Category Archives: Follies of the Human Condition

Things break

Complex structures break in interesting and unexpected ways. This is applicable to both sea shells* and civilizations. Some results are prettier than others.

Evernote Snapshot 20140914 112508

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Science for the People: Cities of the Future

sftp-square-fistonly-whitebgThis week, we’re listening to “Cities of The Future,” a panel discussion about the future of human living spaces recorded live at CONvergence 2014. Panelists Jamie Bernstein, Ryan Consell , and Shawn Lawrence Otto discuss how cities can adapt to accommodate the changing demographics, economics, and environment of a warming planet.

End of the World 1895: Social Darwinism is Self-Defeating

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895)

timemachineSaunders1950With H.G. Wells, science fiction left behind the 19th century and fully entered the 20th. During the new wave of future fiction published in the late 1800’s, writers came up with many of plot lines, settings, and themes that characterize modern science fiction, but it wasn’t until H.G. Wells wrote his rock solid classic, The Time Machine, that SF actually became modern. Chronologically, it’s the first book of science fiction that, to me at least, doesn’t feel obsolete.

Why? The Time Machine, after all, has scenes inspired by 19th century culture: seances in late Victorian drawing rooms and class anxieties of turn-of-the-century Britain. Wells’ radical innovation was to do away with restrictions of scientific plausibility — which ironically let him tackle the intersection of science and human society with more depth than any writer before. Jules Verne, whose classics now feel very dated, wasn’t happy with Wells’ technique:

I make use of physics. He fabricates. I go the moon in a cannon-ball discharged from a gun. There is no fabrication here. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship [sic], which he constructs of a metal that does away with the law of gravitation. That’s all very fine, but show me this metal. Let him produce it.

- quoted in New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis, p. 32

In other words, as Kingsley Amis put it, Wells “liberated the medium from dependence on extrapolation and in so doing initiated some of its basic categories.” Extrapolation is obviously still an important element of the genre today, but Wells showed how to do it without chaining one’s imagination to the boundaries of the science of the day. By giving the imagination freer rein in science fiction – by fabricating freely – Wells could better explore the human implications of science. Continue reading

Looking for personal stories from women in science

Originally posted on Marie-Claire Shanahan’s personal blog, Boundary Vision, on 27 August 2014.

The submission deadline for provisional topics and titles is 10 September 2014.

Me and my daughter admiring a penguin at the Calgary Zoo.Diving headlong into motherhood this year has meant less blogging (obvious to anyone who subscribes here…), but it has also made me think a lot more about the scientific life that I would hope for my new daughter and girls like her. Currently her research interests include ceiling fans, her toes, her soother, the dogs and the penguins at the Calgary Zoo. But should she be interested in pursuing science as a career, what would I want her to know? Continue reading

Apocalypse 1893: The Scientific End of the World

Camille Flammarion’s Omega: The Last Days of the World (1893)

FlammarionAvenueWhether fiction written early in the 19th century qualifies as genuine science fiction is debatable, but when it comes to the futuristic fiction of the end of the century, there can be no doubt. The nascent genre was quickly becoming popular, and in the two decades before World War I, science fiction became truly engaged with science — particularly the radical scientific discoveries that transformed communication, war, public health, and especially, our place in the cosmos.

Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne were the trailblazers, writing works inspired by contemporary developments in science, which both of them followed closely. Then came the French astronomer and popular science author, Camille Flammarion, the Carl Sagan of his day. His 1893 End of the World novel Omega: The Last Days of the World is a grand future history, with a mystical but secular cosmology deeply rooted in the science of the day. It’s an almost modern work of science fiction, a bridge between de Grainville’s early Gothic apocalypse and the radically new 20th century apocalyptic science fiction of H.G. Wells. Continue reading