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We Are Not Vulcans

Leonard_Nimoy_1975

Science is the study and understanding of our natural world, the process of uncovering the beautiful details. But doing science as much about people as it is about discovery. I know this to be a fair statement because I’ve been in the thick of it most of my life. And I’ve always been fascinated by that behind-the-scenes glimpse of other scientist’s lives. Which is why, as a teen, I read books such as The Double Helix (1968), and currently Black Hole Blues (2016 — the story of the search for evidence of gravitational waves). It’s also why I’m so enthralled by films like Marie Curie (2016).

Science is a human activity with as much drama as any other. We are not like Mr. Spock. Some scientists, like myself, are often doubtful of our own data, and must do experiment after experiment until satisfied that the results are in fact true. Others are more confident. Emotions run high when scientists are passionate about their ideas and points of view, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. There is an example from plant biochemistry circles, where the oxygen-producing mechanism of photosynthesis was hotly debated between two well-known scientists. They decided to resolve their different opinions by conducting the same experiment in the same lab, together. Turns out, they still could not agree on the interpretation of the results. You can see how scientific progress is influenced by personality.

So why not occasionally use the “people” part of science to heighten the player’s emotional investment in science-based videogames? Wrapping the science in a human context may make the game more engaging and provide a cultural and human context for the scientific facts being presented. And how to tell that story? Well, one of my favourite genres is the walking simulator (also called empathy games or narrative games). Games such as Gone Home, Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch allow the player to uncover game-world truths through the process of discovery. Not unlike science really, but without the experimentation.

And this is why Sunfleck Software is currently developing a game which we hope will be a ripping science story. A story of scientific progress and experimentation with all the foibles and follies of human nature. Science with a human touch.

 

 

Moving Day

This short story is being published in an anthology of fiction with the theme, ‘transportation’. Hope you enjoy it.


“Out! Now! It’s getting to be late spring, dear, and I really think it’s time for you to leave home. I’ve provided you with everything you need,” Mom said. She always had a way of letting me know that she’d worked hard to provide for me, without coming right out and saying it. “Time to make your own way in the world.”

“But Mom, I’m still a bit green. Just a few more days, okay? A week at most, if this cool weather hangs around. You know how that slows me down.” The truth is, I get very lethargic in dull, dreary weather. It’s like I have no energy. I’ve sensed that Mom also feels the same. Maybe it’s because of that special bond I’ve felt with her my whole life. I wonder if all my siblings feel that same connection. An intimacy that’s as physical as it is emotional. Just as well—I don’t know who my father is or if I even have one, and I do not think Mom knows either. She doesn’t seem to care, if truth be told.

“Tara, the rest of your brothers and sisters have already taken to the wind,” she said. “You are the last.” She was playing on my guilty conscience. “It’s an amazing adventure, floating on air. Of course, I’ve only done it once, when I was your age, but I still remember the thrill. To put your life in the hands of that invisible current, trusting that it will take you to a safe and happy place … wonderful!”

And so I prepared to launch. I waited for an especially strong gust, wiggled a bit, and let go. I was suddenly aloft, riding the soft breeze. I rose on the current, gaining altitude quickly—I must have risen two meters in less than a second.

“Mom,” I yelled, “you should see this view!”, as I climbed another 20 meters. “There’s lots of grass and flowers, just like in our own neighbourhood. I also see massive structures with humans entering and leaving, and shiny, noisy things moving on really smooth soil. But oh, I’m getting very dizzy.” The turbulence was unanticipated, and I didn’t know how to control my flight. Suspended from my parachute, I twisted and turned like a dry leaf falling from its home in the autumn.

“Don’t worry, Tara,” Mom replied. “You won’t crash. Your feathery sail will keep you safe. Goodbye, my love. May you land upon fertile soil!” That’s my mom—always tending to the dramatic.

That was 8 hours ago. A long time for a youngster who’s only 10 days old. It’s seemed like an eternity of aimless drifting and mounting restlessness. When will I ever land? Wait a minute… I seem to be descending. Yes, there’s a definite drop in altitude. Or not. Guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Minutes later, I land with a thud. A quick inspection reveals no damage except for a small crack to my coat. How convenient—I’m getting thirsty and this crack should make it easier to soak up moisture from the ground. And I’ll need the water pressure to burst through my mantle. Looking around, I seem to be resting on silt.  That’s also good news—it means I’m probably in some sort of dried-up stream bed. So I’ll wait for that drink.

My family has always been good at sizing up a situation and making the best of it. Because of our ability to take advantage, we’ve been labelled by certain humans as dirty, opportunistic, contriving weeds. At least this is what I heard from a passing crow, and they know things. But it is not our fault. As my mother used to say, “Evolution makes us as we are. Be proud of your lineage and your abilities.” Anyway, I have yet to meet one of those animals.

This is actually a rather beautiful spot. Lots of pine trees, and definitely more birds than at home. Hmm… that can’t be good. Those are goldfinches sitting on that low branch. Finches are particularly nasty—I’ve seen more than one of my siblings suffer the trauma of being devoured alive by them. No screaming mind you, but anguish just the same. Just as I am reflecting on the horror of that experience, I am distracted by a faint scraping sound in the distance.

Minutes pass, but it is definitely getting louder. And then I see it. A  banana slug is bearing down on me with all the determination of a column of army ants in search of prey. I am not likely to be gobbled up because of my hard coat, but I am nevertheless in its way. Inevitably, it is upon me, and I feel its massive body press me further into the hard earth. My god, that hurts. But as the saying goes, short-term pain for long-term gain. At least I’m less visible to those devilish goldfinches, and now nicely tucked into the solid earth. I’m not likely to be dislodged should heavy weather hit.

And speaking of heavy weather, I see that dark grey clouds have formed, and raindrops begin to crash into the parched earth. Soon, a thin film of water forms on the surface, as the soil can no longer absorb the water as quickly as it arrives. The film grows to a torrent with dangerous eddies and whirlpools. Thank god for large slugs. Then, just as suddenly, the storm is over and the sun returns.

Now what? I feel a strange bloating sensation, as if I am about to explode. Water seems to be infiltrating my body, surging in through that crack. It’s hard to describe, but I’m feeling wonderfully energized. Water is infiltrating every cell and every space in between. Only now do I realize just how parched I have been since going through that drying cycle at home. And I’m growing—swelling and stretching, about to break through my skin.

Oh my god, I can feel my root emerging, slurping up even more water as it elongates into the depths of the soggy soil. Soon tiny hairs start to grow at its tip, beautiful translucent hairs, much like my mother’s, if I’m not mistaken. And now I crack open the other end of my confining armour, stretching and rapidly turning my pale tissue to brilliant green. The sun seems especially relevant now, more than just a ball in the sky. It’s like we have a relationship, a contract. I begin to sense a sweetness coursing through my veins. Delicious.

Weeks pass. I have become quite content in my now-familiar surroundings. My leaves are large and nicely exposed, my root is deep, and water is plentiful. Only once have I needed to resort to warfare against a winged intruder—I do not like these aphids. They suck the life and soul out of anything green. So I dealt that creature a chemical blow it will surely remember for life. Truth be told, it was easy to whip up a tasty but poisonous foliar brew.

Autumn passes quickly, followed by an uneventful winter. Not much surprise there, since I let my foliage die and live a reclusive life below ground, surviving on unsurprisingly bland starch in my swollen root. But I am feeling pretty confident now, as spring has come and I am starting to capture sunlight and pump it into new growth.

My flowers are now fully open. I have carefully laid out nectar in preparation for a guest or two bearing gifts of pollen. And eventually it comes. A bee so large that my slender flower stalks bend from its extreme weight. Clumsy stupid oaf, I think, but I must not be so judgmental. After the bee has departed, many more come in a flurry of activity, and they all seem to know exactly what they want and where to get it. Maybe I underestimated the intelligence of that very first bee.

More time passes. My flowers fade from brilliant yellow to brown. My focus shifts to the raising of my babies. Surprisingly, it is actually fulfilling to be a mother, and I think I’m pretty good at it. Some may question how a mom can provide adequate attention to hundreds of children. I’m doing my best to make sure that each of my offspring has the opportunity to make it in the world. Moving day will come for them as surely as it did for me, and from that point on, they will be on their own. Until then, what’s mine is theirs, unstintingly. My purpose, in a harsh existential sort of way, is solely to propagate and thus ensure many more generations of strong deep roots, lovely serrated leaves, and brilliant yellow flowers. Ah, and fluffy parachutes of course!

Yesterday was a bad day. A misadventure of epic proportions. A foolish young deer found me and, in the blink of an eye, tore off half my foliage—and in the same mouthful, killed most of my children! They are now resting at the bottom of a pool of stomach acid, hopefully without suffering. This is precisely why I like lots of kids. The status quo will only be satisfied if at least one of my children replaces me when I die. Is that asking too much?

Two more weeks pass. Most of the damage has been repaired; I’ve grown two new leaves and I’m feeling optimistic. I still have one flowering head left so will start preparing the kids for leaving home. Lesson One: be sure to travel light. Really, if your goal is to get far away from home as quickly as possible (don’t most kids want this?), you really have to watch your weight. Lesson Two: be prepared to wait up to a year after leaving home to actually start your new life. Don’t spend all your reserves in wild abandon in that first week of freedom. Lesson Three: be ready for life-threatening damage. Your grandmother used to tell the tale of being actually ripped out of the ground by a zealous human. She had to struggle for a whole month to regenerate from what was left of her root.

Finally, moving day has arrived.

“Out! Now!” I say. “It’s getting late in the spring, and I really think it’s time for you to leave home. I’ve provided you with everything you need.” As the words come out, they sound vaguely familiar.

Suddenly a young female human appears. She has what I’m told are called pigtails. A small hand with purple fingernails reaches down and plucks my last remaining flower from my body. As I watch in horror, she puckers her lips and blows. Instantly my children are gone with the wind. Is this kindness? Is she trying to help me coax my children out into the world? Then I notice one remaining child still attached to the discarded flower head laying on the ground. This is a special child because she has no father, just as I did not have a father. Aster is her name and I know that should she survive to adulthood, she will emulate me in numerous quirky ways. She will arrange her leaves in a silly counter clockwise fashion, just as I do. And rotate her flowers to the sun, just as I do. With no father, we are identical, just as I am to my mother. No pollination you see, so female bears female bears female in an unbroken series.

At this moment, just when I think that all is lost for Aster, the human reaches down, picks up my child, and gives one more blow. An especially gentle puff. And Aster finally sails away, just as I did one year ago. “Goodbye my love”, I say. “May you land upon fertile soil”.

Of all the books in all the world…

Question… which book, of the many that you have presumably read, has rocked your world? That one book that has set you on a new course, opened your eyes to a new way of thinking and new possibilities, or had a lasting impact on your life. This was the topic of a recent discussion group that I attended. Of course, most people, me included, had a really hard time identifying that key book. Some people selected fiction, some non-fiction. I considered Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner.  But then I realized that these were books that I thoroughly enjoyed, but which were not necessarily life-changing. And then it hit me… Plant Physiology by Salisbury and Ross. Yes, a TEXT BOOK! It introduced me to the amazing world of how plants function. The book was pivotal  – I have since made a career of plant physiology which has spanned 40 years. Granted, I’ve enjoyed plants since I was just a kid, but this book really did the trick. I was hooked. I have three editions, and each is dog-eared, riddled with highlighting, and marked up with copious notes in the margins. And even now, as a video game developer, I still try to incorporate some plant physiology into my games. I just can’t help it.

PlantPhys

By the way, we were asked to recite something from the books that we had chosen. I declined (no need to push it). I opted instead to simply provide the title of the first chapter… The Marvel of Plants. Say no more.

Mars, Melons, and Mashed Potatoes

In the book and now movie, The Martian, the astronaut Mark Watney must survive alone on Mars for what could be up to three years. In an incredible stroke of luck, it turns out he’s a botanist. And that knowledge really comes in handy because it keeps him alive.

Mars

I’m also a botanist. And I’m an indie game developer. And this is the story of my sci-fi game about plants, Solarium. (‘Mars, Melons and Mashed Potatoes’ was an alternative title, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Let me ask you a question… are you plant blind? In all likelihood the answer is yes. Plant blindness is defined as the inability of people to notice plants in their environment. From a botanist’s point of view this is very unfortunate. It leads to a sense of apathy and detachment from the plant world and is a primary reason for the lack of appreciation of the importance of plants to life on earth. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that our survival on Earth is as dependent on plants as was Mark’s survival on Mars.

So, what to do about plant blindness? The obvious answer is to make plants interesting. This I did in my visits to primary schools – the sheer joy on the faces of first-graders when plants and their associated fauna (insects, fungi, worms) are presented in a fun and interactive way is amazing. But with adults, it’s a harder sell, and not easy to do when things like sports, travel, movies, and video games seem so much more fun. Hmm… video games.

About 2007 I came across a pretty cool game called WolfQuest developed by the Minnesota Zoo, where the player learns about wolf ecology in a simulated wolf-world. It was built with the Unity3D game engine. So I decided that would be how I would make my game about plants. I knew VB, but not C# or javascript. So I set out to learn C# along with the Unity3D engine.

In Solarium, you’re in a distant future in a distant galaxy. A race of aliens has cooperated with earthlings to explore the galaxies and document all forms of life for preservation, just in case their home worlds are destroyed. It’s called the Solarium Initiative. The DNA is taken to an intergalactic botanical study centre where each environment is painstakingly reconstructed. You are a botanist-in-training from earth, and you must visit the Earth environments to learn about their plants before setting out on an actual expedition. You answer skill-testing questions, earn points, overcome challenges, and then build your own custom garden of beautiful and strange plants. And in the process, hopefully reduce your plant blindness.

Some points about the game:

  • A sci-fi setting was chosen to attract maximum attention. After all, who can resist sci-fi?
  • The player is not given a tutorial or a massive set of instructions. This is quite deliberate. Rather, players must explore the Botanical Study Centre and accompanying modules to gain an understanding of why they are there and what they must do.
  • Every effort is made to be gender- and race-inclusive. There is also CC for the hearing impaired.
  • The game has a unique and original music score.
  • Humour has been sprinkled throughout.
  • Voice-overs in the form of student narration are used here and there to help the story along.
  • We have made every effort to be botanically-correct in terms of environment, knowledge-testing questions, and plant models. However, with respect to the latter, a limited budget precluded the hiring of a graphic artist to custom-build 3D models.

And some points of general interest…

  • This game is a family affair. I worked with the game engine and wrote the code, my son did the 2d artwork and helped with the story line, and my brother composed most of the music score (the rest was bought).
  • Although some 3d models came from TurboSquid, most are from the Unity Asset Store. What a godsend. Textures were from wherever I could get them.
  • In 2013, I attended the Unite conference in Vancouver. I learned in pretty short order that this was no botanical conference. It was a blast and it encouraged me to keep going on the game.

So there you have it, the story of Solarium. I’d be grateful if you gave it a go. You might be too – perhaps you’ll end up stranded on Mars some day with only a few potatoes on hand.

To TED or not to TED

 

TED

In case you’re not familiar, TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design) is an organization that puts on yearly conferences offering a whole range of speakers who deliver their thoughts on politics, science, arts, religion and pretty much anything else that relates to being human. Their slogan is Ideas Worth Spreading. As it turns out, The annual TED Conference was held in Vancouver last spring and its close proximity has prompted some debate. First, we probably all agree that no one had an issue with the speakers at TED. It was an absolutely phenomenal lineup. No, the problem seems to be about TED itself. Some call it elitist. Yes, I suppose there is an element of elitism – one must apply to attend and also pay a hefty fee. But remember, this is a conference. I myself have been to conferences within my own profession which cost hundreds of dollars for only a few days. Granted, I do not have to pay out of my own pocket, but the fact is conferences are expensive. Some specialized scientific conferences cost in the thousands. TED is probably paying all costs plus an honorarium for some pretty heavy-weight speakers. How else could they do that other than through fees? Should we ask that they find sponsors instead? Companies like Nike, Coke, and MacDonald’s who seem to squash free thinking rather than promote it? Or perhaps open up a massive stadium to bring in the 50,000 ticket-payers needed to cover those costs? I don’t think mega-shows are conducive to the intimate sharing and discussion of ideas. And that’s what TED is all about – ideas.

I really don’t understand why some people feel so excluded. There were at least two dozen venues throughout the city streaming live broadcasts of each talk for free. And within days of conference end, most talks were put online for anyone with an internet connection to enjoy and ponder. Without the TED conference, this opportunity would simply not exist. Period. And that would be a pity.

So on to my next point. Some say that TED promotes only feel-good talks. But how is that bad? Do people not want to be inspired? Acts for the common good must start with passion and inspiration, and I’m pretty sure more than one torch has been lit due to a TED talk. I myself have been totally inspired by some TED talks over the years. And if not inspired, at least I’ve been introduced to a new perspective on the world of which I was not previously aware. And at no point do the TED organizers claim that their mandate is to end all the misery in the world, as some believe they should do. They only want to give us ‘ideas worth spreading’. And in that, they excel.