science fiction


Is This A Unique Time for Science? We Ask Sci-fi Writer Kim Stanley Robinson

Has this pandemic presented a unique moment for science in our history? Or is it just a strange and temporary moment of science fiction? Or both?

Sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson (The Mars Trilogy, New York 2140 and Red Moon) recently penned an essay in the New Yorker about how the virus has “changed our imaginations” and created a new “structure of feeling.”

Being a utopian sci-fi writer, Kim Stanley is in the business of looking for silver linings to major human tragic events such as the one we’re in. We wanted to have him on to see whether this event will cause a lasting change to the way people think about science.

 

CRISPR or Not, You Can't Genetically Enhance Humans, Says Sci-Fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson

Designer babies. The term means many things to many people. To some it means kids only dressed in Gucci.

Some say that by doing pre-implantation genetic screening, we are already living in the age of designer babies. Others have been holding out for that time when humans edit their own germline offering the new progeny not only disease repair, but also enhancements. It's also argued there’s a third category in the middle there somewhere, a protection against disease in the future. That’s what He Jiankui attempted.

We don’t know yet if Jiankui was successful. But we know that if he wasn’t, he showed us that the next success is just around the corner. And the next.

“This story is getting more sci-fi every minute. Michael Crichton couldn’t have made this stuff up,” tweeted Eric Topol of the Scripps Institute as the He Jiankui saga unfolded.

“That tweet is in many ways wrong. Science fiction of course can imagine it. Michael Crichton could and did make it up. But other science fiction writers who are more skillful than Michael Crichton have been talking about messing with germline for a long time now."

That’s today’s guest, award winning sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson (The Mars Trilogy, Red Moon) at the outset of today’s show. What sets Stan (as he's called) apart from many of those other sci-fi writers, is that he doesn’t think it practical to enhance humans genetically. He’s thought about it his entire career, and like going faster than the speed of light, it’s one of those impractical barriers, he says.

"What would you change? How would you know that was going to make it better without running human experimentation which can't be done. It's not just ethics, it's practicality. We wouldn't know what to do to make ourselves smarter or stronger."

Wait. Did you hear what I heard?! This is a sci-fi writer who specializes in thinking into the future, and he doesn’t think humans can be enhanced!

Well, either he has some mighty big convincing to do, or this was the biggest bomb of an interview ever. I mean, come on, of course humans can be enhanced.

Right?

A Few Notes on Tomorrow's Holiday Special with Sci-Fi Writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the Gene Edited Baby Story

It was the headline of the decade in genomics. Humans had monkeyed with their own gene pool.

When Chinese scientist He Jiankui came to the podium at the 2nd International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong last month, journalist Kevin Davies, author of “The $1,000 Genome” wrote that he hadn’t seen as much press coverage of a genomics event since the announcement of the sequencing of the human genome. Genomics journalists have been in a tailspin.

Not to mention genomics podcasters.

Sci-Fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson Talks Life Science 2015

At the end of the year our goal is to bring the audience some unusual programming, some new outside perspectives on the topics we cover. As with last year, we talk today with science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy, 2312, and Shaman

Known for working with science and technology that are feasible today, Stan goes out on his yet furthest journey into the future with his newest novel, Aurora. As the novel begins, we are with the descendants of a group of people who left our solar system a couple hundred years previously for the solar system of the star Tau Ceti. This star is eleven light years away, and the novel starts as the ship begins “deceleration” with the goal of landing down not on a planet in the “Goldilocks” position, but on that planet’s moon, Aurora. We learn right away that Stan is not really in Gene Roddenberry space here (creator of Star Trek). For once the travelers begin the process of trying to settle, the biology already on Aurora isn’t what you’d call friendly or indifferent.

In Aurora, Stan faces head on a notion we’ve pursued here on Mendelspod: the field's overly reductionist approach to the study of biology. The best example I can think of here came from one of our guests, John Dupre, who asked the question, "if you took all the atoms of an elephant into space and were able to reassemble them, would it still be an elephant?”

No, is Stan’s clear answer with this latest novel.

“This idea that we’ve had for a hundred years, or two thousand years, however long—of travel to the stars: it’s an impossible idea."

Not only does Stan bit by bit deconstruct biology and ecology, arguing that earth’s ecological success has as much to do with it’s size as other factors, he also deconstructs the process of formulating narrative and of  novel writing itself. On the spaceship is a computer which over the course of the first part of the book receives extensive training in doing narration.  Stan reads from one of these passages where the computer is wrestling with the idea of whether to use metaphor or not.

“A quick literature review suggests the similarities in metaphors are arbitrary, even random. They could be called metaphorical similarities. But no AI likes tautological formulations, because the halting problem can be severe, become a so called “ouroboros” problem, or a whirlpool with no escape. Ah hah, a metaphor.”

In Aurora, Stan is fascinated by problems which underlie current trends in the life science industry. For example, what training will IBM’s Watson need to receive as it is used more and more in the clinic? How important is our microbiome and the environmentalome to our own health?

We also push Stan to talk about the issue of drug pricing. To fully flesh out his ideas, he has to go quite far into a post capitalist society, but he does agree that price controls at this point might be a first tool. As for the power of the new CRISPR gene editing technique, Stan says doing gene drive on humans is an old science fiction idea.  "But I always thought that it was a hundred or two hundred years off. So I was wrong.  Now we have to decide how to keep it safe, and what we should allow.”

It's a fun time with Kim Stanley Robinson.  Enjoy.

The Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip: Sci-fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson Talks Life Science

Guest:

Kim Stanley Robinson, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Listen (3:30) Creating plot when science wants to be boring

Listen (3:22) Genetics and the distant past

Listen (5:09) The mental voyage

Listen (6:35) Why don't we value diagnostics?

Listen (4:58) Medicine has always been utopian

Listen (4:28) The Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip

Listen (9:12) The open question of aging

Since first interviewing sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson, I find myself wondering what he might think about this or that topic that comes up on Mendelspod. So we invited him back to weigh in on themes that continually resurface here on the program.

For example, what are his thoughts on why we value therapeutics so much higher than diagnostics? And what level of regulation is appropriate? Should there be government imposed controls on drug pricing?

Stan is never short of a well reasoned answer. In today’s interview he takes on what he calls the Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip and the naivety of futurists—who he reminds us are also sci-fi writers—such as Peter Diamandis.

“Two or three billion people on this planet go to bed hungry every night and don’t have basic healthcare, don’t have toilets,” he says. "So the researchers on the edge of biotech are like the games the French aristocracy were playing right before the revolution, and they got their heads chopped off. Here’s what you have to say to them, ‘Get real. Just because you’re a trillionaire doesn’t mean the world is in good shape.'”

We start the interview with a chat about two of Stan’s recent works, Shaman and Galileo’s Dream.

Podcast brought to you by: Chempetitive Group - "We love science. We love marketing. We love the idea of combining the two to make great things happen for your marketing communications."

Who Do You Want to Hear From During the Holidays?

It's a tradition at Mendelspod to bring you unique shows that go off the beaten track at the end of each year. In the past, we've brought you interviews with a science historian, a science comedian, sci-fi writers, and futurists.

We're just planning our lineup for holiday season 2014, and we want your suggestions. On the list so far are a philosopher, a popular sci-fi writer, and the former Deputy Director of the NCI.

Make your suggestions here.

Thank you, Theral & Ayanna

The Perfect 46 with Brett Ryan Bonowicz, Filmmaker

Guest:

Brett Ryan Bonowicz, Filmmaker
Bio and Contact Info

Listen (4:00) Where is the "fiction" in your science fiction?

Listen (4:47) Upcoming screenings

Listen (3:51) Learning where to draw the ethical lines

Listen (3:43) What would a biotech company look like with Steve Jobs or Elon Musk as CEO?

Listen (2:42) Would you personally try a service like GenePeeks?

Listen (6:53) Tackling the topic of GMO's next

In today’s interview, we talk with filmmaker, Brett Ryan Bonowicz. He’s the writer, director and producer of The Perfect 46, a new film exploring the future of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Whereas our industry often gets demonized by Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters that are full of special effects and fancy sets, Brett’s film seeks to ask tough ethical questions and show the industry in a more nuanced way.

“I knew I wanted to get into science fiction. And I knew I wanted to get into discussions that didn’t have definitive answers, where I could explore a lot of grey area where each person was right in their own way,” he says in explaining why he chose his topic.

While the film is set just barely into the future, and there is no company existing today like the one in the film, the screenplay unfolds in a very plausible way. A geneticist creates a website called "The Perfect 46" that pairs folks with their genetic match for having children.

To better describe his interest in portraying events that might be right around the corner, Brett calls his work “science-factual,” a term he says he borrowed from some Walt Disney work.

Brett was first attracted to the topic in 2008 when he read about 23andMe in Time Magazine and subsequently used their service. Watching his film and talking with Brett gives us a chance to see the industry from an outsider’s perspective.

The film’s next screening is at Stanford on August 4th, accompanied by a panel discussion with local life scientists.

Podcast brought to you by: See your company name here. - Promote your organization by aligning it with today's latest trends.

Science and the "Great Delusion" with David Brin, Sci-Fi Author

Guest:

David Brin, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:47 Who's doing the heavy lifting of creating the future?

8:13 Imagination the great tragedy and boon of human nature

11:24 Science one of the four great pillars that freed us from the "Great Delusion"

15:35 When did you go from astronomer to writer?

24:23 Where are we going in the life sciences?

27:13 A contrarian on immortality

33:00 Renunciationism, stopping the forward rush of science

37:46 "The American Revolution stuns me."

40:55 BONUS: The author reads from Existence

Sci-fi author, David Brin, is the final guest in our series, Creating the Future. He says that everyone, that civilization is creating the future. However, he concedes that if you were to compare civilization to a human brain, that "a few of us are the pre-frontal lobes . . . who poke sticks in the sand, in the trail ahead of us that we're charging into so that we can find the quicksand pits . . . before we step right into them."

Brin is one of those sci-fi authors who was actually a scientist, an astronomer first. Why and when did he begin writing? And how does his inner scientist feel about it? David talks of the "Great Delusion" that man fell and falls into on account of his imagination. And it was Science, one of the four pillars of the Enlightenment, that freed us from the delusion. We have trained the imagination and are no longer subjects to the oligarchs of the past. Brin is an actor as well as writer and scientist. You're bound to be captivated by his command of science, history, politics, and by his entertaining wit.



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