Flash Fiction: a complete story
in one thousand or fewer words.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

20th Anniversary of Hubble

The Hubble Telescope had a rocky start, with its budget concerns in Congress and later need for contact lenses, but few regret the project now in view of the outstanding science that was a direct outcome of the space telescope. NASA is now celebrating 20 years of Hubble Telescope science. There, you'll find a small collection of the most outstanding images and videos in the Hubble gallery, along with a Hubble model, "greatest (science) hits," timeline, and a way to send messages to the Hubble team. At the Hubble site, you'll find a much larger collection of Hubble images as well as links to news and their expansive gallery.

If you're interested in the future of NASA science, here is the infrared Webb Telescope site.

Flash Fiction Online SF/Fantasy writers: surely one of the images linked to above will inspire a flash story for us. Get busy!

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Another Death Knell To FTL Space Travel?

According to this The Register article, faster-than-light travel has another obstacle besides relativity: the lowly hydrogen atom. Since that article is quite brief, this post will be all the more brief. As a craft approaches light speed, it compresses what would ordinarily be the sparse hydrogen in space, resulting in incredibly high voltages...more than 1000 times the lethal dose of ionizing radiation. (That's bad.) As the author points out, they'll think of something. SF authors will, for sure.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Take a Black Hole Tour

Science fiction writers for various media like black holes. They solve many story issues (while creating some thorny theoretical ones). If you enjoy reading or writing such inventions, you might appreciate this post.

By way of SlashDot, New Scientist is reporting a simulation published in the American Journal of Physics of what the sky would look like if you entered a black hole. (Warning: do not try this at home; serious bodily injury may result from approaching or falling into a black hole.) The simulation uses actual star data (100,000+ stars). The authors of the American Journal of Physics article (and apparently of the simulation) are Thomas Müller and Daniel Weiskopf at the University of Stuttgart (Universität Stuttgart).

The short New Scientist article includes a video of a simulation run (and then gives options for other related videos). If you are more adventurous or interested, you can download the simulation and simulation data files and run/tweak it yourself. They have a Windows executable and Linux source files.

Here is the New Scientist article and video about a black hole simulator that uses star data. Here is the University of Stuttgart black hole simulator for Windows and Linux.

Ad: Injured falling into a black hole? Call 555-555-5555 to learn about your legal rights. Blackheart & Blackheart, Personal Injury Lawyers.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

You Can Die of a Broken Heart or Boredom

In two unrelated stories, you can die of a broken heart and die from boredom. The boredom connection to death was discovered statistically by University College London. Subjects (civil servants) claiming to be bored were 37 percent more likely to die by the end of the study period.

The boredom mode of death seems less tragic than the broken heart syndrome, described below. Boredom can be cured at work by letting civil servants visit Flash Fiction Online at least twice daily. Flash Fiction can save your life! (The less literary civil servants could watch snippets of English football (flash soccer for Americans.)

The broken heart syndrome is most likely associated with the loss of a loved one or physical trauma. It's not connected with coronary artery disease. Heavily grieving people sometimes suffer a burst of adrenaline that "overwhelms" the heart. The symptoms somewhat mimic a heart attack, but the syndrome differs in an interesting way. As a Japanese researcher discovered, the adrenaline shock deforms the left ventricle, disrupting its ability to function. It takes the shape of a vase-like device, the researcher noted, used by Japanese to trap octopi.

I'm sure some enterprising mystery writer can use these modes of death in a sinister way. Could a fatally boring lecturer be charged with...never mind.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Forget about Jet Packs

How many decades have you been waiting for jet packs? Where are the jet packs? Are they reserved for James Bond?

Forget jet packs. NASA has leapfrogged the jet pack with a personal aircraft, the Electric Icarus, they call it, unofficially, and the Puffin, officially. It has electric motors, stands on its tail with four legs. It does a vertical take-off, hovers, and flies horizontally (of course, or what would be the point?). It's powered by rechargeable lithium phosphate batteries. The pilot lies prone during flight. It has no height ceiling since the engines aren't gasoline and so aren't affected by low oxygen. (The pilot might find a lack of oxygen inconvenient.)

It's a right handsome craft. To see a picture of it and learn more about it, see this Scientific American article on NASA's personal aircraft, the Puffin.

No mention of the estimated cost was given. If you have to ask...forget it. But you can write about it, no charge. You'd make quite a splash arriving in a Puffin to receive your Hugo award.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Space Travel Weasel-Physics in Movies & TV

Satellite Internet has a nice, concise piece with good movie pics about 'Ten Ways Space Travel Isn’t Like Television or the Movies.' Some movie weasel-physics and sociological mistakes are obvious (but still abused in the movies). One was particularly interesting, the affect on the human body of unprotected exposure to space. Do not try this at home:

...Thanks to Henry’s Law the drastic change in pressure would cause all the liquid in your body to evaporate at once, from your saliva to your blood to your urine. Because of this, your body expands to about twice its size, while you slip into unconsciousness (don’t worry, the whole process takes about fifteen seconds). Within a few minutes all the liquids and vapors remaining in your body will be sucked out into the void, leaving a dried husk of a corpse behind....

And we all know this, but it bears repeating since it is so ignored in movies, as it's quite an inconvenience for movie making: aliens don't speak any Earth language or any language that would be easily understood.

Go to the article for the rest of the movie trespasses and the nice pictures.

Here are a few that were not included in that article:

11. Space aliens probably don't go ga-ga over Earthling blonde women. They might even be repulsed by them...except Marilyn Monroe, of course.

12. If you have a replicator, why can't you make anything vital, including dilithium crystals for your warp engines when you're stranded?

13. And speaking of replicators: if you can make Saurian brandy and practically anything out of a Betty Crocker's Cookbook, wouldn't operation of the machine be a little more complicated than a microwave oven? They're way smarter than the ship's battle and navigation computers.

14. Space aliens probably wouldn't side with children over their parents.

15. They probably wouldn't come all the way to Earth just to snag a whale. They'd want some booty.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Amazing Interstellar Travel Method

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has revealed an amazing method of interstellar travel first proposed in 1998 by Dr. Robert Metzger, physicist and SF writer. Dr. Metzger dubbed his scheme the take it with you plan. You must read the article to get all the gory details, but to summarize: you use the sun as an engine using advanced third-law-of-motion techniques to scoot the star along. Naturally, the sun will drag along the rest of the solar system with him. So instead of deciding whether to take your lucky ball cap or your teddy bear on your life's journey, you take everything.

Some details of this solar scooter technology are still in the making. Warning: there is some arithmetic in the article.

As if that were not enough for one post, Dr. Metzger also gives some news you can use about fusion, strange sightings, fuel-less orbital boost, turb0-evolution and table-top black holes.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

You're How Smart? & Femina Sapiens

Here are two articles that I've bundled together because they both speak to gender, which has not gone unnoticed by writers in any genre.

The first is a short Newsweek article on research about the perceived difference in intelligence of women and men. Although the article makes a passing comment that men and women have some respective strengths, the article is not substantially about which gender is more intelligent, but how women and men perceive their differences. Here's the short answer: although the genders basically possess the same intelligence, men perceive themselves, their sons and their fathers as more intelligent than their wives, daughters and mothers. And so do women.

The second article is a thought-provoking piece in the urban-policy magazine City Journal about the struggle between feminists and evolutionary psychologists. It was written by Kay S. Hymowitz who is a contributing editor of City Journal and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Ms. Hymowitz begins the article this way:

In the struggle for equality between the sexes, it keeps coming down to motherhood, doesn’t it?

And later:

Especially galling to feminists has been the field of evolutionary psychology, which proposes that evolution has fundamentally shaped human sexual and reproductive behavior—behavior that often seems to conform to the worst stereotypes.

Although much of the article is shrouded in Darwinism, I don't think the question of Darwin was right or wrong is the point of the article. The research shows how men and women actually behave and the measurable physiological reasons behind their behavior. The linchpin of the author's thoughts seems to be that, in her opinion, women are more invested in raising their children than men, no matter what forces are applied to change that (such as the Swedish failed attempt to equalize investment by men by offering equal paternal and maternal leave from work). She supports this with an anecdote by a dedicated journalist who feels literally addicted to her newborn child. The author also posits that this behavior continuously improves the lives of the subsequent generations of women.

In fact, as neuroscientists and geneticists piece together the human brain’s evolution, it’s becoming clear that, if it’s natural for a woman to go crazy over her babies, it’s also natural for a woman to run the State Department. The same human female brain that’s primed with oxytocin is, like the male brain, a fantastically complex machine, capable of reasoning, innovative problem solving, and maneuvering through hugely varied social environments—whether the PTA, a corporate headquarters, or Congress.

Hey, you writers out there. This is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. Get busy.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Has Science Fiction Run Out of Steam?

Technology writer Stuart Andrews writes for PC Pro about the relationship of science, technology and science fiction, posing the rhetorical question, has science fiction run out of steam? In other words, has science and technology now ahead of the headlights of science fiction writers?

While the rhetorical question is quite interesting, the article focuses principally on equally interesting examples of scientists and technologists who were influenced by science fiction, and the SF writers and stories that influenced them.

Bruce Hillsberg, director of storage systems at IBM Research said:

“...I don’t think most researchers try to invent what they read about or see in movies. Rather, they try to move science or technology forward, and sci-fi can consciously or unconsciously help them think outside the box.”

Examples of these technologists include: Apple’s Steve Wozniak, Netscape’s Marc Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, Google’s Sergey Brin and the GNU Project creator Richard Stallman, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Some of the authors and works cited by Stuart Andrews:

  • Arthur C Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey): computing (with guidance from MIT).
  • John Brunner’s: The Shockwave Rider: "large-scale networks, phreaking, hacking and genetic engineering...."
  • Vernor Vinge’s True Names: immersive worlds and Internet culture
  • Cyberpunk authors William Gibson (Neuromancer), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and others; and virtual reality author NealStephenson (Snow Crash): information technology (IT)

See Stuart Andrews' The sci-fi legends who shaped today's tech for more, including some of the innovations influenced by these and other authors. (Note: the article has four pages.)

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Our Post-Biological Future, Maybe

Futurists, including science fiction and fantasy readers and writers may find this article by William Grassie of the Metanexus Institute useful. The article is a report about the Singularity Summit 2009, and its 26 technophile speakers, including Ray Kurzweil.

According to Ray Kurzweil, a tipping point will occur in three or four decades that will send evolution into hyper mode, resulting in a post-biological civilization with its "blending of super-machines, enhanced brains, and immortal bodies," the Singularity.

Or not.

Kurzweil relies on curing death
through "exponential developments in genomics, nanotechnology, and robotics," and the Law of Accelerating Returns which he reckons is woven into the fabric of the universe. Other technophiles are suspicious of exponential growth, citing natural limitatons, such as unsolvable math problems (which I take to mean computationally infinite problems), and an unwarranted expectation that Moore's Law (doubling of computation power every ten years) will continue and apply to technologies other than computing, such as nanotechnology. The most damning-sounding counter to Kurzweil's vision is software development, which technologists say, in so many words, sucks, perhaps even going in the wrong direction. As a software developer, I find that attitude totally, um, believable.

Here is the article on our theorized post-biological future: "Millennialism at the Singularity: Reflections on Metaphors, Meanings, and the Limits of Exponential Logic," with ample references and links.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

8-Year Reprieve On End of World

Whew! The doom prophets apparently misinterpreted the Mayan calendar, and the apocalypse has been rescheduled for 2020, according to a SlashDot article. That article describes the mistake briefly, but gives a link to a detailed Dutch article on the Mayan apocalypse, in NWT magazine, which is translated by Google. So even if you're not interested in the explanation, it is interesting to see the state of automatic language translation. The translated article is readable, but still a bit wonky.

Here's the teaser quote from the Dutch article as translated by Google:

In the 2012 film that will premiere this month, killed the cities and continents in droves, as the world decays. Yet just a pity that research has shown that the "end times" of December 21, 2012 probably more than two centuries two.

There is no word yet whether the movie distribution company for 2012 is going to recall all their prints of the film to correct the errors.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Astronauts: Houston, Commercial Spaceflight Is No Problem

A baker's dozen of astronauts have penned....no, these guys and gals are the ultimate earlier adopters. (Refueling.)

A baker's dozen of astronauts have texted an endorsement of commercial participation in spaceflight. This statement was aimed directly at NASA. These astronauts feel that NASA's strength is in exploration. Now that near-space access is slightly less than rocket science, the astronauts feel that the commercial sector is more suited to making it commonplace.

The paper cited Sally Ride's statement as capturing their thoughts concisely:

"We would like to be able to get NASA out of the business of getting people to low Earth orbit."

The astronauts participating in the statement were: Buzz Aldrin, Ken Bowersox, Jake Garn, Robert Gibson, Hank Hartsfield, John Herrington, Byron Lichtenberg, John Lounge, Rick Searfoss, Norman Thagard, Kathryn Thornton, Jim Voss and Charles Walker.

Here is The Wall Street Journal's article on the astronaut's endorsement of commercial spaceflight.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Technovelgy: Tracking Science Innovation in Fiction

Technovelgy has an interesting site that chronicles invention in literature. The home page is in blog format, showing the latest inventions or innovations. They usually give an explanation of the technology and links or information about literary references to similar innovations. For example, the latest innovation (at the time of posting) is a concept for SkyTran, an overhead monorail-like transportation system in which the personal cars (pods) magnetically levitate for a smooth ride (or to use recent marketing blather, an improved customer experience). They give reference to bubble cars, from Larry Niven's 1976 novel A World Out of Time.

Technovelgy provides sorting of innovation by time, going back to weightlessness, described by Johannes Kepler and mentioned by an unknown author in 1634. They also sort by category, and of course have a search facility.

This seems like a handy research tool for SF and fantasy writers or readers who want to know how innovative an innovation really is.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Herschel Space Observatory Pictures of Galaxy

The Herschel Space Observatory is still in its performance validation test phase. The ESO has released some "sneak preview" pictures of the Milky Way. The images are composites of five different infrared frequencies, which were then color-coded to give new insight into the structure of the galaxy. Here are the early Herschel Space Observatory images.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ig Nobel Prizes for 2009

The Ig Nobel Prize for 2009 winners have been announced. The Public Health Prize winner was the inventor of a brassier that can be converted--in an emergency more dangerous than not wearing a bra--into two gas masks.

But my favorite is the Physics Prize for determining why pregnant women don't tip over. A close second is the Literature Prize to the Irish police service, for issuing tickets to the greatest traffic offender in Ireland, Prawo Jazdy; the Irish police are a little red-faced because that means Driving License in Polish.

The Peace Prize was just stupid: research to determine if conking someone over the head with a filled bottle of beer was a more dangerous than an empty bottle. (I claim the Philosophy Prize for considering whether a half-empty or half-full bottle is more dangerous.)

See Ig Nobel Prizes for 2009 for more prizes, and the names and nationality of the winners.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Photographic, Zoomable Survey of the Sky

By way of SlashDot.org: Serge Brunier traveled to photographically friendly locations in the northern and southern hemispheres and took 1200 visible-light images of the sky. He and Frédéric Tapissier created a zoomable tapestry of these images. This was associated with the International Year of Astronomy and the European Southern Observatory. Here is the amazing zoomable image of Earth's sky.

A click on the back to menu link there will lead you to other fine Serge Brunier photographic projects.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ten Myths of Science

This post is not about myths of science results, like: The Earth is (Flat, Round). It is about the process of science. This post may be interesting to SF readers and writers who wish to get the terminology straight, and is based on an article by William McComas at Bluffton University.

For example, in Myth 1:Hypotheses Become Theories Which Become Laws, the term hypothesis, though used fairly casually, has three common meanings, and therefore the usefulness of the word is ruined, as explained in Myth 2: A Hypothesis is an educated guess. Three terms suggested by the article writer to replace hypothesis are: generalizing hypotheses (tentative or trial laws), explanatory hypotheses (provisional theories), and predictions. Or, alternatively: speculative law, speculative theory, and predictions. With regards to the terms law and theory:

With evidence, generalizing hypotheses may become laws and speculative theories become theories, but under no circumstances do theories become laws.

Here is a list of the ten myths of science processes:

  • Myth 1: Hypotheses Become Theories Which Become Laws
  • Myth 2: A Hypothesis is an Educated Guess
  • Myth 3: A General and Universal Scientific Method Exists
  • Myth 4: Evidence Accumulated Carefully Will Result in Sure Knowledge
  • Myth 5: Science and its Methods Provide Absolute Proof
  • Myth 6: Science Is Procedural More Than Creative
  • Myth 7: Science and its Methods Can Answer All Questions.
  • Myth 8. Scientists are Particularly Objective
  • Myth 9: Experiments are the Principle Route to Scientific Knowledge
  • Myth 10: All Work in Science is Reviewed to Keep the Process Honest.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mystery/Detective Buffs: the Low State of Forensics

Whether you're a mystery/detective reader or writer, or interested in the criminal justice system, you may be interested in this. Popular Mechanics has a series of articles that generally decry the low state of forensics. In the first general article on the state of forensics ("CSI Myths: The Shaky Science Behind Forensics"), they give anecdotes about convicted persons who were cleared much later using DNA-matching techniques. In one case, a fireman who reported finding a murder victim later committed suicide when the case was reopened for DNA analysis. This fireman was a suspect that the Sheriff's Department had suppressed from official evidence. The wrongly accused man had been convicted on the basis of odontology and the matching of bite marks.

The problem is, forensics methods were developed over time by law enforcement people rather than scientists and were not given scientific scrutiny:

...Congress commissioned the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to examine the state of forensics in U.S. law enforcement. The result was a blistering report that came out this February, noting “serious deficiencies” in the nation’s forensic science system and advocating extensive reforms. It specifically noted that apart from DNA, there is not a single forensic discipline that has been proven “with a high degree of certainty” to be able to match a piece of evidence to a suspect.

In one study in the U.K., experienced finger print analysts were given samples from actual past criminal cases and were given the task of validating the original results. They weren't told that the cases were their own past cases. The results of the reexaminations were often inconsistent with the original results. (Data was also taken on whether knowledge of the result of the first examination affected the results of the second examination.)

In four related articles, Popular Mechanics takes aim at four pillars of criminal prosecution and police work: finger prints, ballistics, trace evidence, and biological evidence.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Science: an Inexact Science

Here are a couple of articles that invite hard science fiction stories, both from PhysOrg.com:

Orbital mechanics
: we're used to quantum physics and other edgy sciences to play badly and make us rewrite the textbooks. But the basics of orbital mechanics go back centuries. PhysOrg reports a Jupiter-like planet (but tens-time larger) with a one-earth day orbital period around its star (i.e., its year is one earth day) . It is very unlikely that we would see such a planet since it most likely would have spiraled into its star. We may see evidence that this is happening to the planet within a decade. Here is the story.

Thermodynamics: in another PhysOrg article, the second law states that entropy can only increase or stay the same, which leads to a paradox concerning the reversal of time. A new theory proposes that entropy can decrease, but it erases any evidence of its existence:

Entropy can decrease, according to a new proposal - but the process would destroy any evidence of its existence, and erase any memory an observer might have of it. It sounds like the plot to a weird sci-fi movie, but the idea has recently been suggested by theoretical physicist Lorenzo Maccone.

This makes it more than difficult for physicist to study it.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Are You Good [checking email] At Multitasking?

Are you good at multitasking? Bad at it? If you're a reader, can you follow a novel while listening to the news or music, and thumping the brats? If you're a writer, can you write the next Great [American, Aussie, Brit,..., Ukrainian] Novel while posing at your real day job?

Stanford University begs to differ. Though unexpected, their test results show that people who consider themselves good multitaskers stink at it, while the more humble folk, who think they're rotten at it, excel by comparison. Here is Stanford University's report on multitasking research.

Their research left out poor souls like Yours Truly, who stink even at single-tasking.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sob Story: Why a Broken Heart Really Hurts

"Sob Story "

Brad Mondopecks took Marla Sobinski by her quivering shoulders. "I want ya. I need ya. Ain't no way I'm ever gonna love ya. But two outta three ain't bad, baby."

Marla's eyes welled up with tears. "My mu-opioid receptor genes really hurt, now."

"Baby, your social attachment system may have borrowed some of the mechanisms of your pain system to maintain social connections."

Marla looked up at Brad's square jaw, and socked it. "They still hurt anyway, you [censored]."

The End

Yes, your broken heart really does hurt. To find out the connection between physical pain and social pain, go to this The Telegraph (UK) article on social pain.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wired's Top 5 Bets for Life in the Solar System

As they say, you can bet on anything. Here are Wired magazine's top 5 guesses about where life might be found in this solar system (yeah, other than Earth).

Their best guess is Saturn's moon Enceladus. Here is a separate Wired article about the possibility of life on Enceladus. According to this article, the smoking gun is:

Particles in a large plume of water vapor emanating from the surface suggest that the moon has an active ocean that circulates life-sustaining nutrients picked up from the rocky interior below.

Other choices include Europa, Mars, Titan and Io. (Yours Truly knows there's life on Mars or else why would there be so many short stories and novels about it?) See the first article for the reasoning behind the choices and some nice images.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Cryptozoology in the Mainstream

Loren Coleman, International Cryptozoology Museum, Portland, Maine, 2005. Photo: Joseph Citro, with permission.

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Ideas is a Q&A with Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist of 50 years. A cryptozoologist searches for and studies undiscovered and recently discovered species.

Yes, Yeti, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster all fall into the category of undiscovered-but-reported creatures. It was clear from the interview that this aspect of cryptozoology, to use his metaphor, is the "Brad Pitt" of cryptids, and is the reason his field has difficulty with acceptance (and why he can't have an interview where that topic does not arise, and why it took six months to convince the IRS that his field was real). But there is serious study in this border area of zoology; many new species are discovered every year, but if they're smaller than a Yeti, they get no news. (BTW, the Blogger spellchecker complains about cryptozoology, suggesting that I change it to cryptography, cryptology or cryptographer.)

Coleman's interests are in the "character actor" species, like the okapi (giraffe family with zebra-like stripes, found in 1901), the coelacanth (fish thought to be extinct for 65 million years, found in 1938), and even smaller critters that will never get a movie contract. It wasn't expressed this way in the interview, but the "window of fame" closes quickly after discovery of a new species, because by definition, once the creature is discovered, it is suddenly in the realm of zoology rather that cryptozoology.

Since cryptozoology has been at the heart of many speculative fiction stories, here is the interview with Loren Coleman, cryptozoologist, courtesy of Flash Fiction Online.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

New Scientist: Gravity and Storytelling

There is a sort of gravity in good storytelling that pulls a reader towards the conclusion, but this post is not about how gravity affects storytelling. It is about gravity and separately about storytelling.

Gravity is so much a part of science fiction...mostly how to sneak past it. Yes, Newtonian physics describes its effects adequately for practical uses, and quantum physics has a placeholder for it in the form of gravitons, but what is it? That still eludes physicists. New Scientist has easily understood, concise (about 300 words) articles on each of seven aspects of gravity: What is it? Why does it only pull? Why is it so weak? Why is it so fine-tuned (friendly towards life)? Why does life need it? Can we counter it? Will quantum theory ever explain it?

We've had quite a few posts on storytelling, including these: 1 2 3. Here are three from New Scientist, which mostly look at storytelling from an evolutionary perspective, storytelling ape (a.k.a. The Science of Discworld II: The Globe by Terry Pratchett), origins of storytelling, and storytelling shaping human minds.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Virtual Worlds Not Just for Gaming

An article at PhysOrg describes some university astrophysicists' presence on Second Life for research collaboration, the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA). Early participants include scientists from CIT, Drexel, MIT and Princeton and presently offer seminars and lectures, there, and have larger ambitions for collaborative research. While the social sciences may seem a better fit, MICA believes the improved mechanisms for visualization are a great advantage for physical scientists.

Speaking of the reluctance of the academic community to take virtual worlds seriously because of their association with gaming, Djorgovski said:

“This is incorrect; while these technologies got developed largely by the gaming industry, and there is certainly a lot of gaming going on, virtual worlds are something bigger: a general platform for all kinds of activities, ranging from entertainment to purely professional. Just like the Web itself.”

We've covered collaborative tools for writers and/or artists in the past, here at Flash News: Etherpad, Rate My Drawings, TiddlyWiki, and Whrrl. Virtual worlds seem like a potential for a roll-your-own collaborative tool for reading groups, writers and artists. (But don't forget to do some actual reading and writing.)

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Meteorite Capture on Telescope Camera

It's near impossible to photograph a meteorite image with a camera having a relatively wide-angle lens. However, a kid in Baltimore (PA) captured one with a telescope with attached camera. Here is a blog with pictures of the meteorite. He's gotten a lot of interest from meteorite hunters and scientists.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More Space News

There has been quite a bit of space news lately because of yesterday's 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Here is an eclectic collection of related stories:

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Current and Near-Future Space Travel

This panorama of current and near-future space travel, provided by The Independent (UK), gives a view of the current upcoming endeavors and tensions of space travel, including lunar visits and to "infinity and beyond," to quote a certain cartoon character. The players are the U.S. and her partners, Russia and her partners, the Chinese, and commercial concerns such as Virgin Galactic. In some cases, such as the International Space Station, participants in the new space race are contestants and partners at the same time.

China is the new player, with an independent intention to land on the moon at about the same time that the U.S. intends to return there. Of course there are budget concerns.

However, space travel is not pretty. When did you ever see Captain Kirk excuse himself from the bridge for personal plumbing issues? "You have the bridge, Mr. Spock. I haffa go potty....Emergency! Scottie to the potty...Scottie to the potty...it's broken." In the now-crowded International Space Station, the poor near-spacemen and near-spacewomen are suffering such a catastrophe, with no convenience store or McD in a nearby orbit. (Were you aware that the ISS has a orbiting pay-potty?)

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Elemental Copernicus

According to New Scientist, Nicolaus Copernicus may have a new super-heavy element named after him, if Copernicium is accepted by the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry. Copernicus is known, among other things, for declaring that Earth rotates around the sun.

Ironically, Copernicium neutrons rotate around electrons. Well...wouldn't it be ironic *if* the did. (Cough.)

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

First Hi-Res LRO Photos of Lunar Landing Sites

NASA has released the first of the hi-resolution photos of the lunar landing sites, from the LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter), showing artifacts of Apollo missions there. On these first photos, evidence of the artifacts is mainly through bright objects with long shadows of lunar modules Eagle, Falcon, Orion, Challenger and Antares, and areas of human footpaths. The Flat Earth Society will not be impressed. Later photos will have three times the resolution, so details will be more apparent and The Flat Earth Society will be three times less unimpressed.

The primary LRO mission is to identify future landing sites.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Blob that Ate the North Slope

We don't get a lot of Alaska Daily News stories here at FFO, but we're always glad to. This story was reported by ADN, of course, but also Boing Boing, SlashDot and many others. It is too B-movie-ish not to report it at FFO.

There is a large blob of "arctic goo" floating in the cold waters off of Barrow. Here's what it isn't: oil/petroleum. It does seem organic but not too threatening. No one in area recalls such an event in the past, so they're anxiously awaiting test results from goo samples. Boing Boing said that the blob ate a bird, but FFO does not have confirmation from the bird's relatives. So put that in the rumor category.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Buzz Aldrin's Starmap for NASA

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin is not happy with NASA's present agenda. He thinks they're trying to repeat the past. He suggests focusing on more forward-thinking goals. Here are his immediate concerns:

...the five-year gap between the shuttle’s scheduled retirement next year and the debut of the Ares I rocket and the Orion spacecraft, which will take us no further than the moon—a place we’ve already been. Aldrin thinks NASA can do better. His plan is to scrap Ares I, stretch out the remaining six shuttle flights and fast-track the Orion to fly on a Delta IV or Atlas V. Then, set our sites on colonizing Mars.

In this many-faceted article in Popular Mechanics, Aldrin (now 80) speaks of a few regrets, mainly not speaking out against what he thought were bad decisions while an active astronaut. He speaks of the short-term issues created by the five-year gap between the shuttle program’s retirement and arrival of its Ares I and Orion replacements.

Medium-term issues that he addresses include
returning to the moon with an international consortium rather than a unilateral program; and developing an affordable runway lander craft based on something like the Air Force's robot X-37B spacecraft scheduled for orbital flight this year. He'd like to commercialize use of such a spacecraft.

Aldrin's more far-reaching plans include:

Develop [an] Exploration Module for manned flights of up to three years to comets, asteroids and Martian moon Phobos, where robots prep nearby Red Planet outpost for human settlement.

To see the details of these proposal, see Buzz Aldrin's article in Popular Mechanics.

Bonus!: Here is some unfortunate, related news that could retire one of the shuttles early, worsening the short-term issues that Buzz Aldrin addressed. In a bizarre mishap during Atlantis' last flight, a floating bolt was lodged between a windshield and a dash. It can't be easily removed and may take up to six months to disassemble that part of the craft to repair the situation. They may choose to retire the craft early, instead.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How to Track Vampires, Space Aliens, Shoes and Wasps

How to Track Vampires, Space Aliens, Shoes and Wasps: if you're going to track all these with the same gadget, then you'll need something small. Here is the world's smallest RFID (radio frequency Identification) device. Not long ago, they were finger-sized. Now, they're mote-in-you-eye sized. The article explains the technology and shows photographs of some mote-in-your-eye RFID devices made by Hitachi.

Wal-Mart put the price pressure on RFID technology years ago by demanding that pallets of inventory arrive at stores with RFID tags, so that the pallets can be easily identified for content and location. Expensive inventory with legs (such as expensive shoes) can be easily tracked. A customer can be tracked as well, to learn his/her buying habits. There are many other uses, including the ones SF writers will imagine.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tiny Microbes to Take over Box Offices?

From Science Daily: tiny microbes that have been frozen in glacial ice were warmed up very slowly (over nearly a year's time) and now have begun to replicate. The idea behind this is that these antique microbes that are up 1/50th the size of E. coli, may give clues to extraterrestrial life, since some space aliens are stuck with really crappy planets. That's why they're always coming here (in movies) to our verdant planet and trying to take over Washington, DC, even though Venice would provide more water habitats and hiding places.

For the writers, here are 224 titles of extraterrestrial-themed movies, if you want to mine this story and that list for a new story ideas.

I did mention E. coli. Here is a list of eco-horror films.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Flash Non-Fiction: Warpships

Do you have a guilty pleasure in reading or writing faster-than-light (FTL) SF stories? Here is something to take the edge off your guilt.

Dr. Richard Obousy, a physicist with M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics from Leicester and Baylor, has looked at some avenues for FTL travel and has made some buzz with a diversity of publications, such as Discovery Channel (online), EE Times (Electrical Engineering), Science Daily and, most importantly, FlashFictionOnline.com. Here is Obousy's warp drive summary from his web site, but I'll go with the Discovery Channel explanation because (this is a bit technical) they have pretty pictures.

In a nutshell, the idea is to harness the sizable dark energy in the universe to distort spacetime in the vicinity of your warp-drive ship.

...the extra dimensions as predicted by superstring theory could be shrunk and expanded by the warp drive through manipulation of local dark energy. At the front of the warpship spacetime would be compressed, and it would expand behind.

That's how I'd do it. Here is an interview that preceded the above-linked slide show article.

FFO Skeptic's Report: to be fair, I've found a completely unqualified skeptic (moi), to give balance to this article: dark matter and dark energy are the asterisks attending quantum mechanics that should scare the pants or skirt off theorists. Enough said.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dune-Like Water Harvesting

Slashdot made note of a Science Daily article that reports a new air-humidity water-harvesting technology that is especially useful in the desert. It is energy self-sufficient and harvests potable water.

In the Negev desert in Israel, for example, annual average relative air humidity is 64 percent – in every cubic meter of air there are 11.5 milliliters of water.

The technology is applicable to community as well as personal water-harvesting devices. The Science Daily article did not mention the science fiction connection to the idea, but the Slashdot article writer mentioned Frank Herbert's "Fremen collecting water from the air via moisture traps and dew collectors," in his Dune novel.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

History of UFOlogy

Oh, no, a UFO article right after yesterday's post on the release of British UFO records under their Freedom of Information Act? Yes, but this is coincidental and both articles are about the culture of UFOlogy. (I'll keep enough playdough around to model a mountain, just in case.)

This article by Robert Sheaffer, a columnist for the Sceptical Inquirer Magazine is about the history of UFOlogy, noting the trends of UFO sightings. One of the earliest sightings was quite telling. The sighting was of a boomerang-shaped object which was reported to skip across water like a saucer. Soon after, there were a rash of reports describing "flying saucers," which were amusingly inaccurate copycat sightings, but which had great impact on future sightings and fiction writing.

The author describes several phases or seasons of UFO events: In The Beginning (1947—1973), Abductions Gradually Replace Sightings (1966—1995), “New Age” vs. “Science Fiction” UFOlogy, UFO Crashes and Retrievals (1980—present). Interestingly, the author suggests that the New Age wing is inhabited mostly by women, while the Science Fiction wing is inhabited mostly by men. Other sections include "Conspiracies Abound," and "Promotion of UFO Belief Today." In the latter section, the author notes that UFO belief (or at least interest) is mostly a media activity to promote movies. There hasn't been a UFO best seller in 20 years.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Can Robots Go Berserk?

"If man sticks his hand where it wasn't meant to go, it will get cut off!"

Why would a supposedly intelligent network mind waste so much energy and resources indulging in cinematically grandiose personal combat in grim wastelands with loud music?

If a robot runs a task-specific program, its capabilities are very limited. It is not able to deal with any of the complex scenes in Terminator. However, robots that are capable of autonomous mental development are totally different.

The above snippets are from experts commenting on the plausibility of a Terminator movie-scenario. The main issues were the robots gone amok, time travel, and a pesky Skynet computer network taking over the world. This article is from H+ Magazine, found by way of Slashdot.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

SF Writers at Dept. of Homeland Security Conference

Cell phones that detect virus infections, networking the information so that a spread can be mapped. A five-minute DNA tester. Science fiction writers, including Greg Bear and Catherine Asaro (who holds a PhD in physics) attended a U.S. Department of Homeland Security conference. The H. S. folks weren't necessarily looking for gadget ideas, but wanted to think out of their box. Says Harry McDavid, chief information officer for Homeland Security's Office of Operations Coordination & Planning:

"We're stuck in a paradigm of databases...How do we jump out of our infrastructure and start conceptualizing those threats?

Here is the article from the Washington Post.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Axis of Evil in Space?

This by way of SlashDot.org.

Okay, what is the axis of evil? A Ronald Reagan notion? Yes, but that's a different one. This one is a disturbing disturbance in what's supposed to be the even (isotropic) distribution of heat in the universe. Noted by Kate Land and João Magueijo of Imperial College London, they called it the axis of evil for what it meant to the beloved standard model of the universe. This summary is from an article in New Scientist "not long ago" in 2007.

Voyager 1 and 2 to the rescue.

Just last year, researchers viewed data from the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft when the craft passed through this area. The researchers noted that "far from being spherical as had been expected, the termination shock is asymmetric, distorted by some unknown forces." Now some think this apparent malign distribution is actually a phantom caused by a much closer sharp change in "pressure, temperature, density, magnetic and electric field properties of space," called the termination shock. The termination shock occurs where our solar system's outflowing supersonic solar winds are slowed to subsonic speeds by interstellar winds. This has a lens effect that distorts our view.

Don't you love Voyager 1 and 2? I think that since Voyager 1 became V*ger and gained self-consciousness, she is trying especially hard to please us back home. Voyager 2, a jealous lass, is trying very hard to keep up with her older sister.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Artificial Ethics and Intelligence

Isaac Asimov paved the way for science fiction writers with respect to artificial ethics with his three laws of robotics, but others are taking a serious look at this topic as well as artificial consciousness. Having written an unreadable novel based on the latter topic, I have found interesting this review on SlashDot of Artificial Ethics: Moral Conscience, Awareness and Consciencousness (sic) by Jacques Pitrat. I assume that misspelling is Amazon.com's rather than the author's. (Asimov was more concise with his titles and they were easier to spell, I Robot.)

Here's the reviewer's pitch for the book, though it is $80 and not available, yet:

For people interested in robotics, ethics or science fiction, J.Pitrat's book give interesting food for thought by explaining how indeed artificial systems can be conscious, and why they should be, and what that would mean in the future.

Here is the SlashDot article. The book provides insights into artificial consciousness and ethics, the scope of the software effort required, and strategies for success.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Best/Worst Science in Film/TV

SF Signal Mind Meld has a collection of opinions about the best and worst science in film and television. You can add your own comments if you wish. There is presently an eclectic collection of opinion, with fans, a Technology Review editor, a woman who has rejected several of my stories (okay, if you must know, Cat Rambo), SF great Ben Bova (but he doesn't watch TV), a former CERN physicist...eclectic.

Bonus: a grotesque chair made from grizzly bears (note the six legs), presented to US President Johnson in 1865. Keep reading...bonuses are always possible.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Raspberry Way Galaxy?

What does the Milky Way Galaxy taste like? Not milk. Raspberries, perhaps. While looking for life-indicating organic compounds (amino acids) in space, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy found ethyl formate instead, the chemical "responsible for the flavour of raspberries."

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Heinlein Prize: Science Fiction to Science Fact

SF Scope has a story about the Heinlein Prize Trust's award in its microgravity research competition to the University of Texas Health Science Center's Division of Nanomedicine. They will be granted a slot for their experimentation on co-sponsor SpaceX's Dragon low-earth orbiting spacecraft in its micro-gravity environment. The research time will also receive a $25000 prize and a trip to NASA for the launch.

The winning project is focused on the development of the science and technology for controlled, long-term drug release. This research, conducted in space, could yield important cancer treatments here on Earth.

For more information about the SpaceX Dragon, go here. SpaceX has some nice renderings of the craft in its proposed mission.

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Fast Track to Detecting Alien Life

Some NIST scientists think they have an simpler way of detecting extraterrestrial life remotely. They note that many molecules have a handedness called chirality. Like human hands, mirror images of chiral molecules can not superimpose. (Try to put a left glove on a right hand.)

A planet with no life would tend to have an even distribution of chiral molecules, detectable by its effect on light. A planet with life would change that balance since life replicates itself. Things containing molecules like amino acids and DNA create like-handed amino acids. The scientists think they could outfit space-borne telescopes to make this measurement.

Writing assignment: invent a chirality ray gun to make sure those aliens don't come here, say, on July 4th.

For a description of this by someone who understands it, go here.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Two on Physics: Stephen Hawking Very Ill & Your Quantum Mind

I. Professor Hawking Very Ill

Stephen Hawking is very ill according to CNN, BBC News and other news services. He is in a hospital in Cambridge, England, suffering from motor nueron disease. He is a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at nearby Cambridge University.

Professor Hawking managed to appeal to a wide audience with his accessible trade books on physics, such as A Brief History of Time, while advancing the edge of theoretical physics.

II. Your Quantum Mind

It is not clear to me how abstract the author is being in the PhysOrg article when she says that quantum theory is perhaps a good model of human decision making. Using games, the researchers showed that humans often made less-than optimum decisions, even when a more likely option was clearly perceived.

In one example, people played a simple even-chance game. Afterwards, they were asked if they would play again to win $200 or lose $100. Their answer depended on the outcome of the previous game:

One-third of the participants were told that they had won the first game, one-third were told they had lost the first game, and the remaining one-third did not know the outcome of their first game. Most of the participants in the first two scenarios chose to play again (69% and 59%, respectively), while most of the participants in the third scenario chose not to (only 36% played again).

The article gave another example of a "defecting" game, where participants could guarantee a win through cooperation but either partner could defect. The outcome seemed to have more with giving the partner the benefit of the doubt than probability. Quantum theory is now gaining attention from cognition researchers where probability theory was only considered.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

NASA Kicked Colbert in his Asymmetrical Seating System?

I've ignored this story for some time, but now it has concluded. NASA won't name the new International Space Station module after comedian Steve Colbert, the top choice in the unwise attempt to select a name through public voting. They had to go to the eighth entry in the grotesque list to find "Tranquility," after the Apollo 11 landing site, Sea of Tranquility:

  • GAIA
  • XENU

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Spam Killing the Planet?

Everything has a carbon footprint these days. Now spam does. I've read before what enormous energy drains some of the data centers are with their gazillion computers running. If there is, say, one spam message per real message, then the data centers have to double their storage capacity. (Those are example figures only.) Spam has real and significant impact of the receiving end and costs the spammers little to nothing.

[As a sidebar, I'd be perfectly willing to pay a penny per email, if the spammers had to also. That would mean nothing to me but would break the economy of spam.]

Back to the story: McAfee commissioned a study, the outcome of which was that a spam message as a footprint of 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide. Not much, except that the report says that there are 62 trillion spam messages/year, and equates that total to the energy use of 2.4 million homes (33 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity) or 3.1 million cars (2 billion gallons of gasoline) . Here is the story and the actual report (PDF).

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I (strike that) We are an Ecosystem

We might not be amused, but we are not singular, according to Seed Magazine. We don't need to get all puffed up, though. We are full to the brim with critters. We are so profoundly filled with symbiotic bacteria that (who?) have jacked a ride with us that we are an ecosystem. A new area of medicine and biology has emerged to study the microbiome.

They are not simply random squatters, but organized communities that evolve with us and are passed down from generation to generation. Through research that has blurred the boundary between medical and environmental microbiology, we’re beginning to understand that because the human body constitutes their environment, these microbial communities have been forced to adapt to changes in our diets, health, and lifestyle choices. Yet they, in turn, are also part of our environments, and our bodies have adapted to them. Our dinner guests, it seems, have shaped the very path of human evolution.

Okay, get your Royals out and a brand new ribbon and start your stories. Here are some titles to get you started: We Are Not Alone, Aliens Within, The March of the Microbiome, Plan 9 from Inner Self, The Day My Spleen Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Bacterial Kind, Logan's Run to the Men's Room, Mary Shelley's Frankenmicrobiome, We Are Legend, Incredible Bacterial Hulk, Hellmicrobe, and my personal favorite, Soylent Green Bacteria.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Poor Lost Little Robot

An experiment: will strangers in New York City's Washington Square Park nudge a helpless little robot (a tweenbot) in the right direction along its way from one corner of the 10-acre park to the opposite corner? Possible potholes in this quest: potholes (of course), curbs, benches, trees, helpful but direction-challenged strangers, vandals, critters (including children), angry robot monkeys, etc. Kacie Kinzer's project web page includes a video of helpful strangers.

There must be a flash fiction story here. Get busy.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Science Fiction/Science Fantasy

One fantasy for physicist and mathematicians is to work out the math to show that something is possible, mathematically, regardless of the practicality of it. Yes it can be done, at the cost of the GNP of Earth for the next 12000 years...and then the hard part starts.

Warp drives: yeah, Star Trek. This physicist thought he might have the numbers worked out. To use slashdot's summary:

...while relativity prevents faster-than-light travel relative to the fabric of spacetime, it places no restriction on the speed at which regions of spacetime may move relative to each other. So a small bubble of spacetime containing a spacecraft could travel faster than the speed of light, at least in principle.

But when quantum effects are considered, it falls apart. Dang.

And in a different but quasi-related slashdot article, a video simulation of what falling through a black hole would look like.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Food Chain Mechanism and Global Warming

"I think we are seeing the last gasps of ocean iron fertilisation as a carbon storage strategy," says Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University.

Let's say you want to seed the ocean bottom with iron as an carbon storage mechanism to fight global warming. Sorry, nature won't let you. That darn food chain thing gets in the way. There is probably a speculative fiction story here. I thought of it first, but I'm busy with my translation of Beowulf into Vulcan.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Archive of NASA's Astronomy Picture-of-the-Day

By way of Ansible, here is a fantastic archive of NASA's Astronomy pictures of the day, starting in mid-1995 to the present. Bump up your ISP account and enjoy.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Whew! Stratospheric Bugs (Might) Not (Be) Alien

There are some critters in Earth's stratosphere, according to Indian scientists. They live a harsh life, not quite Earthly and not quite space-borne. They definitely are not alien...if you ask the right person. Here is the concise story.

Here is sort of a related story. Influenza pandemics can be caused by space viruses in comet dust coincident with heavy sunspot cycles. The conclusion: definitely (not).

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Friday, March 20, 2009


Finally, a blog article you can sink your teeth into. A Venetian archeological dig unearthed a vampire woman from a 16th century burial ground associated with a plague. The woman had a brick stuck in her jaw:

...evidence, experts say, that she was believed to be a vampire. The unusual burial is thought to be the result of an ancient vampire-slaying ritual. It suggests the legend of the mythical bloodsucking creatures was tied to medieval ignorance of how diseases spread and what happens to bodies after death, experts said.

Well, let's analyze this. Perhaps these scientists have succumbed to logical fallacy. Maybe in 16th century Venice, it was fashionable for women to have bricks in their mouth.

"Vampires don't exist, but studies show people at the time believed they did," said Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University who studied the case over the last two years.

Oh my, where do they come up with these scientists? Dude, if there weren't any vampires, how would we know enough about them to write so many vampire stories?

Medieval texts show the belief in vampires was fueled by the disturbing appearance of decomposing bodies, Borrini told The Associated Press by telephone.

What's your point?

To kill the undead creatures, the stake-in-the-heart method popularized by later literature was not enough: A stone or brick had to be forced into the vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death, Borrini said.

So now the dude is contradicting himself. If they don't exist, you can't kill them. I've had enough of this. If you want to read the rest of this travesty, here it is...if you're not afraid.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Invisibility Cloak?

Some scientists have made some semi-serious noise about a Star Trek-ish invisibility cloak. The proposed system would comprise the object to be cloaked and a complementary object to cloak the first object (mutually, I suppose). It is a sort of light-canceling notion. However, the practicality is limited to one "wavelength." (Here, the HK scientist is referring to wavelength broadly, such as the wavelength of visible light.) So, as the author suggests, if you cloak an object in the visible light spectrum, an x-ray radar could still see it. A little more work is needed.

I have similar problems with my own invisibility project, too. For example, if I go into a room full of runway models, I'm totally invisible to them, but not to their bodyguards.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Americans Weak on Science--That's Good!

Oh, I'm getting annoyed at reports like this that say Americans are weak in science education. They're saying that as if it were a bad thing, but it's not. Here is my reasoning: something that is false is a fiction, right? So Americans who are weak in science and easily write science fiction. The dumber they are, the better the science fiction. See? Where were these journalists educated, anyway?

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Number of Chimps to Write a Novel Lowered

I read with interest a story about a chimp that executes hours-long nefarious plots against human visitors to a zoo. After scratching my ribs in contemplation for a while, it occurred to me that the previous estimate of how many chimps it would take to pound out a novel on a typewriter, 1,000,000, is no longer accurate. For one thing, where are you going to get 1,000,000 typewriters these days?

My estimate, after due consideration to new evidence, is that it would take no more than 1500 chimps to pound out a novel, if you put this chimp in charge. Here is my reasoning: even humans can't pound out a novel if they have no plot. But the chimp in the story can plot. That is a major hurdle that has been overcome by modern chimps. If you can plot, then you can write a novel.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Pluto's Status as a Planet Revolved

My mystery of yesterday,Why didn't we ask Pluto if she wanted to be in the United Planets?, was answered in part by the senior legislative body of Illinois, herewith:

RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE OF THE NINETY-SIXTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, that as Pluto passes overhead through Illinois’ night skies, that it be reestablished with full planetary status, and that March 13, 2009 be declared “Pluto Day” in the State of Illinois in honor of the date its discovery was announced in 1930.

It seems the discoverer of Pluto was an Illinois native and the state took official offense at Pluto's demotion, though the Wikipedia article says he was a Kansan at the time of the discovery, so, maybe Illinois overstepped its bounds a bit. Perhaps Kansas and Illinois should convene a joint session to resolve this. The Illinois Senate must have had their own joint session....never mind.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Grist for the Speculative Fiction Mill--Unsolved Scientific Puzzles

This fine Times Online (UK) article summarizes and provides article links for some of the unsolved scientific puzzles. These puzzles might provide you some mortar for your SF or fantasy world-building. Some of the questions involve dark matter, the ignorance of certain spacecraft that refuse to follow known physical laws, constants that aren't constant enough, what's the deal with cold fusion?, What's the deal with life?, what's the deal with sex?...and more.

As Spock would say, "Fascinating." But I have my own questions:

  • Why didn't we let Pluto vote on whether it wanted to be in the United Planets?
  • Why don't we send Geraldo to the moon to find out, once and for all, whether the moon landing was a hoax?
  • Seriously: how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin? Related: if the number is large, what is the composition of an angel? Are dark angels composed of dark matter?

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Transhumanism: Point & Counterpoint

This post spans two issues of the Global Spiral, the online magazine associated with the Metanexus Institute, a group of scholars who study the “human meaning and purpose,” using transdisciplinary approach to science and religion. I thought this would be of interest to many writers since these topics span so much of literature.

The current issue of Global Spiral is an internal retort to their previous special issue on transhumanism, in which their guest authors expressed concerns about transhumanism, the idea that humans can transform themselves to superhuman (the guest editor would say posthuman) status through accelerated cultural evolution and technical means, such as bioengineering, medicine, cognitive studies and other disciplines.

Here is the guest editor's introduction to the first special issue on transhumanism, and here is the issue.

This is the stuff of many science fiction and fantasy novels about modified humans, described with certain level of angst by serious scholars in science and theology...cybernetics, genetics, nanotechnology.... (It is worth going there if only to see the incredible Tiffany stained glass piece.)

“If one accepts that transhumanism is more than an ideology, indeed a philosophy, one must look carefully at its understanding of the human, of biology, and of the relationship between technology and culture.”
Here is the guest editor's introduction to the current issue, which, as stated, is an internal retort to the first. Here is the issue. (This is the February issue if you go there after the next issue is published.)

“Transhumanists counter that nature’s gifts are sometimes poisoned and should not always be accepted. Cancer, malaria, dementia, aging, starvation, unnecessary suffering, cognitive shortcomings are all among the presents we wisely refuse.”

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Gary Westfahl on the Sci-Fi's Pitfalls of Prophesy

Here is a terrific discussion by Gary Westfahl about why SF fails to predict the future. He framed his thoughts with seven fallacies, each with examples and explanations:
  1. The Fallacy of Universal Wealth: all governments and individuals in the future will be wealthy....
  2. The Fallacy of Replacement: once we develop an advanced scientific method to do something, we will immediately abandon all the old methods....
  3. The Fallacy of Inevitable Technology: if there emerges a new, technological way to do something, it will inevitably be adopted....
  4. The Fallacy of Extrapolation: an identified trend will always continue in the same manner, indefinitely into the future....
  5. The Fallacy of Analogy: a new technology will be adopted and employed in the same manner as a related form of previous technology.
  6. The Fallacy of Universal Stupidity: people in the future will be capable of making incredibly stupid mistakes....
  7. The Fallacy of Drama: major changes will occur in a quick and noticeable fashion, as a result of a single major event or of the actions of a single individual....

The fallacies thus outlined, Westfahl goes on to describe "current science fiction predictions about humanity's future and debunk them on the basis of the detectable fallacies that have engendered them." The predictions involve: the conquest of space, human cloning, asteroid impacts, a world controlled by multinational corporations, the depletion of all natural resources, the decline of marriage, and the tuned-in, virtual citizenry.

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Evolution of the English Language

Here are some tips about how to preserve the freshness of your stories by avoiding words that will disappear from the language. (You especially might want to check your trunk novels.)

Scientists at the University of Reading have discovered that 'I', 'we', 'who' and the numbers '1', '2' and '3' are amongst the oldest words, not only in English, but across all Indo-European languages. What's more, words like 'squeeze', 'guts', 'stick', 'throw' and 'dirty' look like they are heading for history's dustbin - along with a host of others....

Thanks to the recent availability of an IBM supercomputer, they've been able to look back 30,000 years and predict winners and losers of the English language.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gender Divide: Perception of Beauty

Occasionally, the assessments of a story in the Flash Fiction Online slush pile will become divided along gender lines. Here is an article about serious research of gender differences in the perception of beauty. I don't know that one can or should extrapolate this research on visual beauty to literary quality, but it might be a fun exercise. A snippet from the article:

In men, images they consider to be beautiful appear to activate brain regions responsible for locating objects in absolute terms — x- and y-coordinates on a grid. Images considered beautiful by women do the same, but they also activate regions associated with relative location: above and behind, over and under.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Extremophiles and God Particles

Two articles of science to spark your imagination and world-building. Both leads for these are by way of slashdot.

The first, Extremophiles in Kamchatka, is a set of four annotated photo albums about a joint American and Russian scientific expedition to study natural life in extreme conditions in the Russian Far East, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and NASA. Some of the life they studied thrives in scalding steam baths of 90 degrees C/194 degrees F. Even if you're not interested in the science, the photography is excellent.

The second story illustrates the intense rivalry of science, the race for the "God particle" (Higgs boson). In a nasal voice: "The European Cern Lab's LHC is ahead by two lengths. Fermilab is holding tight. But wait! Cern has stumbled. Oh no! It's limping. Fermilab is catching up quickly. Will Cern regain to its stride soon enough to win the Nobel Prize? Stay in your seats, ladies and gentlemen."

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Friday, February 13, 2009

When Satellites Collide

I frequently see SF writers ask what-if questions on writing forums like Hatrack to check their science. What if an asteroid strikes the moon and moves it to a higher orbit? What would be the effect on Earth?

I've seen several questions about explosions in space. You've probably seen recent news about two large satellites colliding in space over Siberia. Follow-up stories about this incident might be an opportunity to get a general grounding, so to speak, on the terminology and physics of collisions in space. This one also gives insight on the scattering of debris in the presence of planetary gravity.

I don't want to leave out fantasy writers from this article. On the same writing forums, fantasy writers often ask about creatures, magic, weapons, medieval history and the like. These writers might want to follow the 111th Congress. (Just a joke, please.)

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To the Moon, Alice! Which one Ralph?

You have plenty of time (until 2020) to get your anthology story up to speed for the joint NASA/ESA interplanetary mission to a moon. But which one? Saturn's Titan? or Jupiter's Europa? Both have tantalizing scientific prospects, and the Europa option could include a Russian lander (more intrigue for your story). On the other hand, those sirens of Titan....

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Science of DeLorean in "Back to the Future"

Just how good was the DeLorean in Back to the Future? Here is a snippet of a look at the science of the time and space travel of the slightly modified car:

"A major issue of freely traveling within time while limiting one’s self to a local reference frame–say, a California mall parking lot–is that the reference frame itself isn’t stationary. As an illustration...."

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Transition of NASA to Obama

The NY Times has this article about the transition of NASA to Obama.

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