- lowers the risk of war, but then having a belligerent and unpredictable president who denigrates NATO and pulls out of the Paris Accord weakens those commonalities.  It seems to me that under our Chaos President, fear of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) and climate change may not be enough to prevent war.  Also, the strong chauvinism and national fervor among Chinese- not mentioned in the talk- may tilt the balance towards war when a crisis erupts, for example on the Korean Peninsula or South China Sea.  As I pointed out in an earlier blog (A Day Without Women), the world is a lot more complicated now, but Thucydides may be right after all.

Here’s an excerpt from my sci-fi novel Fourth World, in which Chou Xia-Yu, leader of the world government in 2196, ponders the fate of expatriate anomaly Benn Marr:  will he have to be destroyed?

Chou silently nodded his satisfaction at the inherent justice of it all:  descendants of the American colonists on Mars had paid a steep price to atone for the imperialist policies of their ancestors.  And now, he speculated, this Benn Marr represented another level of reward for years of experimentation.  The ability to read and to project thoughts was similar to what Chinese monks (particularly in the Tibetan District) had been practicing for a thousand years.  The difference was that Eunigen had given Benn his abilities by modifying his genes, so that they could be passed on to future generations in large numbers:  the hypothetical implications for the PWE were staggering!  Unfortunately, Benn Marr, although of Chinese descent, had lost touch with his ethnic roots on Mars, and had no understanding of his rich cultural heritage.  As with all traditional Chinese, Leader Chou harbored the conviction that the Chinese civilization had greater value- it was simply superior- and should be promoted above all others; Benn was unlikely to feel such loyalty.

March for Science II

It was fun– and I don’t mean that in a trivial sense.  For me, the March for Science rally in San Francisco yesterday had the right mix of whimsy and angst, of hilarious satire and hard facts.  There were the white lab coats.  The DNA models.  The signs saying, “Remember polio?  I don’t,” “Science Not Silence,” and “If you think science is expensive, try guesswork!”  Although the march was supposedly non-partisan (one sign said, “Science is not Democrat or Republican” and another “Science is not an ideology”), it was hard to skirt the fact that our Chaos President’s administration has been Ground Zero for the unleashing of virulent attacks against scientific principles and evidence-based policies.  In the Trump White House, GOP partisanship and corporate financial interests are favored over data and facts, even if the consequences might threaten the world.  I saw a decidedly partisan sign with just ten characters:  OMG/GOP/WTF?

The speakers ranged from the humorous-but-pointed to the earnest and personal.  Gauging the applause level was my “eardrum approach” to surveying audience sympathies.  When it came to climate change and the denial thereof, the reaction was the most prolonged, almost angry in its intensity.  Then quoting Niels Bohr, who won the 1922 Nobel Prize for describing the atomic structure and later contributed to quantum theory (“Science is the gradual elimination of prejudice”) drew loud approval.  Other topics: support for NASA; the Clean Water Act on the chopping block; fear of a post-truth world in which evidence doesn’t matter; teachers of science and math as the first line of defense- all of these received wholehearted applause.  With the debunking of vaccine-induced autism, there was a slight but perceptible drop in volume.  How about genetically engineering crops to feed the world?  There was definitely a moment of uncertainty when folks had to decide how they felt about GMOs, and whether to clap at all.  Just as the Women’s March in January demonstrated divisions between those supporting women’s rights, the March for Science showed that belief in science does not translate in a homogeneous way to setting policy.

Maybe there should be a March for Science Fiction.  Poets and writers of fiction often set a stage for the interplay of multiple points of view.  This hypothetical staging leads to a grand conclusion, but also allows layering of multiple take-home messages, as I’ve tried to do in my novel Fourth World.  Even in science, there are shades of gray, when you take into consideration ethics, inclusivity and social justice, geopolitics and so on, and sometimes it takes imagination to untangle these factors.  “Science is Hope,” I read on a placard.  Science fiction, which projects current science onto a hypothetical stage by the power of imagination, is also hope.

The Latest On Fourth World

My science fiction novel Fourth World came out 6-7 months ago as an e-book, but now is available in paperback, on Amazon:  there is a link to the Amazon site on this blog.  Hope you enjoy it!  I want to thank readers of this blog, and of Fourth World, for all your interest and support.  Who knew there would be so many aficionados of medicine, genetics, geopolitics and Mars in the year 2196?

An update on the sequel, Fourth World Nation:  I know a sizable number of readers are anxiously wondering (and have given me grief over) what happens to Benn and Lora.  Well, the wait is almost over- I am nearly finished with the first writing of the sequel, and re-writing will take a couple of months.  Then it’s onward to the dramatic conclusion to the trilogy!

Grinding the Axe

In Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, the narrator Larry Morgan describes the pain in his past, writing the final chapters of his book in tears:

Yet now, having held in grief and resentment, and evaded thinking too much about the episode that changed my life with the finality of an axe, here I am exalted by having made use of it, by having spilled my guts in public.  We are strange creatures, and writers are stranger creatures than most.

We write what we know, and sometimes what we know is painful- perhaps not as acutely as an axe falling, but more chronically, like a corrosive acid.  When writing about and making use of the pain, it’s important not to let self-pity take charge.  There are several themes in Fourth World, motifs intertwined like strands of DNA.  One of these, I imagine, is almost a universal feeling:  that of not belonging, of always looking in from the outside, no matter what one accomplishes in life.  In my case, that came from moving back and forth, as a child, between countries with different dominant languages and cultures, histories and aspirations.  One country (Malaysia) had the history of being the colony of another (the UK, where the British held- and still hold- strong prejudices regarding their former colonial subjects).  Feeling like an outsider in London was- and is, for Indians, Bangladeshis, etc.- not imaginary.  And, believe it or not, California in the mid-1960s was not a friendly place for Asian kids either- especially those who kept their original names.  Even with English as my first language, a vaguely British accent was a source of humor.

Despite objective evidence to the contrary, immigrants are often told that they are being too sensitive; reassured that the prejudice they see every day is not really there; reminded that after years of living in this country, they have reaped the benefits.  But do they truly belong?  I’m grateful to live in the US and feel much more fortunate than the vast majority, but still sympathize (which literally means to suffer with) today’s immigrants, especially in the current hostile climate.

In my novel Fourth World, Benn Marr has it much worse:  he comes from an Earth colony on Mars!  Here’s his conversation with Lora:

Benn snorted.  “You know, I do try awfully hard to keep the weird behavior to myself.”

Lora spotted a segue opportunity.  “Actually, you might rephrase that:  trying so hard to keep to yourself is your weird behavior.”  Lora took a deep breath- it was as good a time as any to say it.  “This has been bothering me since Highland City.  Benn:  you are, without  doubt, an extremely difficult person to read.”

Benn, who had a history of stumbling badly where Lora was concerned, thought she was still teasing.  “You mean difficult to read, as in a boring novel?  I’ll try to spice up my plot.”  She met his grin with a blank look.

“Difficult because I’m written in a foreign language?” he tried again.

“Come on, Benn.”  Lora rolled her eyes.  “Not a foreign language.  But you do act like a foreigner.  I always get the feeling that you’re holding back, standing apart and watching, as though you don’t belong.”

“That’s because I don’t belong.  And you do?  I admit, you fit in much better than I do, what with having social skills and all.  I’ll be forever an outsider, Lora:  the colonial subject visiting the imperial capital, tolerated only as long as I have something to contribute.  Otherwise it’s ‘Back to the colony, boy, your permit’s been canceled.’”

“You don’t need to feel that way, Benn.  You see yourself as more of an outsider than others do.”

“Do you really suppose these folks consider us Martians their equals?  Back to the original subject, do you think Torch Halsey thinks of us as neighbors or alien freaks?”

“Halsey’s not a valid example; to him, everyone is a potential terrorist!”