The story behind the story: The wind knows all

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Beth Cato and her story The wind knows all. Regular readers will recall that Beth is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy, as well as having written a number of stories for Futures (you’ll find a full list at the foot of this post). You can find out more about her work at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals what inspired her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing: The wind knows all

I belong to Codex, a site for neo-pro writers that provides deep friendships, publishing industry news, and numerous writing contests throughout the year. The twice-a-year flash-fiction contests are among my very favourites.

The usual contest format involves five story prompts followed by a weekend of frenzied writing and revising to produce a work of flash fiction that I hope will not prove to be an embarrassment. Often, I end up combining several prompts to prod a story from my brain. That was the case with The wind knows all.

One of the prompts called on me to randomly shuffle through my phone’s music. That brought me to a song by one of my favourite bands, ‘Dust Bowl Dance’ by Mumford and Sons. Still, the song alone wasn’t enough to build a story. I studied the other prompts and fixated on one that asked, “How do you feed a ghost?”

My writer-brain, funny thing that it is, wondered: what if the dusty wind is filled with ghosts? Not just the ghosts of people, but the very spirit of a planet?

To make things even more challenging, I resolved to make the planet into the narrator, giving it insight into every other character and control over my protagonist, Maribel. Contest feedback pointed out that Maribel needed more agency. I agreed. I made the point-of-view even more complex by limiting the planet’s control over Maribel, establishing her as an independent teen girl amid horrible circumstances.

Codex’s contests are awesome because they push me to experiment, such as with prompts I’d never use otherwise (like the playlist on my phone) or with perspectives that would be downright daunting if I gave them too much thought (like the voice of an entire planet). Sometimes those experiments don’t work. In this case, it did, and I’m happy to see The wind knows all find a home with Nature’s Futures.

Read more Futures stories by Beth:

A picture is worthThe 133rd Live Podcast of the Gourmando Resistance | Powers of observationExcerpts from the 100-day food diary of Angela MeyerThe human is late to feed the catBread of lifePost-apocalyptic conversations with a sidewalkCanopy of skulls

The story behind the story: Infringement

This week, Futures is pleased to welcome Timothy J. Gawne with his story Infringement. By day, Timothy is a neuroscientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but outside of the university, he is also author of the Old Guy cybertank novels. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Infringement

The idea for writing Infringement came up, as so many of my writing ideas do, when I was corresponding with my genius editor brother Jonathan.  He throws ideas at me, and usually I go “that’s stupid” or “not my style” but often when I sleep on them I realize that it can work if I just do X …

Somehow the idea of a galactic copyright police came up, and I thought, what if Earth itself was infringing and had to be destroyed?  Once I had that basic idea down, the story wrote itself.

It might seem harsh to rub out an entire world with billions of (alleged?) sentient beings to protect someone’s intellectual property, but don’t we do similar things now when we deny vital medicines to countless poor people to avoid hurting the profits of the people who count?  Why should a galactic/universal civilization be any better?

The idea of an advanced civilization that can build entire planets to order is hardly new — think Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — but why would we imagine that these planets would all be custom?  Look at how many of the manufactured items we have that are mass-produced.  Perhaps Earth would be considered a classic design, far more interesting than those boring planets where everything is a sunny beach littered with diamonds.  And even as people reading the same book or watching the same movie can take pleasure from sharing their experiences, surely owners of Earth might feel the same?

Science fiction can be written at several technological levels, ranging from grounded-in-current-physics (such as The Martian, by Andy Weir) to a level where the technology is so fantastically advanced that it becomes taken for granted in a way that becomes comical (The Hitchhiker’s Guide, but also Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley, or even the old 1960s TV series Lost in Space).  Here I obviously chose the latter.

Most people who own Honda Civic automobiles are happy with them the way they are, but there are always some who want to tinker.  It’s a lot easier than building an entirely new car from scratch and, in addition, people can compare notes to see who can get the most out of a stock design.  Perhaps the same thing would happen with Earth?  Hmm, a story about a customized Earth competition, and all these hopped-up Earths come together to see who can take the grand prize of coolest Earth.  I know, someone from the reference standard Earth will be there as well, to give perspective to all the ways that Earth could have gone, if deliberately evolved by intelligences with different styles and tastes.  Let me call my brother …

 

 

 

 

 

The story behind the story: You will remember this

In You will remember this, Justen Russell introduces Futures to a novel alien race with a very different perspective on life from our own. A microbiologist by day, Justen has very kindly taken some time out from the lab to explain the origins of his latest tale, and the choices he made when writing it. As ever, it is best to read the story first.

Writing You will remember this

In an earlier draft of You will remember this there was a poster on the wall behind the narrator. On it a single, colourful image depicted our Solar System in all four dimensions, from the Big Bang to the heat death of the Universe. That poster, like Patrick Xu, added a little background to the world of the story, but the section it was described in did not fit nicely into the final version.

I have wanted to write this story since the I first encountered the theory of a biological arrow to time. The theory states that the Universe and everything that will happen is already determined. That we — living, conscious entities within that Universe — experience the past, present and future as a quirk of our biology and entropy. Because we form our memories by organizing molecules in our brain, at any point in time we can only remember events that occurred before those molecules were organized, i.e. we can remember the past but not the future, but both exist.

That poster with an image of the Solar System from the start of time to the end was mentioned in passing. The narrator said: “Personally, I just like the colours.” That is probably why it did not survive to the final draft. It was an artefact that was more meaningful because it was taken for granted. Pop-culture is full of scientific images, images that changed our perception of the world, images that took thousands of person-hours to create: the periodic table, Earth from space, the double helix of DNA. These images are placed on posters, screen-savers and corporate logos. They become so commonplace that they have meaning outside of the technical details they contain. The image of the Solar System in four dimensions was the same. Everyone in the story grew up knowing the Universe is determined, but not really understanding what that means. To most, the poster would have been just a pretty picture that represented an abstract idea, even though it contained in it everything that had happened, and everything that would happen. Not with enough resolution that one could see what they would be doing at 11:45 next Tuesday, but it would be understood that such precision is possible. I think the purpose of this story is to wonder what it would be like to grow up knowing such a profound truth without understanding it personally; children do not meet aliens.

It would be unsettling to talk to an alien for the first time. I know I would struggle to pass the test. My first attempt would be similar to the narrator’s, I would try to do the opposite of what was said. Afterwards, I would need to try again. The second time I would probably do exactly what was said and hope to somehow ‘trick fate’. I already know how disappointed I would be, on the third attempt, when after planning to stand there silently and ignore whatever was said I hear a prediction that I am going to do exactly that. It would take me many attempts, but I think I would eventually understand. I am afraid, however, of what truly understanding means. It would be so easy to conclude that consciousness is an illusion, that predetermination is incompatible with choice.

A large part of this story is to contend the opposite. Consciousness is making choices, even if those choices have already been made, even if those choice will always be made; they are still meaningful. If one chooses to wait before crossing the road, or chooses to run for political office, or chooses to compensate for the wind when landing on Titan’s Mayda Insula, they make that choice with the information available at the time. To always make the same choice in the same situation, with the same circumstances, and the same memories does not make one an automaton. It does not mean that one is simply a pawn to fate or swept along in the current of predetermination. It means those actions were, are, and will continue to be a part of the determined shape of the Universe. It means those choices, in their own small way, mattered.

What’s in our browser tabs? September 2019

As editors of physics journals, we love reading the latest research papers, but we also love a bit of lunch-break science-related browsing. Here are some pieces that caught our eyes in September:

Emmy Noether is a new chapter in the graphic novel Women in Science from Cliò Agrapidis and Elena Mistrello, available in Italian, English and German. You can also read our guest post from Cliò about the previous chapter, on Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

Misconceptions in Astronomical History. Ben Orlin at Math with Bad Drawings illustrates some of his favourite moments in Marcia Bartusiak’s book Dispatches from Planet 3.

Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper — Nature. Van Savage and Pamela Yeh share a condensed version of Cormac McCarthy’s writing tips for scientists.

The throw calculator on XKCD. How far could a squirrel throw a ping pong ball? How far could George Washington throw a wedding cake? How far could Thor, god of thunder, throw a car?

The throw calculator may well merit an Ig Nobel Prize, but the actual 2019 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded this month — the Physics prize was awarded for a study of how wombats make cube-shaped poo. A report from the prize ceremony in Physics: Arts and Culture: Science as a Laughing Matter.

Check out the winning images in the Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2019 competition.

The story behind the story: reCAPTCHA all over again

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Aaron Moskalik with his latest story reCAPTCHA all over again. Regular readers will recall that Aaron has previously introduced us to eLiza and some Ghosts in the machine. You can find out a lot more about his other work at his website. Here, Aaron reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing reCAPTCHA all over again

Are you a robot?

We’ve all encountered the traffic light CAPTCHA. The first time I was asked to identify traffic lights, I thought it strangely … specific. But it never had the same images twice and I began to notice variations in the theme. Sometimes there were nine different images, other times it was one image broken into nine squares. And each time I encountered this strange test, it seemed to get progressively harder. Soon there were images where the traffic light was sideways or even facing away from the camera. Confounding elements were introduced such as other devices of similar shape hanging from poles and wires stretched across a street. I would occasionally get the answers wrong and had to prove I was human a second time.

Why make it so hard? Surely bots were not so sophisticated and determined to sign up for random accounts. When I heard a news story about Google using us to train their self-driving AI, it all made sense. I have mixed feelings about this. I am an indifferent driver, so the thought of machines taking over this duty while I read a book in the backseat is an appealing one.

My wife is not so sanguine about this prospect and not just because she enjoys driving. What if your AI is hacked? Who is legally responsible when something goes wrong? We’ve already seen news stories. But then too there is that niggling unease many of us feel that this will not just stop with practical tasks we don’t want to do.

It was way back in the 1980s when I first saw a plotter that replaced the work output of a drafter. It was fascinating to watch the pens fly across the table-sized piece of paper to produce a drawing of perfect fidelity that would have taken me hours to do. At this same time, I also saw CNC machines doing the work of a machinist in a similar manner.

It feels as if we are giving up control, step by step, to forces beyond our understanding and this process has been going on long before AI or automation were even concepts. When was the last time you made something practical? Or even fixed something? Have you ever worried about laying in food stores for the winter? It was not so long ago these were everyday concerns for most people. Now we place our trust in a globe-spanning system that provides for our every need. All we need do is contribute in some way. But what happens when all the ways we can contribute have been overtaken by more efficient machines?

The common trope that represents this fear is the android, a machine made to look and act just like us. I don’t believe such devices will ever be more than a curiosity akin to the automatons of the machine age. Or self-driving cars that need to understand traffic lights.

We humans are versatile beasts, but the System prizes specialization over versatility, so machines need not emulate us to be competitive. Indeed, computers can already best us at chess and Go, and they make inroads into creative pursuits like composing and writing every day. They beat us at our own games, one by one by one. How long before there aren’t any left?

This is not the most concerning aspect of AI, however. Even as machines compete with us on our own turf, we invest more and more importance in theirs, the virtual worlds of social media, cryptocurrencies, deep fakes … the list is ever-increasing. This is a domain where bots need not be physical to emulate and surpass us.

Given that, it’s only a matter of time until the desired answer to the question “Are you a robot?” will be “Yes”.  But hey, at least we have the weekend. See you at the Greyhound. We’ll party like its 1999.

Water charity: What the drinking fountains of Mumbai tell us

The pyaavs of Mumbai aren’t just public fountains but a repository of memories, architectural history and an important lesson in water philanthropy. Swapna Joshi, a PhD Student at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune, studies them closely to find new meaning in the old.

A pyaav on Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road

There is something mesmerizing about the architecture of South Mumbai. As a local train commuter, whenever I step into Mumbai’s CSMT railway station (formerly Victoria Terminus), I notice, despite the hustle, intricate details of the building. Working with a Mumbai based conservation architect’s firm gave me a vantage point to look at colonial period architecture and appreciate it. That’s how I came in contact with the public drinking water fountains of Mumbai, locally known as the pyaavs.

‘Thy thirst repose to quench a handful of life’. This was the quote we chose to restore the first pyaav through a public-private initiative in Mumbai. Why this intense thought in a structural conservation? Was there a story beyond the material fabric of the pyaav? The answer is yes.

This pyaav was in the Kessovji Naik Fountain and clock tower in Bhat Bazaar of Masjid Bunder, one of the busiest markets of Mumbai. Some 100 years ago, a generous patron had decided to support the construction of the pyaav and provide water for the city, without any other motive. How fascinating is this!

Around the same time I read ‘The Water Heritage of Mumbai’ by Dr. Varsha Shirgaonkar, the Vice-Chancellor of S.N.D.T Women’s University. In this seminal work, she painstakingly documents most of the city’s pyaavs, including many whose exact location was not known. Data on about thirty pyaavs of Mumbai are available today. These pyaavs were built during the 19th and 20th century and provided drinking water in commercial zones, along tram routes, in markets, gardens and other public places.

A pyaav in the Char Nal area of Mumbai.

The concept of a pyaav is based on two important things — the generosity of a philanthropist with an intention of giving back to the city; and building a monument in the memory of a deceased relative of the patron. Armed with Dr. Shirgaonkar’s foundation-laying information and with the thought of developing and restoring these pyaavs to their former glory, a group of like-minded people, including me, came together. The group — comprising an architect, a journalist, a historian and a heritage enthusiast — formed a social media group called ‘The Mumbai Pyaav Project’. Our reach was limited because all we had were photos of pyaavs, some in utterly dilapidated condition.

In Carnac Bandar in Mumbai, for example, a pyaav has been transformed into a temple. Similarly, another pyaav nearby was on the verge of being demolished for a developmental project, but was saved because of the awareness of local people. Identifying dangers to the pyaavs would help in their conservation. The need is to look at the data but through a contemporary lens.

This pyaav in the Crawford Market area of Mumbai is modeled like a shrine.

In 2017, I received the Sahapedia Unesco Project Fellowship. It enabled me to map all the pyaavs in the city, understand their present condition, interview people associated with them and document them audio-visually. While doing the field work and photo documentation, I came across many pyaavs still in use as drinking water sources. When I saw a small child drinking from the pyaav in the King Circle garden, I was convinced of the need for their revival. I joined hands with people who shared this conviction to retrieve and share information on the pyaavs with a larger audience.

Apart from their heritage value, pyaavs reduce plastic pollution by eliminating the need for packaged drinking water. Commuters I interviewed near a pyaav in Kalachowki area, and the owner of a nearby shop, were delighted that it was being restored. The question of whether working class people were the only ones to drink water from these pyaavs was answered by visits to some modern paanpois (water storage tanks) and earthen water pots kept charitably for passers by on crossroads. Also, almost every tea stall serves water to customers before tea, which is a kind of a pyaav system in itself. The project started building up with all this and the same data now got a fresh relook.

The endeavour was to understand the basic drinking water supply system of Mumbai and functioning of the dams in the city — from when and why they were built to the quantity of water supply to the city. When we showed our audio-visual content, people admitted they passed these pyaavs every day but did not know what they were. Armed with knowledge, they expressed interest in seeing more of these.

Pyaavs are a network of history and heritage, drinking water supply and memories. As of now, three other pyaavs have been restored and many others are in the process of being revived . The re-collation of the data in the  Sahapedia project gave me the key to understand pyaavs much better.

The pyaavs have various functions but we have largely failed to admire them as spaces to pause, gather and remember. They are soothing beauties and heritage markers. As the great poet Rabindranath Tagore puts it: “For many years at great cost, I traveled through many countries, saw the high mountains and the ocean. The only things I did not see were the sparkling dewdrops in the grass…. just outside my door.”

[Photo credits: Swapna Joshi.]

The story behind the story: The monster and the child

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome Dolly Garland with her story The monster and the child. Dolly is a writer based in London, and you can find out more about her work at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here she reveals what sparked her interest in monsters and what led her to her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The monster and the child

For most people, the word ‘monster’ evokes an image of some scary, non-human monster; the word ‘child’ evokes an image of youth, innocence, and a human child — whether a happy one or one in need of affection.

But as we know from school bullies, not all children are nice and innocent. I don’t know exactly where the idea for this story began, but it came with the assumption that what if the child is the monster, and the monster is the child? There are plenty of stories where humans are the bad guys, and I wanted to merge that idea with the innocence of childhood.

Of course, the famous example of that sort of exploration is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which children are fighting a real war, thinking they are playing on a simulator.

I wanted to touch upon the idea of childhood — regardless of species — and combine that with morality that adults and society teach children.

Adam is told that what he is doing will protect his world, protect humanity. He has been taught what is good and bad, and he has been taught to do the right thing. But that moral compass is biased. Do we teach our children to do the right thing, or do we teach them to do what is right in our opinion? What if absolute morality has a negative impact on us? Who do we put first? What if it is ‘them’ and ‘us’” but ‘them’ are not the enemy, nor have they done anything wrong?

Humans, I think, are selfish creatures and it is that selfishness that has helped us thrive as a species. But as we continue to grow, without much care for the world around us, how far can we go? How far should we go? These are some of the questions that inspired this story.

Peer Review Week 2019: Improving peer review quality through transparent, reproducible research

This guest blog comes from Sowmya Swaminathan, Head of Editorial Policy and Research Integrity for Nature Research

By the time a research study reaches the peer review process, many crucial decisions that affect the rigor of the study design, methodology, data collection, analysis and reporting have already been made. Nevertheless, by developing and implementing editorial policies and by providing a publishing infrastructure that supports publication of transparent reproducible research, editors, journals and publishers can help improve the published paper, adding value and quality to the peer review and publication process.

Broadly speaking, four pillars – policy, publishing infrastructure, advocacy and awareness, and collective action – have driven editorial and publishing innovation and furthered our mission to work in partnership with the research community to advance quality and integrity.  In this blog post I provide an overview and examples of the many initiatives undertaken at Nature Research to support publication of reproducible research.

Policy

Transparency is at the heart of our policies designed to improve the reproducibility of published research. We ask authors to report information about their experimental design, as well as to clearly identify and make their datasets, code and materials available, also making it easier for reviewers to access the information they need to assess the study appropriately. We strongly support open research practices such as sharing the underlying building blocks of the research article – data, code and protocols – through repositories.

We have found that policies centred on transparency have had an impact.  For example, independent studies have found that the Nature Research Life Science Reporting Summary, an instrument to support transparent reporting in life science articles, which we introduced in 2013, has improved reporting of statistics and other aspects of experimental design and analysis [1,2].

We recognize that what works for reporting in life sciences is often not applicable to many of the other disciplines. While we advocate for a minimum threshold for transparency across core aspects of data, code, and materials, we have also worked with experts to tailor approaches that are designed to meet field-specific needs, for example in areas of photovoltaics and photonics research.

Data availability is another area where implementing a policy focused on transparency has had clear benefits. Since 2016, when we introduced a mandatory data availability statement on all research articles published in Nature-branded journals, we have seen a rise in data sharing through public repositories across our journals, especially in the life sciences, and increased appreciation of the value of data sharing to underscore the integrity and credibility of published work in many disciplines.

Publishing Infrastructure

Designing an innovative peer review and publishing infrastructure that supports all aspects of publishing reproducible research is central to our overall vision for an open and transparent ecosystem. A robust technology infrastructure is also essential to drive large-scale adoption of best practice approaches by authors, reviewers and editors. Over the years, we have introduced a number of publishing innovations that have furthered our commitment to reproducibility. These include avenues for publishing data and protocols such as Scientific Data and Protocol Exchange, and new article formats like Data Descriptors and Registered Reports that focus on data and methodological rigour respectively, rather than the specific results.

More recently, three Nature Research journals have tested executable platforms for peer review and publication of code. Although the policy and practice of peer reviewing code has been in place at these journals for many years, powering the process through an executable platform sets the stage for a more seamless and scalable experience for authors, reviewers and editors.

Advocacy and awareness

Advocacy and awareness-raising in the broader research and publishing community are other important areas of engagement for us in advancing our commitment to integrity in research. In the pages of Nature and the Nature-branded journals, we have often highlighted and debated the many different, complex issues, challenges and solutions on the path to transparent, reproducible research including discipline-specific needs and barriers to reproducible research (for example, see recent discussions about reproducibility in nano-medicine and data and code sharing in physics).

Collective action

Shifting entrenched patterns of how research is conducted and published requires stakeholders across the research and publishing community to work collectively in the push for better practice. Nature Research journals are proud to have participated in and supported many such efforts to accelerate data sharing, advance best practice toward open and transparent research and align on minimum reporting standards.

We believe that our editors and journals have an important role to play in tackling the many issues that affect the quality and integrity of published research. Indeed, we feel privileged to be able to engage with a global and multidisciplinary research community and are committed to furthering the cause of transparent, reliable research with all the tools at our disposal.

Join the discussions during Peer Review Week: #QualityinPeerReview, #PeerRevWk2019 #PeerReviewWeek

References:

  1. The NPQIP Collaborative group, Did a change in Nature journals’ editorial policy for life sciences research improve reporting? BMJ Open Science 2019;3:e000035. doi: 10.1136/bmjos-2017-000035
  2. Han S, et al. (2017) A checklist is associated with increased quality of reporting preclinical biomedical research: A systematic review. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0183591. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0183591

The story behind the story: Hello, Hello

In this week’s Futures Jeff Hecht puts us in touch with extraterrestrial life in Hello, Hello. Regular readers will recognize Jeff: he has written multiple stories for Futures over the years (you can see a full list at the foot of this post). When not penning science fiction, Jeff writes about lasers, dinosaurs and other science and technology. You can find out more about his work at his website or by following hm on Twitter. Here, Jeff reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Hello, Hello

Hello, Hello came from pondering one of the ‘big questions’ in both science and science fiction: where are all the little green beings, or whatever other creatures we might imagine inhabit other parts of the Universe. Space is big, it’s full of stars and planets, and the Universe was around for over nine billion years before the Sun and Earth formed. It took us only about 10,000 years to go from banging on the rocks to walking on the Moon. Shouldn’t that have been more than long enough for some of those beings to develop the technology needed to drop in for a visit? Either the little green beings must be running very late, or we must be the most technologically advanced civilization in the Galaxy.

Or so we like to think.

We live in an era of astounding technology development, where we carry tiny computers in our pockets that are far more powerful than the much larger computers that got us to the Moon. Yet our technology does have limits. It’s now nearly half a century since a human walked on the Moon, although we have plans to do so again in just a few years that seem within reason. We also have plans to send people all the way to Mars in the not too distant future. Of course, in the 1950s Wernher von Braun had plans for sending people to Mars in the not too distant future, and that seemed like a good idea at that time.

We also have a few other troublesome little problems, particularly in keeping the climate of our native planet in the reasonably habitable range we are accustomed to.

Those thoughts led me to ask the question that has launched countless science-fiction stories: what if? I wondered if the reason no little green beings have dropped in for a cup of tea might be that interstellar travel is impossible, at least for organic life. What if only machines could survive the trip. Then ‘Oumuamua cruised through the Solar System as quickly and quietly as a derelict interstellar spacecraft.

Read more Futures stories by Jeff Hecht

A slice of timeWhen last I saw the starsThe Internet of [Expletive Deleted] ThingsThe speed of dark energyWaiting for ChronomaticEvent horizonClear proofThe Neanderthal correlationQuantum entanglementsDirected energyOperation Tesla