Science In The Word Exchange

I should warn you upfront that this post is going to get a tiny bit technical and a tiny bit spoilery. However, I have high hopes that a reader from any background will find it interesting and intelligible, so please bear with me and give it a try. The reason I think this post is important is because I think authors who take the time to get the science right should be celebrated. I also personally feel passionate about it because readers being misinformed by bad science bothers me deeply. Likewise, it makes me a bit sad to see so many reviewers disbelieving the premise of this book when I think it’s scientifically sound. To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I’m a bioinformatics PhD student who works on a protein with synthetic biology applications, so the topics this book covers are at least tangentially related to the science I’m becoming an expert on.

Alright, here’s the slightly spoilery bit… In The Word Exchange, a virus known as “word flu” is spreading via computers which interface directly with our brains. These computers are called Memes. It is explained that a biological virus from one user hooked up with a computer virus. This combined virus is spreading from person to person because this information became stored as binary data but is converted back to DNA when it reaches a new user. I’m sure we all know that computer viruses are a thing which can spread from computer to computer, so the spread of the virus when people communicate via Meme makes sense. The only futuristic technology necessary for this to be possible then is a method of converting between binary data and biological molecules like DNA. I believe there are two ways this could be done.


First, nanotechnology! If a DNA sequence was stored as text (a series of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s), nanobots could actually build the molecules these letters represent, atom by atom. The biggest problem I see with this approach is speed. Even though we currently possess the ability to manipulate atoms to make smiley faces and can make nanobots that play soccer, I’m not sure we could make nanobots that manipulate atoms fast enough to convert the light speed signals of an electronic computer to biological molecules at a fast enough rate to be useful for computing. However, it might be possible with enough nanobots.

A second approach is to use synthetic biology. This means creating cells that are engineered like circuits to respond to particular inputs with particular outputs. In this case, a cell could be programmed to respond to electrical pulses by beginning to produce particular sequences of DNA. This would allow computers to communicate with cells using electrical impulses at the same speed communication is done within a computer. It would also take advantage of the speed with which cells naturally synthesize DNA. Although I’m not as knowledgeable about neurobiology, I would guess that a brain cell would be a pretty good starting point for developing synthetic cells that respond to electrical signals.

And that’s the end of my scientific digression :) Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. 


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10 Responses to Science In The Word Exchange

  1. Jennine G.

    Like the different take on this book. I was able to not let this part of the book bother me because I figured it’s set in the future and who knows what technology will be doing by then. Also, the book’s premise falls in line with so much famous literature on the topic of the fall of society that it seemed a natural fit.
    Jennine G. recently posted…Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thonMy Profile

  2. Rebecca @ Love at First Book

    So yeah, as a non-sciency type of gal, this post was a little much for me. But I LOVE that you synthesized the science of The Word Exchange! You should totally email this to Alena Graedon!!!!
    Rebecca @ Love at First Book recently posted…5 Reasons Why Your Blog Should Be On FacebookMy Profile

    • I’ve actually been having a fantastic e-mail exchange with her, since she e-mailed me to say thanks for the review and to ask that I add it to amazon. In addition to being a great writer, she seems like a really nice person :)

  3. Charlene @ Bookish Whimsy

    Wow, I don’t know much about biotechnology but you made everything very clear and easy to understand! Nanobots are so interesting to me too -the article and the video you linked to were fascinating!
    Charlene @ Bookish Whimsy recently posted…Screening of Star Trek GenerationsMy Profile

    • Thanks Charlene! Your comment made me very happy because I thought the info at the links was very cool and I wasn’t sure anyone else would click through to experience the awesome :)

  4. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf

    Such a great post, thanks for taking the time to post this. I agree with Charlene that you make it SO easy to understand. Seriously…Graedon should have had you write an appendix or something!
    Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf recently posted…Prison Book ProjectMy Profile

    • Wow, thanks Monika! You’re too kind. I was worried this would be a bit much for nearly everyone so it makes me very happy to hear that you liked it :)

  5. April @ The Steadfast Reader

    I’m so late – I had all these thoughts months ago when you posted it but since I’m avoiding studying NOW … I thought I’d come back and tell you how great this post was. Agreed agreed that you make it super simple to understand. :)
    April @ The Steadfast Reader recently posted…Guest Review: Rammed by the RaptorMy Profile


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