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Thursday, December 9, 2010

writing & science: Deux et Machina and the Dawn of the Cambrian era

Hi everyone!

I wrote a little story this month for the online science fiction magazine: i09


Last month i09 called for stories that deal with environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. i09 believes that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth's history.

This is a great start. I agree with the magazine that a good way to lay the groundwork for progress against environmental disasters is stories that make people think. I decided to do a story from the deep past of Earth's history, drawing on some knowledge I have as a planetary scientist.

In Earth's history, science tells us there have been three great environmental disasters - the disaster that precipitated the formation of the eucaryotic cell, the lime disaster, and the rise of Oxygen. This story is a light-hearted (hopefully) look at the response of a bunch of jelly-fish when called upon to take personal action to mitigate the lime disaster.

The story is pretty heavy with biological 'buzz' words. A brief glossary is included at the end of the story. What happened, to the best of our knowledge, is this:

600 million years ago vast amounts of calcium carbonate (sort of like bicarbonate of soda, but with calcium) began to precipitate spontaneously out of the sea. The crisis was caused by carbon saturation of the sea water – carbon dioxide passing through the water in the presence of calcium, reacted to form calcium carbonate, or lime. Resultant encrustations, or pile up of the solid precipitate to form a crust, constituted a hazard for life in the ocean.

In response, the biota developed a range of potent chemical inhibitors, including a mucus that inhibited calcification. The same anti-calcifying mucus that protected the soft tissues from encrustation helped skeleton formation by keeping calcium crystallization organized. Thus, with strong intervention by organisms, the production of limestone in the open sea, and therefore a key part of the carbon cycle, was brought under biological control at a critical juncture in evolution – just before the start of the Cambrian biological explosion.

The story is told 'steampunk' style. Steampunk is a send-up of the Victorian era. It is sometimes called 'retro-futuristic' because it looks back, but with a modern twist. Examples include The Wild Wild West, the movie & tv show. Steampunk is from the era of Jules Verne, where there were mad scientists, ladies with parasols, adventurers with goggles on, and an inquisitive desire to solve problems mechanically (see my blog post from earlier today.)

In this story I also built in a little spoof of the movie A Clockwork Orange (since steampunk as a general rule has a fascination with clocks and gears - the technology of that period - and the title included a reference to clockwork). I called the story A Clockwork Lime: How the World got Stuck with Lime-repellant Mucus 500 million years ago – or The Strange Tale of the Original Carbon Problem

What's interesting to me is that a writer is not supposed to resort to 'Deus ex machina,' or as someone recently blogged, putting the onus on God, as a plot device, to solve a problem. Any miracles must arise from the guts of the story. As a writer, I didn't violate this rule; I invoked a mad scientist to solve the problem. But in real life, there was no mad scientist.

1 comment:

  1. Love this post. Earth's deep past is fascinating - and if you can use your own knowledge and experience for a story - there's nothing better!