14 September 2007

Nanite to Remember

Monday evening B. and I went to the Bath Science Café to hear a talk on nanotechnology given by a real-life nanotechnologist.

The "café" actually meets in a pub -- the very pleasant Raven, which sells its own custom-brewed beer and Pieminister pies -- so the atmosphere and surroundings were convivial. (Rather amusingly, the Raven's website claims that "No-one does vegetarian pies like we do". Well, only every other pub who Pieminister have a contract with, dear.)

I was astonished at how popular the event was -- there must have been 50 or so people crammed into the Raven's upper room. (The chap behind the bar claimed that the science events were more popular than the poetry ones. Quite what that suggests about contemporary British culture, and whether I approve, I'm not sure.) Most of those present seemed, judging by the tenor of the discussion afterwards, to be either professional scientists or enthusiastic amateurs. More on that later.

The speaker was a personable, engaging sort of chap, very knowledgeable and informative about current developments in, and uses of, nanotech. He saw the primary future benefits of the technology as being computational and medical. (He cited a claim by the U.S. National Institute for Health from five or so years ago that nanotech would have eradicated -- not cured, but actually eliminated -- cancer by 2015. They seem to have changed their mind about the timing of this since then, but even so, his point was that this was something nanotech might conceivably one day do.)

It was when he came to the potential dangers of this field of research that his bias became apparent. He suggested that the real threat from nanotech, if any, comes from pollution and potential toxicity, and that these would require further study before any particular instance of nanotech was accepted as safe for general use. He was very dismissive of the so-called "grey goo" scenario -- essentially an epidemic affecting all matter, whereby self-replicating nanobots run out of control and start assimilating everything they encounter.

I'm not an expert, by any means, and I assumed that his basis for dismissing the idea was a sound one, based in his own expertise in the field. But, er no. When challenged, it emerged that his main reasons for rejecting "grey goo" theory were:
  • Prince Charles and Michael Crichton believe in it, so it must be nonsense.
  • It has a silly name.
  • It's part of a general reaction against science on the part of the public which hampers the freedom of government-funded research.
  • Current science is incapable of creating self-replicating machines.
It was that last bit which he seemed to consider his trump card -- and it is, indeed, the only one of those arguments which might be seen to have any bearing on the actual truth of the matter.

Unfortunately, he seemed entirely unwilling to consider that "current science" might be incapable of things which "future science" would do as a matter of routine, despite the fact that the existence of his entire field seemed absurdly visionary a mere 50 years ago.

That utter lack of historical perspective (he admitted that he never read any science fiction) seemed to conspire with a fatal failure of imagination to blind him selectively to any long-term negative implications of his work.

This meant that while, for instance, he was quite capable of using the far-fetched idea of cell-repairing nanites eradicating cancer as propaganda to raise further funding for his field, he utterly rejected the equally fanciful idea that said nanites might be capable of reproducing -- despite the fact that self-replication would surely be the only way of achieving the necessary level of saturation in a human body to achieve that.

Similarly the suggestion that self-replicating nanobots would be capable, like any self-replicating system, of undergoing evolution, and therefore potentially of overcoming their initial programming safeguards, was rejected on the grounds that, er, there's no such thing as a self-replicating nanobot yet. So that's all right then.

(Now, if there's some theoretical reason why all complex systems must be incapable of self-replication, or why such a system would be incapable of spontaneously mutating and evolving so as to grow exponentially in size and influence until eventually it transformed the entire nature of the planetary surface, then I'd have been very interested to be told about it. But I don't honestly think there can be, because after all, it's already happened once.)

I didn't ask him where he stood on the idea of using nanites to dismantle all the non-stellar matter in the solar system and turn it into concentric dyson spheres of computronium, running the uploaded descendants of the human species at oct- or nonillions of times our current joint processing capacity. I guessed his answer would probably be, "Oh no, we couldn't possibly do anything like that at the moment."

Instead I tried to fool him by using a Good Nanotech Prediction -- that medical nanotech might eradicate not only cancer, but all forms of cellular damage including old age -- as the predicate for a Bad Nanotech Prediction -- that said technology would immediately become the preserve of the rich, giving rise to an immortal cast of geronto-plutocrats.

He said, er, no, he didn't think so, not as long as nanotech was funded by the government, because that meant all that stuff would be public property and would go straight onto the N.H.S.


In fact, his main thesis appeared to be that government funding for nanotech was an absolute essential, and that anyone who opposed it -- indeed, anyone who felt the public should have any say whatsoever in how scientists spent their money -- was "anti-science". (He didn't actually use those words, but he did repeatedly call those holding the opposite point of view "pro-science", so I think I'm justified in assuming it.)

Now, I consider myself to be "pro-science". I even consider myself to be "pro-nanotech", in the sense that I think it's really cool and freaky and could achieve some startlingly awesome things. (Admittedly that may not be a very sophisticated "pro-science" position, but just look at the competition.)

However, I do think people are justified in being cautious when events which may be statistically very improbable nonetheless carry enormous penalties if that unlikely roll of the dice comes up. It may, for instance, be very unlikely indeed that C.E.R.N.'s Large Hadron Collider will produce a black hole which will fall to the centre of the Earth and orbit it rapidly, sucking in everything it encounters and causing the extinction of the human race, our culture (including its science) and our entire ecosystem within a matter of hours... but dude, it only needs to happen once.

The speaker (whose blushes I've spared by not naming him, although it shouldn't be difficult to find out his name if you're interested, even if you're coming to this post after the information changes on that first page I linked to) seemed baffled -- hurt even -- that the public have such mistrust for scientists that they'll accuse harmless researchers like himself of possibly destroying the world.

As I say, he was a likeable chap, and it was difficult not to feel for him. But frankly, he -- in his deliberate use of propaganda, his amused rejection of the opinion of non-experts and above all his utter refusal to consider the potential long-term negative effects of his field on an equal footing with the potential positives -- provided a prime example of exactly what it is about scientists which the public finds so difficult to trust.

"We're people, just like them," he said. "We're human beings, too." Because obviously no human being in history has ever been known to do anything whatsoever which might be construed as stupid or unethical. For Christ's sake get a bloody grip, man.

In summary: never trust a scientist who doesn't read S.F. They'll create armies of giant robots which break out from their underground laboratories and destroy your city, then whine that no-one ever warned them that might happen.

Despite the above character assassination, though, I really enjoyed the event. It was refreshing to be part of a crowd who seemed to be actively thinking about important issues, even if most of them did appear to be cheerleading for a clueless loon. Ironically -- or at least, I'm sure many of those present would have found it ironic -- it was the same feeling of communal intellectual engagement I get from the seminars at Greenbelt. I'm going to try to go to more of them.

Indeed, there's also a Bristol Science Café which, it seems, meets just up the road from us. In one of our favourite pubs, in fact. I can't think why we haven't been before.

Expect more of these reports in future.

12 September 2007

Checking Out the Competition

Rejoice! For I now have my contributors' copies of Nobody's Children, and it looks lovely. The various minor issues I had with the proofs have mostly been resolved, and it's a joy to see the thing I've written in its final bound form, with covers and a dust jacket and all.

As if to celebrate, I've uploaded loads of extras to my Nobody's Children webpages, including some quite extensive Notes -- which contain some quite extensive SPOILERS, so do be careful if you haven't yet read the book -- and an exclusive short story, "Making a Collection", which deals with elements from Nobody's Children and Collected Works, and offers a glimpse of what's to come in the Bernice Summerfield universe. (Don't worry, though -- it deliberately does so so obscurely that you shouldn't be able to derive any actual plot details from it. Read it again in four months' time and go "ooh".)

I was under the impression that I'd mentioned before, on more than one occasion, how splendid Kate Orman's and Jon Blum's novellas for this book are, and how I'm pretty pleased with mine as well. However, looking back over this blog, among all the things I've said about writing the book I don't think I've ever actually mentioned how much I like our finished product.

So let me say it now: between us I think we've come up with a pretty damn decent story. Do buy it.

As you can read here, Jon thinks so too, and he's promoting the book with a competition for the best review posted either to his LiveJournal or to the book's thread at Outpost Gallifrey. As he says, you don't even need to like the book to enter -- just to be able to say intelligent and insightful things about it.

And you could win a signed copies of one of Jon and Kate's books. Hell, I'll even throw in a signed copy of Emerge as well, since I still seem to have a stack of them sitting around and it contains my earliest professionally published short story (assuming for the sake of argument that the entries in The Book of the War don't count as a "story"). It's a bona fide rarity, with work from SF author Simon Morden (The Lost Art, Another War) and performance poet Jude Simpson among others.

So don't just buy Nobody's Children -- review it!


08 September 2007

Babel-17 Is Missing

Various random and unconnected book-related things follow.

You may have noticed that I've been rather quiet recently about Nobody's Children, the novella triptych I spent much of the end of last year and the beginning of this writing in conjunction with Kate Orman and Jon Blum.

Officially -- insofar as such things are ever announced officially -- the book's been out for several weeks now. Some customers certainly have their copies, and have read it. I'm still waiting for my author's complimetaries, though, and none of the bookshops I have access to have it in either.

This is perfectly routine, but quite frustrating, especially since I've had a bunch of extras ready for weeks now, which I'd really rather not add to my website until I've actually had sight of the book. Oh well.

Instead I've put online, with Paul "Brax" Castle's permission, a copy of the interview he carried out with me for the Summer issue of his splendid Doctor Who fanzine, Shooty Dog Thing. If you've unaccountably missed out on my opinions on the various Doctor Who spinoff ranges, the genius of Philip K. Dick and the precise nature of my own literary talents, then do hurry over and read them here.

Meanwhile, as well as banging away at this enigmatic Doctor Who reference book I mentioned some time ago, there's every sign that I'll be writing another Doctor Who short story... er, shortly. Which is good news, as it's useful to keep one's creative head in practice while writing non-fiction.

As a consumer rather than a creator, I'm pleased to note that two of the latest batch of Doctor Who tie-in novels are by the rather excellent Mark Michalowski and the exceedingly excellent Paul Magrs, both of whom would have been high on my own list of people to commission if -- due to some hilarious sitcomesque misunderstanding -- I'd been installed in the BBC Books editor's chair. Having moaned about the poor quality of some of the recent commissions, I'm looking forward very much to reading Wetworld and Sick Building -- although I'm disappointed that the latter was inexplicably deprived of its original title of "The Wicked Bungalow".

Amazon also tell me that they've dispatched in my direction Daniel O'Mahony's Force Majeure -- not a Who novel, but a standalone magic-realist-fantasy thing from Telos, birthed from the brain of one of the best of the Who authors. So that'll be nice too.

Meanwhile, I've started rereading The Anubis Gates, finished Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (and not Glengarry Glen Ross, as I keep wanting to call him), and realised that I accidentally left Samuel Delany's Babel-17 out of my last books roundup.

Plus there are all those comics to review, and they're swiftly falling out of my brain. I must do that soon.

06 September 2007

Final Greenbelt Roundup

I'm not away any more. In fact I've been back for over a week, but things have been a bit busy. Sorry about that.

Greenbelt was enormous fun, and surprisingly relaxing this year -- in previous years when I've been doing stuff I've ended up getting rather stressed, but this time around I was able to incorporate my Surefish blogging into my daily routine quite happily.

I just want to tidy up by mentioning a few things which that reportage didn't have the space to cover...

Daliso Chiponda's comedy slot (which I went to after filing my last day's copy) was good in parts, but lacked structural unity. Despite the "Attack of the Colonies" title, and although some of his best material was political ("There are good things about living in a dictatorship. When you have phone sex, it's always a threesome."), the show as a whole was a stream-of-consciousness ramble through jokes about relationships, family life and -- rather archaically -- how white men can't dance, which never really came together.

I didn't blog about how much time I spent in the beer tent, which was rather a lot in the end. There were a couple more beers than last year, which I appreciated, although they could still do with expanding their range for next year. The tent was often very full indeed, I suspect partly because they'd relaxed the "No Under 18s" rule (not for drinking, obviously, but for being physically within the bounds of the licensed area).

I enjoyed a rather spendid worship installation which combined gigantic paintings of Christ's hands with a piece called "Prayer of the Heart" by John Tavener, incorporating multilingual Kyries sung by Björk. It was very powerful, weird and visceral music, which would have had substantial emotional punch without the spiritual content. At first I found the noise of the festival all around the room rather distracting, but after a while I was able to imagine it incorporated into the music itself. Which was also kind of weird. I don't tend to get much time for meditation, and this was a good experience. I went back a couple of times.

That said, visual art at the festival generally had dropped off compared with previous years. The emphasis seemed to be on art as a process, with several visual artists creating artwork around the site, but the gallery-style displays of previous years were prominently lacking, which was a great shame.

I enjoyed visiting the animals. I always miss my cats when we're away, and there's something very comforting about physical contact with other mammals. Plus there was a hen who could fit up to seven chicks under her wings at a time.

I bought Billy Bragg's book and the interesting-looking The Gospel According to Science Fiction. The former was sold to me by a very professional eight-year-old girl, which I found a little unnerving.

I have some photos which I need to upload at some point, although Lord knows when. Some are of some very exciting (and huge) kites being flown in the shapes of fish and lizards and things.

That's about it, really. Next year I really must get organised about speaking again, before everyone forgets who I am.