Author Archives: Mike White

Apocalypse 1912: A Naturalist End of the World

Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912)

ScarletPlagueWe’re all familiar with classic scenes of a brutal post-apocalyptic world like this: A group of refugees from the pandemic is holed up in an abandoned building with a cache of food and arms, firing on a gang of assaulting raiders. Or, a former professor of English Literature, clad in goat skins and huddled around a fire, is telling his dirty, illiterate grandsons about life before civilization vanished.

Today these scenes are standard fare in post-apocalyptic fiction, from The Road to The Walking Dead. But when Jack London wrote them a century ago, they weren’t. The genre itself had been around for a long time, and many of the classic themes, settings, and catastrophes had already been introduced. However, nobody before Jack London had described a collapse of civilization so violent or an aftermath so squalid. In the century since, images of a gritty and brutal world in ruins have become almost a requirement in this genre. Continue reading

On Beauty in Technical Science Writing

Via Chris Woolston at Nature, I ran across last week’s discussion about the role of beauty in technical scientific prose. Writing over at The Tree of Life, Stephen Heard offers several examples of beauty in scientific writing, and he calls on the community to encourage beauty in scientific writing:

[E]xamples of beautiful scientific writing do seem to be unusual; and those that exist aren’t well known. I don’t think it has to be this way. W could choose to change our culture, a little at a time, to deliver (and to value) pleasure along with function in our scientific writing.

I’ll second the idea that we should encourage beauty in scientific writing, but with a big caveat: we absolutely shouldn’t try to do this by making our technical writing more belletristic. We don’t need to drop in hokey metaphors or cloying phrases — that’s what would happen if you encouraged most scientists to write beautifully. Continue reading

Some gene conceptions and misconceptions

Any geneticist who has discussed genes with friends and family knows that there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there. This is understandable – genetics involves some tricky concepts, and sometimes we use confusing linguistic shortcuts to talk about genes without using jargon. Sometimes scientists get confused as well (although that’s a topic for another day).

One of the big misconceptions is that there are genes ‘for’ specific traits — you’ll often hear that we have a gene ‘for’ X, X being some phenotypic trait. (If X is not a trait, but some sort of molecular player, than the language is correct, e.g. we do in fact have a gene — actually multiple genes — for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase.) This language is often rightly condemned as being misleading, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between genes and traits: traits are the product of multiple genes, while any given gene will contribute to multiple traits.

But you only need to tweak the ‘gene for X‘ language slightly to get at a correct and important concept in genetics: variation in a single gene is often responsible for important differences in X (in a particular population). This is usually what we mean when we say there is a ‘gene for X‘, but this clarification is rarely noted when people knock the phrase. Continue reading

Apocalypse 1912: Nightmare Journey to the Center of the Earth

William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912)

NightLandHiLoBack in 1805, the French priest de Grainville wrote what could be considered the first Dying Earth novel. Despite many obvious science fictional elements, Le Dernier Homme was a religious fantasy, inspired by the pseudo-biblical style of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Scientist-prophets fulfilled God’s will by conquering nature with science, but in the background was an invisible world of mystical spirits who were part of God’s master plan.

A century later, a quirky British poet produced another major dying earth vision by flipping this formula: he brought the mysticism to the foreground, and put the science in the background, creating a completely secular and much darker vision of earth’s final era. William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, a flawed beast of a book, is a milestone in the genre — a forerunner not only of now-classic Dying Earth fantasies by Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, but also of psychologically refracted post-apocalyptic visions like Galouye’s Dark Universe and Dick and Zelazny’s Deus Irae. Continue reading

Apocalypse 1912: Salvation Through Faith in Science

Garrett P. Serviss’ The Second Deluge (1912)

Servissamazingstories21912 was a good year for science fiction — according to some, it was the best year. Certainly for pulp science fiction, it was a landmark year. Although the first dedicated pulp SF magazine, Amazing Stories, wouldn’t appear for more than a decade, two of the foundational texts of pulp SF were published in 1912: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which began as the serial “Under the Moons of Mars” in February, and Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+, whose last installment was published in March.

Another contributor to this early pulp ferment, less memorable than Burroughs or Gernsback, was the American journalist Garrett Serviss. Serviss was a popular science writer who had also written an 1898 sequel to Wells’ War of the Worlds, featuring an invasion of Mars led by none other than Thomas Alva Edison. The Second Deluge, serialized in 1911-12, is a pulpy, early instance of a classic storyline that crops up over and over again post-apocalyptic fiction: Noah’s Ark. Continue reading