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’!