Nerdcon: Stories: A Review

At first thought, many people would not consider themselves storytellers, or even interested in stories. But as NerdCon: Stories proved to me – we are surrounded by, and are made of, stories. Conceived by Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame, NerdCon: Stories, in short, was meant “to be a celebration of the story, and the ways we tell stories, and the people who tell stories, which is really all of us” (Hank Green). Stories are powerful tools in which we communicate messages that cannot be told, only experienced.

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The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it

I find antagonists far more interesting than protagonists. Often the motivations of the hero are only briefly considered or developed, as these motivations are pretty two-dimensional and obvious. After all, who needs a reason to do something good? I’m more interested in the antagonists, the ones who dedicate their life to something the rest of the population opposes, the ones we love to hate, or hate to love, and are motivated by a complex interactions of thoughts, feelings and history.

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An Irrational Request

(C) Luc Schuiten

As a fan of the fantasy genre, I have always been attracted to the concept of tree architecture. Almost every fantasy world has some magical city hidden in the forest, where the branches intertwine into canopy walkways and the trunks serve as dwellings. Belgian architect Luc Schuiten has taken this idea and applied it to the urban space, imagining sprawling cities made of twisting trees and illuminated by bio luminescent leaves. His drawings seem both fantastical and futuristic. I highly recommend you check out his work.


Schuiten is not the first architect to imagine the use of trees in urban design. Mitchell Joachim of Terreform ONE developed the Fab Tree Hab as a home that operates symbiotically with it’s surroundings.

(C) Luc Schiuten

It would be my wildest dreams come true if any of these ideas were to become a reality. There is an art known as tree sculpting that can shape trees into desired patterns and structures. However, the key obstacle to any of these designs (among many) is that trees take quite a long time grow to a usable size. Trees often outlive humans, so any endeavor would require humans to plan far in advance and be well-invested in the future of the species (and we all know how hard we struggle with that).

So I am putting a call out to the genetic engineers of the world – figure out a way to accelerate the growth of trees. I don’t know how you’ll do it, or if it can be done, but I assure you, if you can do it, you would drastically change the world as we know it today. We could have the amazing cities we read about in books. This is the irrational part of my brain speaking, and it’s really only for the aesthetic purposes, but please, make it work.

Should I stay or should I go?

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I knew it was a movie that I wanted to see. It was a simple trailer in terms of special effects and action, but it spoke deeply and directly to the audience. When the first trailer came out, there was very little information on the plot, but I knew it had to do with space travel, and took place in a bleak future. I was especially struck with the line “The world doesn’t need any more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.” This line cemented my desire to watch the film – I was excited to see a science fiction film rooted in science fact, and I was also worried that this movie would give off the wrong impression of what engineers do to the public.

I won’t give away the plot of Interstellar for those who have not yet seen it (and if you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to go). I just want to talk about my thoughts on the themes presented in the movie, mainly space exploration and engineering and science.

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The Art and Engineering of Infrastructure

In a previous post, I brought up the idea of making our city’s infrastructure more aesthetically pleasing. Infrastructure – almost by definition – is hidden, buried underground or constructed in a far-off area away from the central city. By making our infrastructure aesthetically pleasing and placing it at the center of attention, the public has a better chance of appreciating the complex systems that support our modern lifestyle. There’s a good chance that our relationship with our built environment can rapidly change when we begin to appreciate the beauty of the systems in place.

The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), has this exact goal in mind. According to their website, LAGI wishes “to advance the successful implementation of sustainable design solutions by integrating art and interdisciplinary creative processes into the conception of renewable energy infrastructure.” This requires the collaboration of architects, urban designers, landscape architects, scientists and engineers all working together to create a work of art that generates physical and emotional value.

Every two years, LAGI holds a design competition that combines a major infrastructure sector with public art. In 2012, the competition centered around New York City’s Freshkills Park, drawing 250 submissions from around the world to redefine waste management to the public. This year, 2014, the project description was to design a public sculpture that also continuously distributes clean energy into the electrical grid, proving that our energy infrastructure can be both essential, and beautiful.

The first place winner was designed by Santiago Muros Cortés. Titled, “The Solar Hourglass,” this sculpture acts as a solar central receiver, concentrating solar energy through the use of flat mirrors to heat up a steam turbine and generate 7,500 MWh/year. Aesthetically speaking, the sculpture is quite elegant, consisting of two simple pieces that mirror each other, with the bright glow of the sun at the center (whether this would be a danger to eyesight remains to be seen). It certainly looks like something that should come out of a science fiction novel.  You can find the other winners and submissions at the competition website.


What attracts me to this competition is the idea that both science and art can be blended seamlessly together to create a product that could not have existed without this collaboration. I’m glad there are organizations like LAGI who strongly believe in the benefits of this intersection. The built environment inherently contains character, and this character must be expressed in order to garner full appreciation. Additionally, the built environment must also support the livelihood of the people that inhabit it. This requires design guided by scientific principles and engineering thinking. As I learned recently, architecture that does not consider engineering cannot fully unlock its full potential, and engineering without art cannot truly connect with the people.

By making our infrastructure the center of attention, our entire perspective regarding the built environment changes. It may not be easy to see at first, but consider how our line of thinking and behavior would change if we were cognizant of the many systems that support our way of life. A greater appreciation for the built and natural environment develops, and we are more aware of our place and effect we have on our surroundings. It may take a little more money to hire an architect to design something like a power plant, but consider the added benefits it will bring. What a world it would be if there were children pulling their parents by the hand, saying “Let’s go visit the garbage plant!”

Our Magical World

The most common criticism of the fantasy genre is that it can lead to unhealthy escapism. Why settle for the boring, drab world in which you live, when you could immerse yourself in a world full of flying beasts, floating cities, and big baddies that need to be taken down? For me, fantasy stories are sources of inspiration – why can’t we built floating cities? Fantasy, by definition, revolves on places and things that have never been, and most reasonably, never will be. But that doesn’t mean that Fantasy isn’t based on real world people, locations, or history. However, it can be easy to forget that the world we live in isn’t really drab or boring, it’s teeming with all sorts of life and features bizarre locales. At times, it seems magical.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park (Source: Matthias Kabe, wikimedia commons)

Taking inspiration from life to influence design is called Biomimicry. For example, scientists study the tardigrade to learn how the creature survives in such extreme environments (such as the vacuum of space)  to design materials to protect humans in similar environments. Extreme environments, such as Deserts or the Arctic, are great areas to find inspiration. For instance, the Atacama Desert, which receives just a few millimeters of rain per year, hosts plants that have adapted by harvesting marine fog. Microorganisms in the high-pressure deep sea have developed thick waxy cell membranes. Other organisms have evolved resistances to high alkalinity, cold, heat, and even radiation. There are numerous examples of biomimetic designs and unique creatures. You can find some of them at the Ask Nature, a site developed by the Biomimicry Institute.

Similarly, we can also take inspiration from the environments themselves. The Earth features many types of ecosystems, some of which are quite bizarre and look like they belong in a fantasy world rather than our world. Through a combination of biology, geology, and chemistry, magical ecosystems can result.

The previously mentioned Atacama Desert has incredibly salty soil. The salt crystals in the soil attract water from the air, allowing microbes to gain access to water. Mono Lake in California has soil and water full of toxic metals due to mine runoff. The water is highly saline, has a high pH, and has dangerous levels of arsenic.  Even so, brine shrimp live in these waters, and eat bacteria and plants adapted to these levels. It is one example of arsenic-based life.

Oklo Natural Nuclear Reactor (Source: Andreas Mittler,

In a uranium mine in Oklo, Gabon, Africa, a French nuclear community noticed small but significant amount of Uranium-235, an isotope used in nuclear power reactors. Uranium is a key ingredient for nuclear reactors, which work on the principle of nuclear fission (splitting an atom to release the energy inside). Commercial reactors need at least 3% of U-235 to function. The land in Oklo reached 3% U-235 and with the assistance of the surrounding groundwater, started a naturally occurring nuclear fission reactor. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the reactor stopped about a million years ago, but scientists are studying the site to see how natural environments are dealing with the radioactive materials to inform how to deal with man-made nuclear waste.

Blood Falls (Source: United States Antarctic Program,

The Blood Falls is a popular unique system. Located in Antarctical, the Blood Falls flows from a trapped lake high in salinity and iron (which gives the red color). Within the red water, microbes have evolved independently from the rest of the world, and have adapted to exist in an environment with no light, little heat, and no oxygen. You can find additional examples of natural wonders at Atlas Obscura.

There are also naturally occurring phenomena, such as bioluminescent bays, waterspouts or fire whirls, which, while not as inspiring in an engineering context, exemplify the marvelous danger of nature.

These locations offer insight into solving many engineering challenges. Often times, while engineers struggle with challenges, the Earth has already found a solution (after all, the Earth has been around much longer than we, as humans, have). In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the design of wastewater treatment plant based on the biogeochemical cycle of a lake with high pH to produce a purer Syngas and byproduct for cement production. By studying how these ecosystems function, we have opportunities for engineering designs that emulate these environments and incorporate natural processes and resources. We can also develop methods of utilizing unique ecosystems for the benefit of society by having them serve as “naturally occurring factories.” Our world is full of natural wonders that we can learn from to engineer systems that work with our environment, rather than against it. By doing this, we could actually create places we never thought would have existed. Our world is a magical place, we can contribute to the magic. 

Random thoughts on the Near-Future

I finally decided to sit down and watch Spoke Jonze’s newest movie, Her. In case you haven’t seen the trailer or heard about the movie, Her is basically a science-fiction romance, where a man falls in love with his Artificial Intelligent Operating System. What you would expect to be some sort of comedy is, at its heart, quite the emotionally intense drama. I really enjoyed Her for a variety of reasons (although I can’t help but wonder if the story would have the same effect if it was a woman who fell in love with a male A.I.).

While I described the movie as a science-fiction movie, the story certainly doesn’t have the typical sci-fi clichés that one sees all over Hollywood these days. The movie itself, while featuring an A.I. character, does revolve around future technology. What I mean is that in these blockbuster movies we see these days, the entire story actually revolves around the setting – post-apocalyptic earth, giant robot death machines, space ships, etc. Oftentimes, sci-fi movies attract attention because of the setting itself, not the characters (and for various reasons, but I won’t go into that now). The setting defines the movie. In Her, the setting: the near-future, is only a setting, and it’s the characters that we are interested in.

Furthermore, this setting isn’t in the far-flung future, but in the near future, a future where people still go to the beach, take walks in the park, carry a mobile device. It’s a future that we can connect too, because it seems extremely probably. This near-future setting enhances our connection to the story, because even though we know it’s sci-fi, we know it’s completely possible (and indeed, could be happening now). We easily connect to the setting, because it’s familiar, and it helps connect us to the characters themselves. Even though some things have changed, we’re all the same humans as before.

Now, I could write a whole post on how the movie considers the topic of what it means to be human, human-technology interactions and the Singularity. But I assume that there are dozens of articles out on the webs about these topics. All I want to say on the topic is that this movie provides a refreshing view of a “positive/optimistic” future and reminds us that even in the future, humans will still be relevant. I highly recommend it, and I think I am a growing fan of near-future stories (see: Robot and Frank).

What I wanted to talk about is our concepts of the near-future. After all, what we imagine today will most likely be reality tomorrow (which is why have such an interest in the sci-fi genre). I think it’s interesting (and perfectly valid) that most near-future conceptions feature a very electronically advanced society. Many things are automated, humans have perfected alternate reality and we have devices that can interact with each other. But as an Environmental Engineering student, I often see the term “technology” in a non-traditional light. For Environmental Engineers (and other professions that deal with the natural/built environment), technology not only includes electronics and computers, it also includes natural processes. We use soil, microbes, air, and water in much the same way as electrical engineers use wires, resistors and capacitors – as tools and parts to achieve a goal. So I got to thinking, what about a biologically advanced near-future, what would that look like? Yes, there are plenty of futures that feature genetically modified organisms or electrical implants, etc. But what about the near future, what about the artificial limbs and such? What about the renewable energy? How would we envision such a world?

You may be thinking that we already do envision such worlds, and that’s true. But I think when we think of the future, we immediately think about an electronic future, not necessarily a biological one. For instance, the concept of the Smart City is popular these days. A Smart City has a Smart Grid – a grid that has many sensors and is able to best allocate energy/resources to where they are needed the most at any time of day. A Smart City understand the needs of the population and can respond accordingly. But what about a Biological City? What about a city that is so in tune with its surrounding environment, that, it has learned to tap into natural processes for support? A city where our heating comes from renewable energy, or microbes, a city that produces light not from light bulbs, but from phosphorescence? It is certainly a harder future to imagine (and arguably a much scarier one), but a future worth thinking about.

But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. We certainly use biotech and electrical tech together all the time, and I think it is in this intersection, that we can unlock the most possibilities. I certainly encourage people to think about the world they want to see, and strive for it. But in this rapid advancement of technology, I think we should give a little more credibility to the impact that nature and biological technology (as it deals with humans, society and the environment) can have on our near-future. And in the midst of it all, we should remember that at the heart of the story are the characters, not the setting.