One of the best aspects of being a writer is that we are truly limited only by our imaginations. But sometimes even those of us with the most radical frontal lobes need a kick start. Where do we go to emerge from the dull malaise of the mind? Fortunately, those in search of inspiration never have far to look. Personally, in my job as a medical news editor, I see tasty morsels of inspirational goodness all the time. Here are a few examples to get your own juices going:
In a modern iteration of the great age of Antarctic exploration of the 19th and 20th centuries, three teams of scientists are rushing to reach not the South Pole like Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, but lakes deep below the surface of the Frozen Continent believed to hold scientific treasures. That quest by Russian, British and American scientific teams for water samples is the topic of an article in the current edition of Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
The Russian mission to Lake Vostok captured global headlines recently when the team bored 2.5 miles through Antarctic ice to reach the lake’s ancient water, undisturbed for 15 million years. They want to analyze the lake for signs of life and clues about how life might survive in Earth’s most inhospitable places – or on other planets. But that step must wait until late in 2012 when the Antarctic winter ends, allowing travel into the Frozen Continent. (Read more…)
A deep, ancient lake under giant slabs of Antarctic ice? Cool! (heh, heh, did you see what I did there?) But seriously, the surface of this fresh water lake is approximately 13,100 feet under the surface of the ice. What’s also interesting is that there is a magnetic anomaly on the east coast of the lake, spanning 65 miles by 47 miles. Researchers hypothesize that the anomaly may be caused by a thinning of the Earth’s crust in that location, but all this is speculation until the researchers are able to send a probe down. Imagine the excitement when they do, exploring an ancient, pristine environment for never-before-seen forms of life.
Excitement turns to astonishment when after a week of dives, the unmanned probe ventures into the area of the magnetic anomaly sending back readings of something metallic, and massive. The magnetic readings are off the scale, and the dim, grainy pictures sent back to base are even more baffling: they are smooth, with what look like giant markings. A linguist works on them as the probe takes more pictures and readings, at last coming up with a theory. He thinks the markings are in a language that is a forerunner of an ancient Slavic tongue, and they spell out a word: Leviathan.
He rushes to tell the researchers in charge of the expedition, but it is too late. They watch on the screen as the probe deploys a laser to take a sample from the mammoth structure. A great shudder is felt as the ice trembles and a hiss of bubbles escapes what the linguist now knows to be a prison. For inside is not just some beast, but the leviathan referred to in the bible, imprisoned since the dawn of recorded history. Stunned, the researchers watch as the enormous creature rises from the sub-zero depths…
This year a series of events around the world will celebrate the work of Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer, as the 100th anniversary of his birthday approaches on June 23, commemorated in a book chapter to be published later this year by mathematician Robert Soare, the founding chairman of the University of Chicago’s computer science department. Turing is remembered for developing concepts that made modern computers possible, and for leading complex military decoding efforts that proved critical in World War II.
Turing’s 1936 paper, written when he was a 23-year-old graduate student at Cambridge, opened the field of computability. He invented his automatic machine, now called a Turing machine, to capture the intuitive idea of how human beings calculate. He also introduced a special kind of Turing machine, which he called a universal machine.
The universal machine became very useful when Turing used it in the design of an electronic computer in the United Kingdom during World War II, and Jon von Neumann used it in the United States for the same purpose. Turing died of potassium cyanide poisoning, ostensibly by his own hand, just two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday in 1954. He is still remembered, however, for his mathematical acumen and for his critical work in the British cryptographic service at Bletchley Park during World War II. (Read more…)
One of Dr. Soare’s greatest tributes to Turing is the unveiling of the restored universal machine, complete with scanner heads and tape readers. In a ceremony, Dr. Soare reads aloud some of the last recorded notes by Turing, which were little more than a series of complex symbols and binary codes.
The crowd is astonished when the universal machine turns on of its own volition, printing out a series of equations. Hesitantly, Dr. Soare translates it, scarcely believing what he is reading. It is a message from Turing himself. His suicide was not out of some act of depression, but a scientific experiment, necessary for the transformation of his living consciousness—into the machine, where he has resided for over 50 years.
Now that the machine has been restored, Turing can proceed to the next stage of his plan, which is—everyone watches Soare read the tape coming out of the machine—the transferal of his consciousness from the machine back into a living human body. If someone would be so kind as to step forward… Everyone looks around anxiously, and Dr. Soare swallows, his unease apparent. But he fails to notice the thin filament extending from the machine to lightly brush against his bare forearm. There is a flash of light and a brief moment of disorientation, and suddenly, Dr. Soare feels as if he is in a small room within himself, and someone else is entirely in control of his body. To his horror, he hears a deep sigh and a voice issue from his throat that is not his own, as Turing lives again.
The oozy, green, bottom-dwelling alga called Cladophora glomerata has squished around toes about as long as people have been wading in the Great Lakes. It was never a serious nuisance, however, until the mid-twentieth century, when humans began discharging phosphorus into the Great Lakes in a big way. That led to an unprecedented number of huge, gooey mats of Cladophora (pronounced klah-DAH-for-uh) covering entire beaches with a thick layer of rotting muck.
Then came the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the mats of Cladophora all but disappeared, thanks to tough new regulations that limited phosphorus. Now Cladophora is back with a vengeance, thanks this time to billions of exotic zebra mussels that have created its perfect habitat. First, the filter-feeders clarify the Great Lakes water, allowing in more sunlight—and allowing Cladophora to grow in areas that were once too dark. Second, they excrete a type of phosphorus that Cladophora love to ingest. And third, their hard shells covering the sandy lake bottom provide solid real estate where the algae can attach.
In addition to creating a repulsive viewing experience, rotting Cladophora provides ripe conditions for avian botulism and has been implicated in the poisoning deaths of thousands of shorebirds. Is there hope? Maybe. With funding from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Robert Shuchman, codirector of the Michigan Tech Research Institute, and his research team are helping resource managers combat the Cladophora problem. (Read more…)
Shuchman, though, begins to grow concerned at reports detailing cases of not just birds, but people becoming poisoned by the Cladophora slime. It seems that the slime has mutated to become highly toxic, and even the slightest contact can cause severe infection. Already people have been quarantined in hospitals, where they lay in a deep coma.
Shuchman goes to see for himself, noting with relief that several of the patients have revived, appearing completely healed. But after being cleared and released, he notices one individual collapse as he leaves the hospital. The patient shakes all over and as health care workers rush to help, slime spores erupt from his mouth, his nose, beneath his fingernails, covering everyone around him. Shuchman watches horrified as the infection spreads. He flees, hearing similar reports from across the region.
Soon the slime zombies walk the streets, linked by a singular consciousness. Once there are enough, they return to the lake area, where they are absorbed by the slime beds, nourishing their host. Too late Shuchman orders the whole lake area put to the torch, but the slime simply snuffs it out. He is about to order carpet bombing in concert with the US military when he notices a tiny speck on his wrist. It is green and the size of a pin head. In another second it is the size of a dime. Horrified, Shuchman struggles to order the strike but, as the slime envelopes his entire arm, he soon forgets what he is about. And then he forgets everything…
It’s okay to run into a dry spell every once in a while. Just realize that your next great story is there for the writing if you only open your eyes to the cool ideas all around you. You can take the story starters I’ve outlined and make them your own, or come up with completely different ones. The important thing is to get crackin’!
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