Sunday, January 3, 2010

Inspiration, Free of Charge

In my day job, I run a medical news service for cardiologists. To come up with story assignments for myself and others to write about, I wade through a veritable mountain of scientific information every day. These include sources medical journals, press releases, and other scientific communications.

Given that I also write genre fiction, one would think that at least some of these tidbits would serve as good story material. Unfortunately, no. For whatever reason, my brain just doesn’t work that way. Not a single story that I’ve written—and admittedly, we’re not talking about a huge number by any stretch—came from these news nuggets.

However, that doesn’t mean others, namely you, can’t benefit. Over the last month or so, I’ve collected a number of items that should serve as inspiration for someone. So take a gander and let your imagination roam free:

Virginia Tech Team to Build Battlefield Robots for 2010 Competition

The roving, walking robotic soldiers of the “Terminator” films are becoming less sci-fi and more certain future every day. Now, a team of robotics researchers from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering will build a team of fully autonomous cooperative battle-ready robots as part of a 2010 international war games challenge that could spur real-life battle bots.

The 2010 Multi-Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge (MAGIC) tasks teams with building squads of fully autonomous ground robots that will coordinate, plan and execute a series of timed tasks including hunting objects, classifying and responding to simulated threats, and mapping diverse terrains at a field competition in Australia late next year. Among the specific tasks: Differentiate friendly non-targets from enemy targets, and shoot lasers at and jam the communications of the latter. (Read more…)

Can anybody say Sky Net? Or maybe ground-net in this case. The story possibilities seem obvious in this one, although one would have to be careful to avoid the Terminator-type retread that has been done to death. But let’s think. Perhaps one of the battle-bots learns a little faster than the others, and in the midst of combat sees that a peaceful solution should be the ultimate goal. Then maybe the mecha-warrior decides to negotiate and ends the conflict, giving rise to a race of robot diplomats who reject the precepts of war despite their human programming. That would certainly turn the “self-aware robot killer” theme on its head.

Among Apes, Teeth Are Made for the Toughest Times

The teeth of some apes are formed primarily to handle the most stressful times when food is scarce, according to new research performed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The interdisciplinary team, which brought together anthropologists from George Washington University (GWU) and fracture mechanics experts from NIST, has provided the first evidence that natural selection in three ape species has favored individuals whose teeth can most easily handle the “fallback foods” they choose when their preferred fare is less available. All of these apes—gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees—favor a diet of fruit whenever possible. But when fruit disappears from their usual foraging grounds, each species responds in a different way—and has developed teeth formed to reflect the differences. (Read more…)

What if this applies to humans, too? I can envision a post-apocalyptic world where resources are very scarce. How would people evolve? Maybe they’d get longer canines through natural selection to handle tougher food. Or in response to the land being rendered un-farmable due to the huge amounts of toxins released from radiation bombs, humans become more aquatic-based creatures and develop gills to help them survive. Or there’s a general de-evolution to a more primitive state more suited to hunting in the wild. There are many possibilities.

The Pitch of Blue Whale Songs is Declining Around the World

The sound level of songs blue whales sing across the vast expanses of the ocean to attract potential mates has been steadily creeping downward for the past few decades, and a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and his colleagues believe the trend may be good news for the population of the endangered marine mammal.

Mark McDonald of WhaleAcoustics in Bellvue, Colo., along with John Hildebrand of Scripps Oceanography and Sarah Mesnick of NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center studied blue whale song data from around the world and discovered a downward curve in the pitch, or frequency, of the songs. The decline was tracked in blue whales across the globe, from off the Southern California coast to the Indian and Southern Oceans. (Read more…)

So the frequency of whale song has been shifting lower and lower. Maybe these scientists have it wrong, though. Maybe it’s not a response to the increase in whale numbers. Instead, what if the whales are broadcasting some global warning? Perhaps some deep sea catastrophe is imminent, like a huge creature hidden for millennia has finally stirred. Or an alien race trapped in cryo-storage at the bottom of the Marianas Trench is on the verge of awakening. Then, naturally, a single marine biologist figures out the whale warnings and races to warn the world and prevent catastrophe.

Ancient Book of Mark Found Not So Ancient After All

A biblical expert at the University of Chicago, Margaret M. Mitchell, together with experts in micro-chemical analysis and medieval bookmaking, has concluded that one of the University Library’s most enigmatic possessions is a forgery. The book, a copy of the Gospel of Mark, will remain in the collection as a study document for scholars studying the authenticity of ancient books.

Scholars have argued for nearly 70 years over the provenance of what’s called the Archaic Mark, a 44-page miniature book, known as a “codex,” which contains the complete 16-chapter text of the Gospel of Mark in minuscule handwritten text. The manuscript, which also includes 16 colorful illustrations, has long been believed to be either an important witness to the early text of the gospel or a modern forgery.

Comprehensive analysis demonstrates that it is not a genuine Byzantine manuscript, but a counterfeit made somewhere between 1874 and the first decades of the 20th century. (Read more…)

This has obvious “Da Vinci Code” overtones, but it’s still a good jumping off point. For instance, what if the real Gospel of Mark has been hidden away for centuries because it contains a set of instructions leading to the hidden occult and religious relics amassed during the Holy Roman Empire, which will grant the user mystical powers? Then it’s up to an intrepid archeologist and his beautiful sidekick-slash-religion historian to uncover the real text and decipher all the clues before the treasure falls into the wrong hands.

There you go, four story concepts ripped from current events guaranteed to make for gripping stories. I won’t be using them, but by no means does that mean you shouldn’t. So go write, create, have fun. And have a happy New Year!

-Jason Kahn

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