Notes and References

The following references helped me beat Maelstrom into a shape that's (hopefully) more plausible than if I'd just made everything up myself. This is in addition to the references I cited two years ago in Starfish, which I won't bother repeating here: go buy the damn book if you’re so interested.


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When I started writing this book, strange claims had just started surfacing in the scientific literature: a new kind of extremely primitive microbe freshly discovered, something inconceivably small1. So small, in fact—less than 100 nanometers in some cases—that many argued they couldn't possibly be alive2. Believers dubbed them nanobes. (Formal taxonomy-- Nanobacterium sanguineum—has been suggested, but not yet formally adopted3.)

Now, a couple of years later, nanobes have been found not only in hotsprings and Triassic sandstone, but in the blood of mammals (including humans)4. Evidently they find us comfortably reminiscent of the primordial soup in which life originally evolved some 3.5 billion years ago; they feed off the phosphorus and calcium in our blood.

ßehemoth is not N. sanguineum, of course. It's more sophisticated in some ways, more primitive in others. Its genome is encoded in p-RNA, not DNA; it snarfs sulfur, not phosphorus and calcium; it can't survive in cold saline environments (real nanobes probably can't metabolise under such conditions either, but they can withstand them in a dormant state); it has advanced adaptations for cell penetration that are way out of Nanobacterium's league. It's larger, as large as conventional mycoplasmas and marine bacterioplankton. It is also much nastier, and—last but not least— it doesn't actually exist.

I have, however, tried to make this bug reasonably plausible, given the dramatic constraint of a global apocalypse in a crunchy coating. As a result, ßehemoth is like one of those "composite serial killers" you read about in True-Crime books—bits and pieces of various real-world bugs, thrown together with lots of dramatic license. "A-51" really exists, both in deep lake sediments and the human mouth5. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is another bacterium that lives quite happily in soil, water, worms, and people6; like ßehemoth, it has genes which allow it to speed up and slow down its own rate of mutation so it can quick-adapt to novel environments. (I've called them "Blachford genes" here, in the hopes that one Alistair Blachford will get off his ass and publish his thesis on genetic metavariation as an evolutionary strategy7.) March and McMahon's 1999 review of receptor-mediated endocytosis8 told me how ßehemoth would be most likely to get inside a host cell, and Decatur and Portnoy9 told me how it could avoid getting digested afterward. And once again, a nod to Denis Lynn of the University of Guelph for forcing me to worry about such things in the first place.

ßehemoth's genetics are cadged from a variety of sources, many of which I quoted without really understanding. The stuff on mitochondria and pyranosal RNA come from Eschenmoser10, Gesteland et al.11, Gray et al.12, and Orgel13,14. ßehemoth's size and genome are consistent with theoretical size-limits for micro-organisms15, and big enough to sustain a normal microbial metabolic rate. (Real nanobes are too small to contain many enzymes, which means that many of their metabolic pathways crawl along at uncatalyzed speeds. They therefore metabolize about ten thousand times slower than bacteria such as E. coli4, which makes them pretty poor candidates for outcompeting a whole biosphere.) And of course, it's looking more and more likely that life itself began as a sulfur-dependent phenomenon in a hydrothermal rift vent16. I cobbled other bits and pieces from Lodesh et al.'s "Molecular Cell Biology"17.

Why did I choose something as mind-bogglingly common as sulfur for a bottleneck element? I was trying to make a point about carrying capacity in ecological systems: life is greedy, and if you give it long enough, anything can become limiting. Besides, any primitive microbe from a hydrothermal environment is likely to have a serious sulfur-dependency problem. (The specialists in the audience will notice that I carefully avoided making ßehemoth an obligate sulfur-reducer; I actually envision the little mother's metabolism as being more akin to that of the giant sulfide-consuming microbes reported by Schulz et al.18.)

Bottom line, most of ßehemoth's traits have real-world precedents. Whether evolution could actually pack all those attributes into a package 250 nanometers across is a whole different issue, of course. Still. Look at all the stuff that fits into Batman's utility belt.


Guilt Trip:

The idea of behavior-modification technology is old stuff in fiction; Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is an obvious example. In Maelstrom I've taken a stab at rediscovering that wheel by explicitly tweaking genes and neurochemistry.

As far as I know, the existence of the "Minsky receptors" that Alice Jovellanos mentions has yet to be confirmed. Something like them, however, must be seated in the frontal cortex where human conscience and morality (such as they are) reside19,20. At the very least, certain types of frontal-lobe damage have a tendency to turn good God-fearing folk into sociopaths.

I imagine that Ken Lubin's murder reflex is wired into the neural circuitry described by R. Davidson et al.21 The conceit of using tweaked parasite genes to program such behaviour came to me when I was teaching an undergraduate course in animal ecology. The parasites mentioned in Maelstrom are real, and have a lot of company22, 23. One fly-eating fungus hijacks its victim's nervous system just before killing it, forcing it to fly to an upside-down perch and orient its abdomen at an optimum angle for spore disperal. An ant-fluke called Dicrocoelium takes control of its host each night, riding it to the top of a convenient stalk of grass and freezing it there until morning in hopes that some other hapless host will eat it. And yes, Toxoplasma really does cause rats to lose their fear of cats (and in some cases, actually to be attracted to the smell of cat urine). It is also found in about half the members of our species. This stuff is straight out of The Puppet Masters, folks. There's even a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that sex itself evolved primarily as a countermeasure against parasite attacks24.



First, the Wilderness. The Internet is already more like a wildlife habitat than you might expect. Internet "storms" were first described in 199725, which makes them old news: nowadays you can link to "weather maps" of Internet meteorology26, updated several times daily. (Once again, my far-flung futuristic foresight has proven wonderfully adept at predicting the past. The last time was when Starfish predicted submarine ecotours to deep-sea rifts within fifty years, only to have such tours advertised in the real world by 1999.)

Those of you who have taken an undergraduate physiology course may remember the power law. It's a surface-area-to-volume relationship that governs living systems from whole food webs right down to the capillaries of shrews—essentially a pattern typical of self-organizing systems (i.e., biological) systems. As it turns out, the World Wide Web itself appears to be evolving in concordance with this law27. Something to think about…

Second, the Wildlife. These days it's hardly necessary to cite references on the subject of "artificial life": a web search on the phrase (or on "cellular automata") will demonstrate how massively the field has exploded over the past ten years. That subset of e-life which goes by the name "Anemone" is admittedly a bit more speculative, and based upon two premises. The first is that simple systems, in aggregate, display emergent behaviors beyond the capability of their individual parts. This is pretty much self-evident within a body—who'd deny that a brain is smarter than an individual neuron, for example?—but the principal extends even to aggregations of completely unconnected individuals. A school of fish or a flock of birds can be thought of, in effect, as a diffuse neural net28,29.

A related premise is that lineages with genetically-determined behavior would be able to pass a Turing test if they evolved fast enough. This won't be hard to swallow for anyone familiar with how sophisticated such behaviour can be; we do, after all, live in a world where ants practice animal husbandry, birds follow orthodome routes to navigate halfway around the world, and honeybees convey sophisticated travel instructions by wiggling their asses at each other. Skeptics might want to read any of E. O. Wilson's books on sociobiology, or an old Scientific American article by John Holland30. It's way out of date, but it clearly conveys the principals behind genetic algorithms.

Finally, anyone who treats the phrase "group selection" as an obscenity (I admit they're right, most of the time) might first want to check out D.S. Wilson's review article of the subject in Skeptic31


Smart Gels

Research on the construction of thinking meat has proceeded apace since Starfish came out. Recent research is thumbnailed in "Neurons and silicon get intimate", by Robert "no-not-that-Robert" Service32. More conventional neural nets are literally in the driver's seat: Carnegie Mellon's ALVINN program (which I mentioned briefly in the references to Starfish) has now moved moved onto the highway, where neural nets have autonomously taken ninety-mile jaunts on public highways, at speeds up to 70mph. They learned to drive by watching people at the same task. It took them less than five minutes.

We still can’t be sure exactly what neural nets actually learn when we train them. Paradigm cock-ups of the sort that made my "head cheeses" betray their masters have happened in real life. One infamous military neural net taught itself to distinguish between various ambient light conditions, while all along its humans thought they were teaching it to recognize tanks33.


Ganzfeld Interrogation

Back in Starfish I cited Roger Penrose's quantum-consciousness theory to justify the rudimentary psi-powers of the rifters. Here in Maelstrom Lubin uses the same trick to interrogate Achilles Desjardins. In the interest of full disclosure I should admit that Penrose's theory has come under serious attack from a guy called Tegmark34: the quantum-mind afficionados have rallied35, but things may be looking a bit iffier on the quantum-consciousness front these days. What can you do.


Haunted by Happiness

Lenie Clarke's "hallucinations" are loosely based on Bonnet's Syndrome36, a malady which sometimes results from macular degeneration. The brain really does compensate for loss of visual input by inserting images from visual memory into the gaps. In real life, Bonnet's Syndrome tends to occur in elderly patients, and is frequently associated with bereavement; the hallucinations are more-or-less seamlessly incorporated into the visual environment (as opposed to the picture-in-picture format Lenie experienced).



If you want a more luminous taste of all this stuff, check out my Rifter website. It's at