Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Looking for clues for past life on Mars

NASA's Curiosity Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

On August 6, 2012, the NASA Curiosity rover landed on Mars at the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain the size of Kilimanjaro (~19,000 feet) in the middle of Gale Crater. Nina Lanza, space scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, remembers the day well. As part of the team that built ChemCam, one of the ten instruments on the rover, she spent three months at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, living on “Mars time” to follow Curiosity’s first “steps.”

ChemCam stands for “chemistry camera” and comprises a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument and a Remote Micro Imager (RMI). It was built at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in collaboration with the French space agency CNES. Nina Lanza and postdoctoral fellow Patrick Gasda are two of the Los Alamos scientists who work on the instrument.

“We get to shoot a laser on Mars for a living,” Lanza says, grinning.

And the laser on ChemCam is extremely powerful. When focused on a target, it vaporizes a small amount of material by heating Martian rocks to a temperature that’s roughly equivalent to that of the surface of the sun. “When we fire at a nearby target,” Gasda explains, “the elements get excited and, as they come down from that excited state, they emit light.”

By looking at the light emitted by the target, scientists can analyze the composition of rocks and soils on Mars. Previous Mars missions have found ice in the near-surface at high latitudes, begging the question: was there ever water on other parts of Mars at some point? And if there was—does that mean there could have been life, too?

With the very first laser shots from ChemCam, the answer was a definitive yes. “ChemCam discovered that all Martian dust is hydrated,” Lanza explains. “Given how dusty Mars is, this means that water is everywhere on the planet. We also found evidence that water was flowing in Mars’s past.”

“Gale Crater was filled with water,” Gasda adds. “From the sequence of sedimentary rocks we know of flowing streams in the crater that converged to a large body of still water that likely lasted for millions of years.”

“Curiosity gave us a picture of Gale Crater as an extremely habitable system,” Lanza continues. “We know that on Earth systems like this, with long-lasting neutral pH waters, would definitely support life.”

But how do you go about finding evidence for life? You search for clues, in other words, unique markers that identify biological activity.

“A potential marker could be manganese minerals,” Lanza says. In 2016 Curiosity found rocks rich in manganese-oxides at a location called Kimberley. “Manganese deposits in the terrestrial geological record mark the shift to higher concentrations of atmospheric oxygen due to the emergence of photosynthesis. This means that there could have been more oxygen in the Martian atmosphere in the past.”

Water. Oxygen. What about other building blocks of life? How do we look for those?

Nucleic and amino acids have been found in space,” Gasda tells me. “However, ribose—the ‘R’ in RNA, one of the first building blocks of life—and other sugars have never been found in space because they are too unstable. In order to have life, you need molecules that stabilize these sugars in water. Borates are particularly promising molecules for stabilizing sugars [1].”

Boron is highly soluble in water. In 2013 researchers from the University of Hawaii found boron in a meteorite from Mars [2]. That’s when Gasda became interested in this quest. “Once we knew that Gale Crater had once hosted a large body of water, it was natural to search for boron in those sediments.”

ChemCam did indeed find boron on Mars in 2016. Together with the manganese oxides, this is still not sufficient evidence for life on Mars, but it shows that some of the raw ingredients were present. The scientists are primed to keep looking. Curiosity has been on Mars almost five years (or 1660 sols), and its data is helping researchers fine-tune the instruments for the next Mars rover, provisionally named Mars 2020, to be launched in July 2020.

“We need to look for biosignatures,” Lanza says. “And we may not find them. But if we don’t, to me, the most striking question would be: what if there were indeed all the ingredients for life on Mars, yet life never happened? What made Earth so unique that life could happen here but nowhere else?”

Gasda nods. “And if we are indeed unique, shouldn’t this make us feel more special, and make us more cautious about the way we treat our planet and our biodiversity?”

I mention the current political climate, with the planned budget cuts to scientific research, and the appalling denial of any intervention to curb global warming.

“These cuts to basic research are disheartening,” Lanza says. “People often think of NASA research as esoteric and out of touch. And yet almost everyone has GPS technology on their smart phones today, something we owe to space research. Take the electron as another example. I’m sure people in the nineteenth century found J. J. Thomson’s research on the electron to be highly academic, with few practical applications. Yet without his discovery we wouldn’t have electricity, and our lives today would be fundamentally different.”

“The best measure for progress,” Lanza concludes, “is when you can’t imagine the knowledge you are going to gain. Let the science surprise you.”

Nina Lanza is a staff scientist, and Patrick Gasda is a postdoctoral research fellow, both in the Space and Remote Sensing group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. They are both on the science team for the Curiosity Mars rover mission. The opinions expressed here are their own and not their employer’s. Both will be speaking at the March for Science in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on April 22nd.

[1] Ricardo, A. (2004). Borate Minerals Stabilize Ribose Science, 303 (5655), 196-196 DOI: 10.1126/science.1092464

[2] Stephenson, J., Hallis, L., Nagashima, K., & Freeland, S. (2013). Boron Enrichment in Martian Clay PLoS ONE, 8 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064624

Monday, April 3, 2017

"Science is Under Attack." A Climate Scientist's Call to Action for the Future of our Planet.

Ocean currents and eddies in a high-resolution global ocean simulation. Image courtesy of MPAS-Ocean Team.

It’s a foggy morning in London. Meteorologist George Simpson, the director of the British Meteorological Office, sips his tea and opens a paper authored by a scientist named Guy Stewart Callendar. The last sentence of the abstract reads, “The temperature observations at 200 meteorological stations are used to show that world temperatures have actually increased at an average rate of 0.005°C per year during the past half century.”

Simpson shakes his head and thinks, “Nonsense. It’s all a coincidence.”

If this seems like a modern-day scene over climate change, you’ll be surprised to know that Callendar published his paper in 1938. And of course, his results, linking a global trend in temperature rises to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, were received with a lot of skepticism. Almost 80 years later the debate is still ongoing.

“It is disheartening,” says Todd Ringler, climate scientist currently working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “The reality is that there is no uncertainty about the basic premise of climate change. We know that CO2 concentrations are rising, we know why they are rising, and we know that CO2 tends to warm the atmosphere.”

In fact, this last effect — that CO2 warms the atmosphere — was shown by Irish physicist John Tyndall in 1859, over 150 years ago. But if the science on CO2 and its effect has been clear for so long, why does the public still have this preconception of uncertainty when it comes to global warming and climate change?

“There is essentially no doubt that temperatures are rising because of CO2 concentrations,” Ringler explains. “The biggest uncertainty controlling global temperature in year 2100 is what our energy future will look like. In other words, we cannot estimate how much the temperatures will rise until we decide how dependent we want to be on fossil fuels going forward.”

“Basically what you’re saying,” I interject, “is that the largest uncertainty here is human behavior, because we still haven’t made up our mind on what, if anything, we want to do about global warming.”

“Exactly. I recently republished an op-ed I wrote ten years ago on the science and politics of global climate change,” Ringler says. “Unfortunately, 10 years later, the debate hasn’t changed, but all this litigation on the basic science is futile. The science is established, now we need to discuss policies.”

In his op-ed, Ringler has some stern words for our leaders: “Our government was failing us 10 years ago, and it's still failing us today by moving steadily away from a position of international leadership for crafting a comprehensive policy framework.”

“Why do you believe we still can’t come up with an agreement on this?” I ask.

Ringler sighs. “Humans have a long history of learning by experience, by trial and error. Take vaccines, for example. When we stop vaccinating, pockets of outbreaks resurface to remind us why we invented vaccines in the first place. Climate change happens over such a long time scale and carbon stays in the atmosphere for such a long time that we don’t have the luxury of learning by trial and error here. We have to get this right the first time, and we are not good at that. Day-to-day the biggest challenge we are facing when it comes to climate change is that we cannot pin down any single event to global warming. Weather is by its own nature random, but what global warming is doing is making certain random outcomes more likely than others. It’s shifting the roll of a dice, so to speak.”

And taken all together, these “random” events scattered across the globe are indeed making an impact: the ice caps have been steadily shrinking for the past 38 years of satellite records; the increasing amounts of CO2 retained by sea water are causing ocean acidification, harming marine organisms; weather patterns are becoming more severe, with stronger floods and longer droughts.

“What do you see as the biggest challenge posed by the current administration?”

“The current administration is ideologically opposed to regulations. But we need some rules, whatever they look like, to limit the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Look, renewable energy is happening. Take Texas, for example, which is pioneering wind energy. Las Vegas is now mostly powered by clean energy. The very same oil companies we often think of as opposing regulations on carbon missions are actually advocating for us to take action. But the problem is global and as such it requires global agreements and global solutions. It does matter what country emits the carbon, the carbon harms everyone. All nations need to come together and share the opportunities and costs of transitioning away from fossil fuels. What the current administration needs to understand is that what they see as ‘regulations’ are in fact ‘protections’ that we need to put forward to safeguard our future and our children’s future.”

“What pains me the most,” Ringler continues, “is the disconnect between science and policy. We have this disconnect between knowing something and acting accordingly. Knowledge has lost its primary role in our society, and now science is under attack. This is not healthy. A healthy society is one in which the knowledge we gather through science informs the policy making.”

As Ringler wrote in his op-ed, “We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to ask the following question: What if our present understanding of global climate change is correct? What does this mean for our society? What will happen to water in the already arid West? What will happen to agriculture, both here and around the world? Can developing nations accommodate these changes? And if not, how will we deal with the climate-driven conflict that will surely follow?”

Dr. Todd Ringler has 25 years of experience modeling the climate of the atmosphere and ocean. He studied at Cornell and Princeton University, then joined the research faculty at Colorado State University and is presently a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is member of the International CLIVAR Ocean Model Development Panel and a long-time advocate for sensible solutions to address climate change impacts. The views and opinions expressed here are Todd Ringler’s own thoughts on this subject. He will be speaking at the March for Science in Santa Fe, New Mexico on April 22nd.


[1] Callendar, G. (1938). The artificial production of carbon dioxide and its influence on temperature Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 64 (275), 223-240 DOI: 10.1002/qj.49706427503

Friday, February 24, 2017

What if black holes were not... holes? A Los Alamos physicist explains his alternative theory behind these mysterious objects.

© Elena E. Giorgi

The concept of a “black hole” — a celestial body so dense and massive that not even light can escape its gravitational field — dates back to the 18th century, with the theoretical work of Pierre-Simon Laplace and John Michell. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that these mysterious dark objects were first described mathematically by German physicist Karl Schwarzschild. Schwarzschild’s work predicted the existence of a finite distance around the black hole (called the “event horizon”) from which light cannot escape.

Emil Mottola, a physicist in the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, laughs as he explains this bit of history behind black holes. “Would black holes have captured the popular imagination if they were still known as Schwarzschild’s solution?” he quips. Mottola has a point. The name “black hole” was coined by the American physicist John Wheeler in the 1960s, when these objects became the subject of serious study and first entered the popular vocabulary.

“And then of course, Stephen Hawking made black holes very popular with his own research and theory of black hole radiation,” Mottola adds. “To this day,” he explains, “black holes are far from being understood, and science fiction may have taken over from science fact. We can’t answer many of the most important questions without knowing what the internal states of a black hole are, but no one has ever been inside a black hole, so no one actually knows what is inside.”

One particularly vexing feature of black holes is the so-called “information paradox.” In 1974, Stephen Hawking theorized that black holes emit small amounts of radiation (called Hawking radiation). However, if this is true, black holes should eventually evaporate due to the loss of mass, leaving no way—not even in principle—to recover the information that was originally enclosed in it. This question alone has generated hundreds of research papers with still no completely satisfactory resolution.

In 2001, Mottola and his colleague Pawel O. Mazur proposed an alternative to Hawking’s black hole theory that eliminates the paradox. “Think of a black hole as having a physical surface,” Mottola says. He imagines this surface to be much like a soap bubble that bends and fluctuates in space.
“Our idea is that quantum effects build up right at the event horizon (the bubble’s surface), leading to a phase transition. This in turn creates a gravitational repulsive force inside the “bubble” that prevents the surface from collapsing. This repulsive force is the same ‘dark energy’ force believed to cause the expansion of the universe. We call these objects Gravitational Condensate Stars or ‘Gravastars’— celestial objects that would be compact, cold and dark, and look to astrophysicists just like ‘black holes,’ although they are not ‘holes’ at all. Our hypothesis does not contradict the conservation of information because there is no infinite crushing of space and time inside a Gravastar, and information is never destroyed.”

According to Mottola, the mathematical equations Hawking used to describe the temperature of a black hole are in reality describing the surface tension of a Gravastar. “If we assume that black holes have a temperature, then they need to have an enormous entropy too, but we can’t easily explain that enormous black hole entropy. In our theory, black holes don’t have a temperature, they have surface tension, like soap bubbles. In 2015 we showed that this possibility of a surface and surface tension was already inherent in Schwarzschild’s original formulation of black hole interiors in 1916, and so is consistent with both Einstein’s General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.”

As I look over my notes, I pose Dr. Mottola one final question: “Is there any way to find out who’s right, you or Stephen Hawking?”

He smiles because he knows that whatever Hawking says these days carries a lot of weight, including when he proposes that black holes could be mysterious portals to other universes.
“I believe we may well find out the answer in the next five to ten years,” Mottola says. “If ‘black holes’ actually are Gravastars with a surface, their surface oscillations would cause them to emit gravitational waves at certain frequencies, which is a substantially different signal than that expected from the black holes that Hawking and colleagues theorize. LIGO directly detected gravitational waves for the first time in 2015, so we have just entered a new era of gravitational wave astronomy. In a few years, we may have enough data from the gravitational waves detected by LIGO and its sister observatories to be able to resolve the conundrum.”

Needless to say, the Los Alamos scientist is very excited at that prospect.

[1] Mazur, P., & Mottola, E. (2004). Gravitational vacuum condensate stars Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101 (26), 9545-9550 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0402717101

[2] Emil Mottola (2010). New Horizons in Gravity: The Trace Anomaly, Dark Energy and Condensate
Stars Acta Physica Polonica B (2010) Vol.41, iss.9, p.2031-2162 arXiv: 1008.5006v1

[3] Mazur, P., & Mottola, E. (2015). Surface tension and negative pressure interior of a non-singular ‘black hole’ Classical and Quantum Gravity, 32 (21) DOI: 10.1088/0264-9381/32/21/215024

Saturday, December 17, 2016

We are the "educated elite" they won't listen to

Why did Trump win the 2016 presidential election? Since November 9, many people have been asking the same question. Some say it was because Clinton wasn’t likable enough. Others blame the fact that we didn’t understand the white working class and we believed too many fake news and conspiracy theories.

Yes, those are just some of the answers. There are many more, of course, and political scientists and historians will debate this election for decades to come. But I’ve reached a point where I’ve had enough of reading how everyone else is feeling about this election. I need to say how I feel about it. Because I’m not the white working class woman who lost her job, I’m not Muslim, I’m not Mexican, and yes, I’m an immigrant but the privileged kind if you will. I’ve always been legal and now I am, in fact, a citizen.

I am the educated elite to whom it’s ok to say, “Your college degree doesn’t make you smarter.” The one who tries to counter-argue using scientific sources, real numbers, and logic, and yet all she gets back in response is name-calling and ridicule.

And if you are reading this blog, I know you are part of that same group of people who strive to educate themselves and improve their knowledge, the group of people now clumped under the umbrella term of "educated elite." So you know exactly what it feels like to be in a strange society where beliefs overcome centuries of scientific and ideological progress. It feels like the doctor who’s been telling his patients to go on a diet and quit eating junk food. We all want to be healthy and fit, yet when it boils down to making the effort, many shrug off the scientific evidence that bad eating habits and no exercise harm our health. We’re all gonna die anyway, right?

No, a college degree doesn’t make anyone smarter. Critical thinking does. And while for many things a college degree is not even needed, there are others—like health, science, and the environment for example—for which those extra years of education provide perspective and deeper understanding of those fields in particular. So when a person with a college degree or equivalent experience tells us something about the field they've studied, I think we should listen. What kind of society have we become when we no longer trust scientists when they tell us that greenhouse gases are causing the ocean temperatures to rise? Or when we no longer listen to our doctors when they say that a vaccine can save our children’s life?

There was a time when education was revered and school teachers were respected. A time when people listened to educators and doctors because they had spent decades studying and gaining their knowledge. A time when scientists were heroes because they got us to the moon and physicians saved lives with vaccines. Today, I tell my kids to study because otherwise they’ll never get a good job, and what do they reply? “Mom, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropped out of college.” Or, even better: “Mom, YouTubers make millions of dollars and they never have to go to college.”

The Internet has it all. Because anyone can contribute to the Internet, it has all the answers your doctor will never give you, all the science your religion allows you to believe, and a perfect world that beautifully matches your so called values. Why bother with education? Evolution isn’t real, it’s just a theory. We don’t need educated people telling us how old the earth is. We don’t need educated people injecting stuff in our kids’ arms claiming it’ll save their lives. We don’t need educated people telling us that the climate is changing—it’s been changing all throughout the 6,000 years the earth has been around.

Just so we’re clear, what I did in those last three sentences is called sarcasm. Because I did go to school, for many years, in fact. I went to college and then to graduate school. I got my PhD while I was raising two young children. I worked my ass off, I suffered through many failures, I received many rejection letters and yet I kept plowing along, learning from my mistakes, working through the adversities. No, you don't need a college degree to achieve that. Any kind of hard work makes people stronger. Learning from our mistakes and taking responsibilities makes us grow. And it teaches to respect one other.

But no, America doesn’t need any of that. America keeps binging on junk food and relying on whatever the Internet has to offer. So now teachers are indoctrinating our kids, scientists are conspiracy theorists who enjoy telling us that the world will end, and doctors are vaccine impostors paid by the Big Pharma. (On a side note, vaccines are cheap, they don’t make the Big Pharma rich. What makes them rich are all the drugs you need when you get the diseases you could’ve vaccinated against.)

Who needs educated people when we can do stuff on our own? This, you see, has been this election’s winning message. And that’s exactly why the incoming cabinet features a secretary of education who wants to dismantle public education; a national security adviser who tweets fake news; a secretary of treasury who ran a bank that was dubbed the “foreclosure machine”; an EPA administrator who doesn’t believe in environmental policies and doesn’t believe in climate change. If you think about it, it’s like all these people, instead of being rightfully shamed for their failures, have been rewarded with the highest positions in the government. All because we no longer trust education, let alone if it comes from the establishment. Can you hear your teenage kid’s voice? “Get out of the way, Mom. I can do stuff on my own, now!”

Truth is, the secretary of energy for the past two terms has been a PhD. In fact, our previous secretary of energy was a Nobel laureate. These bright minds will now be succeeded by a BS in animal science and Dancing with the Stars contestant. I’m sure those stardom experiences will come in handy when talking to scientists and engineers about the state of our nuclear weapons and climate change policies. Oh wait. I forgot, the guy doesn’t believe in climate change. So I’m sure he doesn’t believe in investing money in basic research to address questions like, “Why are our trees dying?” or “Is there going to be enough water for our growing cities twenty years from now?” or “How are we going to sustain our agriculture when we’ll run out of water?” or “Can we make more potent antibiotics in order to fight drug resistant bacteria?”

And if you are wondering, all those questions do pertain the US Department of Energy. DOE oversees national security labs like the one where I work. My colleagues and I work hard everyday on questions like the ones I mentioned above because drug-resistant bacteria and water problems are among the greatest threats our society is facing today. Ill-minded people can easily get a hold of these problems and turn them into bioweapons. But don’t worry, I’m sure the Internet holds all the answers.

Nelson Mandela once said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." I want you to think about that for a moment. What do Mandela's words say about a country where college education is so expensive that many can no longer afford it? And even worse, a country where a good chunk of the population does not trust college education? Knowledge is freedom. Ignorance, instead, is the shackles used by tyrannic powers.

And so America gulps down another mouthful of fat hamburger with fries, washed down with corn syrup based soda. Because no matter how many times we tell America to go on a diet (i.e. invest in renewable energy), no matter how many times we lecture America about the risks of high blood pressure (i.e. stop fracking and drilling before all of our drinking water ends up contaminated), and no matter how many times we remind America that the number one cause of death in the US is heart failure (i.e. temperatures are indeed rising and we’re all going to die if we don’t do something about it), America has decided that we are the educated elite and no longer deserve to be listened to.

So good luck America. In a world too busy to take the time to ponder, too loud to stop to listen, and too arrogant to realize its own ignorance, the educated elite is all you’ll have left when catastrophe will strike. And in the best of Hollywood traditions, we will be there to come to the rescue.

Until then, God help us all.

Thank you to Kat Fieler and Mike Martin for helpful suggestions while editing this post. All opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone. I respect yours, please respect mine. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

This is a monthly event started by the awesome Alex J. Cavanaugh and organized by the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Click here to find out more about the group and sign up for the next event. You can also sign up for the newsletter. Our cohosts this month: Beverly Stowe McClure, Megan Morgan, Viola Fury, Madeline Mora-Summonte, Angela Wooldridge, and Susan Gourley.

Hello All, happy fall and happy Halloween month!

First off, if you haven't heard about the anthology contest, check it out: the deadline is November 1st! Rules, theme and other important details on the ISWG page.

My post this month is going to be short and I apologize if I won't be able to reciprocate the comments until later in the week since I'm currently at a conference (and my presentation is today, wish me luck!).

October question: When do you know your story is ready?

It's hard to give an objective answer to that question since a story is ready when it "feels" ready. But since for a writer the hardest thing is to judge his/her own work, my strategy has been to write a first draft, then go back and refine, then go back and edit, then go back and send it to trusted beta readers. Sometimes a beta reader will come up with a suggestion that does not resonate, but most of the times, my trusted betas have good suggestions and after those improvements I usually feel that the story is ready.

How about you, what's your strategy?

Friday, September 9, 2016

Pictures from the California Coast

I love the Pacific coast. It's simply gorgeous from Mexico all the way to Alaska. Over my last trip to California I was rewarded with some really nice sunsets. Here are my latest pictures, and as always, you can get prints from my website


Goleta, CA

Goleta, CA

Cambria, CA

Cambria, CA

Pebble Beach, CA

Point Lobos, CA

And the best part? As we were strolling along the beach in Carmel we spotted bottlenose dolphins! Aren't they adorable??

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

September IWSG: have you been taking care of your newsletter?

This is a monthly event started by the awesome Alex J. Cavanaugh and organized by the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Click here to find out more about the group and sign up for the next event. You can also sign up for the newsletter. Our cohost this month: C. Lee McKenzie, Rachel Pattison, Elizabeth Seckman, Stephanie Faris, Lori L MacLaughlin, and Elsie Amata.

Hello fellow writers, my big news this month is that we launched the new anthology Beyond the Stars: at the Galaxy's Edge, featuring my story The Quarium Wars, and it was a great success! I'm really excited and stoked to be part of this project. Now onward to finish the book that's actually set in the world of my short story.

Which brings me to this month's question: How do you find the time to write in your busy day?

My answer is very simple. I don't. Fall is particularly busy for me because on top of my daily work I get a lot of requests for portrait session -- which is VERY good, don't get me wrong, I LOVE doing portrait sessions -- and so guess what happens to my manuscripts? They're left behind. Le sigh.

In other news, I'm working on revamping my website and newsletter. Newsletters are very important when you are trying to grow your business. In fact, they are like plants: you have to keep watering and nurturing it. There are many providers out there, and so far I've used MailChimp, which has been very good except for two drawbacks: (1) emails to gmail users go to the promotional tab and may never be read/seen; (2) when you start getting more than 1,000 subscribers it becomes very expensive.

So I've looked into other providers, but it's a bit of a pain migrating. The good news is that for most of them you can sign up for free and test them out before you start paying. What provider do you use? And are you happy with it?

Until next time!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

August IWSG post

This is a monthly event started by the awesome Alex J. Cavanaugh and organized by the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Click here to find out more about the group and sign up for the next event. You can also sign up for the newsletter.

Howdy, I'm back after some traveling, which is why I was absent last month (apologies). I hope everyone in the group is having a wonderful summer (winter for those of you in the southern hemisphere). And if the heat and nice weather is keeping you from writing (*coughs*), be nice to yourself because you never know where your next inspiration will be. Maybe your muse is calling from the beach, what do you know? ;-)

Jokes aside, I've been beating myself up, actually, because all I've produced this year so far are three short stories, and while two of them were slated to go in anthologies, both anthologies have been delayed. So, if you are in a similar situation, don't despair: here's my good news that may inspire you and keep you from giving up. A wonderful opportunity opened up last month and my third story was accepted for an anthology that's coming out this month, so yay! And one of those two anthologies that got delayed was mentioned recently on the TOR website as one of the 15 books to watch for in 2016 -- so double YAY! (It's at the very bottom, Zero Machine by Acheron Books, but still, the fact that it was even mentioned is super cool, I was happy dancing all over the place!)

So now I've to go back to that space opera that I was supposed to finish two months ago... What about you? What projects are keeping you busy these days? Stay inspired!

On a different note: Together with a bunch f authors we are hosting a mega-giveaway with lots of prizes, including a $50 Amazon gift card! For more details please see this post.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Abandoned Asylum

I had the unique privilege to visit an abandoned asylum and here are the images I made so far. I have so many more, I will be busy compositing until next year. :D

For the above I downloaded the wings made by Deviant Art artist "Thy Darkest Hour".

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sci-Fi Summer Fling, win a $50 gift card and lots of sci-fi books!

Who doesn't love a good Summer Fling?  Entire Musicals have been written about it! And today we're here to bring you the Summer Fling of a Book Lover's dreams.  Twenty SciFi writers have come together to offer a multi-media book experience for bibliophiles that you just can't resist.  These authors include Hugo Nominees, International Best-Sellers, Award Winners, USA Today Best-Sellers, and some of the Best Sci-Fi Authors available today (even NPR agrees!)

We have paperbacks, ebooks, audiobooks, swag, a $50 gift card and more, all for ONE lucky winner.  Sounds amazing, doesn't it? The event is from 7/23 and 8/6 so don’t miss the chance to enter!

Check out the giveaway here:

Enter and you have a chance to win gifts from these authors, plus you'll be added to their newsletters where you'll have more chances to get free ebooks and hear about new releases and other promotions.

Prizes include:

$50 Amazon Gift Card
Paperbacks of: Scavenger: Evolution, Beyond the Stars: A Planet Too Far, Massacre at Lonesome Ridge, The Luna Deception, The Future Chronicles - Special Edition, Shroud of Eden, Paperback of Strikers, First 2 paperbacks in the Corporate Marines series, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, Blink, Noah Zarc: Mammoth Trouble, Rebel's Honor
Audible copy of: Red Rex: Blood Echoes
Swag: KN Lee Tote bag
Ebooks of: e-book of Paradisi Escape, Book 1 of the Paradisi Exodus Series, ebook copy of The Morph (Gate Shifter Book 1), ebook of The Invariable Man

So don't hesitate, enter now ( and keep sharing for more chances to win!

Thank you from the Sponsoring Authors:
Gwynn White author of Rebel's Honor
Demelza Carlton with a new release coming this fall
D. Robert Pease author of Noah Zarc: Mammoth Trouble
Timothy C. Ward author of Scavenger: Evolution
Patrice Fitzgerald Publisher of Beyond the Stars: A Planet Too Far
Samantha Warren author of Space Grease & Pixie Dust
Felix R. Savage author of The Luna Deception
Cheri Lasota author of Paradisi Escape
Samuel Peralta publisher of The Future Chronicles - special edition
P.K. Tyler author of The Jakkattu Vector
Marlin Desault author of Shroud of Eden
Ann Christy author of Strikers
Tom Germann author of Corporate Marines
Calinda B author of Red Rex: Blood Echoes
Stant Litore author of The Running of the Tyrannosaurs
JC Andrijeski author of Rook (Allie's War Book One)
E. E. Giorgi author of Akaela (Dystopian YA)
A.K. Meek author of The Invariable Man
Will Swardstrom author of Blink
K.N. Lee author of Spell Slinger

Friday, June 3, 2016

I'm in love with our mountains

Another post on the beauty of the Jemez Mountains, in Northern New Mexico. For the record, I actually grew up by the sea and I miss my morning strolls along the beach. But it's hard not to fall in love with these views. This was by the San Antonio River. The water flows at the bottom of a canyon, and the cliffs around them yield stunning views.

I didn't upload all of the pictures on my website, so if you are interested in prints please email me (contact info here).

© Elena E. Giorgi

© Elena E. Giorgi

As the sun went down it started drizzling and the fine layer of clouds diffused the sunset light creating beautiful pink hues in the sky. It was magical! :-)

© Elena E. Giorgi

© Elena E. Giorgi

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

June IWSG: an inspirational story

This is a monthly event started by the awesome Alex J. Cavanaugh and organized by the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Click here to find out more about the group and sign up for the next event. You can also sign up for the newsletter.

This month I want to share a little episode that happened to me because I found it to be a great inspiration, and I hope you'll find it inspirational too.

You have to know that I'm not exactly pretty. Never been. Let's just say that beauty is not my gift. But, but, but, I'm healthy, and I have no missing body parts. I would never replace or cut or mar in any way my appearance in the name of beauty because there are so many people out there who are missing a leg or a hand or have crippling genetic conditions, so imagine how disrespectful it would be toward those people to go under the knife in the name of esthetics. So I compensate with art. I do photography, I write. I try to do beautiful things.

Wait, wait, I actually have a story to tell you, so don't start saying, "Awww, but you're beautiful inside," because you know what reply that will prompt: "Who the hell's gonna come and turn me inside out??" *grin*

Back to my story. I have a friend at work who's really beautiful. She has one of those perfect faces that never age and know no flaws. A few weeks ago we went out to lunch together and out of the blue she told me, "I envy you."

I almost fell off my chair. I said, "What are you talking about, Kate? Did you take a good look at me? And did you take a good look at the mirror? How can somebody as beautiful as yourself envy _me_?"

She shook her head. "You don't understand. This" -- she pointed to herself -- "I had nothing to do with this. I have only my parents to thank for their good genes. But you -- you have talents. And you take full credit for those talents."

I was taken by such surprise that I didn't know what to reply. So I hugged her and thanked her.

Why did I tell you this? Because we all hate some things of ourselves. We all have insecurities. But maybe sometimes we have to learn to look at ourselves with somebody else's eyes and be more forgiving. We are fairly good at forgiving others, so let's learn to do the same with ourselves. :-)

Friday, May 27, 2016

The viruses inside us

Dendogram of endogenous retroviruses. Source: Wikipedia.

Last month I posted a discussion on a PNAS paper that reported the discovery of a new class of viruses, called pithoviruses, found in a layer of Siberian permafrost. In their paper [1], the researchers conclude:
"Our results further substantiate the possibility that infectious viral pathogens might be released from ancient permafrost layers exposed by thawing, mining, or drilling."
I found this possibility intriguing both from a scientific point of view as well as a sci-fi point of view: there are plenty of books out there on zombies and aliens, but what about ancient viruses that thawed from the ice thanks to global warming?

An attentive reader, though, didn't buy the sci-fi "threat" and asked in the comments whether viruses are necessarily bad. Normally we think of viruses as pesky little things. And while most will make us sick for a short time only, some can indeed be deadly, and others can inflict long-term complications.

The reader who asked that question, however, is absolutely right: over the course of evolution, viruses have been beneficial to us. Viruses have driven genetic diversity by transferring genes across species, and in fact, we still carry remnants of viral genes in our DNA, comprising roughly 8-10% of our genome. They are called "endogenous retroviruses", or ERV.

In the rest of this post I will address two questions:

  • What are those viral genes doing in our genome?
  • How did they get there?

What are viral genes doing in our genome?

Most of them are doing nothing. They are "deactivated", meaning they do not code for proteins. Our genome is made of many redundant elements that over the course of evolution were silenced because no longer useful, only to be turned on again later on when a new adaptation happened.

One such example is the placenta, where endogenous retroviruses have been found to be expressed [2-4] and play a role in the growth and implantation of the tissue. We can only speculate on why retroviral genes are expressed in the placenta, but the hypothesis is indeed quite interesting: in order to survive, retroviruses debilitate the immune system. In general, this is not a good thing for the body, except in one very special instance: an embryo is literally a parasite growing inside the mother's body. It carries extraneous DNA and, under normal circumstances, something carrying extraneous DNA would be considered an antigen and attacked by the immune system. Therefore, the expressed viral proteins found in the trophoblasts, the outer layer of the placenta, would have the role of suppressing a possible immune reaction against fetal blood.

Another property viruses have is that of cell fusion: they literally "merge" cells together into one membrane. A second hypothesis is that this property is used during the development of the placenta to build a barrier between the maternal circulation and the fetal circulation.

How did viral genes end up in our genome?

A virus enters the body of a host with the sole purpose of replicating. In order to do so, viruses hijack the cell's own replicating machinery. Retroviruses in particular carry strands of RNA which, once injected inside the cell, are turned into DNA that is then carried inside the cell nucleus and integrated into the cell's genome. This ensures that once the cell replicates, the bit of viral DNA is replicated too.

There is a special set of cells, however, such that when the virus infects them it literally gets stuck. These cells are the gametocytes, a.k.a. oocytes in women, and spermatocytes in men, which do not duplicate unless they get fertilized. But by then the virus is no longer active. It's literally stuck, in the sense that the integrated viral DNA now cannot replicate and cannot escape the host's DNA. It's just a bit of non-functional DNA that gets duplicated along as the embryo grows. The new individual now carries the viral genes in every cell of his/her body, even in the gametocytes, and hence the viral genes will be inherited by future generations as well.

And that's how viruses ended up in our genome a long, long time ago and have literally become "evolutionary fossils." In fact, by looking at these endogenous retroviral sequences, scientists are able to reconstruct the evolution of ancient viruses.


[1] Legendre, M., Bartoli, J., Shmakova, L., Jeudy, S., Labadie, K., Adrait, A., Lescot, M., Poirot, O., Bertaux, L., Bruley, C., Coute, Y., Rivkina, E., Abergel, C., & Claverie, J. (2014). Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (11), 4274-4279 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320670111

[2] Emerman M, & Malik HS (2010). Paleovirology--modern consequences of ancient viruses. PLoS biology, 8 (2) PMID: 20161719

[3] Dunlap KA, Palmarini M, Varela M, Burghardt RC, Hayashi K, Farmer JL, & Spencer TE (2006). Endogenous retroviruses regulate periimplantation placental growth and differentiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103 (39), 14390-5 PMID: 16980413

[4] Dupressoir A, & Heidmann T (2011). [Syncytins - retroviral envelope genes captured for the benefit of placental development]. Medecine sciences : M/S, 27 (2), 163-9 PMID: 21382324

Sunday, May 15, 2016

To all of you who think New Mexico is all desert ...

... think again! ;-)
The Jemez mountains are covered in ponderosa pines and rivers like Rio Puerco give rise to the beautiful waterfalls we scouted with some photographer friends this past week-end. Enjoy!

© Elena E. Giorgi

© Elena E. Giorgi

© Elena E. Giorgi

© Elena E. Giorgi

Friday, May 13, 2016

Using Supercomputers to Probe the Early Universe

Artist's depiction of the WMAP satellite gathering data to understand the Big Bang. Source: NASA.

For decades physicists have been trying to decipher the first moments after the Big Bang. Using very large telescopes, for example, scientists scan the skies and look at how fast galaxies move. Satellites study the relic radiation left from the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background radiation. And finally, particle colliders, like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, allow researchers to smash protons together and analyze the debris left behind by such collisions.

Physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, however, are taking a different approach: they are using computers. In collaboration with colleagues at University of California San Diego, the Los Alamos researchers developed a computer code, called BURST, that can simulate a slice in the life of our young cosmos.

While BURST is not the first computer code to simulate conditions during the first few minutes of cosmological evolution, it can achieve better precision by a few orders of magnitude compared to its predecessors. Furthermore, it will be the only simulation code able to match the precision of the data from the Extremely Large Telescopes currently under construction in Chile. These new telescopes will have primary mirrors that range in aperture from 20 to 40 meters, roughly three times wider than the current very large telescopes, and an overall light-collecting area up to 10 times larger.

A few seconds after the Big Bang, the universe was composed of a thick, 10-billion degree "cosmic soup" of subatomic particles. As the hot universe expanded, these particles' mutual interactions caused the universe to behave as a cooling thermonuclear reactor. This reactor produced light nuclei, such as deuterium, helium, and lithium — all found in the universe today. "Our code, developed with Evan Grohs, who at the time was a graduate student at UCSD, looks at what happened when the universe was about 1/100 of a second old to a few minutes old," says Los Alamos physicist Mark Paris of the Theoretical Division. "By determining the amount of helium, lithium and deuterium at the end of those first few minutes of life, BURST will be able to shed light to some of the existing puzzles of cosmology."

One such puzzle is dark matter: physicists know that such matter exists because of the way galaxies rotate, but they haven't been able to detect it because it does not radiate in any known spectrum. Physicists have theorized that dark matter is made of so-called "sterile neutrinos", which do not interact with any other particle and are responsible for these unobservable interactions. "Once we start getting data from the Extremely Large Telescopes," Paris explains, "we will model sterile neutrinos into the BURST code. If we get a good description, we will be able to prove their existence."

Measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation have led physicists to theorize "dark radiation," a speculative form of energy that may have acted in the early universe. BURST could possibly reveal whether or not dark radiation is real and caused by sterile neutrinos. "The universe is our laboratory," Paris enthusiastically concludes. "BURST will help us answer questions that are currently very difficult to address with particle colliders like the one at CERN."

Ongoing support for the project is provided by the National Science Foundation at UCSD and the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program through the Center for Space and Earth Sciences at Los Alamos. BURST will be running on the supercomputing platforms at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Grohs, E., Fuller, G., Kishimoto, C., Paris, M., & Vlasenko, A. (2016). Neutrino energy transport in weak decoupling and big bang nucleosynthesis Physical Review D, 93 (8) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.93.083522

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May IWSG: Spring is finally here!

This is a monthly event started by the awesome Alex J. Cavanaugh and organized by the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Click here to find out more about the group and sign up for the next event. You can also sign up for the newsletter.

First off a big announcement: the IWSG anthology, titled Parallels: Felix Was Here, is here! Featuring 10 stories from ISWG authors, hand-picked by a panel of agents and writers, you can now get it from Amazon and other retailers. Complete list of purchasing links here.

It's May already, can you believe it? How was your month of April, did you do the A-Z challenge? Already making plans for the summer?

My April wasn't too bad: I'm wrapping up a project at work and I finished a short story which will be the prequel to a new world I'm creating. It's a space opera and I'm very excited about it mostly because... I've never written space opera before! :-) Here's a question for you: would you release a prequel as soon as it's ready or would you wait until the first installment in the series is ready to be released too?

In other news, we've had some very much needed moisture in Northern New Mexico and so I took the chance and shot some droplet macros. :-) Happy May everyone!

Friday, April 29, 2016

Hunting For The Signatures of Cancer

Signatures of Mutational Processes Extracted from the Mutational Catalogs of 21 Breast Cancer Genomes. Credit:

Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, with approximately 14 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer related deaths each year (Source: WHO). A family history of cancer typically increases a person's risk of developing the disease, yet most cancer cases have no family history at all. This suggests that a combination of both genetics and environmental exposures contribute to the etiology of cancer. In this context, "genetics" means the genetic make-up we are born with and inherited from our parents. For example, women born with specific mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are known to have a much higher risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

However, besides the genetic make-up we carry from birth, there are many geographical and environmental factors that contribute to the risk of cancer. For example, the incidence of breast cancer is over 4 times higher in North and West Europe compared to Asia and Africa (Source: WHO). Stomach cancer, on the other hand, is much more prevalent in Asia than the US. If you think that this may be linked to the genetic differences across ethnicities, think again. The National Cancer Institute published a summary of several studies that compared the incidence of first and second generation immigrants in the US with the local population. They found that:
"cancer incidence patterns among first-generation immigrants were nearly identical to those of their native country, but through subsequent generations, these patterns evolved to resemble those found in the United States. This was true especially for cancers related to hormones, such as breast, prostate, and ovarian cancer and neoplasms of the uterine corpus and cancers attributable to westernized diets, such as colorectal malignancies."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO),
"around one third of cancer deaths are due to the 5 leading behavioral and dietary risks: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, alcohol use."
Cancer is the result of a series of cellular mechanisms gone awry: every time a cell divides, somatic mutations accumulate in the cell's genome. These are not mutations we are born with, inherited from our parents. Rather, these are changes that accumulate in certain cells as we grow old and are not  the same across all cells in the body. Many environmental exposures contribute to this process and affect the rate at which these mutations accumulate. However, cells have various mechanisms that are normally able to repair harmful mutations or, when the damage is beyond repair, to trigger cell death. The immune system is also "trained" to recognize cancer cells and destroy them.

When all these defense mechanisms fail, cancer cells start dividing uncontrollably.

As a result, all cancer cells carry a number of somatic mutations that set them apart from healthy cells, and some tend to be the same across different cancer patients: for example, specific mutational patterns found in lung cancer have been attributed to tobacco exposure and were indeed reproduced in animal models. Another set of mutations has been attributed to UV exposure and has been found in skin cancers [1, 2].

This prompts the ambitious question: can we find common mutations across individuals with the same cancer? And how many of these mutational patterns that are common across individuals can we attribute to particular exposures and/or biological processes? Distinguished postdoctoral researcher Ludmil Alexandrov, from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has been working on this problem since his he was a PhD student at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

"It's like lifting fingerprints," Alexandrov explains. "The mutations are the fingerprints, but now we have to do the investigative work and find the 'perpetrator', i.e., the carcinogens that caused them." During his graduate studies, under the supervision of Mike Stratton of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Alexandrov developed a mathematical model that, given the cancer genomes from a number of patients, is able to pick the "common signals" across the patients -- i.e. mutation patterns that are common across the patients -- and classify them into "signatures."

"When formulated mathematically," Alexandrov explains, "the question can be expressed as the classic 'cocktail party' problem, where multiple people in a room are speaking simultaneously while several microphones placed at different locations are recording the conversations. Each microphone captures a combination of all sounds and the problem is to identify the individual conversations from all the recordings." Taking from this analogy, each cancer genome is a "recording", and the task of the mathematical model is to reconstruct each conversation, in other words, the mutational patterns. These are sets of somatic mutations that are the observed across the cancer genomes and that characterize certain types of cancers.

In 2013, Alexandrov and colleagues analyzed 4,938,362 mutations from 7,042 patients, spanning 30 different cancers, and extracted more than 20 distinct mutational signatures [2]. "Some patterns were expected, like the known ones caused by tobacco and UV light," Alexandrov says. "Others were completely new."

Of the new signatures found, many are involved in defective DNA repair mechanisms, suggesting that drugs targeting these specific mechanisms may benefit cancers exhibiting these signatures [3]. But the most exciting part of this research will be finding the 'perpetrator' or, as Alexandrov explains, the mutations triggered by carcinogens like tobacco, UV radiation, obesity, and so on. The challenge will be to experimentally associate these mutational patterns to the exposures that caused them. In order to do this, the scientists will have to expose cultured cells and model organisms to known carcinogens and then analyze the genomes of the experimentally induced cancers.

In the meantime, the signatures found so far are only the beginning: Alexandrov and colleagues have teamed up with the Los Alamos High Performance Computing Organization in order to analyze the genomes of almost 30,000 cancer patients.

"The amount of data we will have to handle for this task is enormous, on the order of petabytes," Alexandrov says. "Few places in the world have the capability to handle this many data. Under normal circumstances, it takes months to answer a question on 10 petabytes of data. The supercomputing facility at Los Alamos can provide an answer within a day."

Because of his research, in 2014 Alexandrov was listed by Forbes magazine as one of the “30 brightest stars under the age of 30” in the field of Science and Healthcare. In 2015 he was awarded the AAAS Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists in the category Genomics and Proteomics [2] and the Weintraub Award for Graduate Research. He is now the recipient of the prestigious Oppenheimer fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Siegel, R., Miller, K., & Jemal, A. (2015). Cancer statistics, 2015 CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 65 (1), 5-29 DOI: 10.3322/caac.21254

[1] Alexandrov LB (2015). Understanding the origins of human cancer. Science (New York, N.Y.), 350 (6265) PMID: 26785464

[2] Alexandrov LB, Nik-Zainal S, Wedge DC, Aparicio SA, Behjati S, Biankin AV, Bignell GR, Bolli N, Borg A, Børresen-Dale AL, Boyault S, Burkhardt B, Butler AP, Caldas C, Davies HR, Desmedt C, Eils R, Eyfjörd JE, Foekens JA, Greaves M, Hosoda F, Hutter B, Ilicic T, Imbeaud S, Imielinski M, Jäger N, Jones DT, Jones D, Knappskog S, Kool M, Lakhani SR, López-Otín C, Martin S, Munshi NC, Nakamura H, Northcott PA, Pajic M, Papaemmanuil E, Paradiso A, Pearson JV, Puente XS, Raine K, Ramakrishna M, Richardson AL, Richter J, Rosenstiel P, Schlesner M, Schumacher TN, Span PN, Teague JW, Totoki Y, Tutt AN, Valdés-Mas R, van Buuren MM, van 't Veer L, Vincent-Salomon A, Waddell N, Yates LR, Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative, ICGC Breast Cancer Consortium, ICGC MMML-Seq Consortium, ICGC PedBrain, Zucman-Rossi J, Futreal PA, McDermott U, Lichter P, Meyerson M, Grimmond SM, Siebert R, Campo E, Shibata T, Pfister SM, Campbell PJ, & Stratton MR (2013). Signatures of mutational processes in human cancer. Nature, 500 (7463), 415-21 PMID: 23945592

[3] Alexandrov LB, Nik-Zainal S, Siu HC, Leung SY, & Stratton MR (2015). A mutational signature in gastric cancer suggests therapeutic strategies. Nature communications, 6 PMID: 26511885