Nothrotheriops shastensis, the giant Shasta ground sloth, is one of many large North American mammal species that went extinct when the ice age ended and humans arrived on the scene. (Wikimedia Commons: Michael B. H.)
Over at The Awl, I reviewed paleobiologist Beth Shapiro’s new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Exitinction. Shapiro argues that we can and should resurrect mammoths, then release them into the best approximation of ice age habitat we can assemble. Which is crazy! Right?
Shapiro frames mammoth resurrection, or de-extinction, or recreation, or whatever this would be, as part of a broader effort called “Pleistocene rewilding.” The idea is not to put recreated mammoths in zoos—it is to release them into wilderness preserves in Europe, Asia, and North America, as part of re-establishing the community of large animals that lived in those regions during the last ice age, the geological era called the Pleistocene.
… proponents of Pleistocene rewilding argue that it could provide new habitat for megafauna species that are critically endangered in their native ranges, like lions and rhinoceros, and that it would have significant benefits for the health of the ecosystems into which they are introduced.
But hey, go read the whole thing.
The New York Times reports that Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. We’ve already seen his death and funeral on screen, in the movie that was possibly the best episode of the television show that made him famous. But that time, there was a sequel.
I’ve meant for a long time to write about how, for all its failure to directly represent the diversity of human sexual identities, Star Trek did have queer characters in leading roles — and Spock was the first of them. But I’m going to block out my evening tonight to re-watch The Wrath of Khan.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels were among the first grown-up science fiction I read. I still remember picking up the tattered dime-store paperback copy of Foundation in the high school library, opening it up, and getting sucked into the story of a galaxy-spanning Empire that was about to collapse from its own cultural-historical inertia, and a rogue colony of “psycho-historians” who use a sort of historical physics to guide the galaxy through the coming dark age to a Second Empire even better and more stable than the first one.
Word on the Web is that HBO is planning a television adaptation of the Foundation series, and I am totally excited. But it’s going to be very interesting to see how this adaptation proceeds. For one thing, the first stories in the series date back to the early 1940s, so their ideas about “futuristic” technology need some serious updating. The first novel, Foundation, implies that it’s possible to have faster-than-light travel and interstellar war without understanding nuclear fission.
For another thing, the first stories in the series date back to the early 1940s, so very nearly every character who does anything meaningful in them is a man. (There is one story, in the later books, that revolves around a precocious teenage girl, and another that centers on a husband-and-wife couple.) But this, it has occurred to me, is not a problem! The Foundation novels are fundamentally not about interpersonal interactions—their recurring theme is that people are swept along in broad historical currents. The story, and its drama, is literally about the Fall and Rise of Empires, not about individual people. So it actually doesn’t matter what gender anyone in the Foundation stories is. As a bonus, everyone’s names are in Asimov’s concept of future-ese, which makes many of them less obviously gendered: Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin, Bel Riose. Those are all dudes in the original, but don’t tell me they couldn’t each be women.
So my challenge to the folks working on this adaptation: Gender-swap every other character that you adapt from the original Foundation books. You’ll end up with a more human vision of the future, and you might just end up creating the next Starbuck — or several of them — in the process.
It’s still pretty jarring to see Disney’s sparkly branding all over the original anti-Disney take on fairytales, but man, this looks pretty good.
I’m on board just for Chris Pine’s delivery of “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
The LA Review of Books has just posted my review of Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene By Gene—a highly accessible book about how insect pests, weeds, disease organisms, wildlife, and even cancer cells evolve in response to the chemicals and drugs we use to contain them. I particularly focus on the skin-crawling case of bedbugs:
Bedbugs are a particularly intimate example, at least from the human perspective, of the broader trend. Surveys of exterminators report that between 2001 and 2007, the number of bedbug infestations across North America increased 20-fold, concentrated in places like apartment complexes, college dormitories, and homeless shelters in major urban areas. Some of this resurgence is due to international travel. Major ports like New York, San Francisco, and Miami are epicenters of bedbug activity, and genetic surveys show that the bugs are arriving from multiple populations, not spreading from a single geographic source. Still, a large part of the bedbug revival is attributable to the fact that the bugs have developed a resistance to many of the insecticides that kept them down for decades.
Go read the whole thing, and try not to scratch.
Oh, man. This is exciting, but I also feel a sense of creeping dread, as though I’m trapped in some sort of interdimensional cineplex of televisual entertainments and, after strange ages of wondering among endless theaters showing long-form serialized dramas of violence and disturbance and vague supernatural malevolence, I’ve just brushed aside yet a crimson curtain and walked into the room where I first met that backwards-talking dwarf.
He is holding a cup of coffee.
Hat tip to Steve Silberman.
Two bodies: Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) are both Ph.D. scientists—but only Frank works in a field useful to the Project. (WGN America)
Some of the best dramatic fantasies project otherwise commonplace struggles and worries into extraordinary circumstances. Make that awkward teenage girl a vampire slayer, and put her in a high school that is literally built over a gateway to Hell. How do we feel about that military occupation if it’s reimagined as humans subjugated by their out-of-control cybernetic creations? A love affair is a lot more compelling if it involves the President of the United States and the woman who helped fix his election. So maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the most compelling television show about the daily drama of academic science is a historical drama about building the first atomic bomb.
Manhattan, which airs on WGN America and streams on Hulu, follows physicists designing what will become the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, starting about two years before August 6, 1945. The project staff and their families are living in a laboratory campus built and hyper-secured by the U.S. military in the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico, but in many respects they could be working at any research university today. Here’s my (spoiler-y) list of the parallels, which are sometimes dangerously on-the-nose:
Richard Attenborough died Sunday, aged 90. Most of my generation probably know him best for Jurassic Park, but I’ve always favored his role as the mastermind of the Great Escape:
I’ve written (another) review of Nicholas Wade’s “science of race” book A Troublesome Inheritance, this time for the Los Angeles Review of Books. If you’ve read the my previous review for The Molecular Ecologist, you won’t find much new here, but the LARB piece is pitched at a less technical audience, and takes a somewhat different point of entry:
CHARLES DARWIN is more usually cited for his scientific discoveries than his moral insights. In the closing pages of his travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle however, he condemns the practice of slavery — which he observed firsthand in the colonized New World — in blistering, heartfelt terms worthy of an Old Testament prophet
In this testimony against the great social sin of his age, Darwin makes an observation that should unsettle us even here and now: “if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
I’m extremely pleased for the chance to contribute to a great literary magazine, and I’m also quite happy to see that LARB went with my suggested, punny headline: “Cluster-struck.”◼