Living in a Science Fictional Present: Food from Air, Water from Sunlight

“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” is my favorite line from the movie The Martian. The amazing thing about our species is that we do that every day, and every once in a while it pays off in a phenomenal way. Below are two cases that have the potential to do just that.

Researchers at the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. have created a process for making protein from air. Specifically, it uses carbon dioxide, water, and electricity, plus added nutrients.

Solar Foods Solein Protein Powder Sm

Apparently they’ve had a test installation running since June. The resulting protein powder, dubbed Solein, looks like flaky meal and reportedly tastes like wheat.

Read more at Yle news (Finnish only), or in English at The Guardian or Solar Foods website.

Professor Peng Wang from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia lead a study introducing a strategy to produce fresh water. Essentially, a distillation unit attached to photovoltaic panels evaporates seawater at relatively low temperatures more efficiently than conventional solar stills and yet generates electricity at the same time.

BBC News Wenbin Wang Solar Panel Water Purifier Concept

More at BBC News and journal Nature Communications.

Images: Solein protein powder by Solar Foods. Combined solar panel and water purifier by Wenbin Wang via BBC News.

Turning Vinegar and Lobster Shells into Sustainable Bioplastic

Four Master’s students from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London, UK, have created a bioplastic from chitin combined with vinegar. This sustainable plastic can be manipulated to produce items of varying stiffness, flexibility, thickness, and translucence by adjusting the ratios of the base ingredients.

Instagram Shellworks Variety of Material Properties

Instagram Shellworks Bags Bubblewrap

Apparently, the material can also be turned back into the original bioplastic solution.

Shellworks is Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar, and Andrew Edwards. Their work is still at prototype stage, but it sounds like there is a potential for increasingly (if not utterly and entirely) recyclable, non-toxic plastic here. Sounds awesome!

Visit the Shellworks website or Instagram for more.

Found via Colossal.

Images: Variety of Material Properties by Shellworks on Instagram. Bags and bubblewrap by Shellworks on Instagram.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

New Find: Most Uralic Speakers Share Siberian Ancestry

(This post is mostly a Note to Self—I don’t want to forget about the study below—but if other people are interested, that’s great.)

The majority of languages spoken in North Eurasia belong to three language families—Turkic, Indo-European, and Uralic. My native language Finnish is a part of the Uralic languages; the main branches of the family are the Finno-Ugric and the Samoyed.

While there’s rough agreement over where and how Uralic languages developed and spread, and over what types of material cultures were found in the corresponding areas, no-one’s done comprehensive studies on the genetic history of Uralic-speaking peoples before.

This interdisciplinary study, lead by Kristiina Tambets from the University of Tartu, Estonia, compared genome-wide genetic variation of nearly all extant Uralic-speaking populations from Europe and Siberia.

From the abstract:

“The genetic origins of Uralic speakers from across a vast territory in the temperate zone of North Eurasia have remained elusive. Previous studies have shown contrasting proportions of Eastern and Western Eurasian ancestry in their mitochondrial and Y chromosomal gene pools. While the maternal lineages reflect by and large the geographic background of a given Uralic- speaking population, the frequency of Y chromosomes of Eastern Eurasian origin is distinctively high among European Uralic speakers. The autosomal variation of Uralic speakers, however, has not yet been studied comprehensively. […]

“Here, we present a genome-wide analysis of 15 Uralic-speaking populations which cover all main groups of the linguistic family. We show that contemporary Uralic speakers are genetically very similar to their local geographical neighbours. However, when studying relationships among geographically distant populations, we find that most of the Uralic speakers and some of their neighbours share a genetic component of possibly Siberian origin. Additionally, we show that most Uralic speakers share significantly more genomic segments identity-by-descent with each other than with geographically equidistant speakers of other languages. We find that correlated genome-wide genetic and lexical distances among Uralic speakers suggest co- dispersion of genes and languages. Yet, we do not find long-range genetic ties between Estonians and Hungarians with their linguistic sisters that would distinguish them from their non-Uralic-speaking neighbours.”

Tambets et al Geo Distribution Uralic Populations w Lang Tree

And the conclusion:

“Here, we present for the first time the comparison of genome-wide genetic variation of nearly all extant Uralic-speaking populations from Europe and Siberia. We show that (1) the Uralic speakers are genetically most similar to their geographical neighbours; (2) nevertheless, most Uralic speakers along with some of their geographic neighbours share a distinct ancestry component of likely Siberian origin. Furthermore, (3) most geographically distant Uralic speaking populations share more genomic IBD segments with each other than with equidistant populations speaking other languages and (4) there is a positive correlation between linguistic and genetic data of the Uralic speakers. This suggests that the spread of the Uralic languages was at least to some degree associated with movement of people. Moreover, the discovery of the Siberian component shows that the three known major components of genetic diversity in Europe (European hunter-gatherers, early Neolithic farmers and the Early Bronze Age steppe people) are not enough to explain the extant genetic diversity in (northeast) Europe.”

I find the question of which material cultures may have spread together with which languages absolutely fascinating. Having my own small language / culture be a part of a larger study like this makes it even more special.

I was also surprised to learn that only three Uralic languages—Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian—are not listed as endangered in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. (I did know that several of the tiniest ones like Mari or the Permic languages have been endangered for decades, but I had thought that some of the Samoyed or Ugric languages had more speakers than that.)

While I doubt these three will go extinct very soon, there’s pressure at least in Finland to adopt more and more loanwords from English. Then again, we three may end up being rather rare, all in all, and I’m not quite sure whether to be alarmed over our potential disappearance or proud of our preciousness—or both.

Found via Helsingin Sanomat (NB. Finnish only). (Related article on the Siberian genes of Finns and the Sami in English via University of Helsinki.)

Tambets, Kristiina et al. 2018. “Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic-speaking populations”. Genome Biology 19:139. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-018-1522-1. The article is openly accessible (CC BY 4.0).

Image screencapped from Kristiina Tambets et al.

On, of, and about languages.

Cheddar Man: A European Mesolithic Male with Blue Eyes and Brown Skin

I saw these headers go by earlier this spring, but didn’t really have time to really dive into it until now. Well, better late than never, as they wisely say. 🙂

Despite the name, the Cheddar Man isn’t some silly cheese ad bloke. Instead, he has opened doors to very intriguing discoveries about European population during the later Stone Age.

The remains of an anatomically modern human male from about 10,000 years ago were found near Bristol in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England in 1903. Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton—Britain’s oldest (almost) complete one—suggests that he had blue eyes, dark curly or wavy hair, and dark brown to black skin.

Natural History Museum Tom Barnes Cheddar Man Bust Closeup

They also found that the Cheddar Man belonged to the same population as Mesolithic individuals whose bones were recovered from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary, usually referred to as western European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers or European early modern humans.

Hannah Devlin at The Guardian writes most aptly:

“The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

“Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.’”

A new bust model of Cheddar Man was made by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions. (See a photo of the previous model made by a team at the University of Manchester here.) They took measurements of the skeleton, scanned the skull, and 3D printed a base for their model. Then they applied certain conventions to shape the face.

I fully confess I’m having a hard time keeping track of the exact timespans and geographical limits of the various Stone Age eras in Eurasia and Africa—what’s paleolithic, mesolithic, or neolithic and where and at what time. But it is so fascinating (and delightful!) that we continue to develop new methods of finding more about our past, and that so many different disciplines seek to understand where we came from and what makes us tick.

Image: closeup of the model of Cheddar Man by Tom Barnes / Channel 4 via Natural History Museum, London

A Science-Fictional Personal Transportation Drone Is Almost a Reality

On Twitter, CNET shared a video of test flight footage of an apparently functional, autonomous passenger drone. Take a look at it here:

The model is called Ehang 184. There’s a longer test flight video on EHANG’s YouTube channel:

EHANG 184 AAV Manned Flight Tests by EHANG on YouTube

There’s been some buzz—quite understandably, too, for the drone looks pretty neat—but the vehicle doesn’t seem to have been ready for the international market quite as soon as some western news outlets have reported. It sounds like the battery life is still rather limited, too. Fortunately the limitations of the current tech do not have to restrain a science fiction writer—just think of how much cell phone batteries have improved in the last ten years alone.

My goodness, it’s exciting to be living now! 🙂

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

A Flight Suit Resembling Iron Man’s Is in the Works

Inventor Richard Browning has bold thinking in abundance. With the company he started, Gravity Industries, he’s developed a jet-engine suit like Iron Man’s to re-imagine manned flight.

British entrepreneur invents, builds and files patent for Iron Man-like flight suit by Gravity Industries

This 3.5-minute YouTube video captures the highlights of the development during a year. It closely resembles Tony Stark’s faltering design process in Iron Man—except this time it’s real. And while Gravity’s suit isn’t streamlined nor capable of long-distance flight at this point, there seems to be a modicum of potential. Staggering!

Found via File 770.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Online Finds: Trappist-1 Illustrations

A NASA Tumblr post about the newly found exoplanets in the Trappist-1 system included fantastic artist’s renderings of what the system and the planets might look like.

NASA Tumblr Trappist-1 Illustration System

“The planets also are very close to each other. How close? Well, if a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.”

NASA Tumblr Trappist-1 Illustration Planet

One is even a retro-style travel poster! (See other NASA retro travel posters here.)

NASA Tumblr Trappist-1 Illustration Poster

Love ’em! Find more at NASA on Tumblr!

Note: I wasn’t paid or perked to mention this; just passing along a good thing.

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog.

Images by NASA, via the NASA Tumblr blog.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

NASA Goes off to Outer Space for Star Wars Day

This May the Fourth, NASA rules. Check out what they posted on the NASA Tumblr account:

NASA Tumblr Saturns Moon Mimas

“Worlds That Will Make You Believe Star Wars is Real

“The fantastical planets in Star Wars preceded our discovery of real planets outside our solar system… but fiction isn’t too far from the facts. When we send our spacecraft into the solar system and point our telescopes beyond, we often see things that seem taken right out of the Star Wars universe.

“Is there a more perfect time than May the 4th to compare real worlds to the ones depicted in Star Wars?

“Probably not… so here are a few:

What follows is pictures (mostly artists’ renderings) and short descriptions of eight planetary bodies that could serve as models for various locations in the Star Wars universe. And don’t let the photo of Saturn’s moon Mimas above fool you; it’s the most scruffy-looking of the bunch.

NASA’s post isn’t earth-shattering or deep or anything. But it does show a sense of humor, and combines pop culture geekery with science geekery in a very satisfying way. (YMMV, of course.)

I’m gonna go take you to Jabba now follow NASA on Tumblr right now.

Image: Saturn’s moon Mimas (the so-called Death Star moon) via NASA on Tumblr.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Martian Cast & ISS Crew Chat

File 770 has a nice roundup of ten clips from and about The Martian, ranging from teasers and trailers to interviews and talks. The coolest is perhaps a 20-some minute call between two The Martian actors and two of six members of the International Space Station crew:

Space Station Crew Members Talk to Cast of The Martian

From the ISS, Expedition 45 Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren were on the horn; from the movie cast, Sebastian Stan and Mackenzie Davis during a visit they made to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in September.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.