Saturday, August 23, 2008

ArmadilloCon 2008: Getting the Biology Right in SF

On "Getting the Biology Right in SF" the panelists skewered writers for common biology-related blunders we see in books and movies. The aspects of biology covered in this panel ranged from human anatomy and physiology to ecology.

As an emergency room physician, Kimberly Frost was uniquely qualified to educate writers on what kind of injuries a protagonist could sustain and still survive. One of the highlights of the panel was her showing the audience how far her blood would spurt if the arteries in various places of her body were cut. The panelists noted that there are lots of individual differences in how much bodily damage a person can incur and survive, but feats like jogging 500 miles with a gushing wound (one of the panelists has actually read a story where this happened) is flat out impossible. Yet human body is capable of less ridiculous, but still impressive performance under duress. Paige Roberts told a story about her ex-husband, who had half of his right hand blown off by enemy fire; the bullet severed the nerves that controlled the two outermost fingers, but he still had control of his index finger. So he clamped the wound down with his other hand and kept shooting, and saved a dozen soldiers' lives. In a few hours, though, he was flat on his back in a helicopter, being medevac'ed. Adrenaline can only take you so far.

Kimberly Frost has first-hand familiarity with what happens when movies and books use medical facts irresponsibly. For example, too many times in the movies you see people breaking the glass with their limbs when they want to break into a house or out of it, and the glass just breaks away. But in reality it doesn't work that way. Kimberly has seen people who tried to do it: some of them cut themselves only superficially, and doctors were able to fix them up, but others cut their tendons that way. Paige writes erotica, and she is careful not to give readers ideas to try things that would be very dangerous in reality -- like bondage with a rope tied around one's neck.

Later Paige Roberts and John Moore got into an animated argument on whether the difference between your and opponent's body mass is a deciding factor in winning a fight. John Moore argued that it was; Paige, who's done martial arts, thought other factors matter more. She said she would have little difficulty throwing a tall, muscular guy across the room, but would find it impossible to do the same to a short person with a low center of gravity.

On the ecology front, one the most interesting observations was the one Kelly Persons made about Frank Herbert's "Dune". "Dune" is often praised for its ecological theme, but the problem with Dune is that it doesn't have any ecology. "It's a planet with one species on it. There's no energy input into the Dune world," Kelly said. It takes a lot of energy to power a worm that's as big as a locomotive to move underground. What did worms eat? And where does the oxygen come from, given that it's a desert planet? John Moore asked.

Why is carbon, not silicon the basis of life? was a question from the audience. Because, says Kelly Persons, carbon is able to form long chains, while silicon can't. A combination of silicon and oxygen can form long chains, but only under certain conditions. If you are writing about an alien silicon-based life form, the temperatures on the planet where it evolved would have to be very different.

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