Friday, June 18, 2010

Free Story Ideas, No Waiting—Did I Mention They’re Free?

From the hidden depths of my e-mail I have once again collected and sifted through the accumulated dross of press releases and news items I receive on a daily basis looking for those gems that jump to the head of the cool-story-idea line and shout, “Hey, look at me!” These are the chosen few, mulled and mused upon and ready for your consumption:

Brain Mechanism Controlling Dreaming and Waking Could Be Key to New Stimulants, Anesthetics

A brain mechanism involved in both dreaming and waking from sleep may hold the key to new, more effective anesthetics and stimulants, reported neuroscientists at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). Researchers in the UAMS Center for Translational Neuroscience discovered that cells in the part of the brainstem that controls sleep, dreaming and waking exhibit the same type of electrical activity as when the cortex of the brain is alert or during learning. This discovery could allow development of new stimulants and anesthetics that can modulate this brain activity, the researchers reported in the May 2010 issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology. (Read more…)

The paper goes on to say that the research holds promise for developing medications that could more effectively control waking and sleeping. This concept sounds a lot more interesting than better sleeping pills, though. It’s not a great leap to think that this might enable the development of drugs that could fine tune brain activity so someone could maintain awareness during their dreams. Even control their dream environments, a la that semi-cheesy 1980s movie Dreamscape with Dennis Quaid.

One could envision the ability to even foster a shared dream state, in which people could interact, and then wake up when they felt like it. But what if they didn’t want to wake up? What if the dream reality became more interesting and more fulfilling than actual reality, and people just decided to live their lives there, with their actual bodies plugged in somewhere for storage? Theoretically, if they were fed these new dreamy drugs, they could go on like this, living their dreamy lives forever, even have kids in their dream world.

What if our protagonist is one of these kids, living what he thinks is a normal life? But always with the suspicion that something’s not quite right. Then he discovers the truth, that his entire existence is some mass-generated dream state, but unlike his parents, he doesn’t really exist outside of it. Is he even real? Des he tell all the other dream children? Kind of like the anti-Matrix, right?

NIST/JILA ‘Dark Pulse Laser’ Produces Bursts of … Almost Nothing

In an advance that sounds almost Zen, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and JILA, a joint institute of NIST and the University of Colorado at Boulder, have demonstrated a new type of pulsed laser that excels at not producing light. The new device generates sustained streams of “dark pulses”—repeated dips in light intensity—which is the opposite of the bright bursts in a typical pulsed laser.

Despite its ominous name, the dark pulse laser is envisioned as a tool for benign communications and measurements based on infrared light frequencies. (Read more…)

A dark laser, that’s just so cool. But c’mon, a communications tool? I don’t think so. It seems like whatever light source you’d point this thing at would go dark. So…. Imagine a story in which two advanced civilizations have been at war for generations. Finally, one side has developed the ultimate weapon, a dark laser. Your protagonist, though, is on the other side. He knows the enemy’s plan is to fly a stealth ship armed with a dark laser cannon and fire it directly at the sun of his home world. Unless he can stop them, it’s lights out, literally.

Brazilian Jaguar Predation Patterns Revealed Through Use of GPS

Jaguars versus cattle is an age-old conflict for people living on the Brazilian plains. South America’s Pantanal region is important to the continued survival of jaguars, but it also has been home to cattle ranching for more than 200 years. New insights into this conflict are offered through a study using global positioning system (GPS) technology to track the predatory patterns of these jaguars, recording what animals they kill and how often.

The study appears in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Mammalogy. Prey remains were identified at more than 400 kill sites. Jaguars most often killed native species; 68% of the carcasses found included caiman (a crocodilian reptile), piglike peccaries, feral hogs, marsh deer, and giant anteaters. Thirty-two percent were cattle. (Read more…)

Animal hunting patterns are interesting, I guess, but what if our protagonist, a zoologist observing the jaguars, starts to notice a strange pattern. At first, the jaguars hunt as they always have, but something changes as they start taking on more intelligent animals. First wild dogs, then wolves, panthers. Just as alarming are their tactics. They become organized, banding together, maneuvering with almost military proficiency.

It becomes obvious that someone or something is training the jaguars. Glimpses are seen, a man shambling on all fours in the midst of the jaguars, wearing furs, accepted as one of their own. Then the jaguars attack a human settlement, silently and swiftly killing the inhabitants under cover of night. The strange jaguar man is seen leading them, barking and yipping in their language, and they obey him without question. Tales spread, some begin to worship the jaguar man as an animal shaman or deity. Hunters and police gather to fight the jaguars but they are overwhelmed by the fierce killers.

Unable to escape the chaos of the region, our intrepid zoologist is swept up and becomes captured by the jaguars. They bring him to their leader, forcing him to treat the jaguar wounded and serve them. In his time around the jaguar man, he comes to realize that this man is no animal spirit, but something far worse. He is possessed by Lebara, a Brazilian demon (Yeah, I looked that up. Always do your research!) who has only begun to inflict pain and terror on mankind. Using his knowledge as a scientist who has spent years observing the jaguars, our hero must break the demon’s hold over the animals and somehow expell the evil spirit.

STEREO, SOHO Spacecraft Catch Comet Diving Into Sun

Solar physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, have captured for the first time the collision of a comet with the sun.

Using instruments aboard NASA's twin STEREO spacecraft, four post-doctoral fellows at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory were able to track the comet as it approached the sun and estimate an approximate time and place of impact. STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory), launched in 2006, consists of identical spacecraft orbiting the sun, one ahead of Earth and one behind Earth, providing a stereo view of the sun.

Sungrazing comets, comprised of dust, rock and ice, are seldom tracked close to the sun because their brightness is overwhelmed by the solar disk. This comet apparently survived the heat of the corona and disappeared in the chromosphere, evaporating in the 100,000-degree (Kelvin) heat. (Read more…)

I know, another sun story, but this time it’s our sun. And an innocent seeming comet sounds pretty harmless, right? But what if our observers notice something odd after the comet’s impact, like a huge plume of solar material spewing close to the earth? Power grids are blacked out and geological disturbances occur. Still, the flare doesn’t fully hit our planet, so it could have been worse.

However, incredible as it seems, the plume seemed to be a direct consequence of the comet’s impact. Did something aim an interstellar object at the sun to cause such a potentially catastrophic occurrence on earth? It’s a wild theory, but soon the scientific team picks up another “comet” with the same approximate composition as the first one headed toward the sun. And based on the last one’s trajectory, this one will create a solar flare that will completely engulf the earth. The scientists spread the alarm, but they are of course scoffed at by the rest of the scientific community (isn’t that always the way?). The team comes up with a desperate plan. With the aid of some friends inside NASA, they launch a manned probe to intercept the comet.

It’s a one-way mission, and the scientists aboard the ship are prepared to sacrifice their lives, but they are not prepared for what they discover when they make contact with the alien being they find at the controls of the comet, which of course is actually a spacecraft. Turns out the aliens don’t want to destroy the earth at all, they just want to harvest the unique solar flare material to fuel their own sun to ensure their survival. Now the two races must work together to save both species before the earth is engulfed by another deadly blast of solar energy.

Anyway, that’s my take on these various and sundry items that I’ve run across in my job as a news editor. I’m sure you’re a thousand times more creative than little ‘ol me. So go forth, watch the news, read a magazine. Just open your mind and let your idle musings take you to the land of ‘What If’ and ‘How About This.’ There’s no telling what you can come up with.

-Jason Kahn
Mad Scribblings From the Edge
The Dark InSpectre

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