N.B. on ‘Blue Mars’ by Kim Stanley Robinson

Case N1

I consider the epic SF Mars trilogy by K.S. Robinson (K.S.R) as one of the 20th-century genre literature achievements on par with “The Lord of the Rings”.  Not only the characters and societies are plausible and  3D detailed, I cannot fault the description of biology with the usual “heightened reality” caveat. On the strength of this, I trust all science I don’t know such as geology as in any popular science book.

But recently, while re-reading the trilogy. I found a small chink in the armor that made me doubt the rest of the book science. The last book in the trilogy, Blue Mars,  published in 1996 deals with the aftermath of Mars and Earth revolutions.

One of the main characters, Nirgal, notices that his Mars farm plants start suffering from a disease. The disease is a viroid –  a plant virus that consists of a short looped RNA.

pstviroid

Structure of PST viroid. A chain of RNA nucleotides pairs with itself creating a double-stranded structure with bubbles of unpaired nucleotides. (Image by Jakub Friedl  via Wikimedia Commons, GNU)

From the novel:

Viroids like this one caused several plant diseases, including pale cucumber disease, chrysanthemum stunt, chlorotic mottle, cadang-cadang, citrus exocortis.

This is all true. But the quote below is not:

Viroids had also been confirmed as the agent in some animal brain diseases, like scrapie, and kuru, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

All the diseases above are caused by self-replication and accumulation of a misfolded form of protein PrP, prion. The ‘protein only’ heredity of kuru,  an endemic disease of cannibals, was postulated by Pruisner in the 1960s. Nobody believed him but as the evidence accumulated, he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1997, not long after the first edition of the Blue Mars.

Considering that the list of books by K.S.R. on the cover inside of my copy has Galileo’s Dream (2009), long after epidemics of mad cow disease forced prions out of science arcana into public consciousness not editing this is sloppy.

More on this topic.

Another quote from Blue Mars:

A  stained slice of a brain of a Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease sufferer. Note large white spots where the cells (stained pink) were killed by accumulation prion. Also, note long “strings”, this is accumulated prion made of PrP protein. (Image by Dr. Al Jenny via Wikimedia Commons).

The viroids used host enzymes to reproduce and then were taken to be regulatory molecules in the nuclei of infected cells, disturbing growth-hormone production in particular.

Right in a vague sort of way.

Case N2

There is a brilliant mathematician in the book. And one of the main male characters wonders how a woman can be a genius in math and why there wasn’t one. Ever.

Hello?

Hypatia – one of the first known scientists;

Ada Lovelace – mother of computer programming;

Emmy Noether –  lauded by Albert Einstein.

Robinson tries not to be sexist by imagining that in the future a female math genius will be possible just as terraforming Mars will be possible, but fails to research the topic or  -even worse – dismisses all women as not good enough.

 

Advertisements

Girls, don’t cry – an advice to the emotional scientists

My boss had a plague of crying females recently. First it was a BSc student, who started  weeping suddenly in his office because she felt that she wasn’t doing well in her project (the result: a 1st, which is the highest degree denomination in the UK and a successful application to a postgraduate studies degree). Then it was a first year PhD student: same reason, in everybody else’s opinion she was doing really well as confirmed by her first years report committee. Then an MSc student cried during her viva puzzling a female external examiner.

May be this is a specific British problem, contrary to the legend about the stiff upper lip? However, Dr. Lise Eliot, an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at The Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science wrote in her excellent book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” how she broke down in her supervisor’s office.

I wholeheartedly agree with her advice, which is simple – do not do it. Your supervisor is not here to hold your hand and help you in a research-related distress; your lab is a professional environment.

Of course, nothing extraordinary happens if you do cry. But do consider that you make your supervisor uncomfortable. Your crying ever so slightly decreases chances of a high professional estimate of females in general and you in particular, as I never yet heard about a male scientist crying while sober in his supervisor’s office. Given the same qualifications of a female and male candidate, this reputation of the emotional instability can tip the balance.

Personally, I find that crying in a locked cubicle of an otherwise empty bathroom is much more satisfactory. Additionally, as all the above examples show, there was no real reason for crying, all these people were doing well at their respective career stages.

Perhaps, it is better to ask for a frank appraisal of your progress before crying, not after. In addition, if you feel tears coming you can excuse yourself and leave the office.  Excluding sociopaths, we all feel sometimes like frauds and hopeless cases, even J. Watson of the double helix had had his moments of doubt in his abilities.

Onward and forward, colleagues!

Literature:

  1. Eliott. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

2. James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968), Atheneum, 1980, ISBN 0-689-70602-2