DNA: A Matter of Trust

In combat, we trust our buddies with our lives. We have their back and they have ours. When submitting to surgery, we trust the medical team with our lives, and usually that trust is not betrayed. But should we be willing to trust strangers with our very essence, our DNA?

Recently I was trying to solve a plot problem in the science fiction thriller, Triangle. The storyline relied on a particular individual being singled out by the government for monitoring, not for what he had done, but for who he was.

After finishing the novel, I went back to tie up loose ends in the plot. One such loose end involved a question: How could the government know that this one person out of millions had an unrecognized super power? He was a main character in the book and so I could not ignore that question. Certainly it helps the reader suspend disbelief if the plot elements are plausible, at least superficially.

I did not have to puzzle over that question very long before an advertisement for Ancestry DNA popped up on my computer screen.

That was it!

And so the following text flowed quickly.

The characters in this conversation are Sally Simpkin  (AKA Pippi Longstocking) and Joshua Nilsson, identified below by their initials. She was trying to explain to Nilsson why she and her employers had been monitoring him.

SS: “[The government] detected that you had a high probability of having certain prescient capabilities.”
JN: “Forgive me for being a bit skeptical. Why can’t you tell me [how]?”
SS: “I’m not even cleared to know the process. I just took the assignment. It had something to do with a DNA sample you submitted.”
JN: “DNA? The only DNA I’ve submitted was for genealogy research.”

Triangle was published on May 21, 2017. On May 25, the following BBC headline appeared in my browser.

Ancestry.com denies exploiting users’ DNA. “A leading genealogy service, Ancestry.com, has denied exploiting users’ DNA following criticism of its terms and conditions.”

So, is this author also prescient like Nilsson? Or is this blogger merely a bit jaded.

Genealogy services have a difficult time competing in the world market. After all, there are only so many retired folks trying to trace their family history and solidify their genetic place in the world before their demise. Speaking for myself, I started my genealogy research years ago, picking it up from my grandmothers who told tales of Civil War Colonels and Carpet Bagger treachery, and murder. In fact, I’ve posted on this blog before about some of my discoveries.

With the advent of computers and the availability of free records from the Mormon Church, the ease of doing genealogical research exploded. Some of the software and services were either free or inexpensive. Of course, “free” doesn’t do much for a service provider’s cash flow. So, into each CEO’s mind comes, sooner or later, thoughts of monetization. How could Facebook’s Zuckerberg and others turn a free service into something that can make them gazillions? In the case of genealogy services, they started by charging a monthly access fee, and in one case, by enticing viewers to keep paying fees by waving images of fig leaves to attract their attention. That was a strange but brilliant ploy that worked very well on this researcher.

The next step in monetization is now universal: sell ads to companies who want access to the growing body of amateur genealogists. The final ploy, and by far the most ethically troubling, is selling information about users of computer services. First there were those pesky cookies, but now there is blood, or saliva more exactly.

For some companies, it is not enough to know what users search for. There is now a market for information about who you are, your very genetic essence, which is hidden even to you. But some companies like 23andme, Ancestry, MyHeritage, GPS Origins, Living DNA, and Family Tree DNA, let you take a peek into your genes, for a price.

The ironic thing is, this most personal information is not only freely given, but people actually pay the DNA harvesters to harvest their most sacred self. And of course, once that has been done, your genetic-identity can be sold (read the fine pint). While we are urged to protect ourselves from identity theft, isn’t it odd that we are at the same time being enticed into giving away our most precious identity of all, our DNA? And we seem to be doing so gladly, blithely unaware of the implications for us and our progeny.

But don’t let the natural skeptic in me show through too strongly. I do, after all, have faith that everything we’re being asked to store in the “cloud” is actually as secure as cloud storage facilities (whatever those are) claim. And I’m sure the secrets buried deep in our genes are forever kept private, and safe from hackers.

But then, there is that troubling Orwellian Consent Form.

Oh well, Sally Simpkin’s monitoring assignment in Triangle is purely fictional. Surely, no government would really have an interest in our genes.

Or would it?




Where Things Move Quickly and Darkly

I came across a great article from the New Yorker with an interesting title. In fact, my interest lasted all the way to the end.

Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?

“Albert Einstein (Nobel)” by Unknown – Official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

If you get the feeling that science is not as pure of thought and logic as it pretends to be, then you will find some comfort in Adam Gopnik’s approachable review of the deeply hidden controversy surrounding what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Spooky action is the weirdest of all science, and makes telepathy and clairvoyance seem almost banal by comparison.

In my opinion, parts of Gopnik’s none-too-technical article remind me of the quote by Dr. Jason Parker, the protagonist in the science fiction thriller, “Middle Waters“. In a supposed speech to the open-minded Emerald Path Society, Parker said, “There are regions between heaven and Earth where magic seems real and reality blurs with the surreal. It is a place where things move quickly and darkly, be they friend or foe. The hard part for me is knowing the difference between them.”

Gopnik expressed that thought more prosaically by the following: “”Magical” explanations, like spooky action, are constantly being revived and rebuffed, until, at last, they are reinterpreted and accepted. Instead of a neat line between science and magic, then, we see a jumpy, shifting boundary that keeps getting redrawn.”

Gopnik goes on to say, “Real-world demarcations between science and magic … are … made on the move and as much a trap as a teaching aid.”

To be honest, I did leave out Gopnik’s entertaining reference to Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Again, if you have ever been suspicious of the purity of science, the New Yorker article is well worth the read.

Unlike the concerns of Einstein, Neils Bohr and the rest of the cast of early 20th century physicists, the anxiety of Jason Parker, the fictional hero, is not cosmological; it’s personal. It’s every bit as personal as it is for each of us when we sometimes question our sanity.

Yes, real life can be like that sometimes, when things intrude into our ordered lives, as quickly as a Midwest tornado, but with less fanfare and warning. But every bit as destructive. And it is at those points, those juxtapositions with things radical, unexpected, that we end up questioning our grip on reality.

After all, what could be more unexpected and unreal seeming than the notion that cosmological matter we can’t see, dark matter, could send comets crashing into the Earth, as Gopnik mentioned, and the  Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall wrote about in her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

So, Jason Parker had every reason to be wary of things that move quickly and darkly. They can be a killer.

Sometimes, as in the case of Parker, those internal reflections do end up having a cosmological consequence. But even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to occasionally reexamine our lives for the things which may seem one day to be magical, and the next day to be very real.

In short, the magic should not be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, just like “spooky action at a distance” and “dark matter”, it may not be magic after all.



Remote Viewing – Stretching the Limits of Science in Fiction

Laser physicist Harold E. Puthoff.

I once met the Father of the U.S Remote Viewing program, unawares.

A decade ago, at the request of a Navy engineer who ended up being a character in my novel Middle Waters, I invited Dr. Harold E. Puthoff into the Navy Experimental Diving Unit to give a talk on advanced physics. He had attracted a small but highly educated and attentive crowd which, like me, had no idea that the speaker had once led the CIA in the development of its top secret Remote Viewing program.

Of late, Puthoff’s energies have been directed towards the theoretical “engineering of space time” to provide space propulsion, a warp drive if you will. Although strange by conventional physics standards, similar avant-garde notions are receiving traction in innovative space propulsion engines such as NASA’s EMdrive.

Puthoff is the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Austin, in Texas, but before that, and more germane to this discussion, Puthoff was a laser physicist at the Stanford Research Institute. It was there that the CIA chose him to lead a newly created Remote Viewing program, designed to enable the U.S. to maintain some degree of competiveness with Russia’s cold war psychic spying program.

6800 feet down in the Desoto Canyon

Psychic spying was purportedly the method used by the two superpowers to visualize things from a distance; not from a satellite, but from what some call the highly developed powers of the mind’s eye. If we believe what we read on the subject, Remote Viewing was eventually dropped from the US psychic arsenal not because it had no successes, but because it was not as reliable as signal intelligence (SIGINT), satellite imagery, and spies on the ground. But, it has been argued, it might be ideal in locations where you can’t put spies on the ground, such as the dark side of the moon, or the deep sea .

Serendipitously, as I started writing this blog post, Newsweek published a review of the Remote Viewing efforts of Puthoff and others in a November 2015 issue. The article seemed fairly inclusive, at least more so than other articles on Remote Viewing I’ve seen, but the Newsweek author was not particularly charitable towards Puthoff. Strangely, the strength and veracity of Puthoff’s science was reportedly criticized by two New Zealand psychologists who, as the Newsweek author quoted, had a “premonition” about Puthoff.

“Psychologists” and “premonitions” are not words commonly heard in the assessment of science conducted by laser physicists, especially those employed by the CIA. The CIA is not stupid, and neither are laser physicists from Stanford.

To the extent that I am able to judge a man by meeting him in person and hearing him talk about physics, I would have to agree with Puthoff’s decision to ignore his ill-trained detractors. Every scientist I know has had detractors, and as often as not those detractors have lesser credentials. Nevertheless, I have the good sense to not debate the efficacy of remote viewing. I don’t know enough about it to hold an informed opinion. However, there seems to be some evidence that it worked occasionally, and for a science fiction writer that is all that is needed.

Nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.

As my curiosity became piqued by the discovery of the true identity of my guest speaker at NEDU, and as I learned what he had done for the U.S. during the Cold War, I thought of another great physicist, Enrico Fermi, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. In the midst of a luncheon conversation with Edward Teller, Fermi once famously asked, “Where are they?” The “they” he was referring to, were extraterrestrial aliens.

What became known as Fermi’s Paradox went something like this: with all the billions of stars with planets in our galactic neighborhood, statistically there should be alien civilizations everywhere. But we don’t see them. Why not? “Where are they?”

In most scientists’ opinions, it would be absurdly arrogant for us to believe we are the only intelligent life form in the entire universe. And so ETs must be out there, somewhere. And if there, perhaps here, on our planet, at least occasionally. And that is all the premise you need for a realistic, contemporary science fiction thriller.

But then there is that pesky Fermi Paradox. Why don’t we see them?

Well, they could indeed be here, checking us out by remote viewing, all the while remaining safely hidden from sight. After all, as one highly intelligent Frog once said, humans are a “dangerous species” fictionally speaking of course.

That “hidden alien” scenario may be improbable, but it’s plausible, if you first suspend a little disbelief. If we can gather intelligence while hiding, then certainly they can, assuming they are more advanced than humans. A technological and mental advantage seems likely if they are space travelers, which they almost have to be within the science fiction genre. Arguably, fictional ETs may have long ago engineered space-time, which could prove mighty convenient for tooling around the galactic neighborhood.

So, if in the development of a fictional story we assume that ETs can remote view, the next question would be, why? Is mankind really that dangerous?

Well, I don’t intend for this post to be a spoiler for Middle Waters, but I will say that the reasons revealed in the novel for why ETs might want to remote view, are not based on fear of humans, but are based on sound science. From that science, combined with a chance meeting with Hal Puthoff, the basic premise of a science fiction thriller was born.

So, to correct what some of my readers have thought, I did not invent the concept of “remote viewing”. It is not fictional; it is real, and was invented and used by far smarter people than myself, or even that clever protagonist, Jason Parker.



A Novel – A Song Just Waiting to Bust Out

SAM_0557One of the most memorable quotes I’ve heard from a child came from his experience listening to classical music. I don’t remember who said it (Google comes up empty-handed), but I’ve never forgotten it.

“A symphony is music with a song waiting to bust out any minute.”

Those words were the child’s response to listening to a symphonic piece. The little listener kept expecting to hear a song, but no sooner did the musicians seem to be closing in on a melody, than the music changed and darted off down another musical path. I suspect that was a little frustrating to the kid; but at least it kept him listening, expectantly.

Being a musician, I can fully appreciate the correctness of his innocent comment.

Classical music is technical; in fact, highly so. Orchestration is a wonderment to those of us who aren’t both talented and trained in the art. The printed lines for a solo instrument, like the clarinet I file0001662840435play, are defined by strict mathematical relationships between frequencies of sound. If the math is not precise, then the sound will not be precise and melodic. That is to say, the sound will not be music, but rather noise.

I consider myself a technical person. As a scientist, I understand the technical rigor and precision which is required for composing and orchestration, but also for scientific and engineering calculations and publications. Indeed, I’ve spent decades writing technical papers, many with a fair amount of mathematical basis. I kept the creative, the musical side, bottled up, because it’s not publishable. Technical publications are, well, technical. They are neither pretty nor tuneful.

But as I mingle vicariously with other technical writers, I find that some of them also have a pent-up desire for creative writing. With a somewhat guilty feeling, they have actually penned very good, non-technical prose. And even a few poems.

Now that I, a scientist, have released my first novel, Middle Waters, hugely imaginative compared to my day-to-day paid technical writing, I feel I have birthed a bastard child.

Oh, but how I love that child.

Now let the song begin…