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Old 6th October 2010, 08:11 AM   #16 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Molecular biology: study of biological questions involving molecules such as DNA, RNA or proteins.

Microbiology: study of microscopic organisms, including bacteria, fungi, viruses and archaea.
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Old 6th October 2010, 08:33 AM   #17 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Quote:
Originally Posted by bulldogwings View Post
Hi Elizabeth!

How very serendipitous to find your post and generous offer at the same time I am working on a story about a scientist whose love of animals leads him into employing some proscribed procedures in order to create the miniature elephant that his wife has always dreamed about having. My specific question is what types of self imposed rules might a scientist integrate into his/her work ethic if they chose to pursue this type of work? I would think that the cute little beasts would need to be created sterile so no one could start a 'tiny elephant mill'. Any ideas on other self policing guidelines?
Well, hi there! I am a fan of this story already, since I myself have thought it would be fun to have a miniature elephant.

I don't actually clone entire organisms, just pieces of DNA. I know there are laws as to which organisms one can legally clone (humans are forbidden, for example) in most countries. I am not sure what the laws are regarding animal cloning- if, for example, one needs to get permission to do the work the same way one needs permission to conduct any kind of experiment involving live animals. You would need to figure out what the laws are regarding cloning in the time and place where your scientist lives.

Then you need to figure out if there are rules specific to the institution where your scientist has a laboratory that describe work with animals or with the cloning of animals. This isn't something he can do in his basement (at least, for most people), so wherever the facility is that the work is being conducted has to have rules that permit him to do the work. Most universities, for example, have ethical boards that oversee any work of this nature and make decisions as to whether the work can go ahead at that institution. If this project is something he is doing for personal reasons, he may find either a loophole in the rules or hide the fact that he is working on tiny elephants somehow.

Self-policing is not something most scientists need to do, actually. There are so many rules and laws about what can and can't be done that all the policing has already been done. Your average scientist, who is not in control of an institution but just works in one, doesn't have ultimate power to do just anything. If we want to keep our jobs and keep getting paid our salaries, we have to work within the rules.

As for things that can be done to prevent tiny elephants from taking over the world, keeping them sterile would be one option. Creating them so that they have a syndrome of some kind that prevents them from living a long time might be another, though this might not be desirable for pets. Because these elephants are meant to be pets, you probably don't need to worry about ecological effects the same way you would if the elephants were an agricultural crop grown outside in the environment. However, it would be interesting if the elephants did manage to escape (and some weren't sterile) and formed feral bands of wild tiny elephants, plundering gardens for vegetation and fruit.

Good luck! I'd like to read the story once it's finished, if that's possible.
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Old 6th October 2010, 11:55 AM   #18 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

You can't just scale down an elephant; dozens of the adaptations like the thick legs and the heat shedding ears have developed because of its large size. Pony sized, perhaps. How small did those mammoths on the island get before dying out (actually, a very small mammoth might be a good choice, as the hair would compensate for the lack of body mass in maintaining temperature. Try and get it down to indoor dimensions and you risk ending up with a mouse going on holiday (Sorry. What's grey with a trunk, see?).

You might be able to do the miniaturisation without genetic manipulation at all, by adjusting growth hormones from – well, not conception, but very early on. I'd do the ground work on some species that's easier (and cheaper) to get hold of, though; there are going to be a lot of failures as irregular growth rates cause deformed specimens.

They bonsai pachyderms wouldn't breed true, of course; sterilisation would be humane, as I can't see a female surviving the pregnancy of a full-sized elephetus.

And this is technology that could be handled at a reasonably domestic lab level, if you were thick-skinned enough to accept the 'wastage' (don't ever think of them as living animals with their own feelings). And could be done (probably) much sooner than direct genetic intervention.
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Old 6th October 2010, 12:03 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

I remember hearing about this in an archaeology lecture: that, trapped on an island, small animals tend to get larger (I think) and large animals tend to get smaller. They used dwarf elephants as an example. Dunno how useful it is, but it's pretty interesting!
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Old 6th October 2010, 12:30 PM   #20 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Quote:
Originally Posted by bulldogwings View Post
Hi Elizabeth!

How very serendipitous to find your post and generous offer at the same time I am working on a story about a scientist whose love of animals leads him into employing some proscribed procedures in order to create the miniature elephant that his wife has always dreamed about having. My specific question is what types of self imposed rules might a scientist integrate into his/her work ethic if they chose to pursue this type of work? I would think that the cute little beasts would need to be created sterile so no one could start a 'tiny elephant mill'. Any ideas on other self policing guidelines?

I don't know a great deal about the science of it but I can name you a couple of books that have done similar things.

In Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl he has Megadonts; elephants bred larger than normal and used essentially as workhorses. He also has "cheshires"; a genetic variation on cats, better at hiding and better at hunting. They go feral and become one of the biggest pests worldwide.

In Elizabeth Moon's Hunting Party one of the main protagionists has a miniature garden on her spaceship, populated by miniature anaimals.

In both cases the animals are incidental to the story particularly so in the case of the Hunting Party.
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Old 7th October 2010, 09:43 PM   #21 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Dear Elizabeth, It's not quite your field, but what the hey...
Imagine a planet where the incredibly advanced locals have decided "That's it, we're not bothering anymore." They decide to reduce everything living on the planet to very basic organic molecules, so basic it won't organise itself into life of its own accord. They have a very basic level of consciousness (that's the fiction part, no need to think about how that works) and may occasionally decide to get the molecules complex again and restart life.
What would that soil contain? So far, I'm looking at a sandy desert with lots of metallic molecules, and very basic organic molecules. I appreciate this is an impossible question, but even an answer that names some appropriate molecules would do.

PS. I'm a doctor and psychiatrist. Available to answer questions that might relate to stories.

Last edited by alchemist; 7th October 2010 at 09:43 PM. Reason: Misspelling - hate that sort of stuff
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Old 8th October 2010, 07:53 AM   #22 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

It's a long time since I did my BSc in Zoology and wrote a final-year essay on the topic of life on Mars, but I'm thinking short-chain hydrocarbons, benzene rings, that sort of thing? Maybe some sugars? DNA contains an awful lot of ribose (a sugar with 5 carbon atoms), after all.

Throw in some amino acids and you've got a soup that could just about turn back into life if it had enough water. The water is important because it has a lot of properties that facilitate interaction between larger molecules.

FWIW, I work at an institute where a lot of people like Elizabeth do cool science - but these days I'm a web developer and my science is a bit rusty. I know far too much about Elizabethan England, and quite a lot about linguistics (though I no longer speak any language apart from English with any semblance of fluency).
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Old 8th October 2010, 08:44 AM   #23 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Quote:
Originally Posted by alchemist View Post
Dear Elizabeth, It's not quite your field, but what the hey...
Imagine a planet where the incredibly advanced locals have decided "That's it, we're not bothering anymore." They decide to reduce everything living on the planet to very basic organic molecules, so basic it won't organise itself into life of its own accord. They have a very basic level of consciousness (that's the fiction part, no need to think about how that works) and may occasionally decide to get the molecules complex again and restart life.
What would that soil contain? So far, I'm looking at a sandy desert with lots of metallic molecules, and very basic organic molecules. I appreciate this is an impossible question, but even an answer that names some appropriate molecules would do.

PS. I'm a doctor and psychiatrist. Available to answer questions that might relate to stories.
I LOVE this question. There's a lot of debate over how the first cells formed spontaneously out of an "organic soup" of molecules that may have existed on prehistoric Earth, and one theory has it that clays (which can adsorb these molecules in arrays on their surface) were important. So you might want to make sure you have clays on the surface of the earth, and since it's fiction you can make up some special kind of clay that can reassemble molecules into arrangements that will produce long polymers.

Carbon is important. Nucleic acids (DNA, RNA) are constructed of a phosphate-sugar (ribose, as has been pointed out) backbone with purine or pyrimidine moieties attached. So you want those molecules. Proteins are composed of amino acids, so you will want those. You also need phospholipids for the construction of cell membranes (or micelles, which are like small artificial cell envelopes that could work for a preliminary ancestor cell). And there should be lots of available water.

This article, about artificial cells, might also be useful: Article here

And I have noted your expertise as a psychiatrist! I may have questions for you at a later point, based on an idea for a novel I'm working on.
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Old 8th October 2010, 08:51 AM   #24 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Also, "abiogenesis" in Wikipedia has some useful info.

This is of course assuming you are talking about carbon-based life like life on Earth. There are theories that you could have other forms of life, based on silicon, for example. If you look up "astrobiology" you might be able to find some info. There is even a scholarly journal titled 'Astrobiology' that might help.

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Old 8th October 2010, 02:26 PM   #25 (permalink)
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Thank you very much, Anne and Elizabeth,
Your replies have been very helpful. Really, I was planning on having the molecules a step below amino acids and phospholipids (granted, that's a billion year step). I had been thinking of benzene and other short chain hydrocarbons, but ones with sulphur, nitrogen etc attached. My soil needs to be pretty hostile to crops, but have the elements needed for terraforming.
I've only looked at the wikipedia link so far, and that was excellent. The term abiogenesis looks like it is going to get into some dialogue. The emphasis you both placed on water has given me some more plot points I can incorporate too.
And I'm going to have some linguistics questions too in future. Just as soon as I can figure out what they are.
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Old 5th November 2010, 06:12 AM   #26 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

I know this is the wrong field for you, but I desperately need a scientist right now.

A major plot device in the project I'm working on is a device that controls volcanic activity remotely. I need it to have the capability to switch between "chill out and don't explode" and "blow the hell up right now" with the push of a button, although switching from blow up to not would probably take a little while to go into effect of course. It needs to be a physical thing or series of things that can fit into a large backpack.

I know that's an awful lot of restrictions, but any suggestions you (or anyone else here) have on the actual mechanism of controlling a volcano would be greatly appreciated.
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Old 6th November 2010, 01:59 AM   #27 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

It's relatively easy to 'light up' a volcano; not just any old volcano, of course, but one of the 'still active but not enthusiastic' ones. Chemical explosives (but rather more than would fit in a backpack) would do it; a miniature nuke would be fine.

But bleeding off the excess energy in a controlled manner, that's another problem. You certainly can't use water cooling; some of the most spectacular explosive eruptions were probably caused by steam pressure from water seepage.

Perhaps that's the trick. A heat exchanger floating in the magma, with water being pumped in and steam coming out through a turbine and heating the suburbs of the nearest city. At the same time generating energy, pulling it out of the volcano system, and solidifying a good, thick plug.

Block either the water intake or the steam outlet, and the exchanger melts, forcing bubbles of superheated water and steam under the crust. surface, no longer cooled, shatters, releasing lava pressure all at once. Whoopee, firework night; thousands of tons of molten rock learning to fly.

It's rather bigger than you requested, sure; but that's an awful lot of energy you're expecting me to play with.

I considered multiple sonic drills concentrating energy on small regions of the surface, making seep holes in computer mapped places, so lava eases through and solidifies, making a thick, homogenous homogenous plate while releasing the energy little by little.

You could use lasers, of course, but I'm a sound engineer. Then, to cause the eruption you just drill one big hole in the wrong place. Not as fifth of Novembery, more partly directed streams of melt anything you can't vaporise, and add some toxic gasses to taste. And we're still talking about several gigawatt hours of energy; nothing I would want to carry in a backpack.

Actually, robots would be a better choice than going yourself, due to the somewhat hazardous nature of the operation; how big a backpack can a robot carry (or you could make your sonic drilling rig semi-sapient) 'Cause I don't think I can make a portable model volcano taming system.

Sorry.
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Old 6th November 2010, 04:43 AM   #28 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Quote:
And we're still talking about several gigawatt hours of energy; nothing I would want to carry in a backpack.
"1.21 gigawatts? 1.21 gigawatts? Great Scott!"
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Old 6th November 2010, 10:11 AM   #29 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Ok, here's one that's been doing me noodle-

If time is attached to matter and energy etc, does that mean time will end after the heat death of the universe, ie- when all matter and energy has 'burnt' out? Or will there be a big, empty blackness with the (metaphorical) clock still ticking?
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Old 7th November 2010, 07:30 PM   #30 (permalink)
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Re: Need a scientist?

Although I also use the term "heat death of the universe", I suspect it's something that is approached asymptotically, never actually achieved, even when the protons are decaying and there is no remaining matter as such. This for two reasons; there is actually still as much energy in the universe as at the instant of the big bang; it is merely that, with the increased volume, it is rather impressively more diluted. And the expansion continues, reducing the density still further.

And quantum effects practically guarantee that localised concentrations of this energy will occur. Oh, nothing like enough to nurture something as spendthrift as life; peaks might just possibly achieve levels comparable with the dark regions between galaxies, without all that flux of light. Enough, though that duration still has a meaning, and the clock ticks ever on, even if the hands have fallen off and there is no possibility of an observer to read them anyway.
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