Are Artificial Organs in the near Future

Back on 11March17 I wrote a post about the recent advances in prosthetics. I discussed now close engineers and scientists were to designed and manufacturing robotic arms and legs that could replace loss limbs without any loss of ability. This is technology that will lead to actual bionic limbs.

Today I’ll like to discuss some of the advances in the field of artificial organs and whether they will soon be ready to replace the failing organs in human beings.

My inspiration for this post came from the recent paper published giving the results of an artificial womb which has been used to support a lamb fetus for up to 4 weeks and bring it to full term. The reason why this is so important an advance is because premature birth is the leading cause of death in infants and can lead to development problems that effect a person throughout their life.

Artificial Womb

For example, as soon as an infant takes its first breath after birth its lungs will stop developing. For a baby that is two months premature this will probably mean that their lungs will never fully develop. An artificial womb in which a premature birth can continue its development is obviously big news. This research was conducted at the Children’s hospital of Philadelphia by such a large group of scientists I can’t name them all. However, if you’d like to read the actual paper they have published in the journal Nature click on the link below.

https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms15112

Others organs are also seeing rapid advances, one in particular is the artificial kidney. Researchers William Fissel of Vanderbilt University and Shuvo Roy of the University of California in San Francisco have succeeded in mounting living kidney cells on a silicon microchip substrate.

The artificial kidney is about the size of a coffee cup and is powered by the flow of blood through it. There is still work to be accomplished in preventing blood clotting but Doctors Fissel and Roy hope to begin human trials this year. If you’d like to read more about the artificial kidney click on the link below.

https://www.meddeviceonline.com/doc/world-s-first-implantable-artificial-kidney-could-enter-human-trials-by-0001

Now we all know that heart disease is the leading cause of death so surely someone must be working on the possibility of an artificial heart, well of course they are. In fact the first artificial heart was built back in 1937 by Vladimir Demikhov and transplanted into a dog. Researchers have been working for many years to develop pumps that could keep the blood flowing, and a patient alive while waiting for a heart to become available for transplanting.

All of the attempts so far to develop an artificial heart have been more mechanical than biological and that is one of their leading drawbacks since the mechanical heart pump requires a source of power and this severely impacts the lives of the patients. The need for a more organic artificial heart has been recognized.

A big step in that direction has been taken by researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in collaboration with Arkansas State University and the University of Washington-Madison. This team of scientists have succeeded in growing heart cells on the cellulose structure of spinach leaves!

In a sense this is a variation on the design of the artificial kidney we talked about above. Providing a non-human substrate on which to grow human cells of the internal organ being studied. In this study the plant cells on a spinach leaf are washed away leaving the cellulose framework behind. See picture below.

Spinach Leaf being converted for use as a framework for Heart Cells

This plant substrate is now used to grow a layer of human heart cells that beat just like a real heart!!! See picture below.

Spinach Leaf with Human Heart Cells

The growth of blood vessels to provide nourishment for the heart cells can also be seen. There’s a lot of work still to be done in developing this technology but it holds the promise to manufacture completely organic artificial organs for transplanting into patients whose lives are threatened by organ failure. If you’d like to read more about the Heart Cells on Spinach Leaf research click on the link below.

https://www.wpi.edu/news/wpi-team-grows-heart-tissue-spinach-leaves

 

Paleontology News for April2017

There’s been some interesting new discoveries in the world of fossil hunters so I though I’d catch up on.

First up there’s been a new study of the ancient animals known as Eurypterids or Sea Scorpions by Scott Persons and John Acorn of the University of Alberta. Now about 450-300 million years ago Eurypterids were the top predator on Earth. growing to up to two meters in length they are the ancestors of modern lobsters, spiders and ticks. See the picture below.

Eurypterid feeding on a jawless Fish

Eurypterids are uncommon but still well known and well studied animals from the Paleozoic era. I have several fragments in my collection and would love to find a nice complete one.

For many years scientists have debated just how the Sea Scorpions actually captured and killed their prey. In particular the question of whether or not they relied solely on the claws near their mouth or did they strike with that pointy tail as a modern scorpion would.

What Doctors Persons and Acorn have succeeded in doing is finding enough well preserved specimens to show that the Eurypterid species Slimonia acuminate was able to turn its tail completely around and attack with a serrated tail spine. See picture below.

Eurypterid flexible tail with spine.

Now all Eurypterids may not have had such a lethal tail but the fact that Slimonia acuminate did answers a lot of questions as well as showing the early stages of the development of the striking tail of a modern scorpion. If you’d like to read more about the research of Doctors Persons and Acorn click on the link below.

http://www.sci-news.com/paleontology/sea-scorpions-weapon-04794.html

In another story one of the world’s most important fossil sites, a location in China where the remains of some of the earliest multi-cellular life forms have been found, is threatened by mining activities. Part of the Doushantuo formation in southern China the site dates back 600 million years and has yielded important finds including some showing evidence of the development of bilateral symmetry in animals!

Zhu Maoyan of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology has been able to obtain a court order protecting the original site but a more recently discovered site has already been completely stripped by phosphate mining. This is just one example of valuable fossil sites being lost to development. Just last year my personal favourite site in Schuylkill County was just covered over by a highway expansion.

Finally one last story that may appeal to fans of the Jurassic Park movies. A blood engorged tick was recently found in a piece of amber estimated to be 15-45 million years old.

Tick in Amber

While not old enough to have dinosaur blood according to Professor George Poinar Jr. of Oregon State University two small holes in the back of the tick indicate that it was removed from its host and dropped into tree sap in a way reminiscent of the grooming habits of monkeys! Could the blood contained in this tick be that of 30-40 million year old primates! Some of the blood that had trickled out of the tick is already being examined and perhaps a DNA analysis will soon be carried out. If you’d like to read more about this discovery click on the link below.

http://www.sci-news.com/paleontology/blood-engorged-tick-dominican-amber-04757.html

Speaking of fossils, with the weather here in Philadelphia warming up hopefully I’ll soon be doing a little paleontology of my own. I’ll let you know if I find anything interesting.

 

 

Has CERN discovered a new Particle. Maybe.

It was five years ago now that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs Particle, filling in the last hole of what physicists call ‘The Standard Model’. For the next three years the LHC underwent an upgrade to increase it’s maximum energy to 13Tev, that 13 trillion electron volts. The upgrade was finished in 2015 and the LHC began another run of data collection on 3Jun2015.

The LHC at CERN

Now the goal of this run is to look for new particles and new interactions beyond the standard model, something that will confirm or exclude the many different ‘Theories of Everything’ the mathematical types have come up with over the last 30-40 years. Supersymmetry, Dark Matter and String Theory are just the more well known models waiting and hoping for some sort of experimental conformation.

This past week a seminar was held at CERN giving preliminary results of the data collected by one of the LHC’s four detectors, the LHC-beauty or LHCb. The different detectors at the LHC each examine the products of the particle collisions by different techniques and the LHCb detector examines the number and behavior of particles called beauty quarks. (I was taught to call them bottom quarks but that was years ago, before their existence was even confirmed)

The researchers working with the LHCb have found a bump in their data that cannot be accounted for by any known particle, possible evidence of new physics. The researchers state that their results could be evidence of strange particles like LeptoQuarks, particles that share properties with both electrons and quarks.

As I said the results are preliminary, the researchers are currently estimating a 2.5 sigma confidence level, well below the 5 sigma level needed to announce a discovery. But more data is pouring in and the results of the LHC’s three other detectors could add further evidence. For now we’ll just have to wait and see. If you’d like to read more about the possible discovery at the LHC click on the link below.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/physicists-excited-by-latest-lhc-anomaly1/

Before I go I want to just mention that today, 22Apl17, the Cassini Spacecraft will make its final close flyby of the moon Titan before going into an orbit that will take it between Saturn and its rings. Only another 22 orbits of Saturn are planned before Cassini plunges into the Planet’s atmosphere to burn up. While it’s sad to lose the spacecraft after 13 years of discoveries the close ups of Saturn should give us a very exciting ride.

Cassini orbiting Saturn

I have to do a quick update. Not five minutes after I posted this story I found a newly released picture by Cassini of the Earth as seen through Saturn’s Rings! Here it is, enjoy!

Earth as seen Through Saturn’s Rings

 

The Science of Agriculture

Howdy there y’all, farmer Bob here. It’s plantin’ time and I’m right busy with my taters and tomaters, my lettuce, carrots, peppers and cucumbers.

What’s going on here you ask? What happened to Science and Science Fiction? Well it is springtime and I am working to get my garden started so I thought this would be a good time to talk a little about some of the scientific advances happening in the field of agriculture.

Now I hope we can all agree that the science of growing food is about as important a technology as there is. In today’s world there are some one billion people living on the edge of starvation and since the Earth’s population is expected to grow another three billion by 2050 our food production needs to grow more rapidly than that if we hope to eliminate hunger from the World.

To realize such an increase could require large scale implementation of technologies that have actually been around for a long time. I’m taking about hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical farming.

I’ll start with hydroponics because back when I was a kid there was a lot of talk that growing food in nutrient rich solutions without soil was going to revolutionize food production. William Gericke first used the term hydroponics in the 1920-30s when he succeeded in growing tomato plants over seven meters tall. Gericke promoted the technology and in the 1960s NASA became interested because of the possibility of growing food by hydroponics on the Moon or Mars where there is no soil.

The basic idea is simple enough. A shallow tank of nutrient rich water is covered with a lid with holes through which plant roots are dropped into the solution. If the water is aerated the entire root can be immersed otherwise enough of the root is kept in the air to allow oxygen to be absorbed. See the picture below.

Hydroponics

One of the advantages of hydroponics is the ability to control almost every parameter of the growth process from the concentration of nutrients and oxygen in the water to its temperature. This allows the plants to grow in optimal conditions producing much greater yields.

Notice I didn’t mention controlling the amount of light the plants get. That’s because traditionally hydroponics still used the Sun as the energy source. More recently however Glo-light bulbs and LED arrays have allowed indoor hydroponic farms with 24 hour intense lighting further increasing yield.

Now aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics with fish or shrimp farming. The fish or shrimp are raised in their tanks and the water in which they live, and let’s face it shit, circulates through the hydroponic farm with the fish excrement providing the nutrients for the plants. Now it’s not quite that easy, between the fish and the plants you need a bacterial mat or substrate to first turn that excrement into nitrites, then nitrates, the nitrates then become the nutrients the plants consume. The now purified water returns to the fish tank to begin the cycle once again. Obviously this combination of technologies not only produces two food products but also reduces cost because each technology benefits the other.

Now entrepreneurs are bring all these technologies together on an industrial scale, indoors, in the middle of a city, in a technique called ‘Vertical Farming’.

Vertical Farming

Vertical Farming combines hydroponics with intensive lighting, stacks it in layers and puts it inside a factory setting. Here in Philadelphia a company called Metropolis Farms has renovated an existing and unused factory into a large scale food production facility, i.e. a farm.

The advantages of Vertical farming are many. The controlled environment allows food production year round. According to Jack Griffin the President of Metropolis Farms instead of the typical two crops a year that a farm would get in the Philadelphia area he achieves more than 17! The stacking of layers of hydroponic tanks also enables him to grow an acre’s worth of food in only 36 sq.ft. (That’s over 1200 square meters worth of food in one square meter!). Also producing food right inside the city where it will be eaten eliminates the cost and waste associated with transporting the food hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles. Finally, growing food indoors virtually eliminates the possibility of pests and diseases destroying your crops.

There are drawbacks to Vertical Farming, the biggest is the cost of power. It takes a lot of electricity to keep all those light lit, the water pumps working etc. Still, in my view the technologies are coming together, over the next few decades the trend will be toward more and more food production taking place in settings that the farmers of old would never recognize!

 

 

 

More Space News for April

Two days ago NASA held a press conference to announce some of the results that scientists have discovered from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini is in orbit around the planet Saturn and is in the final few months of it’s twenty year long mission.

Cassini orbiting Saturn

The press conference mainly dealt with some new discoveries about Saturn’s moon Enceladus which we knew from earlier observations was an ice covered world similar to Jupiter’s moon Europa. For several years now NASA astronomers have speculated that, again like Europa, Enceladus might have a liquid ocean beneath the ice covering, an ocean that could support life.

Now the heat energy that keeps the ocean warm would come from the flexing and squeezing of the moon’s interior caused by the interacting gravitational fields of Saturn and it’s other moon’s, the tidal pulls. The same process is known to cause the numerous volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and are suspected to keep the ocean on Europa warm. The heat generated by this process could also provide the energy for life on Enceladus.

Images taken of Enceladus by Cassini have discovered plumes of water spewing out of the Moon like geysers and now Cassini has even succeeded in flying through those plumes and identifying some of the chemicals contained in them. In their announcement NASA scientists stated that Cassini has detected considerable amounts of both Carbon Dioxide and Methane both of which are commonly associated with living processes. The image below details the processes going on at the moon.

Enceladus Geothermal Processes

These results give us another possible home for life in our Solar system. Along with Mars and Europa, Enceladus is another world we need to explore further. A specialized mission to search for life on Enceladus may take years to develop and launch however, but someday we’ll know whether or not we have close neighbors living around the ringed planet.

If you’d like to read more about NASA’s announcement click on the link below.

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-missions-provide-new-insights-into-ocean-worlds-in-our-solar-system

There has also been another announcement from NASA concerning grant money being funded to a series of new technology programs. These grants are called the NASA Innovative Advanced Concept or NIAC program and are intended to study possible future technologies for spaceflight. The initial Phase I grants are about $125,000 dollars while Phase II grants can be as much as a half a million dollars.

The Phase I grants can be very interesting, even far out concepts while the Phase II grants tend to be a bit more realistic. In the Phase I group are included four completely new type of propulsion technologies, two are intended for interstellar travel, along with  a ‘vacuum balloon’ to drift over the surface of Mars and  Solar Surfing!

The Phase II grants include a probe of the interior of the planet Venus and a fusion enabled Pluto orbiter and lander. If you’d like to read a bit more about these possible future space technologies click on the link below.

https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/2017_Phase_I_Phase_II

There’s always something new happening in space so I hope you’ll be coming back soon.

 

 

Book Review” Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

‘Saturn Run’, the novel by the writer John Sandford and photographer Ctein is a well knit combination of Science Fiction and Espionage Thriller all in one. The Science Fiction consists of the voyage of a Earth spaceship traveling to Saturn after an alien spaceship is discovered entering our Solar system and going to the ringed planet. The story therefore fits into two of my six ‘Great Themes of Science Fiction’. Number 3, Alien encounter along with number 1, the Exploration of Space.

Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

The Espionage Thriller part comes from the fact that there are two Earth ships, one American and one Chinese and each side is out to grab some alien technology all for itself. The story takes place in the year 2066 so the science and politics haven’t changed all that much from today.

As far as the Science Fiction is concerned ‘Saturn Run’ tries very hard to be as accurate and up to date as is possible. Everything in the two Earth Ships is based on extrapolations from current technologies and the technical descriptions while brief, this is a novel after all, are still clear enough to give a good idea of what is going on.

The story is certainly exciting and well written with an ensemble cast of well developed characters. The action is also fast paced, it certainly kept my attention.

I do have a criticism however. (Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know too much skip this paragraph and the next) The alien encounter is probably the least interesting part of the story. We never meet any actual aliens, the alien station out in Saturn’s rings is kind of an automated supply depot and it’s computer is programmed not to give out any information about the aliens.

It does give out technology however, everything anybody would want to know about making and using anti-matter. In fact the aliens in ‘Saturn Run’ are pretty much just a plot device. Supplying something valuable that the Americans and Chinese can then fight over.

To me, the idea that the first encounter with another intelligent species would give us more cause to fight amongst ourselves is pretty depressing. Unfortunately, knowing human beings it could very well turn out to be that way.

With that in mind I do recommend ‘Saturn Run’. It’s a fun read and the technology keeps your attention. If you liked ‘The Martian’, and who didn’t, you’ll enjoy it.

 

Lecture: Beasts in the Night Sky by Professor Patrick Glauthier

Last Wednesday night (5th April) I attended a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology entitled ‘Beasts of the Night Sky’ given by Professor Patrick Glauthier of the University’s Department of Classical Studies. The lecture dealt with the myths and stories behind the familiar constellations the ancients used to understand the night sky. Wednesday’s lecture was the fifth in the museum’s series ‘Great Beasts of Legend’

Great Beasts of Legend at the U of P Museum

Professor Glauthier began the lecture with a short description of how the night sky works. That is, how the constellations we see each night change with the seasons. How most constellations rise in the east and set in the west just as the Sun does but how the constellations near the pole star never set and how the planets move against the background of fixed stars, the Greek word planet means wanderer after all. Now it’s important to remember that to the ancients Earth was not a planet but the Sun and Moon were.

The Professor also described how in the ancient world the sky was the only way for people to keep track of time and the passing of the seasons. When Orion the Hunter was in the western sky just after the Sun set it was time to plant but when he rose in the east after sunset it was time to prepare for harvest.

Orion the Hunter

This part of the lecture was all very familiar to me but there was a lot of good stuff to come. Professor Glauthier concentrated on the stories the Greeks and Romans told about the constellations so of course he began with Homer. Actually it turns out that Homer didn’t say much about the constellations, in fact he never mentions the constellations of the Zodiac at all.

In book 18 of the Iliad Homer mentions the Great Bear as facing Orion the hunter even though today we recognize several other constellations, most notably Gemini, as being between them. This indicates that Homer did not know about the constellation of Gemini! In fact according to Profession Glauthier the 12 constellations of the Zodiac were absorbed by the Greeks from Mesopotamia around the fifth century BCE.

Professor Glauthier also spoke about the group of constellations associated with the Myth of Perseus, Andromeda, the Sea Monster Cetus along with Andromeda’s parents Cepheus and Cassiopeia. The grouping of these constellations indicates that they are also very old, before the Greeks knew about the Zodiac.  These were some of the first attempts to impose order on the night sky.

Now comes what I thought was the interesting part of the lecture because a couple of the Mesopotamian constellations the Greeks imported, Cancer the Crab and the Goat Fish of Capricorn for example had no Greek myth that could be applied to them so later Greek and Roman writers made up myths to try and explain how they got into the night sky. What was happening was that mythology was being manipulated in order to fit the growing knowledge of astronomy.

Professor Glauthier finished up the lecture with a brief description of how astrology began as a part of astronomy but how in the Roman period the attempts to foretell the future overshadowed the practical uses of the constellations in keeping track of the seasons.

Lectures like ‘Beasts of the Night Sky’ are regularly given at science and other museums throughout the world but very few people are aware of them. I’m a member of the U of P museum and if you live around Philadelphia or are planning a visit I heartily recommend stopping by. But wherever you live there are museums nearby so go to them, learn something, expand your brain. You may find you really enjoy it!

Is Graphene the Miracle Material?

There is a news items going around the various media right now concerned research at the University of Manchester in the UK. The research concerns the development and initial testing of a molecular sieve using the material Graphene for removing salt from seawater producing drinkable fresh water.

By itself this news is extremely important. It is estimated that over a billion people worldwide lack proper access to freshwater and that number is only going to increase in the years ahead. The sieve developed at the University of Manchester has to potential to greatly reduce of cost of producing freshwater from saltwater which could make it a key element in improving the lives of millions of people.

But that’s only a part of the story, for the sieve is composed of the material Graphene which many scientists have called a ‘Miracle’ material. Now Graphene is really just another form of the element Carbon, that wonderful atom that produces everything from fossil fuels to diamonds to life itself (after all, life is really just complex carbon compounds dissolved in water). What makes Graphene so special is that it is a one atom thick sheet of carbon atoms in a an endless hexagonal grid. See the picture below.

Graphene Grid

The holes in the structure obviously make it a excellent choice for a sieve but Graphene has a lot more going for it than that. Among it’s other properties Graphene is 200 times as strong as steel, although it is much lighter. Graphene also conducts both heat and electricity better than copper does. These are only a few of the properties that have material scientists so excited by Graphene and the material’s possible uses are the subject of a great deal of research at the present time. Personally I know of several manufacturers of semiconductor electronics who are spending a lot of money on developing components made of Graphene rather than silicon.

Now Graphene has been around a long time. In fact if you write with a graphite pencil (an ordinary pencil) you will on occasion produce a small fragment of Graphene. The problem is trying to produce large enough quantities of pure Graphene to become commercially valuable. But don’t worry, there are hundreds of brilliant material scientists hard at work and you can be sure that in the years ahead you’re going to hear a lot more about Graphene. If you’d like to read more about the Graphene sieve click on the link below to go to the official announcement from Manchester University.

http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/graphene-sieve-turns-seawater-into-drinking-water/

Before I go today I’d like to take a minute or two to talk about this blog ‘Science and Science Fiction’. Not only have I just reached 1500 registered subscribers but there have been some very complimentary comments submitted and I just want to thank you all for you encouragement and kind words. This blog is not yet 8 months old but it’s already far exceeded my expectations and that is all because or you so thanks again.

However, I like to say that every silver lining has a cloud around it and the cloud around the internet in general is the spammers and hackers who apparently are only happy when they’re making other people miserable.

In addition to many kind and insightful comments there have been some that either try to use my site to make them money or which are simply obscene. I can assure you those comments go immediately in the trash.

Now however it appears there are spammers out there trying to use ‘Science and Science Fiction’ to infect other sites and I’m going to be forced to install a form of security called CAPTCHA on my registration and comments links. To my friends out there I apologize and to those of you who made this necessary congratulations, you succeeded in making the world a little bit worse!

Space News for April

There was big news in the space community two days ago as SpaceX corporation succeeded in re-using a first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket. This is the breakthrough that SpaceX has been working toward ever since Elon Musk founded the company. The huge expense of space travel today comes primarily from the fact that launch systems costing tens of millions of dollars are allowed to simply crash into the ocean after one use.

Launch of SpaceX reused Falcon-9 Rocket

SpaceX’s plan to change that and reduce the cost of traveling into space achieved it’s first great success two years ago with the first recovery of one of it’s Falcon 9. Before Thursday’s launch SpaceX had succeeded in recovering eight of their 14 story tall first stages and now they have demonstrated their ability to completely reuse and recover their rocket for yet another launch. SpaceX plans on another 6 launches this year that will employ rockets that have already flown once and been recovered.

To watch a video of the launch from Youtube click on the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=octU47dHdz8

To watch the landing click on the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsBUByZdGLU

SpaceX hopes that they can reduce the cost of getting into space (dollars per kilo to orbit) by a third and that the increased traffic that results will allow what are called ‘economies of scale’ to come into effect.

Thursday’s launch may have been historic but in reality it will only be important if the recovery and reuse of rockets becomes a routine business.

Another important news story this week came from the International Space Station (ISS) and dealt with a rearranging of one of the station’s docking adapters as a preparation for future missions by commercial spacecraft. NASA’s commercial crew program is scheduled to begin ferrying astronauts to the ISS next year with either the launch of Boeing’s Starliner or SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.

During the long six and a half hour spacewalk astronauts Thomas Pesquet of the EU and NASA’s Shane Kimbrough succeeded in disconnecting the Pressurized Mating Adapter-3 (PMA-3) so that the station’s robotic arm could move it from the station’s Tranquility module to it’s Harmony module. A second spacewalk is planned to reconnect PMA-3. Once this is accomplished the ISS will be ready for docking either the Starliner or Dragon spacecraft.

To read more about NASA’s Commercial Crew Program click on the link below.

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/fs-2017-02-198-ksc_ccp_olia_fact_sheet_web.pdf

In a somewhat more amusing piece of news. Astrobiologist Julio Valdivia of Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology has been working with NASA’s Ames research center in Sunnyvale California to study the ability of Earth plants to survive in the environmental conditions existing on Mars and has had a major success, Potatoes. That’s right Professor Valdivia has found that the lowly Potato can both live and grow on Mars. But of course everyone who saw ‘The Martian’ already knew that.

 

 

What is Science Fiction: Part 4, Science Fiction and Fantasy

In my previous installment of ‘What is Science Fiction’ I completed our survey of what I like to call the six ‘Great Themes of Science Fiction’. Now what I’d like to do in this last post is to carry out an examination of the differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Most of the time it’s rather easy to tell one from the other. We know that Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ is Science Fiction because it deals realistically with the conditions both on Mars, the rarefied air and extreme cold, and in outer space, zero gravity. Also, the technology in ‘The Martian’, whether it be the spaceship’s ion engines or the living habitats on Mars are solidly based on the technology we presently have.

Realistic Science Fiction: The Martian

On the other hand, in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by J. R. R. Tolkein the way a ring of invisibility or a sword that glows when bad guys are near work is never explained or even discussed, they’re just magic.

Magic just works because it’s magic

To me that’s the cardinal difference: In Science Fiction the assumption is that we, and by we I mean both the reader and the characters in the story, are intelligent enough that with time and effort we can understand whatever mysteries or powerful objects there are in the story. Sometimes this assumption is even emphasized by relating the main character’s education. Remember in the original ‘Star Trek’ series how Kirk went to Star Fleet Academy while Spock went to the Vulcan Science Academy, that’s where they learned how to control their advanced technology. (And remember how Victor Frankenstein learned science at Ingolstadt University)

In Science Fiction characters acquire their powers through education

This expectation of understandability limits the kind of plot twists and deus ex machina that the author can get away with in Science Fiction because everything has to feel natural, understandable.

In Fantasy however, the assumption is on the supernatural element, Gandalf and Sauron have magical powers because they are themselves magical. We never learn where Gandalf learned his magic, he just is magic.

Frodo can never understand how the one ring works simply because he is natural and it is supernatural. This means that in Fantasy the author has fewer restrictions on how to get his characters into and out of danger. Just have a Balrog appear and only later reveal that Gandalf was of course stronger than the Balrog was anyway, it’s all magic after all.

Gandalf and the Balrog

But now let’s a moment and consider ‘Star Wars’ for example. Certainly it has elements that are straight out of Science Fiction, spaceships, robots (O’k they’re called droits, so what?) and laser weapons. However it also has an all pervasive ‘Force’ that gives certain characters power that the others don’t have for no obvious reason and at the same time it seems like every planet has a breathable atmosphere and normal, that is Earth gravity.

Stars Wars. Science Fiction or Fantasy, or both?

This is intentional, when George Lukas first conceived of his epic he wanted a smooth blend of realism and mythology and that has certainly been one of the prime reasons for the saga’s enduring popularity.

It seems obvious therefore that any attempt to draw a hard line between Science Fiction and Fantasy would just be a waste of time. Instead let’s just take pleasure in both genres while promoting the best Science Fiction.

This brings to an end my little seminar on Science Fiction; I hope you all enjoyed it. Let me know what you thought and I look forward to reading your comments.