Writing Excuses 4.14: Brainstorming Science Ideas

Our last brainstorming ‘cast was so well-received we decided to do another one. This time we grabbed articles from a New Scientist article called “13 More Things We Don’t Understand.”

Dark flow, hybrid life, the bloop, the lithium problem, the nocebo effect, and  noise from the edge of the universe all lead us to interesting places and other universes, and we get visits from dishonest serial killers, the Space Goat, and Cthulhu.

If any of these ideas strike your fancy and you manage to successfully sell a novel, congratulations! We don’t want a cut, but a mention in your acknowledgements page would be nice.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Noble House, by James Clavell

Writing Prompt: Start with the noise from the edge of the universe” article and brainstorm a good story.

Thing to Not Do, Lest We Were Not Clear Enough There At The End: Do not actually commit nor advocate the commission of suicide no matter how depressing your discovery about the nature of the universe may be.

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30 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.14: Brainstorming Science Ideas”

  1. Howard’s very first example – the one about getting fake light from the rest of the universe – sounds like Spin (Robert Charles Wilson novel).

    A bugged copy of a video game, eh? Um… I punched a Borg and I liked it?

  2. This was so great I read it twice!
    Thanks guys. And I am glad you got a new microphone, you all deserve it!

  3. @John That’s what I get for letting Mystery Science Theater 3000 do my research for me. Also, I should keep a periodic table in front of me if I’m going to resort to elemental humor.

  4. First off, absolutely hysterical episode.

    Secondly: Youtube video on “The Bloop.” Includes a bit of background information and the sound itself, at natural speed and 16x speed – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQibASFRNtE

    One major flaw in that “why haven’t we detected life elsewhere yet?” concept: consider our limitations. We’re limited to electromagnetic signals as our fastest form of communication. Let’s see, if I wanted to talk to someone in the core of the Milky Way by radio, the time lag would be what…several dozen times the amount of time it’s been since our ancestors weren’t even classified in the same genus as modern humans? Well, there’s that, and there’s gravity, which may or may not be faster than light, last I heard.

    Assuming Earth is fairly average on the sapience-development scale, that suggests the average civilization has been using technology that can be detected across the galaxy for about 200 years or so. The odds of having another sapient species within 200 light years are extremely low…there’s not exactly a lot of stars that close to us.

    And if they’re using some other form of communication that is faster than electromagnetic waves, we’d be completely unable to detect it because we don’t have any technology capable of receiving those signals and may or may not have theorized about the existence of that medium, let alone the possibility of sending signals through it.

    I believe sapient aliens may exist, and they may even be more advanced than us either due to luck of the evolutionary draw or missing one or more of the mass-extinction events that have occurred, but I seriously doubt they’ve been at a level of technology high enough for so long that signs are already capable of reaching us using the technology we know of.

    As for an alien race that is in contact with us secretly and that is influencing our politics and whatnot, that’s arrogant . Any society advanced enough to be capable of such things is so much more advanced than we are that there would be no point. It would be one of us traveling to the other side of the world to change the structure of an anthill.

  5. Assuming Earth is fairly average on the sapience-development scale, that suggests the average civilization has been using technology that can be detected across the galaxy for about 200 years or so.

    “Average” implies that there’s a curve, and that we’re in the middle of it. One explanation for our lack of ET contact is that we’re NOT average. We’re an artifact on the leading edge. This is unlikely.

    If we’re in the middle of the curve, there should be intelligent life that is hundreds of millions of years old. Their signals should be practically filling the night sky, unless they started talking with hyperspace ansibles.

  6. Two comments:

    The story about a person who can control their brain chemistry in order to make adrenaline, endorphins etc. sounds a lot like the story of Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides. ( Also Howard I am sorry no one seemed to catch your Arecibo joke :) )

    Howard said: “We’re an artifact on the leading edge. This is unlikely.”

    Combine this with that “great old ones” evacuating the galaxy for everyone’s benefit story and you suddenly have a classic space opera/hardboiled detective/ epic story setup. Mankind is alone until he reaches the stars, then he finds a few-very few-other civilizations. The mystery, everyone seems to have the exact same length of recorded history… as if every species reached sapience (invented the wheel, began agriculture, pick your refference point) in a very narrow timeframe. Turns out we are the remnants of an error in the galactic evacuation program.

  7. Agatha Christie wrote a murder mystery with a serial killer who’s good at manipulating people into killing other people, Iago-style.

  8. After you guys mentioned the psychic experiment possibility, I could only think of that early scene in Ghostbusters where Bill Murray is shocking the dude with the ‘fro and hitting on the blond chick – ignoring the success of the experiment.

    Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card has a great example of sybiotic (shared/split/combined DNA) life forms.

    Why haven’t we heard from other beings outside our world yet? Easy. AT&T hasn’t been to their neighborhood to install the pipeline. But don’t worry – Uverse is coming to a Universe near you! And so are all the door-to-door salespeople!

  9. Why is it always Howard’s voice that announces the audible sponsorship at the beginning of each episode? Who made that decision? Was it simply a rock, paper, scissors sort of thing? Or did Audible decide that Howard’s voice was the most attractive?

    Actually, I would like to read a Brandon Sanderson book about a doctor who gives people psychic powers by telling them that they’re already psychic. Of course, I’d like to read any new Brandon Sanderson book at this point.

  10. It’s like an entire episode of writing prompts. I love it!

    I always like to combine two or more prompts into an outline. This time I’ve cobbled together some of your ideas from the Bloop and Hybrid life along with some good old fashioned Ghost in the Machine.

    Story: We are the Ghosts in the Machines.
    Somebody made this discovery that the mitochondria in our cells are what was responsible for our genesis as multi-cellular organisms. Along with the discovery, we find that the original mitochondria were artificially manufactured.
    As it turns out, multi-celled organisms were created to convert as much of the planet earth into bio-matter as possible, so it can turn into the crude oil compounds the aliens can eat. In accordance with one of your ideas from the Bloop, these aliens are in residence at the bottoms of our oceans, and think far, far slower than we do.
    In summary, we are organic robots who evolve sentience by accident. Our purpose was to create oil, which the slow-thinking aliens have just discovered we’re burning.

  11. @AlanHorne We used my voice because I stepped up and said “I’ll go ahead and record it” and we’ve been too busy to bother recording other spots.

    I think Dan’s got a better “Radio voice” but he rarely breaks it out.

  12. Another fun show, thanks. There is no end to the sources for good story ideas and the person who says they do not have anything to write about just is not looking.

    As to why haven’t we heard from other beings outside our world, they feel we are not yet ready. In my first book attempt Earth is a penal colony made of all the unwanted violent criminals from a multitude of enlightened planets. The UFO’s we see from time to time are watching us to be sure our destructive technology is not advancing enough to threaten them. I got this idea because many nights I have looked up at the stars and had a feeling of what I could only call homesickness, as if I belong out there, somewhere.

  13. From Wikipedia, and old novel I remember reading some time ago that has the disparate organelles that ‘gang up’ to make more complex creatures.

    “Retief’s Ransom, 1971. On the planet Lumbaga, the locals are conglomerates of free-floating organs who mix and match their appearance and fight continuously. The Groaci have some sinister plot afoot, but Retief first has to find his kidnapped boss Magnan”

  14. James Van Pelt used the idea in which species begin to mix together in his fabulous short story, “The Last of the O-Forms.” Check it out, if you haven’t already.

  15. One other possibility, Howard. Assuming the “old ones” (or any other race of the sort exist), there are a few quite reasonable explanations:
    1 – ansibles/subspace communication…whatever you want to call it, something better than radio that we can’t use yet. We could just not be in a window where one of the other sapient races has radio transmissions hitting Earth. If post-radio wireless communication is possible, the period during which radio transmissions are used may be relatively small, in which case it’s possible we’re between the rings of transmissions these would create. While such communication isn’t proven to be possible in modern science, I have to point out science is constantly developing and the fact that it’s modern just means “we haven’t conclusively proven it wrong and come up with a replacement that’s less wrong.”

    2 – multi-frequency communication. Most of our wireless communication is done on a specific frequency setting – 900MHz and 2.4 GHz standards are the ones we’ve all heard of. There’s only so much data you can compact onto a single frequency before chaos theory comes into play, which means you need to send the transmission slower or need to pick up a different frequency; we’re nowhere near hitting this chaos limit, but an “old one” race may be well past it. If you have a signal on multiple frequencies and don’t know _all_ the frequencies, you get major signal interpretation issues – like getting a letter with 95% of the letters randomly removed therefrom. If that’s been the baseline for radio noise rather than the actually random noise we assume we have, how could we tell the difference? (this type of communication is also a pretty effective method of encrypting data, which may be another reason for it)

    3 – Interference. Modern science tells us radio signals can traverse the galaxy without becoming randomized. However, modern science isn’t 100% right, it’s just the model that explains the most things and has yet to be disproved. Scientific revolutions are fairly common, and a lot of suppositions and extrapolations have been proven wrong. The furthest transmission we’ve actually sent and received is with the various probes we’ve sent out, which are still, on a galactic scale, in our backyard. Maybe there’s some minor signal decay (in addition to red-shifting) in transmissions that isn’t detectable over the distances we can test it that hasn’t been predicted in our current scientific theories, and it’s this signal decay that scrambles the signals we should be getting from the “old ones.”

    4 – Maybe they did leave…at least some of them. Considering the level of development the “old ones” would be at, they may well have left the galaxy. If I recall correctly, some time in the future, Andromeda is supposed to collide with the Milky Way. The result of two spiral galaxies colliding means most of the material either goes into one of the black hole cores (which may even collide and become an even bigger black hole) or get blasted off on slingshot trajectories, or just get roasted by the huge amounts of radiation blasted out by those black holes when they “eat” that much material (or, come to think of it, maybe there’s an impending burst of that nature due to some piece of the Milky Way hitting our black hole core significantly before Andromeda gets here. Both of these possibilities are so far off that in a world like ours, where civilization has existed for only a few thousand years, it’s completely irrelevant. To a society that’s endured for many millions of years, an event forecast 10 million years from now is a bit more pressing. Short of somehow pushing the galaxies apart, this collision will happen, and the catastrophe resulting from it will quite probably wipe out any life in either galaxy that was stupid enough to stick around. If I had the necessary tech level, I’d certainly consider picking up and leaving. (As for why they left other sapient races (like us) behind, maybe they didn’t but left before we became sapient, or maybe they didn’t want to put up with trillions of ignorant, barbaric, war mongering savages)

    Consider with all of these the distances between civilizations are likely quite vast. Even the most permissive estimates of probabilities for the Drake Equation indicate the likelihood of two sapient species developing in even remote proximity to each other is absurdly small.

    On a completely different note, I’m quite confused. I’ve started reading both Mistborn and Bram Stoker’s Dracula…confusing thing is that I hear Mistborn in Dan’s voice and Dracula in Brandon’s voice in my head. Maybe it’s just that Dan’s voice is suitable for narrating in the Final Empire, while Brandon’s is more suitable for the journal entries in Dracula (at least the first few), but it seems like it should be the other way around.

  16. Much fun. I would pay money just to hear you guys riff.

    Just noticed that Howard has a beard. It looks appropriately sinister.

  17. On the idea of communication between two species running at “different time” rates. Have you read Robert Forward’s Starquake? We are the “slow” species, and a race of creatures living on a Neutron Star are the “fast” ones. Was quite interesting, with a fairly unusual ending.

  18. @Jay: dammit, I was just about to suggest that one! (Though my copy of the novel is called ‘Dragon’s Egg’ – possibly a change of title for the UK market). Thoroughly recommend the book, though.

  19. Sorry for the laaate post. I was just re-listening to this and realized something.

    Dan’s suggestion about the aquatic chimeras is reminiscent of XCOM: Terror from the Deep. It’s a video game that takes place just after mankind’s war with Mars. Just as we destroyed the last piece of Martian civilization (a massive base on Mars), they sent out a distress signal that reached some ancient, long forgotten ships that their ancestors had crashed into the oceans of Earth. I’m not sure if it was the ships’ computers that updated their technology and biology to work underwater or if the aliens themselves did it before or after they were woken up by the computers, but they created all kinds of hybrid monstrosities out of sea creatures for their military.

    It’s interesting to note that the only reason Earth won both of these engagements is because we were exceptionally good scavengers; both the weapons technology and the space travel technology we used to win were adapted from the technology that the aliens were using. By that time, they were mostly just cloned fighters, so technological and tactical improvements from their end were nil.

    I may be wrong on the history, but the relevant part is still, well, relevant. Also, the first two XCOM games (UFO Defence and Terror from the Deep) are great, and I highly recommend them. I have them on my portable drive with DosBox and play them every once in a while Most of the successors are pretty awesome too.

    There are actually some pretty darn fun and engaging stories written in-universe for the first game by someone name Russ Brown. http://www.xcomufo.com/stories.html

    Once again, sorry for the necromancy.

  20. I’m always annoyed when people that have a very limited understanding of something start writing about it.
    I’ve seen many times how people completely misinterpreted evolution or how genes work.

    My general advise would be to take some Coursera courses or write about something that you know more about.. there’s plenty of ideas there. Doesn’t matter whether your interested in sociology or cell life.

    I always get annoyed when people get biology wrong. Sometimes I have to put the book or movie away for that reason alone.

  21. I get irritated when people write “your interested”.

    It’s a tough old world.

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