Behind the Fiction
Ever wonder if the science
behind novels is real?
For novelists and readers alike, thrillers
are an entertaining way of learning about something real. Much of
the world’s bestselling fiction is well researched and uses
fact as the basis and inspiration for a fictional tale.
Thriller writer David Dun has been drawn
to science in creating the backgrounds for all five of his thrillers.
His latest, The Black Silent (Pinnacle
Books, 2005), is about an organism (Arcs), found deep in the ocean,
that can produce methane gas for energy and whose extreme life span,
Dun believes, may provide clues to human longevity. Black Silent
is a page-turning thriller about a crisis that could forever change
our lives if the secret of the “Arcs” and their astounding
life cycle ended up in the wrong hands. The novel is action adventure
and not a science book and many readers of David Dun’s fiction
read for the thrill and not the facts; however, for those interested
in the backbone of the mystery, the science behind the plot, learning
what is true and what is fiction, then this section is for you.
We begin with a light once over with often
asked, science related questions. For those of you interested in
the risks and benefits of our undersea methane stockpile, Arcs,
or the science of staying young, you can keep reading. Perhaps you
will enjoy learning what we learned from the research about staying
If you plan to read the book, but haven’t
yet, we suggest you read the book before reading this material.
Frequently Asked Questions
About the Science of The Black Silent
Are all the claims you make for this technology
being adapted as a “fountain of youth” to retard aging
The basic mechanisms of aging explained
in the world of The Black Silent are well documented in
the scientific literature. Arcs do enjoy extreme life spans of literally
millions of years as explained below. However, using the secrets
of the Arcs to extend human life spans to hundreds of years has
not actually been accomplished. Scientists are working to solve
the human ageing issues that are accurately described and explained
in The Black Silent and this website
Why do Arcs have such incredibly long lifespans?
At the molecular level, humans and other
animals and plants fall into a type of living things called Eukaryotes.
This group is made up of living things whose DNA is encapsulated
within the nucleus of their cells. The chromosomes of Eukaryotes
are formed into the famous double helix shape of a pair of intertwined
strands. At the ends of the strands are multiple copies of a specialized
kind of DNA, called telomeres. These telomeres have been likened
to the plastic ends on shoelaces if you are trying to picture their
structure. Eukaryotic cells (which includes human cells) reproduce
by dividing and every time this happens one of the copies of the
telomeres is lost. When all of the telomeres in the cell are used
up the DNA becomes unstable and the cell dies, resulting in aging
of the organism. That would be you if you are the organism under
consideration. To retain our youth we rely on being able to replace
our cells. Telomeres act as a built in clock that limits the number
of times a cell can divide and replace itself. This in turn determines
how long we can live. So to achieve longevity we would want to thwart
the effect of shortening telomeres.
In contrast, archaea (Arcs) fall into a
group called Prokaryotes. The cells of Prokaryotes are much smaller
than those of Eukaryotes and do not have a nucleus. Their DNA is
usually found in the form of a single chromosome formed in the shape
of a large unbroken loop and lacking the telomeres found in Eukaryotic
(including human) DNA.
Humans like other Eukaryotes have a limited
lifespan encoded into their DNA in the form of the number of telomere
copies included on their chromosomes. Prokaryotes (archaea) have
virtually unlimited lifespans partly because they lack telomeres
on their chromosomes.
Research has shown that the shortening
of telomeres and subsequent aging of a cell can be delayed by the
enzyme telomerase; however, this enzyme is also likely to cause
tumors. In plain English, telomerase seems to stop the ticking clock
that limits a cell’s ability to reproduce with age but at
the same time it is associated with cancer.
We have not yet learned Dr. Ben Anderson's
fictional genetic trick from the Arcs. Although scientists are making
advances in studying and modifying telomerase to inhibit aging,
we are still pretty much back in the dark ages as far as the average
person is concerned.
In addition to the problem created by shortening
telemeres we humans have another problem called oxidation. This
is a process by which our DNA is damaged. We can eat blue berries
and swallow pills that claim to be anti-oxidants in a more or less
futile attempt to preserve our DNA a little while longer. And, although
great advances are being made in blood chemistry as it affects arterial
health, and we may be in the process of learning how to buy some
human longevity by protecting our DNA, it’s not here yet.
We explain this below for those interested
in more detail. We probably do age because: (1) Our DNA oxidizes
and otherwise deteriorates; (2) our bodies cells have a built in
time clock (telomeres) and can only replace themselves a finite
number of times; our blood chemistry hardens our arteries and makes
them more susceptible to various forms of deterioration; our brain
cells deteriorate and otherwise succumb to plaque, and for the most
part are not replaced.
Mice on low calorie diets or with their
growth hormones extinguished do live markedly longer lives. Scientists
are now trying low caloric intake diets on primates. The diet seems
to protect the DNA by limiting the amount of free radicals produced
in the cells. Each cell has within it microscopic dots called mitochondria
that could be analogized to tiny furnaces. The oxidation that we
spoke of is caused by so called escaping free radicals from the
mitochondria. Free radicals are nothing more than unstable oxygen
molecules lacking one electron. Some scientists speculate that caloric
restriction works by limiting the amount of fuel (oxygen) that the
cell mitochondria needs to process and allowing them to perform
better for a longer period, producing fewer free radicals (escaping
unstable oxygen molecules). So, many of the reasons for aging discussed
in the The Black Silent are correct based on current scientific
One of the elements in the story, part
of the antidote to aging, was the use of statins to control cholesterol
and the use of genetically derived drugs to make lippo-proteins
larger. Researchers are, in fact, working on drugs to increase lippo-protein
size. We currently have statins such as Lipitor®
in use (in fact they are now old hat) controlling cholesterol levels
in millions of people. So far we have no means of staving off the
effect of ever shortening telomeres on cellular regeneration, but
great strides are being made in research aimed at modifying telomerase
to slow the loss of telomeres. There is no cure for dementia brought
on by plaque formation although some interesting discoveries have
been made and there may be some things you can do right now that
will give some significant protection (we discuss these later).
Each element in Ben Anderson’s anti-aging regimen is based
on the observations of real science with respect to the problems
for science to overcome.
There are many urban legends about long lived
people but you did not comment on those. Why?
I did not comment because they are not
important. Actually they were in early drafts of The Black Silent
but since they weren’t true, merely explaining that as part
of the story seemed boring to the editors, so we cut it. Herein
we will comment on anti-ageing formulas that didn’t pan out.
There have been various groups in Russia and South America thought
to be long lived. Research indicates that these are stories fostered
by the locals and that attempts to verify longevity claims have
fallen flat. Forget the yogurt eating Cossacks who munch down bulgar
wheat, live by regular schedules, and take naps. They live about
as long as the rest of us. Please note that we are not saying that
people who watch their diet, exercise and live a stress free existence
do not stay healthy for a longer period into old age. The point
of our discussion is to examine medical intervention or life style
changes that may both significantly prolong healthy life and increase
the life span. The longest living human was a French woman as accurately
described in The Black Silent. We have all heard the stereotypical
notions of French living. The Paleolithic diet approximating victuals
from the cave-man era is supposed to add years to your life. Forget
it. It doesn’t seem to make significant differences in longevity.
Once again we are not talking about how healthy or active you are
up until the point you pass on. These diets may increase activity
levels or general health. They have not proven effective for significantly
prolonging the last gasp. Diets haven’t created a sensation
among statisticians measuring mortality rates. Certain diets may
lower the risk of certain diseases but once again we aren’t
here talking about living disease free we are talking about living
longer and remaining healthy through the extended years. There are
things that one can do to assist in maintaining health, that include
diet but no particular diet has caused the life insurance companies
to re-think their actuarial tables and for good reason. Now some
will say that if hunger (low caloric intake) works on mice maybe
it will work on people. There has been no test on people yet but
it does work on mice, rats, worms, flies and yeast cells. Perhaps
the primate studies will scare us all into thinking we’ll
spend our lives on something like weight watchers plus. It is possible
that low caloric diets in humans will achieve the same results on
people that they achieve on mice. However, it’s doubtful they’ll
put you in a cage and control what you eat and it’s doubtful
that most of us will shove away from the table half way through.
Probably we will find a way to duplicate the affect of a reduced
calorie with medication. A final myth I would like to comment on
is that taking growth hormone will promote longevity. Muscle tone
can be markedly increased on a temporary basis. You can die with
a little better looking body. Exercise does about the same and promotes
health. In fact when they suppress growth hormones in mice from
birth they live a lot longer just like the low calorie mice.
The Black Silent claims that there
is enough methane on the sea bottom to provide a source of energy
that would last at least for the next 2000 years, is this true?
It is conservatively estimated that there
is enough methane at the bottom of the sea to provide three times
as much energy as all of the known reserves of coal, oil, and gas
in the earth. Research monies are now being spent to learn how to
safely and effectively mine it for general use.
The Black Silent explores the good
and bad potential of methane gas. Can you talk about both possibilities?
As to the good, some scientists believe
there is more methane under the ocean than all the oil, gas, and
coal put together. It has been guesstimated that it would solve
the energy needs of our planet for 2000 years. In fact, one Japanese
group exploring methane recovery feasibility made the comment in
the press. If we could effectively mine the methane it would solve
the energy crisis as we know it today. It burns much more cleanly
than so-called fossil fuels. Emissions would be greatly limited
if for example we used methane to run boilers to make steam, to
run a turbine, to manufacture electricity. The threat of undersea
methane is that it is volatile and in the words of one scientist
the methane cycle is not particularly stable. One big burp and we
have a major problem. Robert Kunzig writing for Discover
magazine said: “Many of these tiny creatures make so much
methane gas that if even a small proportion of it is released, we
might be overwhelmed by huge tsunamis, runaway global warming, and
extinctions.” DISCOVER Vol. 25 No. 03 | March
2004 | Environment. The popular literature and the scientific
literature seem to agree, using their respective languages that
the sea floor builds enormous amounts of methane over time and that
it doesn’t take much in the way of slight warming or ordinary
landslides to raise the potential of releasing “catastrophic
burps.” At various times in the earths past methane has probably
erupted causing mass extinctions of many life forms on the planet.
It is fairly well settled that a 4- to 5-degree temperature increase
in ocean water near the bottom could result in the release of half
the methane on the sea floor. This would create a green house gas
problem of titanic proportions and massive climate change would
result. We all know that ocean temperatures change as currents shift.
Although a 5-degree temperature change is large there may be mechanisms
that could affect that result. Chain reactions are possible. For
example underwater volcanic activity could bring about localized
temperature change that could result in methane release. Once released,
methane is a very effective greenhouse gas and might warm the air
and that in turn could warm
certain parts of the sea and cause currents to shift. Then more
methane is released. Because methane is nearer the surface in the
arctic it has been discussed as an area to watch for chain reaction.
As one scientist put it, once a chain reaction starts there probably
is no stopping it. Scientists have speculated that with a big enough
methane burp from the deep sea we might experience an atmospheric
conversion that would cause sea level residents to experience oxygen
deprivation as if they were living on a sixteen-thousand-foot mountain.
It has been postulated that in the far distant past large enough
burps might have caused conflagrations that, in effect, set the
atmosphere on fire. More obvious methane threats are localized releases
from underwater volcanic activity that trigger landslides and cause
massive tsunamis. Archaea have turned out to be the invisible elephant
in the environmental china shop. Nobody noticed until recently but
the ramifications of this mass of life (Archaea equal as much as
one third of all life on earth, plant, and animal) are stunning.
There is plenty to think about.
You write about Arcs (Archaea), found in the
deepest sea bottoms. What are Arcs?
Archaea are fascinating microorganisms.
Certain varieties manufacture methane; they are thought by some
to live over a million years (i.e., ages measured in geologic time);
and they are so energy-efficient they were analogized by one knowledgeable
scientist as being like a human who could live one year on a slice
of pizza. When archaea produce energy, a waste product is methane
and their abundance is responsible for the extensive deposits of
methane currently found at great depth in the ocean sediments.
Why aren’t methane gas and its implications
We are the fast-food generation. If it isn’t
going to solve the problem next year or the year after most of us
lose interest. Congress has appropriated funds to explore methane
use. Once it becomes feasible to pull the stuff up from the sea
we will hear more about it. Most of the methane on the sea bottom
is deep in the ocean sediments or tied up in “methane hydrate”
(ice that burns). Some of the challenges to mining it result from
its tendency to dissipate in sea water or in the presence of oxygen.
Scientist are looking at ways to effectively mine it.
Congress has now appropriated millions of
dollars to study the feasibility of this technology concerning methane
recovery. How close are we to being able to use it?
No one knows. Ben Anderson, my fictional
character, and his many colleagues had discovered a way to bring
it up. He was ahead of the rest of us.
How much methane is available in the United
States? Or are we going to be stuck relying on another country if
this energy is adopted, the way we are with oil in the Middle East?
Vast quantities are located off our coasts.
Enough, that if estimates are correct, and if it could be recovered,
it would last us a very long time. Probably well in excess of 1000
If methane gas has potential dangers for
the planet, how are we going to be able to organize a way of safeguarding
it and keeping it out of the hands of terrorists?
One scientist told the author that to set
off a methane chain reaction by human means (as opposed to volcanic
or other natural means) it would require detonating a nuclear bomb
in exactly the right spot in a deep-sea trench. Other scientists
were more skeptical that this could be done at all. Furthermore,
the terrorist might have trouble controlling the ultimate result
(although, admittedly, some terrorists aren’t so much bothered
by the fact that they can’t control a disaster; and the threat
of such an attack might be more valuable than the attack itself).
We believe the bottom line today is that it would be a very complex
undertaking for a terrorist; probably wouldn’t work anyway;
and there would be a whole lot of other more certain methods of
wreaking havoc within a terrorist’s means. Probably the greatest
threat to our planet from deep sea methane is from natural methane
release. There are a number of possible mechanisms. To control the
risk long term we might control plankton levels in the sea, in turn
controlling CO2 levels, and in turn keeping
greenhouse gases under control to stop any methane chain reaction
that might result from warming oceans. In fact scientists have already
experimented with fertilizing the open sea to stimulate plankton
production. So the idea of fertilizing the sea to control green
house gases, and in turn to influence atmospheric temperatures,
is not an idea without supporters.
Will methane gas pollute our environment the
way our oil-based energy does?
Methane burns much cleaner. It does not
burn completely clean but it is so clean that it doesn’t pose
the same risk of filling the atmosphere with so-called greenhouse
gases. The writers of this website are not claiming that the earth
today is in fact warming from greenhouse gases. We are saying that
anyone who thinks greenhouse gases don’t pose an eventual
problem at least theoretically is a lunatic (seriously misled).
We cannot operate as many current-technology combustion motors as
we want forever with absolute impunity. There is not, in our view,
proof that we have already begun a process of global warming. We
believe the jury is still out on that one. We agree with Ben Anderson,
who believes that there is a problem buried in there someplace if
we emit enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
Of course if half the methane on the planet were released from beneath
the sea, the problem would exceed anything we remotely imagine when
we worry about greenhouse gases.
Your book is set in the San Juan Islands.
Are there methane hydrate or gas deposits around the islands? Why
did you select the San Juan Islands as a setting?
It is doubtful there are methane gas sites
in the San Juans of any great magnitude. The water isn’t deep
enough, given the temperature pressure gradient. However there are
massive deposits of methane along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
Many places in the sea have not been explored and there probably
is not sufficient data regarding what is down in the deepest parts
of the channels in the Inside Passage, which includes the San Juan
Archipelago of Washington State. Generally, though, the Arcs are
down in “the black silent,” where there is no oxygen.
It’s black, deep, and cold. The author chose the San Juans
not because Arcs are found there, but because they are one of the
more beautiful island chains in temperate climates, and he personally
loves them. There is in fact a UW marine lab there, so a private
foundation lab is not out of the question. When you feel passionate
about a place, and you’re a writer, you should write about
it. Unless of course you want to keep it all to yourself.