Gaia 2007

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter


Gaia was recognised last year -- rather Gaia's dad, James Lovelock, was. The 2006 Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society (of London) awarded to Lovelock for his formulation of the idea of a planetary bio-geo homeostatic (self-regulating) system he dubbed Gaia. The Wollaston Medal was first awarded back in 1831 (to William Smith) but this is not the first recognition Lovelock has received. His work on chemical analysis, and specifically in developing the electron capture for gas chromatography, enabled him to become a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1974. However his Gaia work has not previously been recognised by a senior scientific body. Lovelock said that, "today may be an historical occasion that marks the moment when Gaia is at last regarded as a legitimate topic for discussion among scientists... All of us, as scientists, know that we can never be certain; and all that I ask is that you take the theory as a useful source of predictions and a way of thinking about the Earth, especially now that it and we are in danger."

It's that time again for the oddest book titles of the year. Yes, this is something Bookseller's Bent has been championing in what are called the Diagram Awards. This year's contenders include: Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture published by Oxford University Press; Salmonella Men on the Planet Porno by Yasutaka Tsutsui (Alma Books); Traffic Congestion in the Roman Empire by Cornelius Van Tilbur (Taylor & Francis); How Green Were The Nazis edited by Franz-Josef Bruggemeier et al (Ohio U. Press); The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification by Julian Montague (Harry Abrams); Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoonboxes of Daghestan: Magic Medicine Symbols in Silk, Stone, Wood and Flesh by Robert Chenciner et al (Bennett & Bloom); Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar (Clarendon Press); and A Year on the Bog by Andy McBean (South Bank). This last is the author's record over a calendar year of his use of toilets. Timing, or holding on, it appears is not his forte and readers are perhaps short-changed as the last entry is a reasonable bit before midnight December 31st. Sorry to spoil the ending for you.

Last year also saw Alfred Russell Wallace (1823 - 1913) commemorated. Wallace being the co-formulator with Charles Darwin of 'the process of biological evolution by natural selection'. Wallace's grandson, Richard, unveiled a monument near Usk, Wales, outside the church where Wallace was baptised and close to the cottage where he was born. The small monument is made of 350 million year old limestone with fossils from a quarry near Bridgend in South Wales. It was paid for by a fund that George and Janet Beccaloni from the Natural History Museum originally established in 1999 to restore Wallace's neglected grave in Broadstone, Dorset.

'Plutoed' is word of the year...! The Brits and North Americans, it is said, are separated by a common language. Now the Yanks, or rather the 117 year old American Dialect Society have nominated 'plutoed' as the word of last year (2006). This follows Pluto being 'downgraded' from a planet to a dwarf planet and the term plutoed has, apparently, entered US parlance to someone or something having been demoted or devalued. The ADS say that they only conduct such polls of its members as a bit of fun.

Life could have created the Earth's continents, according to a new idea encapsulated in an essay in Palaeogeopgraphy, Palaeoclimatology and Palaeoecology (v232, p99). Granite is the key bedrock making up continents. It is modified from basalt (significant quantities of which have been detected on Venus, the Moon and Mars). Life contributes three times more energy to geochemical cycles than the Earth's internal heat and such biological forcing may explain the unique quantities of granite on the Earth.   But the Earth did not form continents before about 3.6 - 3.8 billion years ago, so did life emerge in that window? There is some interesting, but currently controversial, evidence that photosynthesis arose around then. If it did then life got going PDQ (pretty damn quick).   Another aspect to this idea is that if it becomes more accepted then the presence of granite on other planets could become markers for scientists searching for photosynthetic life.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has yet again saved smallpox from destruction. Gaia remembers the lads covering this back in 1997 when Concatenation was a glossy semi-prozine. The best part of a decade on and last summer, just after Gaia submitted last year's column, WHO deferred setting a new date for destroying the world's last known stockpiles of smallpox, a deadly virus whose spread was stopped nearly 30 years ago. The United States and Russia, which have stored the remaining virus samples, have resisted calls to destroy them in case smallpox is found elsewhere. Meanwhile others fear the cultures could be accidentally or deliberately (by terrorists) released and so seek tighter controls.

Talking of 1997 reminds us that, a decade on, 2007 is Concat's 20th anniversary. Yes, it was a fifth of a century ago that three folk (then soon to be seven) got together to provide one of the several extras for that year's UK Eastercon which itself celebrated the then 50th anniversary of the World's first SF convention. Doesn't time fly. Today the team has grown but the result still has its rough, down-to-Earth edges (which is in itself appropriate for Gaia ('Earth', 'Gaia'... Oh never mind). Tell anyone back in 1987 that Concat would be available worldwide at the click of a mouse then they would have been done for cruelty to animals. How times have changed. So the question that remains is whether Concat will make it to 30! Don't hold your breath now.

George Bernard Shaw wrongly attributed? The boys tell me that broadly a third of Concat's visitors hail from N. America. It is often said, attributed to Shaw, that Britain and America are countries separated by a common language. Simon Hoggart ('diary' column 17.3.07) reveals that he has found that Oscar Wilde alluded to this in his "The Canterville Ghost' short story. "In many respects she was quite English, and was an excellent example of how we have everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language."

Organising a convention in Britain? Marketing Destinations and Venues for Conferences, Conventions and Business Events is a new book by Tony Rogers and Rob Davidson that could be helpful for those putting together larger (Eastercon / Worldcon sized) SF cons.

An explanation of books to the current computer dominated generation was given in November's Ansible courtesy of Michael Swanick from Patrick Nielsen Hayden. 'The book is the source code, the brain is the compiler, and the experience produced in the reader is the executable.'

The (UK) Publishers Association's 2006 International Conference was held at London Zoo in December. There was a reception in the Reptile House. Bookseller's Bent pointedly decided to make 'no comment'.

Talking of bumbling, a tale from the land of the (ahem) free. Apparently us fiction readers need to be careful as to the books we carry. Reported by Bent (again) in the Bookseller, an Andy McNab reader got detained by US Homeland Security. He was spotted in the airport carrying a paperback of Recoil complete with its cover picture of a rocket launcher. An officer took him aside and he was escorted away for interrogation. What did the book contain? Was he ex-military, a mercenary or belong to a terrorist organization? (It probably would not have been amusing if he had said yes to the latter but was only their receptionist...) Anyway after four hours of interrogation (yes, four hours the Bookseller says) he was allowed to go. Now, apparently, he is listed as a 'special' visitor to the US complete with a security number...

Still on bumbling... Boris Johnson, (UK member of Parliament) opposition spokesman for higher education, reportedly told British Publishers not to worry about Google digitization and the death of print. Apparently he said, "How can you press a flower on a computer? Or light a fire?". Suggesting to publishers that books are for burning... Way to go Boris. (Note for our overseas site visitors, Boris is noted for his bumbling that causes much amusement.)

The British Medical Journal's Minerva points to a Japanese culture that Gaia hopes you will not encounter in reality should you be going to this year's Worldcon. Apparently in that country after someone is cremated the next of kin go through to the 'pick up bone room'. There chopsticks are used to pick out bones to keep in an urn. Apparently in west Japan they pick up the bones considered most important. On the other hand in east Japan all the bones are taken.   Now you never know when such information may prove useful. For instance fans visiting Japan for the Worldcon might use this titbit to break the conversation ice over dinner... Then again, maybe not.

Humanity overweight or starving? Of course the Japanese were on average up to the last quarter of the 20th century known to have a healthy weight: that is to say not overweight. However at the same time Japanese folk living in the US began to show signs of obesity, so demonstrating that there was a hefty cultural component to the obesity problem. As the affluence of humanity has increased, as well as the globalization of US culture, so has the weight problem, er, increased. So far so good. All this is firmly established. The big question, though, is that if such late 20th century trends continue, when will there be more people on the planet overweight compared to those underweight? Now there is an answer from RTD Info (a European R&D publication (no.51, p29, 2006)) and apparently we have reached that point! Sadly they do not quote the source of the data behind that statement but they do go into detail about the link between obesity and diabetes. Furthermore some 7% of European health spend is on treating obesity and obesity-related disease.

The BMJ deserves another mention now its website has been re-vamped. Yes, has had a makeover. The biggest change is that having originally been open access, for the past three years you have had to be a journal subscriber to download the papers. Then last year (no doubt to the Wellcome Trust pushing for open access) the BMJ allowed just its primary research papers free access (The Trust being the UK's biggest charitable funder of medical research (actually the biggest funder full stop).) Now all the BMJ's academic content, including review papers, is available free albeit that some papers only become free after a year. A 'wellcome' move no doubt.

So what's the difference if you are a BMJ subscriber to the content on-line and its paper counterpart? Well, as 92% of the journals 122,000 subscribers are based in Britain while most of its websites 1.2 million monthly visitors are based outside the UK, the paper journal will be more orientated to British Isles matters and the on-line counterpart will be more international.

Finally a modern fantasy, well, witchcraft. Yes, it's 20 year's since Concat began and among the various ancillary projects the team have undertaken a number were science & SF cultural-exchange related with Eastern Europe. Here the country with which Concateneers have worked most is arguably Romania. Then Romania had just overthrown a communist dictatorship. Today that country is one of the latest to join the European Union (EU)   And so news from that land that its witches have joined the 21st century offering spells to increase one's chance of obtaining EU grant money. Florica the Witch, from Pitesti, says, "It's a new type of spell". She splashes the purportedly success-causing potion directly onto to the application papers at a cost of 40. She also reportedly (Guardian p2, col 4, 3.3.07) has said, "You cannot pretend that you are a real witch if you cannot help a businessman get the European Union funding he wants." Leaving aside the sexist assumption (that business grant applicants are all male). She has to be applauded for her honesty that she 'pretends' to be a real witch as opposed actually claiming to be one. Gaia also ventures that, for the spell to work, presumably waterproof ink is in order...

See you in 2008 with more frivolity, and don't forget to get the latest book epic (not by this cybernetic feedback element but by Gaian micro-component James) The Revenge of Gaia... (Oh all right, and the boys' guide to SF not to mention for those (seriously) into global warming Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects from Cambridge University Press.)

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