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Lee Falin

Science of Future Past: Dune (Part 2)

Remote-controlled attack drones have been stirring up a lot of controversy in the press lately. The idea of remote-controlled, robotic assassins is old-hat to long time science-fiction fans, but what’s new is their real-life use by various governments to kill military and not-so-military targets.

A similar remote-controlled, assassination technology was used in Frank Herbert’s Dune. So clear your mind and focus your hyper-awareness as this installment of Science of Future Past looks at Dune’s hunter-seeker probe and how it compares to its real-world analog.

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Science of Future Past: Dune (Part 1)

A few nights ago, I dreamt of Arrakis. Arrakis—Dune—Desert Planet. Was this the awakening of my latent prescient abilities or just a hint that it was time for Science of Future Past to explore the science and technology in Frank Herbert’s Dune?

Dune was the first epic science fiction book that I read. The Foundation series takes place against what you could justifiably call an epic backdrop, but most of that backdrop remains stationary while one or two people explore interesting ideas in the foreground. Dune on the other hand has a truly epic feel to it, and part of that comes from the extensive world-building that Herbert did.

People, organizations, noble houses, and planets have extensive and intertwining histories that are evident in the behavior and dialogue of the novel’s characters. Part of that wonderful world-building includes an extensive amount of science and technology, some of which have real life analogues in today’s world.

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The Science of Future Past: Part 6

In today’s installment of Science of Future Past, we finish up our look at Foundation with a discussion of The Merchant Princes.

The Merchant Princes is one of the most exciting parts of Foundation in my opinion. It’s got it all, action, economics, science, political intrigue, and lively court battles. The part I want to discuss today takes places towards the end of the story. Hober Mallow, after surviving all of the dangers pertaining to the aforementioned story elements, finds himself as the head of a state on the brink of war.

War and Economic Embargos

On the surface, things appear bleak for the Foundation. Their Korellian enemies have the advantage of superior numbers and seemingly superior weaponry thanks to the backing of the remnants of the galactic empire.

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The Science of Future Past: Part 5

In today’s installment of Science of Future Past, we finish up with part four of Asimov’s Foundation: The Traders.

As we discussed a couple of weeks back, The Traders, tells the story of a space-faring trader by the name of Linmar Ponyets who is ordered by the Foundation to go and rescue a fellow trader who has been imprisoned by a hostile government. Today we’ll take a look at the science behind the technology he employs to pull this off: transmutation.

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The Science of Future Past: Part 4

In today’s installment of Science of Future Past, we continue our exploration of the technology showcased in the forth part of Asimov’s Foundation: The Traders.

As we discussed in the last episode, in part four of Foundation, The Traders, a space-faring trader by the name of Linmar Ponyets is ordered by the Foundation to go and rescue a fellow trader who has been imprisoned by a hostile government. Last time we focused on the possible technology behind the message capsule that contained Ponyets’ orders. Today we’ll take a look at the science behind two pieces of technology that receive only casual mentions in the book: spy beams and field distorters.

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The Science of Future Past: Part 3

In today’s installment of Science of Future Past, we explore some unorthodox uses of those famous “building blocks of life” known as DNA. We’ll start off with Asimov’s Foundation before heading to a galaxy far, far away.

Rapid DNA Sequencing

In part four of Foundation, The Traders, a space-faring trader by the name of Linmar Ponyets is ordered by the Foundation to go and rescue a fellow trader who has been imprisoned by a hostile government. While the issues involved with the actual rescue are extremely interesting, I’m not going to discuss them today. Instead I want to look at the mechanism that the Foundation used to send the message to Ponyet:

The tiny, gleaming sphere changed hands, and Gorm added, “It’s confidential. Super-secret. Can’t be trusted to the sub-ether and all that. Or so I gather. At least it’s a Personal Capsule, and won’t open for anyone but you.”

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Biometric locks and authentication certainly qualify as old news by now. But every current implementation I’ve seen uses either voice recognition, fingerprint scans, retinal scans, or iris scans. However the device portrayed here doesn’t seem to use any of those options, instead it opens upon direct contact with Ponyets’ hand, which would seem to indicate some type of genetic recognition.

Reading this made me wonder not only how the device could manage to verify the recipient’s genome in such a timely manner, but also what mechanism could achieve it using such a small size.

The smallest sequencer currently on the market that I’m aware of is the Ion Proton benchtop sequencer, which weighs in at around 130 pounds. However as we know from the reading so far, the Foundation is exceptionally skilled at miniaturization. (Here’s a great introductory video on ion semiconductor sequencing if you’re interested in learning more about the technology behind this machine.)

Regardless of size issues, current sequencing protocols require that DNA samples undergo a series of preparatory steps prior to sequencing which takes around 4-8 hours to complete. After the preparation is complete, it takes an additional several hours to several days to complete the sequencing.

It is of course possible that the mechanism doesn’t need to sequence the recipient’s entire genome, but instead uses something similar to how DNA fingerprinting works, just looking at specific marker alleles within the genome.

More likely is that the foundation has developed superior sequencing techniques that don’t require extensive sample preparation and can be completed rapidly by a machine of very small size. There is some promising research happening in facilitating sequencing without the need for extensive sample preparation as well as breakthroughs in super high-speed sequencing using very small devices, such as the exciting work being done in nanopore sequencing.

DNA Steganography

While I was reading through the current literature to see if any kind of biometric lock based on genetic sequencing, I stumbled across several papers discussing DNA steganograpy.

Just as with conventional steganography, DNA steganography involves concealing important information inside of some other media. However instead of hiding text within text or digital messages inside of image files, DNA steganography encodes a message using a DNA sequence and then hides that sequence within additional DNA to mask its existence.

Decoding the message is a laborious process. First you need to know where the DNA fragment is hidden. It could be preserved in an adhesive, inside a virus or bacteria, or any other place DNA might commonly be found.

Once you’ve found the DNA, you have to sequence it. This can be made extremely complicated if the DNA containing the message is hidden with several other fragments of DNA, as each fragment has to be prepared for sequencing using specific PCR primers before it can be sequenced.

So assuming you knew where to find the DNA, and which primers to use in order to prepare it for sequencing, you still have to know how to decode the sequenced DNA into the original message.

While all of this is extremely interesting, (at least to me), what made it most interesting to me was the timing of the reasearch. This paper outlining all the steps necessary to achieve DNA steganography was published in Nature in 1999. The scientists who carried out that research then applied for a patent in 2000 that was granted in 2001.

However the first time I had heard of DNA steganography was in 1998, when I read about it Michael Stackpole’s, I, Jedi. This book was very memorable for me because it was the first novel I remember reading that was told in the first person. According to Wookieepedia, it is also the first (and, as of this date, the only) Star Wars novel to be written with a first person POV.

At one point in the novel, the protagonist goes to Corellia to learn more about his past. While there he learns that his step-grandfather had used DNA steganography (though it isn’t called that in the novel), to hide ancient Jedi lore in the genetic sequences of the flowers he bred as a horticulturalist.

Conclusion

So while DNA sequencing technology is rapidly improving, it hasn’t yet reached the level of speed it needs in order to send “confidential, super-secret” messages to specific people as used in Foundation. The good news is, we have reached the point where we can potentially hide secret messages in DNA sequences of living organisms, as predicted by Michael Stackpole.


Dr. Lee Falin is a Bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute, the host of the Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and the author of the “Science Fictioned” series, in which he takes scientific research articles and turns them into science fiction and fantasy short stories for middle grade and young adult readers.

The Science of Future Past: Part 2

In the first part of this series we began an exploration of the science portrayed in the first two parts of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: the Psychohistorians and the Encyclopedists. Today we continue on with the third part of the book, the Mayors.

In my opinion, the third part of Foundation is considerably more dynamic and exciting than the first two parts. Most of you reading this probably know that the majority of the original Foundation book is actually a collection of short stories that were first published in Astounding Magazine back in the early 1940’s. (The first part of the book, the Psychohistorians, was added when the rest of the series was republished in book form).

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The Science of Future Past: Did Asimov’s Foundation Predict Wikipedia?

When I read classic science fiction stories and see technologies described which have later appeared in real life, I sometimes wonder whether these early writers were predicting the future, or defining it.

In other words, did they see the trends of science and technology and follow them to their logical conclusions, or have modern scientists and inventors been so inspired by the writings of such authors as Asimov, Heinlein, and Jules Verne, that they seek to bring to life the visions so vividly described by these authors? Regardless of which way they inspiration flowed, I find it interesting to compare the technologies described in these works of the past with their modern counterparts.

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Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and the Science of Scale

As a parent, I feel it my duty to introduce my children to the classics of science fiction and fantasy. Arguably, some of the things we watch and read together are more classic than others, but all have their place in the spectrum of classic geekness. Interestingly, my kids immediately identified with the Szalinski family in the film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (that’s the one with the nerdy dad whose crazy inventions littered the house and often resulted in smoke-filled explosions), while they thought that the sports-loving family next door seemed to be a bit weird—an observation that I must admit filled me with no small amount of irrational pride.

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The Science of Allomancy in Mistborn: Iron and Steel

After taking a few weeks off while we moved across the pond, I’ve returned my research focus to investigating the science behind allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. As I mentioned in my first post regarding this research, the concept of iron pulling and steel pushing left its mark on my psyche, prompting me to wonder what sort of scientific basis, if any, there could be behind allomantic abilities. This week, we come full circle as I discuss those very powers that most appealed to me.

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The Science of Allomancy in Mistborn: Zinc and Brass

Emotional allomancy is the power described in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels which allows an allomancer to influence another’s emotions. Allomancers that posses the appropriate powers can burn zinc or brass to riot or soothe someone’s emotions, causing them to change their behavior.

The mechanism for how these emotional changes are brought about aren’t well understood. However, as I mentioned last week, I have reason to believe that emotional allomancy makes use of symbiotic parasites.

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The Science of Allomancy in Mistborn: Copper

Last week we began our exploration of the science of allomancy when I outlined a hypothesis of the scientific principles which account for the enhanced senses of an allomancer who is burning Tin.

An important aspect of that hypothesis was the fact that the “burning” of metal by an allomancer gives off a distinct pulse which can be detected by other allomancers. This side-effect makes it rather inconvenient for those that would like to use their powers in secret.

Fortunately there is a way to mask these allomantic pulses from prying eyes, namely burning copper. But since we know so little of how allomancy really works, can science provide a hypothesis on how copper prevents its detection? Of course it can.

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The Science of Allomancy in Mistborn: Tin

You can tell that an epic has left its mark on you when you continue to think about its world and characters long after you’ve read the last pages. In my case, the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson was that kind of epic. For many days after I finished reading the final book in the trilogy, I found myself looking at my pocket change with a sort of wistful longing, imagining what it would be like to “drop a coin” and flit through the mists, mistcloak billowing behind me.

When I start feeling wistful, the curious part of my brain starts asking questions. What if it were really possible to ingest metal, “burn it”, and have it affect you and those around you. How exactly would that work? Is any aspect of allomancy even possible in our world? It was these very questions that led me to start an informal review of the current state of scientific research regarding the abilities bestowed by each of the allomantic metals. What I found may surprise you.

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