Friday, October 12, 2018

Hot Vents and Dead Whales: Story Prompts from the Deep

October is a month of thrills! Today wraps up Cephalopod Awareness Days, an annual celebration of all those ink-squirting, color-changing critters with tentacles, suction cups, and great big brains. Monsters both real and imagined are all the rage as we gear up for Halloween, and in the candy-fueled haze of enthusiasm to follow, many will tackle the challenge of National Novel Writing Month--stretching the thrills out into November.

Also in October (the 16th, to be precise) a cool new book called Putting the Science in Fiction is coming out, with a couple of my essays in it. As part of a blog tour in the run-up to publication, I'm sharing some new story ideas below. And below those (in the deep!), you can enter a giveaway for a free copy of the book.


I thought I'd talk about the ocean today. Because it's full of cephalopods and lots of other great monsters, because all our stories could use a little more salt, and most of all because we still know so very little about it. Here's my favorite visualization:

It's become an oft-quoted factoid that we know less about the deep sea than we do about the Moon or Mars. We also seem to write way less fiction about the deep sea than we do about those lifeless rocks in the sky. So here's your chance to boldly go where few writers have gone before!

The deep sea is exciting, beautiful, dangerous, and barely explored. What could make a better setting? The seafloor may seem cold and barren, but it also houses rich ecosystems teeming with life. How? Well, an ecosystem always develops around a primary source of food. Think of a forest (and the uncountable stories set in forests). A forest starts with trees using sunlight to make food. All this plant matter supports herbivorous grazers, who become populous enough to feed carnivores, and voila! You have a setting full of trees and deer and bears, a ready-made playground for wood-cutters and hunters and fairies and werewolves.

A deep-sea "forest" of life growing at a hydrothermal vent.
You might think there's nothing like a forest in the deep sea, because there's no sunlight to grow plants. And you would be sort of right. But there are still oases, places where primary food sources are substantial enough to generate ecosystems. Some, like hydrothermal vents and cold seeps, are chemical in nature--cracks in the crust where our planet's gases leak into the water. Bacteria have evolved myriad techniques for turning these "Earth farts" into food, just like trees turn sunlight into food. There are enough bacteria at these sites to support grazers like shrimps and worms, which in turn support carnivores like crabs and octopuses and fish, and voila! Now you have a bizarre setting that's totally different from a forest, but equally rich with possibility.

  • What's is like to live at a hydrothermal vent? Imagine sentient creatures making their home in such a place. What's their day-to-day routine? Do they harvest bacteria or hunt crabs? What predators do they fear, and how do they defend themselves?
  • How and why could humans (or other surface-dwellers) visit a hydrothermal vent? Would they be explorers, scientists, treasure-hunters, refugees?
  • There's no reason you can't introduce elements of fantasy into a setting like this. What would be the vent equivalent of a fairy or a werewolf?


The bones of a dead whale grow new life.
Other deep-sea oases are biological in origin. Even grosser than the methane and sulfur bubbling up from Earth's guts are the carcasses of dead whales that drift down from above. Biologists have given these ecosystems a nice poetic name: whale falls. And from death (cue The Circle of Life) comes an abundance of life. A dead whale is so gigantic that it forms the basis of an entire food web, feeding scavengers like slime eels, worms and sharks and bringing colonizers who then feed on each other and--yup, you got a whole new bizarre setting.

  • What's it like to live on a whale fall? What part of the whale would you eat--or would you dine on other scavengers and grazers instead?
  • No dead whale lasts forever (sad but true) and so competition increases as the whale disappears. Do factions form? Do wars break out? When does an individual, or a group, decide it's no longer worth staying and strike out on their own?
  • How long do your characters live? Most of a whale is consumed in the first few years, but the long-term decomposition can last for decades or more. Short-lived creatures could raise their children and grandchildren all on the same whale, while long-lived entities must migrate often. How do you find the next whale fall if you're the first generation to be looking since your great-grandparents' time, versus if you've done it a dozen times before?


I would be absolutely thrilled to read any stories like these, so let me know if they're already out there. And if you happen to write one, please share any part of it that you'd like to! Or if you have more cool ideas, refinements, suggestions, I'd love to hear those too.

And here's the giveaway:

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Putting the Science in Fiction brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:
  • Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are
  • frequently featured in fiction.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
  • Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
  • Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, Putting the Science in Fiction will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Jeanne and the Argonauts



I first learned about Jeanne Villepreux-Power from Helen Scales' delightful molluscan treasury, Spirals in Time. Jeanne studied the natural history of Sicily in the 1820's and 30's; she is most noted for inventing the first aquariums, using them to observe argonauts, and subsequently solving the long-standing mystery of how these strange little octopuses make their shells.

A little while later I learned about Anna Thynne--I think from either Aeon or The Marine Station History Project. She studied corals, not the huge tropical reef-forming kind but the understated British kind, and is also sometimes credited with inventing aquariums and certainly for popularizing them. I made a note in my idea file:

Write about Jeanne and Anna. Did they have a correspondence? Can I invent a fictional one?

There they languished, until last week a family friend sent me an e-mail, which led to this Twitter thread which motivated me to finally render the sketch seen above.

Of course most of the drawing is HISTORICALLY INACCURATE, to say the least. According to the rules of Victorian nomenclature, Anna might have been styled Mrs. Thynne or Lady John Thynne but not Lady Anna Thynne--and that's the least of my worries.

I still have no idea if Jeanne and Anna ever met, and if they did, they wouldn't have put corals and argonauts in the same tank, and they CERTAINLY wouldn't have put that tank on such a flimsy table. Jeanne's fishing net is a modern-style dip net, which may or may not have had any analogues in early 19th-century Sicily. Anna researched and wrote her paper "On the Increase of Madrepores" well after Jeanne left Sicily (alas!) so she wouldn't have been working on it while Jeanne was collecting.

But it's a start. Let's call it a place-holder. Someday I hope I can really dive into the lives of these two fascinating scientists and make a lot more silly, interesting, mildly educational drawings about them. There's so much that begs for illustration, like this passage from Anna's paper:

"With a needle and thread I fixed the Madrepores [corals] on a large sponge, that there might be no damage from collision, and then placed them in a glass jar filled to the brim with water, and tied down with a bladder. This method was perfectly successful. During the journey, I had the great pleasure of seeing them expand their tentacula most happily . . . "

Argonaut with expanded tentacula, presumably not too happy though. Encyclopedia illustration dates from a few decades after our heroines conducted their studies.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Ink & Mirrors: A Cuttlefish Comic

I'm delighted to announce that my science comic "Ink & Mirrors: Communicating Illusions Among and About Cuttlefish" has passed peer review in the journal Frontiers in Communication.

It's part of a Research Topic called CephsInAction: Towards Future Challenges for Cephalopod Science, so at some point it will be published with all the other contributions in an e-book. In the meantime, I've got editorial clearance to post all four pages of the comic here for your edification and enjoyment!

With grateful acknowledgement to editor Tarla Rai Peterson and reviewers Gil Penha-Lopes and Alexandra Nobre, I give you INK & MIRRORS. (The image is a link.)


Saturday, June 2, 2018

Blood from Stones: It's Actually A Thing



Rain falling over desert, credit: Jessie Eastland/Wikimedia

I love taxonomy. (Is that the dullest statement to ever open a blog post?) I love taxonomy so very much. I love the intricate details of identification, relationships and classification, and the names, oh the names. Taxonomy is a Language of Magic.

Taxonomy usually refers to the classification of living organisms, Linnean-style, Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species, but equally taxonomic to me is lexicography, the classification of words, and I know etymology isn't quite the same thing and yet it feels like also a kind of taxonomy, with those beautiful trees of descent, Greek-Latin-Late Latin-Old French-Middle English-Late Middle English.

File:House fly leg.jpg
Fly leg, credit: LoKiLeCh/Wikimedia
Taxonomists of creatures learn to count hairs on the legs of flies and measure the gill rakers of fish; taxonomists of words learn to spot new usage on highway signs and recognize Indo-European roots buried under centuries of creative spelling.

By profession I am neither kind of taxonomist, though I confess to lifelong armchair proclivities in both directions. Yesterday, I experienced a sublime moment of amateur etymological joy.

Several chapters into the book How to Read Water, I encountered the word petrichor. I've seen it a few times before, and marveled at it each time, like a shiny new insect. But despite my infatuation with it, the word resisted lodging in my mind. Whenever I stepped outside after a long-awaited rain and filled my nose with that distinctive scent, my mouth remained empty of the word that so precisely describes that scent.

This time I was determined to net the shiny creature and pin it in my collection. "Petrichor, petrichor," I mused aloud, wondering if I could make a mnemonic. "Pet Trick Core?" Nope. I looked at the page more closely. Petrichor. My brain itched. There's a word in there, a word I know: ichor, blood. Take it out, and what's left? I all but smacked my forehead and cried d'oh. Petr, rock. How had I missed it?

blood from a stone, credit: katiew/flickr
Petrichor. Rock blood. It's a real thing. Over time the dry earth becomes infused with chemicals from plants and bacteria, and when rain falls it aerosolizes the compounds, sending aromas to our noses.

Reading up on it now, I learn that "petrichor" was coined in 1964, which is recent by at least some linguistic standards (it's got nothing on "d'oh"). For more, see Wikipedia and the (unfortunately paywalled) Nature article in which two Australian scientists first presented the coinage.

It's a delight to learn the word's background, of course, but still for me a lesser delight than puzzling apart the word for myself.

For more about the wonder of taxonomy (creatures), I highly recommend the ebullient, rigorous Echinoblog.
For more about the wonder of taxonomy (words), I recommend with similar fervor the book Word by Word.
And for more about petrichor itself: The smell of rain: how CSIRO invented a new word.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Adorable Leftovers: Bobtail Squid Buries Itself

One of the great lessons of reporting, which I'm still learning, is that you should always do far too much of it. Take photos of everything and everyone, to use as references in writing descriptions. Take notes on irrelevant tangents as well as direct answers to questions. To quote my favorite security blanket, The Science Writers' Handbook, "Ask about the chain saw on the source's bookshelf or the scar on her hand."

For one thing, all this over-reporting is necessary in order to find the story. You can't know ahead of time exactly what characters and details you'll need, and often you don't even know the general structure of the piece. For another, extensive notes can provide a wealth of material to be mined and built upon for later stories.

And sometimes, in the course of reporting, you'll end up with a video that's just so cute it will afford you and your family and friends endless entertainment, even if you never publish it anywhere but your own blog.

Now, dear reader, you too can enjoy this bobtail squid burying itself in sand in Robyn Crook's lab at San Francisco State University:



Video taken while reporting "Humane studies of octopuses get a boost" for Science magazine. Unfortunately not recorded in audio but only jotted down in my notebook was Crook's comment from the point of view of the pre-burial squid: "Oh, my bum is showing!"

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Difference

Today is my 35th birthday, and I think I've finally figured out the difference between being a kid and being a grown-up. It involves shoelaces, cat vomit, and popsicles.



Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Best of Cephalopods, The Worst of Cephalopods

At my first author event I fielded some excellent questions, such as "Where did cuttlefish come from?" and "How did your book get indexed?" I thought I was doing fine. Then an old friend lobbed this multi-pronged missile at me:

What is the best cephalopod? And, if it isn't the same, what is your favorite cephalopod? Also: what is the worst cephalopod?

Temporarily paralyzed by choice, I stammered out an appreciation of the query's depth and complexity. And then I rallied. Here are my answers, illuminated with additional reflection since that evening:

Rickard Zerpe/Flickr CC BY-SA-2.0
FAVORITE CEPHALOPOD: Pygmy Squid (Idiosepius spp.)

RATING: five stars, two tentacles, one glue gland

REVIEW: This adorable genus contains seven known species, all of which glue themselves to seagrass or seaweed with a mysterious and magnificent mucus. According to Mark Norman's Cephalopods: A World Guide, northern pygmy squid "feed on crustaceans . . . as large as themselves which they attack from behind and quickly eat into the heart." What's not to love?

FUN FACT: Scientists are working on turning pygmy squid into a model organism--like white mice and fruit flies!

LOCATION: South Africa and the western Pacific Ocean


John Forsythe/CephBase CC BY-NC-ND-3.0
OTHER FAVORITE CEPHALOPOD: California Lilliput Octopus (Octopus micropyrsus)

RATING: five stars, three centimeters

REVIEW: Elusive as it is, this species completely slipped my mind at the bookstore the other night. But it was the subject of my first-ever cephalopod research project, back when I was an undergraduate in Santa Barbara, and as such it will always hold a special place in my heart.

FUN FACT: Lilliput octopus eggs are enormous, up to one-third the length of an adult's body!

LOCATION: California, natch, both Alta and Baja. Within that range, they like to hang out in giant kelp holdfasts. After picking apart dozens of holdfasts, I can tell you that 99.9% of the arms you think might belong to a Lilliput octopus will turn out to be part of a brittle star.


Citron/Wikipedia CC BY-SA-3.0
BEST CEPHALOPOD: Vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)

RATING: five stars, four weird fins, two snot-covered filaments

REVIEW: Where do I even start? Named like a nightmare, these animals are in fact peaceful blue-eyed grazers. They defend themselves by inversion and, if that doesn't work, with a dazzling light show. They like to keep scientists guessing--despite the "squid" in their name, their anatomy reveals that they're more like a kind of octopus. And they're very patient parents.

FUN FACT: Vampire squid are born with one pair of fins, then grow a second pair and eventually lose their "baby fins." (Does the "fin fairy" put money under their pillows?)

LOCATION: The Deep Sea--yeah, pretty much all of it


Martin R. Smith/Wikipedia CC0-1.0
WORST CEPHALOPOD: Nectocaris pteryx

RATING: five hundred million years old

REVIEW: Come on, did you really think I'd name any living cephalopod? Nectocaris was initially thought to be a kind of shrimp, but a controversial 2010 Nature paper re-interpreted it as a squid-like creature, complete with tentacles and siphon. Current scientific consensus, from a review by Björn Kröger and colleagues: "Nectocaris is contrary to our understanding of cephalopod evolution . . . A more likely hypothesis is that Nectocaris . . . developed a mode of life remarkably similar to cephalopods." Evolutionary convergence at work.

FUN FACT: Cephalopod paleontologists seem pretty tired of talking about Nectocaris, maybe don't bring it up--talk about ammonoids instead!

LOCATION: Burgess Shale, Chengjiang Biota, Emu Bay Shale