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.

 

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Handmaid’s Tale, S2E2

I am always on the lookout for modern biology references in pop-culture and celebrate when they are correct. In this episode of S2 of dystopia Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a flashback to  Emily/Ofglen/Ofsteven past as a ‘cellular biology professor’. A female student asks if Archaea (a nucleus less life form intermediate between lacking nucleus bacteria and eukaryotes) found in the human microbiome.

A male student arrogantly states that Archaea live in extreme environments such as hot springs, so it’s stupid to suggest that they would live on a human. Emily supports the female student by saying that Archaea do live in nasal cavities and on the skin.

orange_spring_mound_at_mammoth_hot_springs

Orange Spring Mound at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Bacteria, algae and archaea create the streaks of color. (Image by Mbz1 via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Amazingly, the professor’s reply is true. Archae composes a significant amount of microbiome not only of human skin and nasal cavity but of the dental plaque and gut as well.

For example, here’s a picture from an article about the composition of the human microbiome.  Catchily named Methanobrevibacter smithii  is the most abundant archeon in the human microbiome. Almost nobody investigates Archea in human microbiome as there are no known human pathogens among them. But this study shows that M. smithii is associated with constipation and gut tenderness. In a different study, it was found in larger numbers in anorexic patients. This does not mean, of course, that the archeon causes these conditions, rather that they go together.

journal.pone.0176555.g003

Reference ranges from a cohort of healthy individuals for 28 clinically relevant species and genera. Healthy participant stool microbiome data were analyzed to determine the empirical reference ranges for each target. The boxplot displays the relative abundance for each of 897 self-reported healthy individuals, revealing the healthy ranges of abundance for the taxa in the test panel. The healthy distribution is used to define the 99% confidence interval (red line). (From  Almonaides et al. (2017))

Kudos to the writers and scientific consultants of the series for providing an accurate and up to date information. Double kudos for the not-so-subtle feminist message.

P.S. Don’t you think that the UK’s educational department, Ofsted, that inspects schools sounds like a character from The Handmaid’s Tale?