Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Finding Water on the Moon

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

lcross_impactTomorrow morning, at 4:30am PDT, the LCROSS “package” will slam into a permanently dark crater near the South Pole of the moon, one of the coldest places in the solar system. It will be followed, four minutes later, by the shepherding probe will fly through the dust plume raised by the impact before it hits the lunar surface nearby.

Telescopes around Earth and in orbit will be watching to find any clues of OH bounds, indicating water. Passive techniques have found indications of water throughout the moon, save along the equator (where the Apollo missions landed, unfortunately). Current thoughts are that hydrogen ions from the solar wind hit the lunar surface, combine with oxygen in the regolith, and form water until direct exposure to the sun sublimates it.

But water should be most common in the permanently shadowed craters at the poles – some estimates have it up to 2% of the soil material there. And extracting the water would be easy. Just microwave it.

Wow. I’m getting up early for this, even though it only means following the impact on NASA TV. I’m a geek, what can I say?

Krugman and Stross Transcript

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Paul Krugman (PK). Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist for the New York Times.

Charlie Stross (CS). Hugo-winning science fiction author.

Anticipation World Con, Montreal, Quebec
August 6, 2009

Transcription by Edwin Steussy, Apogee Communications. Please send corrections to ed “at” my last name “dot” com.

CS: Good evening, we’re very pleased to be here and thank you very much for inviting us to talk.

(more…)

Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

sandman_by_neil_gaiman

Wow. I thought I was beyond the stage when I would suddenly discover a startling new author, with a full back catalog of unread books. Neil Gaiman is definitely such a writer. And the reason I missed him? He works almost exclusively in graphic novels.

After running into no fewer than three references to the Sandman series of graphic novels in a few days (“…the novel we’re reviewing here is not as good as Gaiman’s Sandman series from 20 years ago, but …”), I found it at the local library. Great stuff – Norman Mailer described the series as “a comic book for intellectuals” – and it’s true. References to Herodotus, Shakespeare, Dante, the great myths (in their original, unsanitized forms), Arthur C. Clarke and so many others, it would be hard to list them all.

But this is more than a collection of references – this is a living, breathing series that stands on its own (albeit, on the shoulders of giants). I spent a month reading through the full collection, and loved them all. Highly recommended.

Amazon link for Volume 1 of 11 here.

Apollo 11 40th Anniversery

Monday, July 20th, 2009

launch

I’m six years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the same age as my son Dan-dan is now. At age six, I’m still mixing up events in the real world with the Star Trek episodes that my older brother and sisters watch.

moon6I do clearly remember being woken up to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. It was the latest I had ever been up. I don’t remember who woke me up, or who else was watching on the TV in the family room, but I do remember seeing it. And I remember walking outside afterward with Dad to look at the moon. And I remember clearly the exact phase of the moon at that moment.

The John Kennedy Presidential Library has been running a real time website, with audio and visual effects, tracking the landing on the moon here. It’s been fun to keep the kids interested. And Dan-dan’s enormous attention span allows him to wait patiently through the loss of signal as Apollo 11 goes around the moon for the first time to when the signal is picked up again 20 minutes later.

buzz2

My personal feeling as this, exciting as this is, government sponsored manned space travel is a relic from the past. It’s enormously expensive, without real incentives to become more efficient. And the current programs serve no useful purpose (though it’s dang cool to watch the International Space Station whiz by on a dark night). Yes, I want man to go to Mars and the other planets as well, but it won’t happen without big changes. Free enterprise is the route to those changes. The future belongs to efforts like the Google Lunar X Prize, Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace and others.

First Contact

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

3rd_chimp

While I was in Wisconsin, I was rereading Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee for the third time. A great book, and clearly a forerunner to Guns, Germs and Steel.

The book deals a bit more with Diamond’s work and personal experience in New Guinea. The most fascinating aspect is that the central highlands where the last major population center of Stone Age people living into modern times with no knowledge of the outside world were discovered. Estimates range from 250,000 to one million people living there.

MAP_newGuinea_full

There were two regions of people – one in the east that was discovered in 1930, and a western group that was discovered in 1938. The First Contact with the Eastern group in 1930 is fully documented and readily available on the web in a fifty minute video here. Quoting from the Third Chimpanzee:

First-contact patrols had a traumatic effect that is difficult for those of us living in the modern world to imagine. Highlanders “discovered” by Michael Leahy in the 1930’s, and interviewed fifty years later, still recalled perfectly where they where and what they were doing at the moment of first contact. Perhaps the closest parallel, to modern Americans and Europeans, is our recollection of one or two of the most important political events in our lives. Most Americans my age recall that moment on December 7, 1941, when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We knew at once that our lives would be very different for years to come, as a result of the news. Yet even the impact of Pearl Harbor and of the resulting war on American society was minor, compared to the impact of a first contact patrol on New Guinea highlanders. On that day, their world changed forever.

A book by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson entitled First Contact poignantly relates that moment in the eastern highlands, as recalled in their old age by New Guineans and whites who met there as young adults and children in the 1930s. Terrified highlanders took the whites for returning ghosts, until the New Guineans dug up and scrutinized the whites’ buried feces, sent terrified young girls to have sex with the intruders and discovered that whites defecated and were men like themselves. Leahy wrote in his diaries that highlanders smelled bad, while at the same time the highlanders were finding the whites’ smell strange and frightening. Leahy’s obsession with gold was as bizarre to the highlanders as their obsession with their own form of wealth and currency—cowry shells—was to him.

This is a truly amazing document. I sat fascinated for the full 50 minutes. Again, the link is here.

Charles Stross

Monday, June 15th, 2009

taa-aceI’ve been reading science fiction off-and-on for three and a half decades now. The 50’s and 60’s were full of great science fiction. For whatever reason, the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s had only a few titles or concepts that truly stirred the soul (Larry Niven’s Ringworld comes to mind as a positive example).

Since 2000, there has been a resurgence of good science fiction from a new set of authors. I’ve frequently sent friends and readers to Marc Andreesson’s second or third blog post (a blog he no longer updates, unfortunately), which had the best list of new science fiction works available. I’ve enjoyed several of them.

I point to three who seem to have taken over the world of science fiction: Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi and Charles Stross. All three have active blogs (which are the links I’ve set up).

Doctorow is the only one not on Andreesson’s list, and I can see why. His writing is very work-a-day, his fictional insights are not great and his characters (never an SF strong point) suck. However, primarily through his blog, he wields considerable clout with the internet generation, taking on issues of copyright, intellectual property and such. He’s virtually required reading on these topics.

Scalzi is a young author whose works are incredibly entertaining. They tend to follow a Robert Heinlein sensibility, which really appeals to me. Old Man’s War is one of the best science fiction reads in the last decade.

Charles Stross, however, is untouchable. His works bristle with new ideas and new concepts. Accelerando has more new ideas in it than most people will have in a lifetime. All of his novels twist the world in unique ways, which make his writing fun to read. His Family Trade series has been quoted and referenced by Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist writing for the New York Times. I’m finishing the Atrocity Archives just now from the Laundry series, which is truly great. Highly recommended.

———

ADDENDUM: I just remembered that the reason I started this blog was due to a Charles Stross speech – made before I started pursuing his books. Prior to starting the blog, I avoided any personal reference on the internet – now I embrace it. Read my link and the speech to see why.

Funny

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

From the Onion.

Dr. Arthur C. Clarke

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke died today (or actually tomorrow my time) in Sri Lanka. The last of the Big Three science fiction writers has left the building.

There is a video on YouTube of him making a birthday wish at the age of 90. I watched it last week. I won’t post here, simply because it does not seem appropriate to remember him this way. Men like him should be remembered for their great achievements, not the frail entities that they are later in life. Better to show this:
2001-a-space-odyssey-4-1024.jpg

I read the books of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein from when I was between 8 or 9 until I’d completely read all of their work (save Asimov – just too much) when I was around 14. I still pick up their books and read them today, but they are badly dated. What was important in 1972 is a long way from where we are now, and where we think we are going. The importance of these authors is only to us who grew up in the era, and who read them at a particularly impressionable age.

That said, they were the most powerful influences on me growing up, much stronger than the teachers who stood physically in front of me trying to pass on their wisdom (or pass the time) in late Elementary and Junior High School. Isaac Asimov taught me science; everything I feel I know or believe comes directly from his non-fiction works directed at youngsters. What I learned in later textbooks and schoolwork only built on the frame that Asimov gave to me. In 1992, I was at my very first tradeshow in Chicago when Asimov’s death was announced. I cried—I really felt like I’d personally let him down by not becoming a scientist.

Arthur Clarke spoke from a higher ground than Asimov or Heinlein. Asimov taught me all of the nuts and bolts of science and history, but he never had Clarke’s touch for making them magical. Heinlein was simply never as serious as the other two. It seems so odd to me that as a middle age adult that I am much closer to Heinlein’s writings philosophically.

My favorite book by Clarke was Rendezvous with Rama. I read the whole book in the backseat of Dad’s car on a long, eight hour trip from New Castle, Indiana to New Glarus, Wisconsin in 1974. I vividly remember how much fun it was to read that book then. I understand they’re making a movie of it. I shudder at the thought, but hope that the movie preserves some of the essence of the book.

I just looked on Amazon—my feelings about the suitability of Clarke’s books in the 21st century seems to be matched in the marketplace. Most of his works are out of print.

The Nine Billion Names of God. Tales of the White Hart. Childhood’s End. The names of these books still send shivers through me.

Dawn: NASA's Mission to the Asteroids

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007



This comes under the heading of: “I really should have known more about this.”

In September, Dawn will launch toward the asteroid belt. Running on an ion engine, it will have the ability to maneuver into orbit around Vesta, stay there for over a year, then blast off to Ceres and place itself into orbit there.

There are several reasons to love this mission. First of all, the target. I’ve always been interested in the asteroids. It seems to me that while landing on Mars may well be psychologically important, there probably isn’t anything there worth going to. Getting in and out of that gravity well completely defeats the purpose of doing anything useful (as opposed to pure scientific work).

The asteroids, on the other hand, have a negligible gravity well. It is easy to approach them, do your business, than leave again. No atmosphere, no heavy braking, no need to carry or create propellants to lift off again. If you are looking for an economical way of exploring and exploiting our solar system, the place to start is the asteroids.

Vesta is the second largest asteroid, with a diameter of 330 miles – Ceres is the largest at 570 miles. Both are made of different stuff. Indeed, the material making up Vesta is so unique it has been possible to trace meteorites on Earth to it.

The second reason to love the mission is the whole concept of an ion drive. Dawn shoots out a very small stream of particles accelerated to a fantastic speed to keep a constant, very small level of propulsion. With an extremely high specific impulse, the ion engine essentially turns electricity directly into motive force. Perfect for a deep space rocket.

Back in 1992, when I was working in Moscow for Apple, we had the occasion (usually several times a week) to call for a gathering in one place or other. On a particularly cold and snowy night, one of us had located a new bar that actually made realistic margaritas located just outside of the Kropotkinskaya Metro Station – a truly unique pleasure at the time.

At the gathering were three of the four western Apple officers, a couple of Russian friends and colleagues, and a stranger who showed up a couple of times that winter. I don’t remember his name, but he was in his mid-twenties, a little pudgy, and a recent graduate from Tulane with a degree in space policy. He was NASA’s local Moscow rep.

After a couple of margaritas, my science-fiction-inspired youth couldn’t resist peppering him with question after question about what he was doing. After a couple of dozen questions, he finally said, “So let me tell you what I really do here. It’s not that interesting. The Soviet space program isn’t like NASA. There is no central governing body. There are, and were, lots of independent little groups, all doing one thing or another. Some of them are well integrated with the others, most of them aren’t.

“My job is to go through the files…” (physical files, since even the space program wasn’t really computerized) “…find things that are interesting and fax them to my bosses. Then they’ll look them over and say, ‘Yeah, no big deal.’ ‘We knew about that.’ ‘So what?’

“Just once I sent them something and they said, ‘They have a WHAT? Buy one, and send it over here.'” He didn’t tell us what that thing was he’d found. Even with all of the margaritas (I think he’d had three, and clearly wasn’t used to them), he kept quiet about that.

A couple of years after that, I started seeing reports of an ion drive that the Soviets had had since early in their program. Its discovery by the West, as documented here, clearly puts it in the same time sequence as our little party on a very, very cold Moscow night fifteen years ago.

Dawn: NASA’s Mission to the Asteroids

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007



This comes under the heading of: “I really should have known more about this.”

In September, Dawn will launch toward the asteroid belt. Running on an ion engine, it will have the ability to maneuver into orbit around Vesta, stay there for over a year, then blast off to Ceres and place itself into orbit there.

There are several reasons to love this mission. First of all, the target. I’ve always been interested in the asteroids. It seems to me that while landing on Mars may well be psychologically important, there probably isn’t anything there worth going to. Getting in and out of that gravity well completely defeats the purpose of doing anything useful (as opposed to pure scientific work).

The asteroids, on the other hand, have a negligible gravity well. It is easy to approach them, do your business, than leave again. No atmosphere, no heavy braking, no need to carry or create propellants to lift off again. If you are looking for an economical way of exploring and exploiting our solar system, the place to start is the asteroids.

Vesta is the second largest asteroid, with a diameter of 330 miles – Ceres is the largest at 570 miles. Both are made of different stuff. Indeed, the material making up Vesta is so unique it has been possible to trace meteorites on Earth to it.

The second reason to love the mission is the whole concept of an ion drive. Dawn shoots out a very small stream of particles accelerated to a fantastic speed to keep a constant, very small level of propulsion. With an extremely high specific impulse, the ion engine essentially turns electricity directly into motive force. Perfect for a deep space rocket.

Back in 1992, when I was working in Moscow for Apple, we had the occasion (usually several times a week) to call for a gathering in one place or other. On a particularly cold and snowy night, one of us had located a new bar that actually made realistic margaritas located just outside of the Kropotkinskaya Metro Station – a truly unique pleasure at the time.

At the gathering were three of the four western Apple officers, a couple of Russian friends and colleagues, and a stranger who showed up a couple of times that winter. I don’t remember his name, but he was in his mid-twenties, a little pudgy, and a recent graduate from Tulane with a degree in space policy. He was NASA’s local Moscow rep.

After a couple of margaritas, my science-fiction-inspired youth couldn’t resist peppering him with question after question about what he was doing. After a couple of dozen questions, he finally said, “So let me tell you what I really do here. It’s not that interesting. The Soviet space program isn’t like NASA. There is no central governing body. There are, and were, lots of independent little groups, all doing one thing or another. Some of them are well integrated with the others, most of them aren’t.

“My job is to go through the files…” (physical files, since even the space program wasn’t really computerized) “…find things that are interesting and fax them to my bosses. Then they’ll look them over and say, ‘Yeah, no big deal.’ ‘We knew about that.’ ‘So what?’

“Just once I sent them something and they said, ‘They have a WHAT? Buy one, and send it over here.'” He didn’t tell us what that thing was he’d found. Even with all of the margaritas (I think he’d had three, and clearly wasn’t used to them), he kept quiet about that.

A couple of years after that, I started seeing reports of an ion drive that the Soviets had had since early in their program. Its discovery by the West, as documented here, clearly puts it in the same time sequence as our little party on a very, very cold Moscow night fifteen years ago.