Hello, friends, and welcome once again to Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at some new and interesting scientific term so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together. This week’s Sciency Word is:
I’d like to begin this post with a quote. This comes from the 2019 Sci-Fi novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. As the protagonist of that book explains, we humans are a remarkably versatile species, able to adapt to pretty much any environment—or at least any environment Earth has to offer.
But take us away from our home planet, and our adaptability vanishes. Extended spaceflight is hell on the human body. No longer challenged by gravity, bones and muscles quickly begin to stop spending resources on maintaining mass. The heart gets lazy in pumping blood. The eyeball changes shape, causing vision problems and headaches. Unpleasant as these ailments are, they pale in comparison to the onslaught of radiation that fills the seeming void.
I have rarely seen the dangers of human spaceflight so artfully or so succinctly explained as in this book.
Even before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, scientists knew space would be rough on the human body. They did not know specifically what might go wrong, but they knew there would be trouble. The obvious solution is to create an environment that is safe and comfortable for human beings.
But as early as 1960, some scientists were considering an alternative solution. Rather than creating space environments that are suitable for human life, why not modify human life to be suitable for the environment of space? This was the idea proposed by American research scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in their 1960 paper “Cyborgs and Space.”
Clynes and Kline proposed some rather drastic surgical changes to the human body. They make it sound quite easy. Just rip out a bunch of internal organs. Replace those organs with synthetic parts. Pump the patient/astronaut full of drugs and use hypnosis to suppress any psychological issues that might come up during or after the process. And now you have a human being who’s ready to go to space! Or you have a human being who’s dead on the operating room table. One, or the other!
Clynes and Kline introduced the word “cyborg” to describe the half-human/half-machine person they proposed to create. What Becky Chambers describes in To Be Taught, If Fortunate sounds a little bit safer and a lot less dehumanizing. And Chambers introduces a new term to describe the transformation her characters undergo: somaforming. The word is created by analogy with the word terraforming, with the Greek root word “terra” (Earth) being replaced with the Greek root word “soma” (body).
As the protagonist of To Be Taught, If Fortunate explains it, human space explorers come as guests, not conquerers. The age of colonialism is long behind us. And being good guests, we don’t want to demand too much of our hosts or cause our hosts too much trouble. To quote Chambers’ book once more: “I have no interest in changing other worlds to suit me. I choose the lighter touch: changing myself to suit them.”
And I think that is a wonderful sentiment!
As far as I can tell, the word somaforming has not yet been picked up by the scientific community. But plenty of words from science fiction have been adopted by scientists. I have a suspicion that this is going to be one of those words.
Next time on Planet Pailly: Oh no! I made a mistake in an old blog post, and I need to issue a retraction!