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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 14: Brainstorming Science Ideas

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 14: Brainstorming Science Ideas


Key Points: Dark flow -- somebody pulled the plug out? Hybrid life. The bloop at 40,000 leagues. The great Lithium caper. Nobody knows the nocebo curse like voodoo. Noises at the edge of the universe. And where'd everybody go? (aka the Fermi paradox) Take those ideas and stretch, spindle, mutilate, and fold -- look for the story, look for the conflict, and write!

[Brandon] We really enjoyed doing the episode we did a few weeks ago where Jordo fired headlines at us and we brainstormed on them. We thought we'd try again but with a different tack this time. Rather than looking for silly things off of the oddball page, we picked up a list from You can look it up. It's 13 things that they... fascinating quirks about science. Things we don't understand yet. The goal is going to be to look at these and see if we can figure out story ideas from them, story prompts. So... first one? I'm going to go with dark flow. Something unseeable and far bigger than anything in the known universe is hauling a group of galaxies toward it at an inexplicable speed.
[Dan] Wow.
[Howard] OK.
[Brandon] How do you write a story around that?
[Howard] Without borrowing from what I've already written with living dark matter?
[Brandon] Probably going to build this as a science fiction story, far future science fiction, because otherwise we can't affect it. Unless you want to go with [garbled]
[Howard] No, we could totally do this as an urban fantasy.
[Brandon] OK, I suppose.
[Howard] Scientists are looking at this. They can't make sense of this. Further investigation realizes... shows that the light that is reaching us is a lie.... Everything we know about the outside universe is somehow being manufactured magically. It's all fake.
[Brandon] That smudge is essentially... that's what it is, it's a smudge.
[Howard] That smudge is... yeah, it's an artifact. It's a data error.
[Brandon] Dan, you got anything on this one?
[Dan] I want to go a totally different direction. I want space fantasy, like spell jammer level. Where this is actually some kind of dark God evil being that is pulling galaxies toward him or it or her because that's what it eats.
[Howard] Aa... the space goat.
[Dan] The great goat of space.
[Howard] That's a Hitchhiker's Guide reference, but anyway... sorry.

[Brandon] Next one. Hybrid life. The fusion of two distinct evolutionary lines is not supposed to work, but the seas are teeming with chimeras that prove it can.
[Howard] I'm going to start by saying that we are living evidence that that already happens, because our mitochondria in our cells have a different DNA than the rest of us. So... if... boy, where do we start with this?
[Brandon] The concept of this is... I would try and build a planet based on this concept... that all of the creatures on the planet... I'm willing to bet some science fiction authors already done it, because they tend to be smart folk. But a planet where every beast, every creature, has two separate pieces of DNA...
[Howard] I'm going to raise the ante. It's a planet where lifeforms are like Legos. So you see this dualism where organisms and organelles and cellular whatevers are always and constantly shifting and swapping. So every generation, you have...
[Brandon] You can kill something and absorb its organelles, and suddenly you can photosynthesis... you can do photosynthesis...
[Howard] Or one of your organelles decides it doesn't like you and steps out of you to go be somebody else's photosynthesizer.
[Brandon] I'm always... I'm very fascinated by the concept of group minds. Not hive minds, but group minds. Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge is a brilliant book that talks about this. That has a group mind function. I've always wanted to do something like that. I think this gives me... this sort of concept... something where your arm can rip off and say, "Bye, I'm tired of being..."
[Howard] So, Dan, we're taking organs out of things. What do you have for us?
[Dan] Wait. You need some extra organs? I was actually thinking again a totally different take on this. That maybe these chimeras in the sea are evidence of an alien invasion eons, eons back in Earth's own history. Some alien species that had a particularly adaptable parasitic biology the kind of glommed onto ours. That becomes very important when that species comes back millennia later...
[Brandon] Da, da, da, dah. Oh, wow.

[Brandon] All right. This is one of my favorite unexplained mysteries just because it gets my mind thinking. The bloop. Do you guys know what the bloop is?
[Dan] Oh, I love the bloop.
[Brandon] OK. Well, read what their thing on the bloop is. During 1997, a US underseas monitoring equipment heard a series of sounds far louder than any whale song. They were never heard again. Expanding on this, there was some pattern of sounds that the equipment picked up that was obviously non... not just a function of natural ocean sounds. That no one has ever been able to explain.
[Howard] It wasn't an electronic artifact.
[Dan] We are to link to the sound file because you can find it online. We should put it in the liner notes.
[Howard] Dan, it was your hybrid life sea aliens.
[Dan] Oh, my word. They're reporting in.
[Brandon] No, no, it's the echo. They left some sort of echo that reverberates... some sort of psychic echoer thing that every certain number of repeatable years pops up and vibrates. Maybe it's some sort of beacon they left so that if they're passing by...
[Howard] Bloop is hello?
[Dan] Or it could be an alien species that thinks so slowly this is Morse code that takes eons to actually give a message.
[Brandon] That's awesome. But... we've talked about potentials with these. Where's the story in this one? Where's the story? What is the conflict? Maybe the conflict is communicating with a species that thinks in years?
[Howard] You look at one of the conflicts in Ender's Game, and it was that we're at war and we don't know how to communicate with the aliens. OK. So we've got aliens that we don't know how to communicate with, and as part of their life cycle, they are... I don't know... eating the Sun or eating the moon or whatever, and how do we talk to them?
[Brandon] Right. They set this all up before humans were here. We've evolved as a sentient race before they... they had no idea that we were going to be here.
[Howard] We are the fungal infection in the leftover container in the refrigerator to them.
[Dan] That's awesome.

[Brandon] All right. The lithium problem. The universe only contains a third as much lithium as it's supposed to. Lithium is slowly vanishing from the universe.
[Howard] Do you know what lithium is?
[Brandon] What is lithium?
[Howard] The fifth element.
[Dan] The lithium is vanishing, obviously, because the Great Old Ones are depressed.
[Brandon] I guess Cthulhu needs is lithium pills to keep himself...
[Howard] Wow. No, that's actually pretty good.
[Dan] They're using Victorian era medicine and psychology, also, apparently.
[Howard] And when the universe's supply of lithium is depleted, an ADHD Cthulhu emerges and is very distracted. We said we weren't going to be funny. I'm sorry.
[Brandon] Well, we can be funny. We always can be funny. But can we approach this one? Why would there be one third as much lithium in the universe as there should be? Some event happened in the history of the universe before we were able to measure that did something to lithium. What did it do? What happened?
[Howard] One of the things that... I'm not familiar enough with the science, but if I were a scientist trying to examine this problem, I would look at the things that lithium...
[Dan] reacts with?
[Howard] Yeah, that lithium reacts with and I'd start looking for those compounds. It is possible that... if you're familiar with the concept of islands of stability, the super-high-numbered elements that we believe might exist that are more stable than things likeRutherfordium? Maybe you get enough lithium together in the right circumstances and you can build things that we don't know how to look for that are in these islands of stability. You got super elements out there that someone is... that lithium is the building blocks for.
[Brandon] Awesome.

[Brandon] Dan, you were going to do our ad this week?
[Dan] Yes. OK. Our ad this week has nothing to do with cool science fiction ideas, but it is one of my very favorite books. It is Noble House by James Clavell. We talked about epics a couple of weeks ago. This is an epic that focuses on stock traders and business moguls in Hong Kong in the 80s... actually, I think it may have been the 70s. Anyway, the point is it takes place over about five days. It's about American business that wants to move into Hong Kong, and how all of these kind of inbred feuding Hong Kong conglomerate corporations, how that shakes up the status quo. They fight. It has 100 different viewpoints, many of them are very small. Fascinating look at Chinese culture. Just very, very good.
[Howard] Neat.
[Brandon] We appreciate all of you who have clicked on that and downloaded it. It has made audible very happy with us, and they continue to be an advertiser for the podcast, which we very much appreciate.
[Howard] We have a new microphone.
[Brandon] Yes. We were able to buy a new microphone. Jordo used it three weeks ago.
[Dan] He threw it at me just about 10 minutes ago.

[Brandon] Alright. Here's a great one. The nocebo effect, also called the voodoo effect. A diagnosis of terminal illness can come true even if it's wrong. Right? This is the opposite of the placebo effect.
[Howard] Ooo. It's the opposite of placebo effect. You tell somebody, "I'm so sorry, you have terminal cancer. You're dying." When in fact, you got their brain x-rays mixed up. They don't have terminal cancer. And they die anyway.
[Brandon] And then they die. This... what can we do with this? I mean, this is a real thing. This is a scary real thing. Can we add a science fiction element to this?
[Dan] Sure. Here we go. One of the recent things... I read an article about... actually, this was based on placebo, but you could use the same principle... is scientists are discovering that our brains can manufacture chemicals we didn't think that they could. This is how placebos work, this is how nocebos work in a lot of cases. Because your brain will start building something it thinks it has to replace the fact that it isn't actually there. So if someone were able to harness that on purpose in their own body or in somebody else's body, and create morphine, create adrenaline on cue...
[Brandon] Oh, wow, that could... awesome.
[Howard] You can now build something huge that's way bigger than yourself and call it the resebo effect [sp?]
[Brandon] See here's... I'm gonna try this. This is another way to take it. I think this is a good enough one, we'll make this the writing prompt, too. We'll do a few more things after this, but this is your writing prompt. Somebody start testing for psychic power by telling people they are psychic when they really aren't, and it works. People start exhibiting psychic powers when they are convinced that they have them.
[Dan] Cool.
[Howard] And then people start killing them by telling them they have brain cancer.
[Dan] A serial killer who just lies to people... I'm stabbing you. I'm stabbing you again.
[Howard] I am not a serial killer. I am just a really good liar.
[Brandon] Man. Now I'm imagining this doctor who is a serial killer that all he does is move through and give people the wrong diagnosis so that then they die.
[Dan] Knocks on your door. I'm very sorry...
[Brandon] You have brain cancer. You're going to be dead within 48 hours.
[Howard] Nocebo is a pretty good book title, too.
[Brandon] Dan, there's a book for you. A killer who kills...
[Howard] We just gave this one away...
[Dan] The best liar in the world who uses his powers for evil.

[Brandon] All right. Noise from the edge of the universe. What is causing these signals from a gravitational wave detector? Is it evidence of the universe is a holographic projection? Anyway, what's going on here is there is noise at the edge of the universe that shouldn't be there. Something at the very edge. Some people have theorized that this is a holographic projection. What is this noise? What are we hearing at the edge of the universe?
[Dan] The next universe over won't turn its TV down. We need a really, really long broom.
[Howard] A really long broom. Um... gosh... the universe... the construction of universes in Iain Banks's universe. He said that the multiverse is like an onion, and we live in one layer of the onion. Yeah, maybe that's what we've discovered, is we've discovered the next layer of onion, and if we could get to it, the rules are different.
[Brandon] I'm going to expand on this one. Something that this may be think of that's a little more fascinating is the question of why we haven't discovered or been contacted by alien life. There's a paradox... I can't remember who it's named after, but it essentially says look, if we look at the scientific evidence and the statistics, if there is life in the universe, we should have been able to detect it or it should have been able to detect us by now. The fact that we haven't is very troubling. So why haven't we? I don't want... but stay away from the aliens have found us, but they're hiding.
[Howard] The aliens have said no, you're off-limits until you grow up.
[Brandon] Yeah. Let's get rid of all those. Where did all the aliens go? The universe has been depopulated of all life except for us. Why? What happened? You guys got... let's brainstorm that for the last part here.
[Howard] [whistle]
[Dan] The party in the next universe over was just really good.
[Jordo] The doctor told them they all had brain cancer.
[Brandon] Yeah, that serial killer got them.
[Howard] Well, we ascertained... or when life reaches a certain point, their sciences reach a certain point, they realize that the universe that we are in is let's say doomed to contract. OK? They all leave, looking for a universe that is not going to contract.
[Brandon] Let's take that even further. There is some super race that discovered this and decided to save all life in the universe and missed us. They grabbed everybody else, but for... something about Earth or what not meant that they... we're the three-year-old kid that got left behind on a pre-school field trip.
[Howard] It's Home Alone.
[Brandon] Yeah, we're home alone.
[Dan] Ooo... when do the bad guys show up and try to rob the place?
[Brandon] That would have to... we find...
[Howard] I'm rigging the moon with a can of paint.
[Dan] OK. Totally different idea. Let's say that our universe is a holographic projection. It's actually part of a video game. This is the tutorial. Everyone else has already passed. But we just don't know what we're doing. So we can't advance. We can't gain enough experience to move on.
[Howard] We keep farming experience in the training room, but we haven't found the quest giver.
[Dan] Or our copy is bugged.
[Howard] Our copy is pirated, and because of the copy protection, we can't move to the next level. We are on the shareware version.
[Dan] We just have the demo.
[Howard] Oh, no.
[Brandon] Allright. Oh, boy.
[Howard] You're out of excuses, now go slit your wrists.
[Brandon] Thanks for listening.
[Dan] Not really, though, please.
[Brandon] But tell someone that they should. No...
[Howard] Tell someone that they already have.
[Dan] Not Cthulhu because he's got all that lithium.
[Brandon] Yeah, he's depressed. Bu-bye, we're gone.

[Brandon] This is your writing prompt. Somebody starts testing for psychic power by telling people they are psychic when they really aren't, and it works. People start exhibiting psychic powers when they are convinced that they have them. [from the nocebo effect]
Tags: brainstorming, conflict, nocebo, placebo

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