The ELFS (Eat Less Food, Stupid) Diet

5 05 2021

Are you suffering from the notorious COVID-15 weight gain?

To help you totally lose it (!), here are the principles of my totally un-patented ELFS (East Less Food, Stupid) Diet, based on what’s known about the physiology of appetite and weight loss.

  •  Exercise doesn’t help you lose weight. You expend only a trivial number of calories in exercise, compared to the calorie reductions you need to lose weight. Exercise does enhance muscle strength, stamina, and brain function and protect against heart disease, diabetes, etc. It also gives an endorphin high, similar to that from opioids. Never exercise so much that you don’t enjoy it. The dictum “no pain, no gain” is bullshit.
  • Hunger pangs are not an alarm, but only a hormonal signal from the stomach that it would like to be fed. You can fool the stomach and manage your hunger pangs.
  • Don’t count calories, read food labels, constantly weigh yourself, or do other food-related activities. The object of the ELFS diet is to reduce thinking about food. That practice actually reduces hunger because you’re not obsessing over food. Diet plans don’t work because they involve constantly thinking about what you’re eating and what your weight is.
  • Don’t eat between-meal snacks.
  • Don’t eat after 7:00 p.m.
  • Eat slowly. It takes about 20 minutes for the satiety hormone from the stomach to reduce hunger.
  • Put only a modest amount of food on your plate, and use a small plate. People have a tendency to eat everything on their plate.
  • At restaurants, put half of your food in a container before you begin eating.
  • Realize that everybody is trying to make you fat. At dinner parties your friends will entice you to eat more. And your relatives will comment on your efforts, as my nephew did when I’d lost weight, asking “Are you doing that on purpose?”
  • Don’t eat red meat and other high-fat foods. Chicken and fish are better. Also, consider going vegan. There are tons of tasty vegan recipes, and restaurants are featuring creative vegan dishes.
  •  The first bite of a dessert is the best. The rest is just feeding. The first cookie is the best.
  • Go to bed a little hungry. If the pangs are too much, eat a few crackers, a few nuts, etc. It fools the stomach into thinking it’s being fed, so the stomach shuts the hell up. You lose weight while sleeping.
  • If you go to bed hungry, you’ll be surprised to find that you wake up not hungry. The body has begun to use energy from fat, and it’s perfectly happy.

How to make plot ideas pop into your head

15 08 2017

Novelists are often asked how they get their plot ideas. I get many of the plots for my science thrillers to pop into my noggin from extensive reading about science and technology. However, sometimes the idea will come before any research, often as little more than a phrase or sentence. I’ve found “What if…?” questions to be the most fruitful.

My first published novel, The Cerulean’s Secret, arose from the simple question “What if there was a blue cat?” The notion nagged and nagged at me, until I started spinning a plot around it. I realized the plot had to revolve around genetic engineering, so I began doing research, coming up with lots of articles that helped form the plot. As with all my novels, I included a list of those sources on my web site.

Similarly, The Rainbow Virus started with “What if there was a virus that turned people colors?” The plot and details from that novel also grew from research that I ultimately posted on my web site.

Authors have also gotten their ideas from some odd phrase or sentence that somehow pops up when their mind is wandering. My advice: let it linger! My favorite story is how J.R.R. Tolkien got the first idea for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was grading student essays at the time.

“I’d got an enormous pile of exam papers there and was marking school examinations in the summer time, which was very laborious, and unfortunately also boring,” he recalled in an interview. One paper had a page left blank.

“So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’” At that point Tolkien had no idea what a hobbit even was. But to the enormous benefit of readers worldwide, he let the idea blossom!

For me, sometimes it’s a passage in an article I’ve read that sparks a plot. For example, the idea for The Neuromorphs arose from two quotes. In 2014, Science magazine quoted computer researcher Todd Hylton as saying “We think robotics is the killer app for neuromorphic computing.” Of course, Hylton didn’t literally mean killer robots, but the idea stayed in my head that the kind of robots based on brain-like neuromorphic circuitry could somehow become lethal.

The kicker that really launched the plot was a chilling passage from an article on artificial intelligence by Jason Tanz in Wired magazine:

“With machine learning, the engineer never knows precisely how the computer accomplishes its tasks. The neural network’s operations are largely opaque and inscrutable. It is, in other words, a black box. And as these black boxes assume responsibility for more and more of our daily digital tasks, they are not only going to change our relationship with technology—they are going to change how we think about ourselves, our world, and our place within it.”

Of course, I needed a plot to go with those ideas, so I decided on a theme that no safeguards against artificially intelligent robots escaping control could protect against human greed and depravity. I found lots of good resources to help formulate a plot to support that theme.

In that plot, Russian mobsters bribe the chief programmer of a company that makes lifelike androids to alter the operating systems of androids belonging to wealthy people. Those androids would then kill their owners, be re-engineered to mimic them, take their place, and loot their wealth for the mobsters.

Sometimes, though, it won’t be articles I’ve read, but technology-related experiences that trigger a plot idea. The plot for my latest novel, The Happy Chip, arose when I realized how extensively companies like Facebook and Google were compiling data on my personal habits. That data, I realized, could evolve into a form of control. I wondered “What if people could have chips implanted that would give them data on themselves?” From there, the plot evolved in which corrupt company executives transform data chips into control chips.

My plot-conceiving technique has worked incredibly well. I now have 20 novel plots lined up and more coming. Now, I just have to write the books!

Should an author rewrite a published novel? I did.

1 08 2016

While non-fiction authors routinely produce new editions of their books, novelists don’t, with only rare exceptions. 3D Rainbow Virus 2nd edition webFor example, after Random House bought Andy Weir’s self-published novel The Martian, an editor streamlined the prose before republishing it, helping it become a massive best-seller.

But how about wholesale rewriting of a published novel? Is it a good strategy editorially? Or is it just a case of an obsessive-compulsive writer who can’t let go of a story?

Such rewriting is certainly more feasible these days. Since it’s simple to publish a new ebook or a print-on-demand paperback, authors can readily go back and improve their stories. They can tighten text, streamline plot, enhance action, and draw characters more sharply.

That’s exactly what I did in rewriting my science thriller The Rainbow Virus, and I think my experience offers a useful case study of both the advantages and disadvantages of reshaping a novel.

I published The Rainbow Virus in 2013 to very good reviews on such sites as Amazon, Goodreads, and LibraryThing. While I was gratified, I came to believe that I could greatly improve the novel, based on what I learned from reader feedback and my experience publishing subsequent novels.

I didn’t get a consistent answer when I asked publishing experts about whether to rewrite the novel. My book designer nixed the idea, surprised I’d even considered rewriting, since the reviews were good. On the other hand, a highly respected book marketer absolutely loved the idea of relaunching the title as a rewritten novel.

In the end, I decided to rewrite because of what I perceived as significant editorial shortcomings in the first edition, of both its length and plot. I didn’t feel that edition fully reflected what I wanted to create—a dynamic science thriller, a vivid cautionary tale of bioterrorism, and a satiric exploration of our pathological obsession with skin color.

Regarding length, I learned from experienced editors that authors have a tendency to write novels that are too long. I realized that was the case with The Rainbow Virus. The length problem was due to

  • Scenes that didn’t advance the plot. This problem arose because, like many novelists, I loved my characters so much, I wanted them to “have a life.” So, I wrote scenes depicting that life—for example a romantic dinner date—that didn’t propel the plot forward.
  • Lots of dialog instead of action. This violated the maxim among novelists “Show don’t tell.” I wrote too many scenes portraying meetings in which characters discussed events and strategy. Since meetings are not action, this slowed the plot.
  • Too much technical detail. In some cases, I fell into the old trap of “showing my research.” As a certified science geek, I included too much detail about biological concepts and laboratory procedures.

The plot shortcoming involved the unrealistic portrayal of a main character, Kathleen Shinohara. She is a CDC scientist who is obsessively dedicated and strong-willed. But in the novel, she falls into bed far too easily with the other main character, the disgraced, alcoholic FBI agent, Bobby Loudon. And the sex scenes between them, while not graphic, were far too extensively described.

Given these perceived shortcomings, I rewrote the novel in a way that I believe fixes both the length and plot problems. In the process, I cut it by 22,000 words, from 138,000 to 116,000. And while I kept the romance angle, I changed the plot so that Loudon had to reform himself and earn Shinohara’s respect before she would even consider a relationship.

I think the rewritten novel much more effectively achieves my literary goals. But the question remains: Should I have done it?

In a publishing sense, I had to. For one thing, I had to remedy some significant procedural mistakes I made in publishing the first edition. For one, I didn’t recruit an extensive enough cadre of beta readers, who could have pointed out the novel’s shortcomings. And, I wasn’t self-critical and ruthless enough in tightening the text and streamlining the plot. Basically, I made the kinds of mistakes that self-published authors too often make in this era where we have to be our own editors.

Indeed, readers reviewing the published novel pointed out significant shortcomings that I needed to take into account. True, reader reviews are very much a two-edged sword, because readers are “amateurs” in both the pejorative and complimentary senses of the word.

In the pejorative sense, as amateurs they lack the analytical experience of professional critics. However, in the complimentary sense, amateurs are people who do something for the love of it. These kinds of amateurs have extensive reading experience and will not be bashful about commenting on shortcomings in the novels they read.

So, I decided to take readers’ reviews as a form of crowdsource criticism—not dwelling too much on individual comments, but looking for trends. For example, several readers commented that the romance/sex angle took up too much text and got in the way of the plot.

In crafting the rewrite, I was confident I was making the novel better for new readers. But one question haunted me: Was I somehow being unfair to readers of the first edition by not having given them what I now consider my best effort?

I finally concluded that I didn’t cheat those early readers, because I published the best book that I could, and their reviews were highly positive.

Another quandary was, once I decided to produce a new edition, what should I do with it? Should I upload it as just another routine edit of the original? Or, should I trumpet its existence as “new and improved?”

We decided finally to do a total relaunch of the book as a second edition, with its own ISBN number and a new cover.  Financially, since we’re now just beginning to market the new edition, I don’t know whether the cost and effort will have represented a good investment. But creatively, I believe it was a great investment.

Authors immersed in this new era of self-publishing will face many such thorny questions. While I still haven’t figured out the wisdom of this rewrite, I hope the story of my story will benefit both authors and readers alike.

Response to “Some Questions re Eligibility for Office in the NASW”

1 07 2016

(This post is in response to NASW President Robin Marantz Henig’s answers [LINK] to the questions I raised in my postSome Questions re Eligibility for Office in the NASW” [LINK]

Robin, thanks for your answers, which did clarify things—but only a bit. There are major questions you did not address, which I believe are important in the debate over the proposed amendment that, if passed, would allow any member to hold office. It would be helpful to have at least an indication that the board and officers will be addressing those questions.

For one thing, your answer regarding writing news releases implies that writing even one release, not to mention occasional releases, would trigger the requirement that an officer step down. Is that true?

Also, I would join Rick Borchelt in asking you to address the conundrum whether an officer seeking media coverage for his/her book—which these days often requires an author to write news releases—would require the officer to step down.

Nor does your answer indicate that that there is any policy—or indeed any discussion at all—of how to interpret the vague requirement that “A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism.” This is of significant interest to freelancers like me who engage in an eclectic, ever-changing mix of journalistic, quasi-journalistic, and news-release-writing projects to keep our heads above financial water.

Earle Holland’s point about the ambiguous nature of my communication workshops exemplifies the problem.

Your comment that “Luckily, you would have to turn down the more lucrative work of writing press releases only during the two years that you’re an officer…” reflects a very problematic reality for freelancers who contemplate seeking office.

For one thing, it means that many would have to give up a significant income while serving—in essence paying to serve as an officer. I’m sure that would discourage many freelancers from running for office.

What’s more, freelancers/officers would face the prospect that the offer of a lucrative news release assignment would force them to choose between compromising their financial well-being, or being embarrassed by having to step down.

Finally, regarding the journalism requirement for officers, I’d like to explore the issue of what constitutes “journalism” these days. The current rule was written in the last century and reflects an outmoded twentieth-century attitude regarding news releases.

Back then, the sole purpose of a news release was to affect media coverage, because that coverage was the only conduit to the public. Today, research news releases posted on services such as EurekAlert! and Newswise are available to the public online globally. In fact, they are posted right along with media stories on such news aggregators as Google News.  A recent search revealed more than 25,000 EurekAlert! and 6,000 Newswise releases on Google News.

This fact is one reason that there is a case to be made that research news releases are now, indeed, journalism.

Certainly, they don’t offer the independent assessment and perspective of a media story. However, many media research stories don’t either, merely describing the research finding.

And while there may be “flackery” in some research news releases, there also may be “hackery” in some media stories that misinterpret research.

In fact, research news releases may well be superior to news stories in their accuracy. They are usually more detailed, and arguably more accurate than media stories, because in reputable news offices, they are fact-checked by the scientists.

I hope these comments help us clarify these thorny issues of eligibility for office, and I look forward to your response.

Some Questions re Eligibility for Office in the NASW

18 06 2016

(I’m posting this letter to the NASW board members and officers, so that my fellow freelancers may have the benefit of their answers.)

Dear NASW board members and officers,

I’m writing to ask for clarification of the current rule governing elected officers, as stated in the NASW Constitution and Bylaws. The relevant passage is Article IV, Section 1:

“A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism. Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office. Officers who engage in such activities shall notify the Board immediately. They may remain on the Board, but the Board shall appoint another fully qualified member to carry out the officer duties.”

My reason for writing is that, after decades of membership in the NASW, I’d like to consider running for office, and I’d like to explore my eligibility.

As a PIO for four decades, I wasn’t eligible to serve as an officer. During that time, I did freelance for such publications as Discover, Popular Science, Air & Space, Science Digest, and newspapers and in-flight magazines. I also consulted on science museum exhibit design.

Ten years ago I left my last PIO job, and I now freelance and consult on research communication. So, I need to understand whether my mix of writing and consulting satisfies the requirement that a “substantial majority” of my science-writing activities be journalism.

I currently write nonfiction books and novels, occasional news releases, and teach communication workshops for scientists. My last commercial nonfiction book was Explaining Research (Oxford 2010). However, in 2013, I co-authored Danny’s Dream, a privately published history of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Of course, I also write the blog Research Explainer, on which this letter is posted.

Does the “substantial majority” rule pertain strictly to word count, or would a nonfiction book be considered as the equivalent of one media article? I suspect not, and if the appropriate measure is word count—given that Explaining Research is 100,000 words—how many words’ worth of news releases may I write and still maintain a substantial majority? Also, is there a “statute of limitations,” such that a book published a given number of years ago could not be considered in the substantial majority measure?

Would Danny’s Dream count as a published book, given that it was privately produced for an internal audience? If so, since I co-authored the book, and if word count is the criterion, would I count half the words toward my substantial majority?

I am currently writing a nonfiction book on the social impacts of global warming. Given that books take years of writing, could I count the words as I write them toward the substantial journalistic majority?

Do science fiction novels count as science journalism? I write so-called “science thrillers,” which are adventure stories that extrapolate from real science, as opposed to, for example, Vampires vs Zombies. Would a nominating committee want to review the novels, to judge their scientific content?

Does the rule that “Officers may not write press releases” (emphasis added) mean that, if I were elected an officer, I could write a single release and still remain in office? Or, perhaps a limited number? For example, St. Jude asks me to write a couple of releases every six months or so, as a backup for their science writer. How many of those releases over what period may I write before I would have to relinquish my officer duties? Might I be allowed two per year, for example?

I’d hate to forgo the income from those releases. As I’m sure you well appreciate, freelancing is a financially precarious business. Also, I’d hate to risk losing St. Jude as a client. If I’m elected, perhaps my St. Jude editor would understand and keep me on their list of contributors if the Board could provide a statement to the effect that my officer’s duties preclude writing news releases.

Also, I currently write occasional summaries of research for the web site of MIT’s Sloan School of Management Initiative for Health Systems Innovation. Since those summaries are not meant to “affect media coverage,” would they be considered news releases? If not, could they count toward my substantial majority?

Finally, word-counting wouldn’t apply for my communication workshops. If, indeed, those workshops do qualify as journalism, I’d appreciate guidance on how they would count toward my substantial majority. The workshops typically last from a few hours to days, but they may take weeks of preparation and practice.

I’m aware, of course, that there is under consideration a proposed amendment to the constitution and bylaws that would render these questions moot. However, given that the Board has expressed its position that the current rule should remain in place, I’m assuming that the above questions will remain relevant.

Thanks so much for considering these issues, and I look forward to your response.


Dennis Meredith

Ideas are Not Soap: The Failure of Corporate Marketing for Communicating Science

26 01 2016

by Dennis Meredith, Science Communication Consultant

(Reprinted from ScienceWriters, the National Association of Science Writers magazine, Winter 2015-16 issue)

Over recent years, more and more research institutions seem to be adopting a corporate marketing approach to their communications. You can recognize these marketers by their use of such Aisle drop shadowbuzz-words as branding, messaging, market penetration and cost-benefit analysis. It’s an approach that risks compromising research communications, and more broadly a research institution’s missions to create and disseminate knowledge.

Administrators become enamored of a corporate marketing approach because they’re managers; and managers like to manage stuff. Corporate marketing offers them a chance to manage—a seemingly strategic way to “sell” the institution to key customers, such as prospective students, patients and donors. True, the marketing approach does have some utility, in that it can help academic institutions think more strategically about communicating core messages about the institution.

But corporate marketing is by definition shallow marketing. By aiming to sell the institution as a branded product, it fails to serve the intellectually rich marketplace of ideas in which researchers operate.

For example, corporate marketers too often abandon significant coverage of their institutions’ research—particularly basic research. They don’t see such coverage as serving their narrow marketing strategy. In fact, I’ve heard of communicators at some marketing-oriented research universities explicitly stating that they don’t do news releases on basic research advances.

Rather, marketers prefer the “sales rep PIO” approach to media relations. For example, they will expend considerable effort to get their researchers quoted in reaction to news of the day. But these mentions are basically trivial—the equivalent of corporate product placements. They don’t really advance the researchers’ ideas, but only give the institution’s visibility—or as marketers put it, “increase media impressions.”

Another hallmark of the marketing mentality is pitching stories to individual reporters to generate media “placements.” While pitching seems like a good tactic—generating documentable media “hits”—it’s a poor long-term communication strategy. For one thing, it relegates the institution’s news to a commodity to be sold like soap, reducing the institution’s credibility. Also problematic, pitching could be considered ethically questionable, since it constitutes a publicly funded institution preferentially offering a story idea to one reporter. Certainly other reporters not privy to that information wouldn’t be happy with such preferential treatment.

Ideas should be broadcast, not pitched. Good ideas, well communicated, will find their audiences, both reporters and the public.

A more credible and productive alternative model to sales rep PIOs is the “PIO journalist.” The PIO journalist doesn’t pitch stories, or produce releases that are essentially advertisements—peppered with such subjective terms as “breakthrough,” “revolutionary” and “major discovery.” (To see sales rep PIOs at work, search for these terms on EurekAlert! or Newswise.)

Rather, the PIO journalist produces a steady flow of newsworthy releases, compelling feature stories and videos. Like any media reporter, the PIO journalist seeks to vividly communicate research by creating stories with clear explanations, pithy quotes and memorable metaphors. The stories explain the implications of discoveries in a way that scientific papers do not. And importantly, the PIO journalist includes the caveats and cautions that any good journalist would feature, which makes the release more credible.

Over the long term, such compelling content obviates the need for pitches. Reporters come to understand that the institution’s track record of solid news and features mean that they are obliged to pay close attention to its communications.

Administrators may not resonate as much with PIO journalism as with corporate marketing, because there’s much less for them to “manage.” Their duties consist of hiring talented research communicators and giving them the resources they need to do their jobs.

Administrators need to appreciate that the resulting “products,” will be news releases and other content that better serve the institution’s interests by portraying it as a dynamic, creative source of new discoveries. Such releases effectively transmit those discoveries to the idea marketplace, where they will be seen by such important audiences as fellow researchers, prospective graduate students and corporate partners.

PIO journalists tell the institution’s research story the way that the researchers and the institution want it told, and not through the filter of the media. For example, news releases posted on such services as EurekAlert! and Newswise automatically appear on such news syndicators as Google News, right along with media stories. And content posted on the institution’s web sites and social media directly reaches audiences.

PIO journalists also recognize that media may sometimes be secondary targets of news releases—that releases have a multitude of uses beyond media alerts. For example, they serve as internal communications, as statements of record, as alerts to other researchers and as content to inform and engage prospective students and faculty, corporate partners and donors.

So, the next time you find yourself in the soap aisle of the supermarket, ask yourself whether research discoveries should really be considered the equivalent of the gaudy packages of detergents festooned with their punchy slogans.

What’s Missing From the Chimp Rights Case: Chimp “Testimony”

22 04 2015

A new ruling by a judge in the New York Supreme Court has opened the way for legal arguments about whether chimpanzees should have “legal personhood.” To be clear, legal personhood doesn’t mean that chimps would be voting or having coffee at the local Starbuck’s, but that they would have the right to a fulfilling life in a humane environment, just as do people. (See this essay by Natalie Prosin for an excellent discussion of the issue.)

Nonhuman Rights Project logoAnd the ruling only ordered a hearing “to show cause,” not that the court was addressing the issue of whether the chimps had a right to a writ of habeas corpus.

The case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project will be argued on both legal and scientific grounds. But I’m sure the hearing will not include “testimony” from the very creatures at the center of the controversy.

Obviously, I do not mean testimony in the sense of a chimp taking the stand, swearing on the Bible, and giving evidence. Rather, I believe that the case could be greatly informed by chimpanzees’ own spontaneous behavior—first-hand observations that go to the very heart of the case for legal personhood. I would argue that such behavior constitutes “testimony,” in that it portrays truths regarding chimpanzees that should be relevant in a court of law.

As examples, I offer my observations of chimp behavior during research for my novel Solomon’s Freedom, a fictional account of a court case seeking legal personhood for a chimpanzee. (Note: Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, advised on the book.)

To research the novel, my wife Joni and I spent several weeks in The Ohio State University Chimpanzee Center, watching the chimps involved in numerical cognition research by psychologist Sally Boysen.

Negotiating a paycheck

In a typical research session, a chimp would take his (or her) place on a platform on the other side of a Plexiglas boysen5window from Sally or another researcher. In front of the chimp would be a touch screen, and Sally would present number problems requiring the chimp to pick the right answer by touching the screen. For a correct answer, the chimp would get a candy that Sally inserted through a small hole in the window.

Working for a reward is not unusual in such studies. But what I thought was most telling was the “negotiation” that followed the research session.

At the end of the session would come a “payday,” in which Sally would take a paper bag over to a cabinet in sight of the chimp and proceed to put more goodies into the bag for the chimp. But the chimp was no chump. Sally would drop a few treats into the bag, and if the chimp didn’t think the pay was sufficient, he would give a decided negative shake of the head. So, Sally would add a few more goodies. Only when the chimp decided the “pay” was sufficient would he deem it acceptable with a nod of the head.

Browsing a magazine

Then there was the “magazine incident.” One day, I was standing near one of the chimps’ outdoor cages, and he emerged carrying a magazine. He proceeded to lie on his back, prop up one foot on his knee and leaf through the magazine, uttering appreciative grunts. Was he actually looking at a magazine, or only mimicking something he’d seen humans do?

Sally said that chimps did, indeed, like to look at the pictures in magazines, and did seem to recognize them as images of real objects.

In fact, Sally’s experiments demonstrated more rigorously that chimps can grasp abstractions. In one study, the researchers hid a toy Coke can in a model of the chimps’ playroom. They then released the chimp into the real playroom, and the chimp was, in many cases, able to immediately retrieve the Coke from its hiding place.

While most portrayals of chimps show them as violently screaming or passively munching food or lounging, we did see instances of the same kind of curiosity that humans display.

For example, one day Joni was planting flowers outside one of the outdoor cages, when a chimp approached, sat down and proceeded to quietly watch her at her work. She explained to the chimp what she was doing, and the chimp would periodically amble off and return to resume watching. After a while, Joni became intent on her gardening, no longer talking to the chimp. The chimp went away and shortly returned.

He then launched a mouthful of water across a distance of several feet into Joni’s face. Whether it was a demand for attention, a joke, or an aggressive act, it was clearly a strategic act of communication by a deliberative creature.

Getting darted

However, perhaps the most telling bit of “testimony” about chimp behavior relevant to legal personhood was the episode I witnessed of the chimp Bobby being tranquilized. Bobby had developed a cough, and the researchers wanted to make sure it wasn’t pneumonia. So, he had to be anesthetized with a tranquilizer dart gun, to be given a chest x-ray and health exam.

When Sally approached the cages with the dart gun, an enormous uproar rose among the chimps. According to Sally, it was the standard panicked response, because the chimps knew that one of them was about to be darted.

She approached a nervous Bobby and said, “Now, I’m going to have to dart you, so show me your rump.” It was important for Bobby to present his rump, so the dart would safely hit a fleshy part of his body.

Bobby complied, turning his rump toward Sally. She fired. The dart bounced off Bobby’s thick hide.

“Bring me the dart,” she instructed.

Bobby brought her the dart and once again turned his rump to her. She reloaded and fired again. This dart embedded itself into Bobby’s thigh.

“Now pull out the dart and bring it to me,” Sally instructed. Bobby obeyed.

“Now you’re going to go to sleep, so lay down,” she said. This command was important so that Bobby wouldn’t climb to a place where falling would injure him, Bobby laid down and was soon unconscious.

Such “testimony” revealing such evocative behaviors will not likely find its way into court proceedings to decide whether chimpanzees deserve legal personhood.

But it should.

(Notes: See this list of resources for further background on chimpanzee research and the case for legal personhood. Dr. Boysen’s laboratory was closed by the university in 2006.)

New Sci-Fi Novel Asks “What if There Was a Blue Cat?”

2 02 2015

What if there was a blue cat? That oddball question first popped into my head some thirty years ago, while I was the news office director at Caltech. The result, decades later, is my newly published science fiction novel, The Cerulean’s Secret (Glyphus LLC).

The eccentric notion continued to nag at me, as I witnessed first-handLight Cerulean cover 3D web the advance of the genetic engineering revolution through the decades that followed—from its beginning at Caltech with the invention of the first DNA sequencing machine.

As the technology evolved, so did the story of my imaginary blue cat; and I began crafting the novel some two decades ago, as genomic science fiction became science fact.

Set in 2050, The Cerulean’s Secret envisions the rise of a lucrative industry of genomically engineered pets. In particular, the high-flying company Animata reaps massive profits creating and selling a marvelous menagerie of animals—including exotic crosses like cogs, dats, snurtles, alliphants, hamakeets, and feather boas. Its ultra-rich clients, however, clamor for the really spectacular specimens—dragons, unicorns. . . and the newest, the Cerulean cat with its mesmerizing iridescent blue fur. The stunning cat had promised to bring billions of dollars from a private collector, corporation, or exhibitor.

But the cat, dubbed the most beautiful in history, is stolen!

Swept up in the catnapping is naïve young Timothy Boatright, a wanna-be writer who’s driving a cab in New York. He inadvertently picks up the thief and the nabbed Cerulean. The cops suspect him of complicity in the crime, and to prove his innocence and save the cat, he tracks it down and steals it back. He ends up accused not only of catnapping but murder—fleeing the police, Animata thugs, a greedy drug lord. . . and Big Nasties! Somebody has programmed these 300-pound genetically engineered assassin-animals—with their three-inch fangs, razor claws, night vision, and sonar—not only to kill Tim, but shred him.

Amidst this mayhem, Tim realizes that the Cerulean was stolen and marked for death because its genes hold some explosive mystery he must solve to survive. He must also save his friends held for ransom—the middle-aged, cat-loving former spy Callie Lawrence and her headstrong daughter Lulu, with whom Tim has fallen madly in love.

I sought to make The Cerulean’s Secret a fast-paced thriller that projects today’s amazing genomic technology into a future of incredible biological manipulation. And, although I wanted to tell an exciting story, I also wanted to explore the critical moral and ethical issues raised by our growing ability to genetically engineer life.

Being a science writer, I aim in my novels to extrapolate my stories from real science, which is sometimes even wilder than any science fiction. The Cerulean’s Secret was just such a novel, because as I wrote it over many years, many of the devices I envisioned for 2050—from robot snakes, to virtual-reality glasses, to quantum computers—kept showing up as real-life technology.” In fact, I post lists of resources for my novels; and those for The Cerulean’s Secret can be found here.

Web The Cerulean's Secret YAE coverIn a unique publishing practice, we are also publishing a Kindle young adult edition of The Cerulean’s Secret, along with the adult edition. The young adult edition has been edited to eliminate adult language and situations.

I’m also author of science fiction novels The Rainbow Virus, The Rainbow Virus Young Adult Edition, Wormholes: a Novel, Wormholes Young Adult Edition, and Solomon’s Freedom. And, I’m author of the nonfiction Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford 2010).

I’m also collaborating with my daughter, pediatrician Dr. Wendy Hunter on a non-fiction book, Why Baby, with his daughter, pediatrician Dr. Wendy Hunter. The book covers the science behind parents’ most urgent questions about their babies’ health.

New Novel “Solomon’s Freedom” Dramatizes Chimp Rights Controversy

2 07 2014

Should the life of a chimpanzee — particularly one taught to use language — be sacrificed to save a man’s life? That’s the provocative moral question posed by the new novel Solomon’s Freedom by Dennis Meredith.

In Solomon’s Freedom, flamboyant defense attorney Bobby Colter finds himself arguing for the life of a client Solomon's Freedom coverquite different from his usual string of miscreants. Solomon is a chimpanzee, and a unique ambassador for his species. He has been taught from infancy to express himself using a touch-screen computer. His educator and champion is Dr. Abigail Philips, a dedicated scientist who took over research on chimp intelligence after her primatologist father died.

But her laboratory is in financial peril, and billionaire media tycoon Walter Drake seems the ideal rescuer. He donates $10 million to the laboratory, in return for a seemingly innocuous stipulation. He asks for legal control of Solomon, promising to house the aging chimp comfortably in a spacious facility on his property, allowing Abby to continue her research.

That is, until Solomon’s life will be sacrificed to save Drake’s. He had an ulterior motive. Research that Drake funded on tissue engineering will enable his scientists to “harvest” Solomon’s heart to use its extracellular scaffolding to grow a new heart for the ailing mogul, from his own cells.

The success of the transplant would set a stunning precedent, encouraging the sacrifice of a thousand chimpanzees in sanctuaries for transplant donors. What’s more, Drake pledges to support preservation of wild chimpanzees and the breeding and “sustainable harvesting” of countless more for their organs.

The lawyer Colter, hired by animal rights advocate Sarah Huntington — a foe of Drake, but also his estranged mother — finds himself embroiled in the most controversial and challenging case of his career.

“Of course, I wanted to write a novel with engaging characters, surprising plot twists, and a dramatic climax,” says Meredith. “But I also wanted to write a book that explored the complex and emotional moral issues we face in deciding the fate of our closest living primate relatives.”

In researching Solomon’s Freedom, Meredith drew on chimpanzee studies by Jane Goodall, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and other researchers, and on the legal writings and advocacy by Steven M. Wise, a leading animal rights attorney. Wise and his group The Nonhuman Rights Project are currently engaged in court battles to attain “legal personhood” for chimpanzees. (Here is  a list of sources that inspired the novel.)

But the greatest influence on the novel arose from the time Meredith spent with the chimpanzees at Ohio State University’s Animal Care Center. Led by psychologist Sally Boysen, the research center was exploring the ability of chimpanzees to learn mathematical concepts.

“The experience profoundly inspired me,” says Meredith. “I’d done all this literature research on chimps, but that didn’t prepare me for the personal experience of hanging out with them — pun intended. Chimps display extraordinary intelligence in the wild, but more revelatory for me was seeing them deftly solve arithmetical problems and show other intelligent behaviors that could only be termed human-like.

“I remember sitting beside one of their outdoor cages and seeing a chimp emerge with a magazine. He proceeded to lie on his back, prop up his feet and flip through its pages, uttering contented grunts. Sally told me the chimps like to look at the pictures. Of course, he was still a chimp, so he later shredded the magazine for his bedding — a sensible step, I thought.”

Meredith also drew on the results of behavioral studies by Boysen and her colleagues that revealed the depths, and limits, of chimp intelligence. In one telling experiment, Boysen and her colleagues tested whether chimps who witnessed a miniature soda can being hidden in a model of a room could find the real soda can hidden in the actual room. Some of the chimps did find the hidden cans, showing that they possessed conceptual abilities related to language.

Unfortunately for Boysen’s research, fiction turned out to follow a sad reality. The university subsequently shut down her laboratory for financial reasons and sent the animals to sanctuaries. In honor of Boysen’s chimps, Meredith named the main human characters in his novel after them.

While the fictional Solomon is adept at using language, a major question that the novel raises is whether real chimps could possibly master language. There have been studies indicating that chimps can understand and use language concepts. One such chimpanzee was Washoe, who was taught American Sign Language by researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner. In other prominent experiments, primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues taught the bonobo Kanzi and others to learn some language using keyboard lexigrams.

“However, there has never been a research project like the one described in Solomon’s Freedom, in which a chimpanzee has been intensively taught from infancy over decades to communicate using the rich medium of the touch screen,” says Meredith.

“And there is some evidence that chimpanzees, like humans, have a ‘critical period’ in infancy in which they could readily absorb language,” he says.

“So, I believe it entirely possible that if language-learning were begun early enough and with the right tool and enough time, chimps could exhibit substantial language abilities. However, given the cost and time involved, I doubt there ever will be such a study — which is a shame because of the scientific insights it would yield,” says Meredith.

Dennis Meredith brings to his novels an expertise in science from his career as a science communicator at leading research universities, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, Duke, and the University of Wisconsin. His nonfiction books include Explaining Research (Oxford 2010), and his previous novels are The Rainbow Virus (Glyphus, 2013) and Wormholes (Glyphus, 2013).

“Wormholes” Author is a Liar and Thief. . . But Says It’s O.K.

27 09 2013

As the author of the new sci-fi adventure novel Wormholes, I’m a liar and a thief. I’ll explain why, and the reasons I think it’s O.K.

Some background: The idea for the novel had its beginning years ago in a simpleWormholes cover question “What if holes were to suddenly open up into other universes?” As is perhaps the case with most novelists, from that seed of an idea, I began to build a story. And in the process, I invented all kinds of physics. That’s when I became a liar.

I had to invent a scientific-sounding explanation of why, in its travels through the galaxy, our solar system enters a region of lurking wrinkles in spacetime. These wrinkles, I fabricated, constitute weaknesses in the spacetime fabric that cause holes to seemingly arbitrarily open up from our universe into other universes. So on Earth and on other planets, holes suddenly appear that might intrude into other universes’ interstellar space, into the fiery centers of stars, or onto the surfaces of alien planets. To drive my fictional story, I also invented some exotic physical properties for these “transdimensional apertures” that enabled me to plunge my characters into all kinds of perilous adventures. (I won’t reveal details, because that would give away the plot, and I’d like readers to be surprised.)

I was a bald-faced liar because my physics was all scientific poppycock.

Then I became a thief. I misappropriated the term wormholes to name these apertures, because it was popular and would attract readers. Again, it was poppycock, because scientifically, my “wormholes” are nothing like the theoretical wormholes of real astrophysics.

So, why should I care that I was propagating poppycock? After all, other sci-fi authors devise scientifically ridiculous stuff all the time, from Star Trek to Dr. Who. And sci-fi fans are perfectly willing—like the Queen in Through the Looking Glass—to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

However, I felt guilty because in my profession  as a science communicator, for decades I tried to write accurately about real astronomy and astrophysics, working at three of the country’s top universities in the field—Caltech, MIT, and Cornell. Was I betraying my own principles, and incurring the scorn of scientists whom I greatly respect?

Fortunately, I’ve been able to bury that nagging guilt beneath some pretty substantive—and I think interesting—rationales.

Wormholes sources 2 (300x276)For one thing, I wanted to grab readers and lure them into exploring real science, just as I was captivated as a boy by the imaginative writings of legendary science fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Their books, which launched flights of fictional fancy from real science, inspired me to want to know more about science, and ultimately to write about it. To give readers a path to that science, I even added a this list of sources of real science and engineering that inspired the book to the Wormholes web site.

My lying and thievery was also justified because I sought in the novel to reveal some greater truths about science and scientists.

For one thing, they’re an incredibly courageous and indefatigable lot. Few lay people realize that the vast majority of scientific experiments are failures. Scientists only advertise their successes, in scientific journal articles and news releases. But despite failure after failure, scientists persist, laboring away until they achieve success. And so, in Wormholes, my characters—including intrepid geologist Dacey Livingstone and iconoclastic physicist Gerald Meier—suffer failures that are sometimes deadly, resolutely learning from each failure and trying again.

The novel also portrays another greater truth—that scientists have been censured and censored for their theories, even in the face of good evidence. Among the most notorious modern examples is the censorship of climatologist James Hansen for his assertions that global warming is caused by human activities like burning fossil fuels.

I also experienced censorship in my career as a public information officer, which is a particular reason I wanted to portray it in the novel. At Caltech for example, in 1983 the administration killed a news release I’d written about economist Roger Noll. He had analyzed the organizational structure of large government R&D programs, including the then-new Space Shuttle. He declared the Shuttle program a “catastrophe,” because it rushed headlong into a massive construction program without carefully evolving the technology over multiple generations. Roger Noll’s criticisms were borne out by the Shuttle’s massive cost overruns, under-performance, and of course the subsequent, tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters. When my release was killed, I suspected it had to do with Caltech’s ties with NASA, via its Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But I thought maybe the administration knew something I didn’t about Noll or the Shuttle program.

Another egregious example: At Caltech, I’d written a news release about a paper by geochemist Clair Patterson on the health hazards of global lead pollution. The head of his Caltech division killed that release, even though Patterson’s evidence was solid and widely accepted. At the time, I believed that the censorship was due to some scientific issue I wasn’t aware of. Today I believe it might well have been fear of offending the powerful oil industry. Patterson’s advocacy ultimately led to a removal of lead from gasoline and other products.

So, perhaps I am a liar and a thief. But I can live with it, because not only have I tried to spin an entertaining sci-fi adventure tale. I’ve also tried to inspire readers to explore real science, and given them some real insight into scientists and their quests for discovery.