Getting Aliens ‘Right’


When it comes to aliens in science fiction, there are some standard tropes you run into. There are aliens that are essentially humans with themes. There are the bug-like aliens convenient for representing enemies because bugs are gross. (Spoiler alert: they’re usually more complicated than that after all!) And so on.

But lately I’ve been hungry for clever attempts at realistic depictions of aliens. I know “realistic” might sound silly here, since we have practically nothing to go on. But I think it’s fair to say a realistic depiction needs to reach away from our idea of what normal life is. Alien life would be something that evolved under who-knows-what conditions, so bipedal apes and giant insects are pretty much out.

Even more importantly, a good depiction of aliens should explore what social interaction between an advanced alien species and us would look like. In a sense, good ole Stephen Hawking is probably right. Any sufficiently advanced alien race would not be something we could fight off. But it’s perhaps a tad pessimistic to assume they would just kill us and take our resources, too. To me, it always seemed like the most likely scenario would be a painfully paternalistic relationship with a species that has a difficult-to-understand set of morals. They wouldn’t kill us, but might consider it perfectly right to run our lives for our own good.

I mentioned this to a friend not too long ago. His response: “Read ‘Dawn’ by Octavia Butler.”

I did. Then I read the two sequels soon after. And by the time I was done, I was awestruck that I had never before heard about this great story all about really weird aliens with well-developed personalities trying to get along with humans.

Octavia ButlerTo be brief, the aliens in question are ancient, natural genetic engineers capable of both intense empathy and infuriating paternalism. The conflict somewhat resembles the paternalistic attitudes groups of people have historically had for each other, while not letting that relationship become a bald-faced symbol for imperial colonialism. The ultimate struggle is a matter of the alien species’ nature against human nature, and the story makes room for both tension and reconciliation.

I don’t want to get into too much detail, because I’d rather you find out from reading the book. But here are a few more themes if you don’t mind some spoilers: The aliens have a take on genetic meddling that, while daunting to human sensibilities, is part of the aliens’ nature; it’s what their third sex is essentially built to do, and in turn what makes their species who they are. I also loved how the story dealt with the aliens’ inability to lie: It’s not a part of any moral code so much as something they can only grasp intellectually, so their habit is to just fall completely silent when confronted with a question they don’t want to answer.

The second and third book move into entering the perspective of characters that aren’t fully human, which is admittedly a little tougher to get into, but are still worth the read.

I’m happy I’ve been exposed to Butler. It’s a shame she and her work is not better known outside of dedicated science fiction fans. I’d like to see more attempts to alien-human relationships that are willing to venture a little far from what’s familiar as a way to force us to question what we know to be right. That’s what science fiction is best at, when it’s good.

– Novelty UFO in Moonbeam, Ontario, Canada/Wikimedia Commons
– Octavia Butler 2005. Nikolas Coukouma/Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful Starling Murmurations Use Rome As A Toilet

It was dusk and mildly chilly in Rome when I stepped out of Roma Termini, the city’s busy central train station, and heard relentless screeching noises from above. I looked up to see thousands of birds covering the treetops like bees on a honeycomb. A cloud of them sprang from one tree only to quickly dissolve into another. Bigger clouds of black specks curled and twisted even higher, over rooftops and looming cranes.

Starlings. Thousands of them, and just a small portion of the 1 to 5 million that overwinter in Italy’s capital.

To nature lovers, starling swarms – called “murmurations” – are fascinating and beautiful. Stunning videos of murmurations have captured the admiration of the Internet. They’re also a favorite example of swarming science, each individual bird following cues on speed and direction from its neighbors to form a massive, swirling shape in the sky.

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Down North

Fra Mauro Map

Sometimes I like to spend my idle hours wandering Google Maps. Maybe I’ll hunt for a remote chunk of the Great Wall of China, or look for that mountain in the Adirondacks I hiked back in 2007, or wonder what’s up with a tiny village with dirt roads in Greenland.

But my favorite tourism-by-satellite locale is North Korea. Car traffic on North Korean streets is extremely sparse, even in the country’s biggest cities, giving them an eerie feel, as if they’ve been abandoned. At least you can often make out small blurry smudges that are almost certainly people going about their day, unaware that Google is letting some American in a cozy dining room eyeball them from afar.

Of course, the quilt of satellite photos that make these maps is a recent phenomenon. Old world maps, for which crafters had to mix stories from travelers with their own imaginations are even more enchanting.

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Chance For Sex Snaps Sick Finches Out Of Malaise

“Hey, Baby! I’m Feeling Great!” *cough cough* “Really!” 

For the first half of the above video, a sick male zebra finch sits quietly on the floor of his cage. He’s not feeling so great, trying to rest and keep quiet while his immune system is in hyperdrive. But half an hour later, shown in the second half of the video, an unfamiliar female has entered the cage. To the male bird, that changes everything. He hops around with excitement and interest as if he didn’t feel sick at all.

Behavioral biologist Patricia Lopes of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues injected this finch and others with bits of E. coli bacteria — triggering their immune systems without actually infecting them. They watched the birds as they lay sick, then compared how it behaved when a female was thrust into the picture, counting its hops and the time it spent resting. They found the male birds’ behavior changed completely, acting as if they weren’t sick in an effort to court the female.

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Confession Of An Interstellar Curmudgeon


I’ll just say it. Contact with aliens? I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

I mean ever. And I don’t even think it’ll be our fault. Cultures across the globe could join together in common humanity, throw all nuclear weapons in the waste bin, and pour all our efforts into a singular, courageous, global effort to travel through space and find an alien civilization. But it won’t work, because some things are just impossible. Space is just too big. The distance between star systems is just too far. The speed of light is too unbreakable. The fuel for energy it would take to get through space is just too much. And finally, our biology is too connected to gravity — not to mention air, warmth and all the other things you don’t find much of in interstellar space.

All these earth-like exoplanets we keep finding offer at best the teeniest, tiniest sliver of hope. So they probably have liquid water? Cool. But we don’t even know yet if any of those worlds have, say, a magnetosphere — yet another wonderful thing that helps make life possible on Earth. It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder if Earth-like worlds with magnetospheres are kind of rare. After all, Venus and Mars don’t have one.

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Phase Two


The best-laid plans of lab mice and science writers often go awry.

OK, that’s a tad hokey maybe. To the point: The Sieve began about a year-and-a-half ago as a way for students in the full-time science writing program at Johns Hopkins University to test the waters of blogging. It was a fun way to practice our writing, interact lightly with the rest of the science writing community on the Web, and learn what it’s like to obsess over pageviews and reshares. We even passed the blog on to the science writing class that came after us, and it seemed like it could become a long-lasting fixture of the program.

Then, to our bewilderment, the university closed the program this year.  Many of us who graduated from the program had become attached to it. Ann Finkbeiner, who ran the program, is an amazing instructor who never failed to challenge our bad writing habits. Also, the classes were small: The number of grad students ranged from four to six, each class soldiering through one intense year of a ton of writing, workshopping, rewriting, more workshopping, and more rewriting. You would graduate with a feeling that this unique program that had only shaped a few careers in its 30-year history had become a piece of you. So its closure left much of us feeling dumbfounded, no matter the rationale.

On top of the dumbfounded feeling, there was another thing. Our poor little blog was bobbing along at the surface without its anchor. (I’ve used that metaphor maybe three times now in private emails. I guess once more can’t hurt.) What could we do with it? Well, we couldn’t save the Hopkins program. But we could save the blog. So a few of us, mostly relatively recent graduates of the program, have stepped in to do just that.

Really, the blog is only changing in one way. It remains what it was before in that it’s a place to tell stories about science. All that’s changed is that This Is Not A Drill. We’re science writers with a bit of experience under our belts, with jobs or freelance careers or both.

As we start off on the new phase, we’ll be making at least one new post every week. We’ll probably make some other changes along the way, perhaps a visual redesign (I’m an ex-newspaper guy and I think the current design reflects those slightly aged sensibilities. It’s probably due for something more fresh). Anything is possible. In the meantime, just as before, we have stories we want to tell, and here is where you can find them. In the coming weeks, you can look forward to posts from Gabriel Popkin, Alex Kasprak, Emily Mosher, me, Jay Thompson, Helen Thompson, Kelsey Calhoun and Rachel E. Gross.

(Image: Rama/Wikimedia Commons)

A Friendly Takeover

Passing the Sieve to the next generation

The four of us — Emily, Sara, Jay and myself — started this blog so we could enjoy a little freedom to write what stories we pleased. We also wanted to get a taste of having our science writing out where more people could see. It worked out pretty well. Sure, our activity has come in peaks and valleys as we’ve balanced the blog with work and school. But now that we are all in the early stages of life after grad school, I think we can all look back on this blog and see writing to be proud of.

We also hoped the blog could be one more thing. Wouldn’t it be cool if The Sieve could become a mainstay of science writing at Johns Hopkins? At the start of 2012, it was hard to say whether our little trial run would become a budding tradition. But that likelihood seems to be growing, because four new science writing students have agreed to take the blog on for the 2012-13 academic year.

So this post is to pass The Sieve to the next generation of Hopkins science writers. From this point forward, the blog is theirs to do with as they please. I looking forward to seeing posts from Alex, Kelsey, Gabe and Jean as they navigate the blogging waters!

Keep on Siftin’!


Without the Higgs Boson, we wouldn’t exist, and neither would our awful puns.

I was one of a lucky few at CERN this past Wednesday, when they announced the discovery of a shiny new particle that validates physicists’ best guess on the origin of mass. I won’t play it down: It was exhilarating, both to be present for a historical moment and to see years of hype reach a triumphant climax. I’m also a former political journalist and copy editor, now working as a science writer for a public information office. So I felt something peculiar: like I was watching science and storytelling collide from a neutral spot.

Unless you’ve been sleeping for two or three days, you’ve probably caught wind of the Higgs boson discovery news. But here’s a quick rundown just in case. The Higgs boson is a particle first proposed in the 1960s. Physicists have long had a hunch it’s there because the standard model of particle physics predicts it should be there, bestowing mass unto all the other particles. But it is impossible to see the Higgs directly, because it only exists for the fraction of a fraction of a blink of an eye.

The only way to pinpoint the Higgs is to look for what it decays into — for simplicity’s sake think of decaying as a transformation. But there are a lot of other particles that are unstable like the Higgs and decay really fast. These particles often decay into the same particles the Higgs decays into. So the wild world of decaying particles is full all sorts of ruckus and noise, making the Higgs really difficult to find. Physicists have to calculate the details of the noise so they can filter it out and find anything hiding inside — like you might use a sieve (hey!) to find gold nuggets in the dirt.

So the scientists sifted out all the Higgs-impersonators and found a bump in the remaining data from a particle that looks a hell of a lot like the Higgs ought to look. It walks like a Higgs. It quacks like a Higgs. It must be the Higgs! Right?

Probably. But it could be a variation on Higgs boson that isn’t exactly like the standard model predicts. They have yet to find out. But one thing is for certain, they’ve got a new particle and it fits the Higgs picture. And even if it doesn’t fit nice and snuggly into the standard model, it’s still something new, interesting and Higgslicious.

I was there for the announcement because I currently work at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, a research institute in Italy that helps scientists from developing countries. They also have some researchers working on the ATLAS project, one of the Large Hadron Collidor’s detectors. So they sent me to CERN for the big news event.

The heads of several CERN physicists gathered and watching the announcement that both detectors have found a new particle on a projection screen. Seats in the seminar room itself were in high demand.

From what the CERN physicists told me, the previous few hours had resembled the madness surrounding the opening of a blockbuster movie. Some scientists even camped out overnight outside the seminar room to get the best seats for the big announcement. Everyone who wasn’t willing to sacrifice their comfort to that extreme had to watch the seminar from elsewhere on the CERN site. That’s where I wound up. I joined a pack of about 150 young physicists gathered in one of several basement rooms to watch the seminar on a projector screen. When each detector project revealed the Higgsy-looking bump in their data, the room burst into hooting and applause. So did the official seminar room where the hardcore Higgs fans were watching. It was about as close to the Super Bowl as physics can get.

When the seminar was done I migrated to the press conference. Even if you’re not into physics in particular, but curious about the relationship between science and journalism, I recommend you watch it. For one thing, you’ll see an excellent cross-section of questions ranging from thoughtful to pretty weak. You’ll also see the somewhat-differing interests of science journalists and scientists at play. Up on stage were the folks who want the discovery to be known as precisely as possible. Out in the crowd were the folks who want to tell a good, important, enticing story to their audiences.

Media swarmed around Peter Higgs, the man the boson is named for, before the press conference began. As you can probably tell by now, I’m very good at taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads.

The strangest moment is when a reporter asks, “For the other laymen out there, about SIX BILLION OF THEM, what does this mean?” (I’m pretty sure he hit a mental caps lock key as he was speaking.) There was also the dreaded justify-your-funding question, a brief appearance by the graviton, some questions about what’s next, and a little (perfectly fair) pleading to Peter Higgs to say something, anything to quote.

The “God Particle” term also made its inevitable appearance as part of a general question asking for more metaphors. My favorite part of the whole press conference was CERN physicist Joe Incandela’s response: “I don’t know that I have metaphors exactly. But as I said before the interesting thing about this particle is it’s different from any other. It has a different place. It actually has a relationship to the state of the universe, and so it’s very profound.”

The funny thing is, watch the video, and you’ll see that several metaphors get lobbed out there before the question even came up.  As science writers it’s easy to love metaphors. They have a poetic quality, and they are a direct route to bridging the gap between the technical stuff and familiar things. But sometimes we love them too much. The wise thing to recognize here was that any more metaphors would have been gratuitous. Sometimes, to say something simply, all you really need to do is say it simply.

May and June Have Come and Gone

A horseshoe crab, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So we’ve been posting again at a pretty steady pace! If you missed it, here’s what we wrote about the last two months. Apparently, we’ve been in the mood for wildlife.

- Jay’s nature photos, let him show you them!

- What’s thinking outside of the box compared to thinking outside of your scale?

- Parrots like their food rancid and nasty. (Emily’s post incidentally caught a rather radical wave on Facebook!)

- Everything awesome you ever needed to know about those alien-looking Horseshoe Crabs.

- A colorful fireworks show courtesy of fireflies.

- Why a sustainable economy isn’t automatically a sustainable ecology.

- What massive patience it takes to hunt for meteorites in the scalding sun.

Mixing Ecology Into Economics

In Bristol Bay, Alaska, fishermen catch and export about 70 percent of the wild salmon in the bay migrating inland to spawn. In recent years, the numbers of salmon that migrate into these Alaskan waters have remained stable. So, that must mean fishermen are harvesting this food resource sustainably, right?

Sockeye Salmon spawning (Wikimedia Commons)

Not necessarily, writes Joseph Burger, Jim Brown and others from the University of New Mexico in an essay published  today in PLoS Biology. The fishery still affects the greater ecosystem. For example, the authors point out, fewer salmon in Alaska’s waters means less food for natural predators such as grizzly bears and bald eagles.  Also, fewer salmon will die naturally in these waters, robbing the soil and waters of other nutrients the rest of the ecosystem depends on. So, while the commercial harvest of salmon may be sustainable from year to year, the fishery still has many indirect impacts on other resources.

It may seem obvious that ecologists have a vital role to play in building a sustainable globe. But as Burger and other scientists argue in several papers contained in the new PLoS Biology Sustainability Collection, ecology, especially the large-scale approach called “macroecology,” has played a smaller role than economics in building a vision of a viable “green economy.” They are calling for the inclusion of ecological principles in discussions on sustainability science both throughout the field and at this week’s Rio+20 sustainability conference.

Rio+20 is a global conference in Rio de Janeiro in which scientists and government representatives from throughout the world discuss how to create a world in which resources can continuously support future generations, while helping people in developing countries rise out of poverty. The first conference was held 20 years ago, and this week’s conference will be a discussion of both the progress made since and what steps come next.

The key, says Burger, is to get economists to think in terms of physics and ecology as well as economics. That means adding more natural sciences to the education economists receive as well as bringing more natural scientists, such as ecologists, into discussions on sustainability. “One could go through an entire bachelor’s or even Ph.D. program in economics and not have any exposure to basic principles like the physical laws of thermodynamics,” he says, “or the biological laws of population growth.”

John Matthews and Frederick Boltz of Conservation International say in their perspective piece that ignoring the dynamic nature of biology is dangerous and will hinder sustainability efforts. But they add that there is room for “cautious optimism.” Matthews and Boltz say scientists can draw from recent efforts to curb climate change for inspiration on how advancing technology can help create a more sustainable world.  “Many developing countries understand that Western models of development are inappropriate if not impossible to achieve. We believe that these and other positive trends are both accelerating and permeating local, national, and global economies quickly and permanently,” they write.

Sustainability must be viewed in the context of the environmental sciences, says population biologist Georgina Mace of Imperial College London. She says that the perspectives offered by Burger and colleagues and Matthews and Boltz represent two extremes of “ecological pessimism” and “technological optimism.” But these extremes are sometimes needed, especially regarding resources that may run out entirely.  “When resources are close to being depleted or exhausted, prices rise, pressures may increase, and complete collapse of the resource becomes more likely,” she writes. “In some other cases, such as the extinction of species or the loss of biomes and biodiversity, the loss is irreversible.”

These scientists argue that the current model for creating a sustainable Earth is too short-sighted, and overly focused on balancing specific sectors of economies while ignoring the intricate web of subtle effects that environmental scientists specialize in puzzling out.

Burger says the ultimate goal however is to get policymakers and environmental scientists working with a mutual framework, and he believes the best way to begin is by increasing education between fields. “We must get everyone on the same page,” says Burger.  “Policymakers and economists have much to benefit from understanding the ecology of our own species and we need them to make our science actionable by implementing policy that considers the core ecological principles that govern all life.”


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