We at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores recently had a chance to sit down with artist Teun van der Zalm and chat with him about his work. Teun uses mathematical modeling and computer rendering to create stunning, 3-D images and videos of nebulae. His work can be seen in art galleries across the globe and the videos he creates have been used in short films and other visual media in the last few years. His work is both exquisite and inspiring (check out his website for more) and we are excited to be featuring some of his work over the coming weeks, starting with the first of his Nebulae Short Films
Greetings Teun, and thank you for sitting down with us to talk a little bit about your work. First of all, can you please tell us a little bit about your journey becoming an artist?
Since my childhood I have always been fascinated with creating images. Early on, I got a video camera from my father and made short films with my friends using Legos. In 2004, I began to study animation at the Utrecht School of the Arts. While there, I worked on two short films, City of Lights and Tears/De Breuklijn. These were screened at more than fifty film festivals all over the world. After finishing my studies in 2008, I worked for four years as a freelancer on various jobs, including creating animations for documentaries and short films. Then in 2013, I began my journey into the particle realm. First, I began with the abstract. I searched for new forms using physics and other mathematical methods. Now I have developed ways to create nebulae structures in 3D using only mathematics.
What inspires you about the universe? Why did you choose to express that interest in nebulae?
Good question. Honestly, everything inspires me about the cosmos. From really big nebula structures to the single form. It was a logical decision for me to create these stellar nurseries. I began simulating abstract forms as a sort of art project. I wanted to create more stylistic work. I was searching for a way to merge my old passion (astronomy) and my skills I had developed the last couple of years.
What’s a fun fact that you learned about the universe while creating your work?
That is difficult to say. My work began mostly with looking at Hubble images as an artist. Always asking myself the question, how would I do this on the computer? I began my research by dissecting all the parts that make up nebulae and reading as much information as I could about the supernova process. Combining these, I began to develop the look and feel of the nebulae using the math I learned. In this process, perhaps I learned more about the complexity of our universe and how I could translate that onto a computer.
Your website mentions that you use the Perlin Noise algorithm to generate your artwork. Can you share your process with us ?
I began using physics to build the basic nebulae form. This means that real world physics has been adapted to simulate the flow of the clouds. At this point, it is a volumetric cloud. After that, I transform these volumetric clouds to billions of smaller particles. Then I use different Perlin Noise variations to add all the fine detail and layers.
How long does it take to generate an image? Or one of those gorgeous videos?
That depends. The further I developed my process; the more details I formed. But that also increased the render and production time, especially as I began to use more and more particles. To take that finer detail into moving images was a real challenge. I had no idea how to do it without rendering for months. Then, while working on a project at the beginning of 2017, I developed a way to slice-render the nebulae as images and place them in a compositing program where I can animate the camera and add the stars. This way it was faster and more flexible for me.
Visual media has inspired a generation of scientists, amateur astronomers, and even the movie industry. For example, the work on visualizing gravitational lensing in the movie Interstellar resulted in academic research papers about the underlying mathematics. Do you have any plans on expanding your artwork to other media or to academic research?
The last 6 months I have worked on several VFX projects. But also, commercials, music videos and others. So, I already have been able to expand my work to several other media productions. I would really like to connect and develop my style with an academic background, but I’m still searching for a university or company who is interested.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists looking to work with mathematics in their work?
Well, I am more of a system-building person. In my work the process is king. Of course, there will be a lot of math, but if I fail at some other point in the process and I can’t figure it all out, I will take a longer route than some other people to find the solution. I always dissect the problems into parts to figure them out, not all at once.
What can we expect to see from you in the coming months? Any exciting projects or releases?
Yes, I have many VFX projects, planetarium shows, and other visual presentations coming up. For example, I will team up with the biggest dark ambient music artist, Lustmord, to create a journey through our universe for his upcoming shows. We will even create a full-dome experience.
What books are on your nightstand?
Oh, not many. I am a bit embarrassed about that. A while back I read lots of books about the art of filmmaking and science-related books. Even many Stephen King stories. But at this moment I am mostly inspired by the technology, movies, television, and old 70’s progressive rock music.
It’s the end of the year and we’re all reflecting on what’s been accomplished, what’s been changed, and what’s been forgotten about during the last 12 months. I’ve been thinking about all of those things in my own life, realizing now that I still need to fix the broken chest in my bedroom and clean out the basement (again). But I’ve also been looking back at how science and science research has fared this year. It’s been up and down to say the least and and I want to highlight a few victories and failures as we move on to 2018.
Last April, the March for Science moved science firmly into the political spectrum as scientists, clinicians, and supporters globally united to promote truth and increase awareness for science-related causes. For many science supporters, this was the first time taking politically-motivated action to protect the integrity of the field. In 2018, I expect to see science becoming even more polarized. Topics like climate change and alternative fuels will undoubtedly become platform issues for politicians (and in some cases, they already are) and keeping real facts up above the ‘alternative facts’ movement may be one of the most important challenges scientists will face away from the bench.
Organizations like Action 314 have sprung up to help elect scientists and doctors to the Hill in Washington. I’m keen to see what effect this will have on science-related policy and on U.S. policy in general. These new candidates are human after all and can still make mistakes. They will be prone to the same pressures and special interests that plague the Capitol today.
In spite of these misgivings, it IS time for science to be central in politics. As funding changes in response to the new tax overhauls in the coming years, it’ll be important to see how research and education is affected. There’s been some success already. The March for Science was spear-headed by a younger generation more willing to get into the weeds and call-out our state representatives. The final tax bill still includes the graduate student tuition waiver, which, had it been taken out, would have made going to school for an advanced degree extremely cost-prohibitive. If it weren’t for grass-roots mobilization by graduate students and organizations like AAAS, the attack on science education would have claimed a major victory.
While the March for Science deservedly belongs in the Good Category, it does also belong here in the Bad. The March for Science has had many problems since its inception. There have been major issues of transparency and inclusivity that have stymied the movement’s ability to energize the next generation’s willingness to stay involved. This is very unfortunate. The movement grew almost too fast and was soon very different from what it started as on Facebook last February – as a direct result of the Trump Administration’s beginning dismantlement of science and the increased use of ‘alternative facts’.
I remember my own frustration as we waited weeks and weeks last spring for any answers on what would be occurring during the actual march in D.C. on Earth Day. Understandably, many of those early organizers had never undertaken such an international task, with all its logistical and financial challenges. But most of those original members have now left the March for Science and sharply criticized the way the organization is run. If the March for Science wants to extend itself beyond a flash in the pan, the current board will need to sort out their in-house issues or risk losing all momentum built up last winter.
The Trump Administration HAS claimed some victories. Government scientists have been banned from presenting at conferences, including barring climate scientists from discussing their work and stripping the words ‘climate change’ from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
Other areas of concern include provisions in the new tax bill that open up the Artic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. And while only parts of the refuge will be available for drilling, ANWR represents one of the last pristine wildernesses in the United States and these areas should be protected for as long as possible. The long-term protection of ANWR and National Parks is essential not only for wildlife protection and management, but for sustaining a better future for our children. Hopefully this messages rings strongly next year.
Trump’s 2018 budget proposal also called for drastic cuts to the NIH and NSF. While most politicians in Congress have called this a non-starter, it will be interesting to see the final funding levels for both of these essential agencies in the 2018 fiscal year budget. Trump has made it clear that basic science research, particularly with our climate and alternative fuel sources, will not be a priority for his administration.
Some topics of interest in science this year are so controversial they fall into the ‘Ugly’ category. This is for a variety of reasons, which I’ll detail below.
First, the United States has formally withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, becoming the only country on the planet to withhold support for this imperative initiative. This really is the proverbial ‘burying the head in the sand’ and is not only short-sighted, but just stupid. Many U.S. cities have already declared they will follow the accord’s guidelines for carbon emissions in lieu of the federal government’s tepid response to this movement. In the long run, withdrawing from this accord will hurt the U.S. competitively in energy jobs, infrastructure, and on our national debt as more powerful storms continue to pummel the coasts. Am I being too hyperbolic? Perhaps not enough, really.
The next issue concerns the reproducibility crisis that is rippling throughout science. I’ve written before about the crisis, but briefly, scientists and researchers are beginning to find that many important studies cannot be reproduced outside of the original laboratory the observations were first made in. This year isn’t necessarily a watershed year for addressing this issue, however the focus on improving the philosophy and process of science is certainly a current topic of debate at many institutes.
I struggled to decide where the crisis should be mentioned in this article. Reproducible and rigorous research are an integral part of the scientific process and checking the work of others is an essential component therein. In fact, new theories and protocols can’t be pushed forward without this systemic re-analysis. It’s a good thing.
However, the increased media coverage of this plays into the hands of those who want to tarnish science and continue to chip away at the pillars of truth. The narrative needs to be changed to focus on how the crisis is an important cornerstone of how science is conducted, validated, and pushed forward. As long as that narrative can be casted with doubt by proponents of ‘alternative facts’, fake news, and whatever other agenda, for me the crisis stays in the Ugly category.
Finally, there continues to be a major patent dispute for ownership of the CRISPR gene editing technology between the Broad Institute and University of California-Berkeley. Billions of dollars are at stake and this year the first ruling was in favor of the Broad Institute. But Jennifer Doudna and UC Berkey have appealed and the next hearing will be next year (for a nice review of this issue see this article in the Wall Street Journal).
Anytime individual researchers compete with one another it can turn into high drama. But this time the stakes are enormous and I can’t help but feel this may be yet another time that a woman in STEM research gets handed the short straw (Doudna was the first to develop the CRISPR system as a gene editing tool in bacteria). Plus, it’s never a win when two highly-respected, international research institutes are cutthroat going at it with one another to win control of an innovative technology. This will get uglier, and it could potentially hold sway over who the Nobel Committee awards the Nobel Prize to for this discovery. Stay tuned.
And for now, that about wraps it up. Not to end on a downer, but I’m hoping things improve a bit next year. See you in 2018!
Here we offer you an article on the curious case of the density range shared by all modern-day elliptical galaxies.
Some physical process we don’t understand is driving all elliptical galaxies to evolve towards a certain common density. Is this an attribute of galaxy structures themselves, or a consequence of an undiscovered physical law? The size-luminosity relationship is a mystery – evidence of a major trend that astronomers never would have expected.
Alex Drozd explores the phenomenon.
The Size-Luminosity Relationship in Extra-Galactic Astronomy
When I started undergraduate research at the University of Alabama, I met Dr. Nair, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. New to the University, she was looking to build a team of undergraduates to help streamline the basic chores involved in her research. Dr. Nair is an extra-galactic astronomer; she studies galaxy evolution and the structural differences between galaxies in the local universe and galaxies at high redshifts — that is, the light of objects moving away from us is in effect stretched into the longer, lower frequency wave lengths, and the further away the object the greater the shift. When I approached her about joining the team, she directed me to the white board in her office, brimming with numbers, astrophysics equations, and hand-drawn graphs of galaxy brightness profiles.
“I’m looking for more undergraduates,” she said. “I have more data to analyze than I have time for. Are you interested in studying galaxies?”
“Sure,” I replied. “I live in one after all.”
The local universe extends from the Milky Way to a redshift of z<0.1 — about one billion light years away—where z is the ratio of the galaxy’s relative speed to the speed of light, from which a distance can be calculated. For Dr. Nair’s research, galaxies anywhere from z=0 up to z»3 — zero to five billion light years away — were studied. More distant galaxies have been discovered, but too few to constitute a statistically significant sample. She focuses on elliptical galaxies within this distance range because they are populous and visible enough to be analyzed and compared with their neighbors. She directed me to download a collection of galaxy cluster images within the z=0 up to z»3 range.
Figure 1: Middle-aged elliptical galaxies between z 0 to 3. —This image includes the distant galaxy cluster Abell 370, one of the very first galaxy clusters in which astronomers observed gravitational lensing, in which gravity warps spacetime and distorts the light we receive from galaxies lying beyond the gravity lens. The arcs and streaks are the gravitationally distorted images of more distant galaxies. Source:Image by NASA, ESA, HST Frontier Fields)
In the following months, to prepare for my image and brightness analyses of elliptical galaxies, I read academic papers on extra-galactic astronomy and filled my hard drive with high-resolution images of galaxy clusters — leaving little room for anything else. It turns out that most scientific data, at least in astronomy, is available online. If you have the drive space, you can download Hubble Space Telescope images and process them yourself with free software. There are also top-of-the-line, high-priced astronomical image processing programs, like MIRA and IRIS. However, even free programs like DS9, named after the Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine, are used by both students and professional astronomers for image processing and scientific analysis. I downloaded it and loaded up all the Hubble Space Telescope images I’d been storing on my computer.
Elliptical galaxies look like giant glowing spheres of stars (Figures 2 and 3). Our own Milky Way is a spiral galaxy 100,000 light years in diameter, with long, star-filled arms curving out from the galactic core. The stars of a spiral galaxy orbit about the center in a flat galactic plane. The Milky Way won’t always be a spiral. In about four billion years, when we collide with our closest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, gravitational effects will cause the two galaxies to restructure. They might become a single elliptical galaxy, in which the stars chaotically orbit about the galactic center without a plane or pattern.
For those of you who might be depressed by such a future for our beloved Milky Way, fear not. When galaxies merge, their stars and planets rarely collide, because there is so much empty space between them.1 The average distance between stars is about 30 trillion miles.
So, humankind is unlikely to be extinguished by a galactic collision, or by the death of our Sun in five billion years. But in two billion years the Sun’s energy output will have increased to the point where temperatures on Earth will be too hot for liquid water.1 Unless of course we’ve developed technology to move our planet to a safer range.
Galactic merging events are exactly what extra-galactic astronomers like Dr. Nair study to understand the evolution of galaxies. Looking at elliptical galaxies is the best way to do this considering they are the products of mergers. Since the observable universe is billions of light years across — its edge always growing larger as the universe continues to expand — the light we receive from the most distant ellipticals is already billions of years old—meaning we’re seeing them as they were billions of years ago. Looking at progressively closer ellipticals, we can study the entire history of their evolution, from the time they were first formed all the way up to the present.
Figure 3: The image compares an average present-day spiral galaxy (left) with its counterpart in the primordial past (right), when galaxies were likely had more hot, bright stars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI
Extra-galactic astronomers studying the evolution of elliptical galaxies have found a curious anomaly, referred to as the size-luminosity relationship in early-type galaxies. ‘Early-type galaxy’ is the name originally used for elliptical galaxies under the galaxy classification scheme, created by Edwin Hubble, the early 20th century astronomer who discovered that the universe contained galaxies besides our own. The size-luminosity relationship is one of the most fascinating topics in the field of extra-galactic astronomy, and relates to the physical concept of density.
Density here refers to the amount of mass within a given volume of space. A cup of water is denser than a cup of air, and a cup of iron is denser than a cup of water. Though mass and weight aren’t the same thing, they’re directly related, and you can see that a given volume of space would be denser if it has more weight in it than one with less weight.
Galaxies have size and mass just like all other matter in the universe. Galaxies are collections of stars and gas clouds bound together by gravity. The ones with more stars are more massive than the ones with fewer, but a small galaxy with a hundred billion stars is denser than a larger galaxy with the same number of stars.
The most distant elliptical galaxies, and therefore the oldest, are extremely compact. In this context, luminosity directly relates to mass because more mass in a galaxy means more stars, and more stars means more brightness3.
When extra-galactic astronomers like Dr. Nair plot the size-luminosity relationship of elliptical galaxies, they observe something quite unexpected: Billions of years ago these galaxies were quite dense, but the degree of density varied greatly. Yet local, present-day ellipticals vary little in density. This means that over time, regardless of how compact an elliptical galaxy was to begin with, it expands — or ‘puffs out’ — to the density range common to all elliptical galaxies today4. Some physical process we don’t understand is driving all elliptical galaxies to evolve towards a certain common density. Is this an attribute of galaxy structures themselves, or a consequence of an undiscovered physical law? The size-luminosity relationship is a mystery – evidence of a major trend that astronomers never would have expected.
How do elliptical galaxies “know” when to stop growing? Is there a physical process that keeps track of and adjusts their density? How do the ultra-compact ones “know” to grow by a lot, and the less compact ones by only a little? What’s causing them to puff out?
Extra-galactic astronomers have some hypotheses about what mechanisms may be contributing to this phenomenon, the most likely one being mergers. Elliptical galaxies don’t stop merging after just one collision. In fact, they’re expected to be even more likely to collide again after a merger because they now have more mass and attract other objects nearby more intensely.
You might ask: if a merger adds both mass and size to the galaxy, why doesn’t the density stay the same? The mass of a galaxy increases, but proportionally its size increases much more5. Galaxies spin, and when mass is added to them it disturbs the angular momentum of the system, causing the orbiting bodies to spread out. So mostly likely small galaxies merge with these ellipticals in events we call minor mergers, and cause the size evolution over time, the ‘puffing out.’ This adds much more size than mass, meaning the density goes down overall. Minor mergers are also more frequent.
There are different forms of merging events: dry mergers and wet mergers. The former refers to merging events between galaxies lacking appreciable interstellar medium — gas clouds in the space between the stars – where not much interaction happens between the different pockets of gas inside the two galaxies. Because of this, dry mergers don’t have much of an effect on the overall behavior of the resulting galaxy, whereas wet mergers — where galaxies with appreciable interstellar medium are involved — induce star formation due to gravitational instabilities in the merging gas clouds. These processes can change the distribution of the angular momentum in a galaxy as the new stars drift into their orbital positions about the galactic center. It is currently thought that the Milky Way-Andromeda Collision will be a dry merging event, as not much gas will be available during the collision with which to trigger star formation.6
Other hypotheses have been proposed for the existence of the size-luminosity relationship. They range from the spreading out and dissipation of the gas clouds in elliptical galaxies — not related to merging events — to the astronomer’s favorite go-to when something about a galaxy’s mass doesn’t add up: dark matter,3 which makes up most of a galaxy’s mass but can only be indirectly detected. It’s possible that the restructuring of a galaxy’s dark matter during merging events could be causing the size evolution — assuming it interacts with itself at all.
Another hypothesis, gas dissipation, notes that not all distant galaxies are compact; a small minority are not very dense at all. Yet, even these anomalous galaxies eventually puff out — otherwise, we’d still see compact galaxies in the local universe today. Over time, they lose gas and this affects the galactic structure, decreasing size and therefore gaining density, to reach the same value of density most compact early galaxies evolve to. So, whether elliptical galaxies begin with high or low density, they evolve over time to reach the same density as every other elliptical.7
But the merger-driven model of early-type galaxy evolution is the hypothesis that’s gained the most traction. It best fits the computer simulation models that theoretical astrophysicists have, even though it possesses numerous inconsistencies, and researchers are continually finding problems with it. Until a better hypothesis comes along, it’s the one most extra-galactic astronomers are sticking with.
Except for Dr. Nair and her colleagues.
She wrote a paper demonstrating that mergers shouldn’t be able to account for just how small the scatter on the size-luminosity plot is.5 The merger model predicts a narrow range of densities that nearby early-type galaxies can fall into, but Dr. Nair and her colleagues showed, using more recently collected data and different methods of analyzing brightness, that the range of densities is much smaller than predicted by merger-driven models (Figure 4).
Figure 4: The top row shows Dr. Nair’s data, where the range of densities is smaller. The bottom row shows data collected and measured by an older method of measuring a galaxy’s brightness. (Source: Nair, et al. 2011)
And there’s much more to the picture. Before the anomalous size-luminosity relationship in early-type galaxies was discovered, astrophysical computer models predicted that environmental factors were a key influence in the evolution of ellipticals. Early-type galaxies in low density environments, locations without many nearby galaxies or bodies, also called isolated environments, were thought to grow less than those in high density environments like galaxy clusters, where many neighboring galaxies and bodies are in closer proximity. High density environments have a higher number of collisions and merging events and early hypotheses suggested that environment would play a huge role in galaxy evolution.8
Yet, contrary to what our current astrophysical models and simulations of galaxy evolution are still predicting, it’s been observed that environment plays no role in early-type evolution5. Regardless of whether an elliptical is in a galaxy cluster or an isolated environment, it undergoes an evolution with the same end-point, becoming about as dense as every other early-type galaxy in the nearby universe. If mergers are the explanation, how is this possible? How is it that galaxies in clusters evolve exactly as do isolated galaxies? The former undergo extensive collisions and merging events, while the latter might only experience a few merging events over their entire history. The environmental independence of galaxy evolution may be the most perplexing characteristic of the size-luminosity relationship. If the mechanism by which these processes occur were to be discovered, it could provide valuable insight into how galaxies evolve, how matter was distributed in the early universe, and what galaxies might look like in the distant future.
Even if minor mergers prove to be the mechanism by which ellipticals evolve, this doesn’t answer the question as to why compact galaxies in the early universe grew at unique rates to the same final density we observe today. Why, when we look around at the nearby universe, have elliptical galaxies stopped growing? We know of no law that states an elliptical galaxy must fall into this specific and narrow range of densities. But the empirical fact remains that ellipticals evolve to have about the same ratio of mass to volume, i.e., the same slope on the size-luminosity graph. Could this lead to the discovery of a new law of physics? Perhaps one that could describe the behavior of dark matter?
And remember those images Dr. Nair had me download? The ones of galaxy clusters in between the local and the distant universe, between z of 0 to 3? They show what you would expect: mid-distanced, middle-aged, elliptical galaxies aren’t as compact as the most distant ones; they’re larger in size, suggesting they’re getting closer to the density exhibited by early-types in the local universe. We can see them in mid-approach (Figure 1). It can be frustrating to look at. What’s causing it? I wished the answer could leap out of the graph at me. But the size luminosity relationship has remained a mystery even to veteran extra-galactic astronomers who’ve been working on it for years.
The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch in October of 2018. With its new capabilities — for example its infrared imaging camera9 (able to see through obscuring gas and dust, see Figure 5) — astronomers will be able to make extra-galactic observations at even higher redshifts. Astronomers will be able to gather data about elliptical galaxies even further away, further back in time, and perhaps get closer to solving the size-luminosity mystery, gaining insights into how the universe we live in evolves.
Figure 5: Visible light and infrared views of the Monkey Head Nebula. Credit:NASA and ESA . Acknowledgment: the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and J. Hester. Using infrared we can see through more dust and gas than with visible light.
Alex Drozd is a graduate of the University of Alabama. He studied astrophysics and is now working as a programmer. He is also a science fiction writer, and has previously been published by Daily Science Fiction.
The winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize were announced this week, much to the delight of scientists, readers, and enthusiasts around the world. I’ll briefly discuss the science-related awards for this year. The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has yet to be awarded.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Joachim Frank, Richard Henderson, and Jacques Dubochet for, “developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.” Their pioneering work has allowed researchers and clinicians to visualize the structure of drugs, compounds, and proteins at some of the highest-resolution ever seen. By understanding how these molecules look and behave in solution, better applications can be developed for their use in health and technology.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Michael Rosbach, Michael Young, and Jeffrey Young for “their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.” The circadian clock is the regulatory system that governs the biological clock of the human body and within human tissues. The centers in the brain that control the circadian clock regulate human and animal sleep cycles and are controlled by light and hormones.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.” Gravitational waves are the curvature of spacetime due to gravitational objects colliding or moving in space. The waves propagate out from each disturbance like the ripples in a pond after a stone has been thrown. Albert Einstein and other physicists famously predicted their occurrence but did not have the technology to detect them. Until now that is!
It is always exciting to see who gets these prestigious awards. Congrats to all the winners!
Meet the Scientist Q & A: Benjamin C. Kinney, Ph.D.
From time to time I’ll be conducting interviews and/or Q & A’s with scientists from around the world in the blog’s new Meet the Scientist series. We’ll discuss current research, the state of science in general, and anything else of interest that might pop up. First up: Dr. Benjamin Kinney!
Dr. Benjamin C. Kinney has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and is a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also the Assistant Editor for the science fiction podcast Escape Pod. He writes science fiction and fantasy, and his short stories have been published in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, and more. You can find more of his writing at http://benjaminckinney.com or follow him on Twitter @BenCKinney, where he explains neuroscience concepts on his weekly #NeuroThursday feature.
Doug: Thanks for your time, Dr. Kinney! So, what got you into science?
Ben: I started like so many scientists did: with science fiction. This goes back into the mists of childhood memories for me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been driven by that sense of wonder and discovery. I ended up in neuroscience because it’s the biggest mystery of all: both impossibly vast, and impossibly personal.
Doug: What does your research focus on and what have you found?
Ben: I study how the brain and body change after injury to the hand and arm. In the past, I’ve worked with amputees and hand transplant patients (and cyborg monkeys), but now I work with people who’ve suffered nerve injuries. I’m particularly interested in handedness: how can it change and what can we do for patients whose dominant hands get injured. I’m just starting up a big study to compare laboratory measurements of hand function with how patients use their hands in their daily life. Hopefully we’ll be able to figure out which of those lab measurements have a real impact on patients’ quality of life. Once we do, we’ll be able to use therapy, training, and neuro-stimulation to improve the kinds of movement that matter most.
Doug: Are there any misconceptions in your field of work or in neuroscience at large?
Ben: Neuroscience is very complex, which means it can get oversimplified. I could talk all day about public misconceptions of neuroscience, but here’s one that ties directly into my own work: the idea that a person can be “left-brained” or “right brained” is complete bunk. The two sides of the brain are specialized for different skills, but you’re not “good at left-side things” or “good at right-side things.” You’re good at some things and not others – and it makes no difference whether those things are on the same side or opposite sides.
Doug: What’s one big question in the field that you’d like to see answered in your lifetime?
Ben: Every human being’s brain is different. Different folds and valleys, different networks of cells. What I want to know is: How much does that matter? There are so many problems, both scientific and medical, that we can’t address right now because of how much the brain varies from person to person. If we could predict or interpret that variation – for example, if we knew that certain neuroanatomical patterns affected an individual’s response to a psychiatric drug – we could understand and accomplish so much more.
Doug: How might we get more of the public to engage in science discussions?
Ben: I think the trick will be to get people thinking about science and scientists as part of everyday life, not just something that strange weirdos do in a mysterious basement laboratory. When I go to parties and people say, “I’ve never met a neuroscientist!”, I say, “Why not? Neuroscientists are everywhere. I’m surrounded by them every day!”
We’re living in different worlds – an inevitable part of how we as Americans so often structure our lives around work. But I think we need to pierce some holes in that to make science feel less like a mystery cult and more like something anyone can access.
Doug: You were recently brought on board as an editor at Escape Pod, congratulations! Any advice on how to approach incorporating hard science into science fiction or genre writing?
Ben: Remember that the science is there to support and inspire the story, not the other way around. If you want to write about a new piece of science or technology, I recommend focusing less on what it does, and more on what it means to people and their lives.
Doug: Do you incorporate your research interests into your writing?
Ben: Usually indirectly. I write across a broad spectrum of science fiction and fantasy, and a fair amount of it draws indirectly from my neuroscience training. I have strong opinions about human decision-making, artificial intelligence, and alien minds – whether scientific or fantastic! But every now and then I do produce a story that draws directly from my work. The most neuroscientific thing I’ve published is a silly little story called “Cyborg Shark Battle (Season 4, O’ahu Frenzy)” in the Cat’s Breakfast Anthology from Third Flatiron Press. In graduate school I used brain-machine interfaces to study how the monkey brain controls movement and Cyborg Shark Battle applies that technology for entertainment and profit in the realm of reality TV.
Doug: Running a lab can require a lot of funding and I imagine you spend a lot of time grant writing. I know that writing scientific grants and writing fiction can be different processes. As a writer of science fiction, how do you balance the two?
Ben: Sadly, the answer is “triage.” There are only so many hours in the day, so I try to use them for productive things. Thankfully “reading” is productive to a writing career, so I have ways to relax, but I’ve probably watched only 3-4 television shows in the last five years. I also sent my wife to Mars for a year, that gave me a ton of extra writing time! I recommend it for everyone.
Doug: Can you recommend any good books about neuroscience?
Ben: Fiction or nonfiction? I’ll go with fiction, because unless you count peer-reviewed research publications, I don’t read non-fiction in my own field – I’m the wrong audience. My favorite neuroscience-focused science fiction books are Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and Blindsight by Peter Watts. Ancillary Justice’s science is subtle, but the novel is permeated by a deep understanding of neurological disorders and cognitive science. Blindsight is more explicit about its neuroscience and it wraps a fascinating argument into an excellent (and terrifying) story, so I always recommend it even though I wildly disagree with it.
Doug: Thank you so much for taking the time to answers questions about your science and writing!