This year, gift giving isn’t the only reason for the season’s reading recommendations: With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, it’s useful to have a good book by your side as you weather the winter in relative isolation. It’s still possible to get a healthy dose of science fact (or fiction) while we’re waiting for the vaccine (and for science writer David Quammen’s future book about the pandemic).
I’ve put together a list of 10 recently published books that should be well-suited for these unprecedented pandemic holidays. Some provide diversion. Others offer food for thought (for example, what happens once the pandemic ends?). Still others suggest experiments you can do with your kids in the kitchen, or curiosities to look for as you take holiday strolls with your pandemic podmates. All of them are worth considering for your gift list — or your own winter reading list.
Today the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced that about 100 coffins dating back as far as 2,600 years have been found inside a network of buried shafts at Saqqara, Egypt’s oldest-known pyramid site. And there’s still more to come.
The Saqqara necropolis. about 20 miles south of modern-day Cairo, has been under excavation for several seasons. This year, it was the focus of a Netflix documentary titled “Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb,” and the most recent finds will be covered next year in a Smithsonian Channel series called “Tomb Hunters.”
Last month’s revelations related to the discovery of 59 decorated coffins dating back to the 26th Dynasty, in the time frame from around 664 to 525 B.C.E. Today’s follow-up focused on coffins and artifacts from ancient Egypt’s Late Period (664 to 332 B.C.E.) as well as the Greek-influenced Ptolemaic dynasty (320 to 30 B.C.E.)
One of the coffins was opened to reveal a nearly perfectly preserved mummy within. An X-ray scan suggested that it was a male who was in his 40s when he died, with teeth in perfect condition.
Mostafa Waziri, general director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told NBC News that the man must have been wealthy and might have had royal connections, based on the way the arms were crossed over his chest. “We still have a lot to reveal,” he said.
The artifacts will be moved to museums in Cairo, including the yet-to-be-opened Grand Egyptian Museum, for further analysis and display. Still more discoveries will be announced in Saqqara soon, said Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Anany.
Egyptian officials are turning up the spotlight on archaeological finds in hopes of whetting interest in tourism, which has been hard-hit due to political turmoil and the coronavirus pandemic.
Two new human cell atlases have mapped the molecular machinery that builds tissue in the weeks after conception — and could eventually point the way to addressing developmental disorders.
The researchers behind the atlases say their method for single-cell analysis, detailed in a pair of studies published by the journal Science, could dramatically accelerate efforts to trace how individual cells develop from the embryo to adulthood.
“The key point is that the method scales exponentially,” said University of Washington geneticist Jay Shendure, a senior author for both studies. “When you think about the human body, there’s 37 trillion cells. To really get the kind of comprehensive atlases that we want, we want this kind of scalability.”
Study co-author Dan Doherty, a UW pediatrics professor, compared the procedure’s promise to the impact of the Hubble Space Telescope or the Human Genome Project. “Single-cell methods — it’s hard to overestimate their importance for understanding developmental biology,” he said. “They’re really giving us a picture that we’ve never seen before.”
What rights does a robot have? If our machines become intelligent in the science-fiction way, that’s likely to become a complicated question — and the humans who nurture those robots just might take their side.
Ted Chiang, a science-fiction author of growing renown with long-lasting connections to Seattle’s tech community, doesn’t back away from such questions. They spark the thought experiments that generate award-winning novellas like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” and inspire Hollywood movies like “Arrival.”
Can science fiction have an impact in the real world, even at times when the world seems as if it’s in the midst of a slow-moving disaster movie? Absolutely, Chiang says.
“Art is one way to make sense of a world which, on its own, does not make sense,” he says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection between science and fiction. “Art can impose a kind of order onto things. … It doesn’t offer a cure-all, because I don’t think there’s going to be any easy cure-all, but I think art helps us get by in these stressful times.”
COVID-19 provides one illustration. Chiang would argue that our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been problematic in part because it doesn’t match what we’ve seen in sci-fi movies.
“The greatest conflict that we see generated is from people who don’t believe in it vs. everyone else,” he said. “That might be the product of the fact that it is not as severe. If it looked like various movie pandemics, it’d probably be hard for anyone to deny that it was happening.”
This pandemic may well spark a new kind of sci-fi theme.
“It’s worth thinking about, that traditional depictions of pandemics don’t spend much time on people coming together and trying to support each other,” Chiang said. “That is not typically a theme in stories about disaster or enormous crisis. I guess the narrative is usually, ‘It’s the end of civilization.’ And people have not turned on each other in that way.”
Artificial intelligence is another field where science fiction often gives people the wrong idea. “When we talk about AI in science fiction, we’re talking about something very different than what we mean when we say AI in the context of current technology,” Chiang said.
In Chiang’s view, most depictions of sci-fi AI fall short even by science-fiction standards.
“A lot of stories imagine something which is a product like a robot that comes in a box, and you flip it on, and suddenly you have a butler — a perfectly competent and loyal and obedient butler,” he noted. “That, I think jumps over all these steps, because butlers don’t just happen.”
In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” Chiang imagines a world in which it takes just as long to raise a robot as it does to raise a child. That thought experiment sparks all kinds of interesting all-too-human questions: What if the people who raise such robots want them to be something more than butlers? Would they stand by and let their sci-fi robot progeny be treated like slaves, even like sex slaves?
“Maybe they want that robot, or conscious software, to have some kind of autonomy,” Chiang said. “To have a good life.”
Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, “Exhalation,” extends those kinds of thought experiments to science-fiction standbys ranging from free will to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Both those subjects come into play in what’s certainly Chiang’s best-known novella, “Story of Your Life,” which was first published in 1998 and adapted to produce the screenplay for “Arrival” in 2016. Like so many of Chiang’s other stories, “Story of Your Life” takes an oft-used science-fiction trope — in this case, first contact with intelligent aliens — and adds an unexpected but insightful and heart-rending twist.
Chiang said that the success of the novella and the movie hasn’t led to particularly dramatic changes in the story of his own life, but that it has broadened the audience for the kinds of stories he tells.
“My work has been read by people who would not describe themselves as science-fiction readers, by people who don’t usually read a lot of science fiction, and that’s been amazing. That’s been really gratifying,” he said. “It’s not something that I ever really expected.”
During our podcast chat, Chiang indulged in yet another thought experiment: Could AI replace science-fiction writers?
Chiang’s answer? It depends.
“If we could get software-generated novels that were coherent, but not necessarily particularly good, I think there would be a market for them,” he said.
But Chiang doesn’t think that would doom human authors.
“For an AI to generate a novel that you think of as really good, that you feel like, ‘Oh, wow, this novel was both gripping and caused me to think about my life in a new way’ — that, I think, is going to be very, very hard,” he said.
Ted Chiang only makes it look easy.
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
So what’s Chiang reading? It’s definitely not an AI-generated novel.
“I recently enjoyed the novel “The Devourers” by Indra Das,” Chiang said. “It’s a novel about — you might call them werewolves, or maybe just ‘shape-shifter’ would be a more accurate term. But it’s about shape-shifters or werewolves in pre-colonial India, in medieval India. It’s a setting that I haven’t seen a lot of in fiction, and really, it’s an interesting take on the werewolf or shape-shifter mythos.”
Based on that recommendation, we’re designating “The Devourers” as November’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Since 2002, the CLUB Club has recognized books with cosmic themes that could well be available at your local library or used-book store.
“I had been very skeptical about the idea of a TV series that was going to be a sequel to ‘Watchmen,’ ” Chiang said. “When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘That sounds like a bad idea.’ But I heard good things about it, and I gave it a try, and it surprised me with how interesting it was. For people who haven’t seen that, I definitely recommend checking it out.”
Spoiler alert: Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science-fiction novel about a coming climate catastrophe, “The Ministry for the Future,” doesn’t end with the collapse of civilization.
Millions of people die. Millions more become climate refugees. And the crisis sparks terrorist acts, against those who are working for change as well as against those who are defending the status quo.
But by the end of the book, there’s hope that humanity will actually be able to keep things from spinning out of control. And that’s in line with what Robinson has come to believe in the process of writing “The Ministry for the Future.”
“We could either crash the biosphere, and thus civilization, or we could actually create a really high-functioning and prosperous permaculture, a sustainable and just civilization on the planet in the biosphere,” he says. “Both the utter disaster and the quite great, semi-utopian historical moment are available to us.”
Robinson talks about “The Ministry for the Future,” and the real-world technological initiatives on which his tale is based, in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.
Robinson writes meticulously researched “hard” science fiction — that is, stories that rely on plausible physics and engineering rather than flights of fancy such as magic, mind-reading or faster-than-light travel. He’s best known for his Mars Trilogy, a sweeping saga about the settlement of the Red Planet, but the same approach applies to novels such as “Aurora” (about multigenerational interstellar exploration) and “Red Moon” (a murder mystery set in China and on the moon) and “2312” (a thriller that spans the solar system).
The book that’s most like “The Ministry for the Future” is Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which is set in a future version of the Big Apple that’s been inundated due to rising sea levels. “Ministry” follows a different timeline that’s closer to the present day.
The ministry in the title is a sub-agency that’s set up in 2025 as an outgrowth of U.N. climate accords. Soon after the founding of the Zurich-based ministry, a heat wave in South Asia kills millions of people. The ensuing story focuses on Mary Murphy, the Irish-born head of the ministry, as well as Frank May, an American aid worker who survives the heat wave.
“Mary and Frank have a bad meeting,” Robinson said. “This is absolutely not the Hollywood ‘cute meet.’ ”
Although Mary and Frank are the central characters of the narrative, the tale is also driven forward by eyewitness accounts from those caught up in the crisis.
It could be argued that the main drivers of the overarching plot are the technologies employed to adapt to Earth’s changing climate.
Robinson said he picked up one idea for the book from a glaciologist.
“The glaciers are sliding in Antarctica, 10 times as fast as they used to,” he explained. “It’s not that the Antarctic is melting, it’s that it’s sliding into the ocean, where it then melts. … And that sliding issue has to do with water lubricating the bottom of the glaciers. It’s not that much water. You can pump it out from there. The ice would bottom out on the rock again, slow back down again just through friction.”
If such a scheme worked, it could eliminate one of the worst effects of climate change. “I think my book is the first introduction of that idea to the world,” Robinson said.
The most decisive twists in “Ministry” have more to do with public policy and finance than with physics.
That part of the technological arsenal includes Modern Monetary Theory, which would basically loosen up the world banking system’s purse strings for more investment in green technologies; a carbon-coin currency tied to emissions reduction; and a data-trust platform known as YourLock that ends up breaking a social-media stranglehold. (In an earlier Fiction Science podcast, “Cyber Republic” author George Zarkadakis touched upon blockchain-enabled data trusts as well.)
Then there’s the darker side of climate action: In “Ministry,” one of the big drivers for change is a campaign of sabotage and assassination mounted by an eco-terrorist group called Children of Kali. Airplanes, coal-fired power plants and oil tankers fall victim to shadowy “pebble-mob” attacks. (That high-tech guerrilla strategy also makes an appearance in “2312”).
Does Robinson think eco-terrorism will be necessary to bring about a sustainable post-carbon civilization?
“I hope that doesn’t happen. … Partly I write those things to say we should try to avoid these by doing better things right now, and making a future even better than the Ministry for the Future’s future,” he said.
But Robinson said there’s a chance that “we may come into a situation where other people on the planet are so angry that we will see violent things being done, essentially against us.”
“This was the pain of writing the novel … the extreme fear that when you write about political violence, it sounds like you’re approving it, or saying, ‘This is the only way things will happen,’ ” he said. “That’s not the case, but in this novel, I’m saying that it very well could happen if we don’t do even better than this.”
How closely will reality match Robinson’s science-fiction view of the future. Will the true-life tale have a brighter or darker outcome? “The Ministry of the Future” stands out as a case where we won’t have to wait very long to find out.
Kim Stanley Robinson is due to discuss “Ministry for the Future” during an online talk at 7 p.m. ET (4 p.m. PT) today, presented by the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor, Maine, and co-sponsored by A Climate to Thrive and Sherman’s Books. Registration is free. Check the Jesup Library website for more information.
You may want to put off that big holiday dinner. Don’t have your heart set on sending the kids back to school anytime soon. And if you plan to get on a plane, be sure to wear your mask.
Those are just a few of the nuggets of advice that critical-care physician Vin Gupta and computational biologist Trevor Bedford passed along for getting through this winter in the midst of the persistent coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re definitely not ’rounding the curve,’ ” Gupta said.
Gupta and Bedford delivered a data-rich status report on the pandemic today during a virtual GeekWire Summit session moderated by CNBC technology and health reporter Christina Farr.
The bottom line is that it’s still too early to let your guard down, despite what some politicians might claim.
Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.
During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.
“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.
A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back. Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.
Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.
The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.
Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”
Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.
“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.
All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.
Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be.
The good news is that Operation Warp Speed, the multibillion-dollar effort to develop vaccines for COVID-19, is moving ahead at a pace that justifies its name.
The bad news is that despite all that effort, the coronavirus outbreak is still likely to be with us next year — and low- to medium-income countries such as India are likely to be hit particularly hard.
“We’re going to probably see a lot of deaths,” said Lynda Stuart, deputy director for vaccines and human immunobiology at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s going to be a great inequity and tragedy that will unfold.”
Stuart and other experts involved in the vaccine quest laid out their assessment of the road ahead today during the first session of the 2020 GeekWire Summit.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state is participating in a $600 million Pentagon program to test the use of 5G connectivity for high-tech applications.
JBLM’s piece of the program will focus on 5G-enabled applications that make use of augmented reality and virtual reality for mission planning, training and operations, the Department of Defense said today. The other sites involved in the experimentation and testing program are Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany in Georgia, Naval Base San Diego in California, and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
“Through these test sites, the department is leveraging its unique authorities to pursue bold innovation at a scale and scope unmatched anywhere else in the world,” Michael Kratsios, acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering, said in a news release.
In the old days, farmers kept track of their crops’ vital stats in logbooks and on whiteboards — but in the new days, that’s not going to cut it.
“Shun analog,” said Steve Mantle, the founder and CEO of Innov8 Ag Solutions, a farm management venture that’s headquartered in Walla Walla, Wash. “Digital first. If a grower is still putting things in logbooks, they have to shift to it.”
Mantle and other experts and entrepreneurs surveyed the state of agricultural tech today during Washington State University’s Digital Agriculture Summit — and it’s clear that the field is in a state of flux.
The panelists gave a shout-out to technologies ranging from sensor-equipped drones and 5G connectivity to robotic harvesters and artificial intelligence. But at the same time, some in the virtual audience complained about not being able to get even a 4G signal down on the farm.
Much more needs to be done to bring the agricultural data revolution to full fruition, said Kurt Steck, managing general partner of the 5G Open Innovation Lab, based in Bellevue, Wash.