Friday, March 22, 2024

Fiction that Makes You Think

I have just finished reading my third science fiction novel by the twentieth-century French writer René Barjavel. I have written previously about his novel Le Voyageur Imprudent. A time traveler accidentally kills his own grandfather in the past and thus finds that he does not exist and has never existed. This novel also included a glimpse into a very distant nightmare utopia.

Other Barjavel novels dealt straight on with the main issue of the writer’s time, nuclear disaster. In La Nuit de Temps he wrote about a previous utopian world that destroyed itself by nuclear war, but also the explosions pushed the Earth to its present tilt. Modern scientists discovered this ancient temperate utopia underneath Antarctic ice.

Un Rose au Paradis also raises disturbing questions about nuclear war which, we can only hope, we do not need to worry about anymore. The richest man in the world, Mr. G, is richer than most rich nations. He sells cheap nuclear weapons. This draws our attention to the fact that one reason nuclear weapons are relatively rare is that they are expensive. What if they were so cheap that every little country, state, or even corporations could buy them from Mr. G? You would have a world thickly implanted with weapons.

The next thing to which the novel draws our attention is that once a crucial density of nuclear weapons is reached, the use of even a single one of them could cause the others to explode just from the heat. At the beginning of the novel, this density had been reached. The next day, another country was going to activate its weapons. If a war got started at that point, it would be big enough to permanently sterilize the surface of the Earth. But if the war started before that point, all organisms would be killed but the Earth would still have a solid surface, the atmosphere would still have oxygen (something I doubt), and life could be seeded anew. Mr. G pulls a console out of his pocket, presses a button, and destroys the world a little early so that it can be resurrected. This raises the question, would it ever be right to start a nuclear holocaust?

Mr. G had prepared a survival pod for animals and seeds in suspended animation, and with just two human survivors: a man and his pregnant wife who gave birth to twins, one male and one female. From this, Mr. G could start the world over in twenty years. The twins, of course, would have to produce children. Barjavel apparently did not understand the genetics of inbreeding very well. But was this any different from a world population started by Adam and Eve, which grew from brother-sister matings in a literalistic interpretation of Genesis?

The little family had all their needs taken care of. Every day, meals of roast chicken appeared. The family had no contact with the outside world, and had nothing to do. The family had slipped in a copy of a big French dictionary, from which the son learned everything about a world he had never seen. He ate chicken but had never seen a chicken. He was impatient to see the world. His sister was even more bored. This raises the question, would you be happy without work? Even if it is just mental work like what I am doing by writing this essay.

But Mr. G, who lived with them, had made a mistake. He had not counted on the boy getting his twin sister pregnant before the end of the twenty years. With six people instead of five, they would run out of oxygen. Mr. G insisted the girl abort her fetus; she could always get pregnant again. But the mother would not permit this. She had another idea of how to reduce the population. She pushed Mr. G into the food recycler. This, however, messed everything up, the animals left suspended animation and began breathing, and the little biological restart pod almost asphyxiated. This brings up the point that no one, not even Mr. G, is smart enough to plan a perfect future.

Some parts of this novel were silly. When things were falling apart, the food synthesizer produced, instead of roast chicken, a big live rooster who chased the people around until he knocked himself out against a glass pane, but in so doing he cracked the pane and started the process of animal resuscitation, before the twenty years was up. Whether this was sillier than the four-headed robot I cannot say. And the ending was too nice. The family and all the animals figured out how to emerge from the pod, and they not only found a fertile Earth waiting for them, where the cinders of lost civilization fertilized the soil, but also Mr. G wasn’t actually dead but was awaiting them.

I like to read fiction that makes me think, even when I am disappointed by some parts of it. The novels of Barjavel had proven to be a good place for me to think.


Friday, March 1, 2024

What Was I Thinking? Remembrances of My Dissertation

In 1987, I submitted my Ph.D. thesis, “Environmental Variability and Phenotypic Flexibility in Plants,” at the University of Illinois. What was I thinking? I was dealing with three variables: plants, the growth flexibility of those plants, and the variability of the environment—in this case, of sunlight intensity. I intended to write about all three of these things in this essay, but it quickly got out of hand, so I will just tell you about how I dealt with the complex problem of measuring environmental variability in three habitats: abandoned agricultural fields, tallgrass prairies, and forest floors.

One of the major problems with measuring environmental variability is construct validity—that is, how valid is a way of measuring something so that it is a believable construct of what you claim to be measuring? I explain this concept in my book Scientifically Thinking. There is no single valid way of measuring environmental variability. What I did instead was to measure it three different ways. If these three ways all gave the same results, then they were probably valid, and I could believe the results.

First, I made instantaneous measurements of light (that is, the colors of light that stimulate photosynthesis) with a “quantum sensor” designed to do exactly this thing. The problem is, this kind of light intensity varies from one moment to the next.

So I used a second method. What I really wanted to know was the spatial patchiness of shade caused by leaves. So I made three-dimensional profiles of leaf area in the three habitat types. To do this, I used nine pieces of wood, a string, and a nail. But neither of these methods could prove that variability of sunlight intensity would actually have an effect on plants.

So I used a third method as well. I used phytometers, that is, actual potted plants. I measured the weight of the plants (plus the soil, or course) in lots of different places in the three habitats in the morning and the afternoon. I measured environmental variability as the differences in how much water the plants transpired.

This was how I tackled the problem of construct validity. I measured what I wanted to know three different ways. I was taking a chance. What if the three ways gave three different answers? But I got lucky. All three methods agreed. Chalk one up for construct validity.

I had expected that weedy fields would be the most variable, the forest floor the least variable, and prairies intermediate between them. And this is what I found. I still marvel that it came out that way.

I announced my results triumphantly: weeds had the most phenotypic flexibility and lived in the most variable environment; forest floor plants had the least flexibility, and lived in the least variable environment; and prairie plants and their environment were intermediate. The results all lined up. Despite all of its limitations, this quixotic quest was successful. I believe the results, largely because I took a risk with construct validity, and it paid off. There is no way I could have gotten these results by sheer luck. Here is the plain English summary of my thesis.

A lot of the scientific method is about validity. You have to measure it, and every time you do, you are taking a risk. But if it works, you are closer to understanding the world.