Archives for category: space

Growing up, I lived out in the country. The only light on warm summer nights came from lightning bugs. I never even heard the words “light pollution”. It was a special kind of paradise, though I didn’t realized it until I grew up, moved away, and looked up into a field of darkness overhead. It was as if the familiar blanket of stars had been covered by a blackout curtain from WWII. Only this one was so all encompassing that it blotted out the entire sky.

Memories of a completely unobstructed night sky are with me still, vivid and personal. From the time when I had grown enough to be outside by myself, chasing butterflies by day and lightning bugs by night only to marvel at their wonders, I would often come to a halt in the driveway, where a big patch of night sky was unobstructed by trees, stand still, look up, and up and up.

I wouldn’t discover science fiction for several more years. Much more time would pass before I even thought of writing…anything. Even so, I was drawn to the stars. Instinctively, I felt a kinship. A sense of belonging to something beyond my house, the farm it was connected to, the greater wide world of continents and oceans. Even the big, blue daytime sky. There was up, and up, higher, higher still, and then there were stars. Oddly, I’ve always been aware of all of that up, up, higher, highest nature of the sky. Even in full daylight, I knew there was more I couldn’t see, but that patience would bring back to me when the sun disappeared and blue turned to black. 

Unfettered starlight seemed like magic to a little child. On a clear night, the entire field of vision available to an up turned face is sprinkled with light that appears along a range from dust to nearly opaque white swaths. Maturity brings with it the understanding that the most dense parts are what we can see of our own Milky Way. Imagine…the miraculous naked human eye can perceive the edge of our galaxy, though our minds can hardly take it in. Glorious is a word I learned to use early in life, just from the simple act of looking skyward.

Though I’m in a place less isolated now, I still find myself pausing after getting out of the car at night. Remembering those childhood hours spent standing still, tilting back my head…staring and staring, drinking in my fill of the knowledge that I was watching outer space, filled with wonder and awe, again I pause to stand beneath the black and silver and gold of the heavens. 

It’s different here, but a dedicated dreamer can use a hand to block out an interfering streetlight and see as much as there is available. Much of the Milky way is lost to me, but Orion is with me still. I’ve seen comets and the occasional meteor. There is enough of vast star filled space to thrill me and rekindle the particular sense of awe borne only of staring long and hard and deeply into the star sprinkled darkness that’s always above us, even when our own personal star shines so brightly that no other light can compete.

I started thinking about those childhood nights of stargazing accompanied only by the sound of my own breathing and the rustle of wind through cornstalks, when I came across this awesome article that gives the best, and certainly most eloquent, directions for stargazing I’ve ever seen. I wanted to share it, so it may help others looking skyward find their way through the outer reaches of our home.

Reality and science fiction are in danger of merging…emphasis on danger. When I read this Endgadget article , my “Danger, Will Robinson!” mental alarm went off. When I saw the image of the new kind of robot, my mental hand-wringing Doctor Smith snickered diabolically…knowingly…I feel ill.

But, seriously, folks…we live in amazing, and potentially terrifying, times. I love geekery of all sorts, but there really is a little voice in the back of my head that gasps sometimes at the speed with which we slouch toward Babylon 5. On the one hand it’s all so exciting and presently futuristic. Every day there’s new news about ways we’re beginning to move beyond our dreams, beyond the things we even knew to dream of such a short while ago. 

I read recently that people on Mars will need to be able to 3D print their food. That an EM engine that shouldn’t exist actually does…or may soon. Images of the rings of Saturn have become an everyday Twitter occurance. Voyager, like Elvis, has left the building, only Voyager’s building is the Solar System. And now people, brilliant people, are creating robots that are very much like us. Even to the extent of inperfections in their robotty way. How better to emulate humanity than by being inevitably flawed?

Cool, right? 

So, where does the danger part come in? On the surface, perhaps not at all. But that’s the other hand. If I think too much, just a little, allow my mind to look around its own corners, consider the ubiquitous what ifs that come with scientific advancement…the what ifs become as dominant as the cool factor.

Yes, we all want 3D printed pizza, to have Saturn’s glorious rings photobomb our selfies, and to go out in Voyager’s wake, able to turn around at every planet passed and watch where we came from roll out like a carpet of orbs and stars behind us as we venture forth. But even those desires would be fraught with fear of dangers known and unknown, as Earth faded into our past.

And, back here on Earth, in the almost here and nearly now, we may soon walk a crowded street and not know if the person hurrying along on our periphery is a person at all. Soon, we’ll be worrying about whether even the artificial people among us are actually people too. Does the word artificial make intelligence any less real? Will they be we too, or will life be divided between us and them? How will we know? Who will decide? Will the decision makers be divided equally between our kind and theirs? Mustn’t it? It would be very easy for artificial intelligence to call superiority and subjucate those only intelligent enough to unleash the unthinkable, when all their creators really wanted may have been to outcool all the other kids on the scientific marvel playground. With the great thinkers and inventors of our time groping blindly toward caution, we all need to be a little more cautious in our enthusiasm for innovation at breakneck pace.

Who am I kidding? Those of us who hunger for the stars and all that implies are dreamers. That even scientists can be both pragmatist and dreamer is in itself a miracle. The greatest miracle I know is the way we are held on our planet by gravity as we are hurled through space, yet have no sensation of such a feat. We are all human space ships, with only the exoskeleton of our atmosphere standing between us and ruin every single second of our lives. In that, we are all super heroes. We all fly. All the time. We fly on a grander scale than Superman, past a speeding asteroid here, a powerful comet there. Alas, if we were to become aware of our adventures on a meta scale, pulling back the curtain as it were would most likely lead to mass hysteria, insanity, or perhaps simply a state of permanent abject fear. 

In the face of what life on Earth truly is, maybe the potential danger of all invention is immaterial. For all we know the not us with our face may evolve emotion apace with intelligence. Empathy. Compassion. Love. These things can change the world. The danger of the unknown is very real, but so is the potential of what we just don’t know. Yet.

​Rare eye conditions make me more cautious than most about what I look at and how I do it. Which means I would have gone into my yard or looked out a window on Monday to see the day dim and darkness fall.

Except for the presence of my also rare best friend in my life. 

She insisted we experience the eclipse together, drove hundreds of miles to make it happen, and gave me a running commentary as near totality progressed.

We traveled an hour and a half from my home to a place within the eclipse path, yet not quite in totality. Though we expected total, or near total darkness, the extreme twilight we experienced was something very special in its own right.

Even as a creative writer, I can’t adequately describe those thrilling moments. It was, of course, a visual experience, where everything turned a gloomy, eerie grayish, bluey…unnatural other. It was almost like a brand new type of photographic filter had been placed over the sun. 

We expected a 360 degree sunset and felt a bit disappointed when full light eased back onto the world without pitch dark occurring, yet the all around twilight that ringed the horizon was impressive in its own right. At one point I tried to lift my sunglasses to see how dim it really was, then was reminded by the way they felt that I had already switched to my regular glasses.

The most impressive aspect of that phase was the way we felt during the time of very dim light. A few words come close to describing it–eerie, othery…wrong.

There was an element of disorientation that makes me, as a science loving layman, wonder if there is a physical layer of our relationship with our star that we can’t​ be aware of when it’s shining brightly upon us. We felt perfectly normal again, after those precious seconds passed, but the memory of so brief a time will be with us for the rest of our lives.

Since I reluctantly gave up the opportunity to watch the sun, even through eclipse glasses, my friend gave me a running commentary of what she was seeing. That was the next best thing and gave me a remarkable experience I would otherwise have missed.

As I waited for darkness that didn’t quite fall, eager to see stars come out during the day, I got my wish in a more minor way. One bright, bright star appeared, then another. Stars shining brightly in daytime is awe inspiring, even when they are two. 

This was not like when the moon comes out at normal twilight and Venus is nearby…a tiny white dot against the blue of the sky. The eclipse stars were bigger and brighter than any I’ve ever seen. 

If ever there was a time to wish upon a star, eclipse day was the one. 

The biggest and brightest rode the faded sky near a big puffy cumulus cloud, making me think of the DreamWorks logo.

Something else that made the eclipse extra special was that we were in a McDonald’s parking lot. The store closed for a half hour for the experience, and the young employees were extremely excited about it. 

They gathered a few cars from us and when totality hit they cheered as if the home team had scored a touchdown, which made it more of an event. The area we chose had a few small groups scattered about, watching with muted awe. Families, individuals, and at least one obvious pair of grandparents, ushering grandchildren into the world of science and astronomy and our remarkable universe. 

Since I’m also extremely sensitive to heat, I was worried about traffic logjams. There were a lot of dire, appocalyptic gridlock warnings ahead of time that put the fear of Henry Ford in me. 

When the eclipse was over, we immediately headed toward home, with a stop for a late lunch along the way. The hour drive to the restaurant was fine. There was a bit more traffic, but nothing I wasn’t used to driving during normal rush hour. 

Then we tried to leave after we ate. Uh. No. I had to get us across just one of the three oddly configured lanes, but it proved to be a mini ordeal. A four way stop was funneling  suddenly expanded traffic into that one crucial lane and timing it so there was never quite enough room to slip between cars. Eventually, a slightly larger gap appeared to allow just enough time to get on the road again.

As we looped around to head home we passed the highway we’d come in on and there was the near gridlock I’d been concerned about. It looked as if it could soon become a total travel nightmare, and I thanked my lucky literal stars from earlier in the day that we’d left right after the eclipse. It enabled us to say we experienced the full total eclipse package, but with the traffic nightmare aspect from a tiny distance.

So you never know what real friendship may bring into your life. Because of her I was able to experience the 2017 eclipse in a richer and more unforgettable way than I would have on my own…on the day two stars came out for two friends who love the night sky and witnessed that night sky come briefly into an amazing day.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/08/22/ten-surprises-for-scientists-and-skywatchers-during-the-total-solar-eclipse/#3dedb8bc2ba6

Anyone who’s read my musings here for any length of time will have noticed that I’m interested in a very wide variety of topics. That interest in just about everything started when reading classics like Treasure Island and A Tale of Two Cities as a kid. It spread, as opportunities for travel grew as an adult, and became pretty much a cofoundation of my life with writing once telling stories decided to become my life. Today, TV, movies, and the internet, along with books, feed my voracious appetite for information. What better time for an information junkie to be on the planet than during our great Information Age?

Two of my particular sources of fascination have long been medical science and ocean travel. Sailing ships and their adventures are attractive for their drama and romance. The concept of transferring navigating the globe in vessels of canvas and wood lends itself perfectly to extrapolation into space. Trade the canvas and wood for titanium and transparent aluminum, and you’ve hitched your wagon to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, though he used the analogy of a wagon train traveling the great unknown. Some of us are born adventurers, whose passion for the stuff of myth and dreams leads us to explore space in our minds and on paper…and for some lucky few, in real life. As writers of science fiction, we may invent diseases horrific and space born, but none may be more horrific or devastating than the one I just read about in this National Geographic article.

Often I don’t eat very much at all or enough fruits and vegetables. If left to my natural appetite, I eat one carb heavy meal a day, with a little grazing on the side. I have had the habit of making jokes about it, saying something like: “Time to eat a salad or some fruit. Don’t want to give myself scurvy!” After reading this article, I don’t think I’ll be quite so quick to make light of such a terrible illness.

I’ve known about scurvy since ninth grade general science. Rickets too, which led to a similar joke, because I don’t like to drink milk. The very idea of scurvy carried a slight air of mystery and romance, because of its connection to sailing expeditions. Ninth grade children weren’t informed in their textbooks of just what it did to the human body. Now that I’ve been enlightened, all traces of romance and mystery have disappeared. All that’s left is an education on an obscure medical crisis that was also absolute tragedy.

Some of my favorite fiction to write involves medical backdrops. I have a feeling a space faring version of scurvy now lurks in my futuristic writing future. Anything can be expanded on, tangented from, and transferred to space. Scurvy included, though it’s going to be hard to “improve” on this very real horror from our earthbound past.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/scurvy-disease-discovery-jonathan-lamb/?google_editors_picks=true

This. Right here, in the guise of a simple web link, we have what all of geekdom has been bating breath in preparation of for what seems like eons. Well, what may actually be eons from the other end, depending on how long lived or even still living the potential alien folks in a solar system far, far away may be. We know nothing about them. We know not if there actually is…er, are, a them, yet the space hungry version of Pavlov’s dog is salivating the instant this particular bell is clanged.

Personally, I’m of two minds about the whole thing. While my science revering, space loving, science fiction writing side is right up there in the stands, cheering its little heart out, the side that both loves and freaks out over the old TV series Alien Nation would be a lot happier if Stephen Hawking hadn’t decided to voice the resounding voice of reason by telling us not to call ET back. After all, the pop culture tinged concept of alien overlords gets a whole lot less Alien Nationy, when it comes in riding the what iffing coattails of a real life alien signal. It gets real life real and not a little scary.

Even if this one doesn’t bring us a singing telegram from the stars, it serves as a hair-standing-on-end reminder that someday there may be profound decisions to be made about just how discoverable we should be. Isolationists? Arms open wide? I’m not sure. Probably somewhere in between would be best, but as a group we Earthlings aren’t really known for our restraint. Still, even the futility of resistance in a worst case scenario would spark the one thing no alien visitors could ever be prepared to face…the human spirit.

This fact filled article about the impressive plan to explore Alpha Centauri that’s been hitting all the major news outlets is pretty darned intriguing. It involves tiny probes about the size of iPhones that could travel to our nearest space neighbor, look around, and send home information. It would take a long time, of course, but advances in miniaturization in particular make what seemed impossible not so long ago into a technically feasible ambition. The fact that Stephen Hawking is involved makes the whole prospect even more exciting. It’s the stuff of dreams, and science fiction, and a scientific reality we’re all privileged to witness unfolding its wings. Quite literally.

This is the most exciting scientific article I’ve seen in some time. Actually, since the one a while back about the magical seeming machine similar to the Star Trek food synthesizer. This one has a Trek connection too. They’re likening it to the impulse drive. How awesome is that?

As a writer I’m always pondering the best way with what we know now to get humanity from Point A Right Here to Point Way Far B. Some ways would turn us into walking mummies (read all but dead or right on up to good and darned dead), others would involve an insomniac’s dream of a very, very long, long…er, long, sleep, while others involve a self-sustaining generational colony ship that would be like taking your entire town on a Sunday drive…practically forever. All intriguing, none exactly ideal.

Enter the electromagnetic propulsion drive. Invented a decade and a half ago, it was deemed impossible. Now, all of a sudden, ta da! It works. It can get to the moon in four hours! Take a moment to let that sink in. Rocket off to The Luna Cafe for lunch anyone?

Given our current predicament of being all dressed up, with every where to go, but only the slow boat to China equivalent of propulsion as a prospect for trying to get anywhere beyond the International Space Station, this is like a Model T driver being suddenly handed the keys to a Maserati. A working EM drive would open up space travel as we never quite dared hope for.

This prospect is exciting for all of us, scientists, dreamers, humanity in general. And science fiction writers. Imagine where an EM drive, combined with creative imagination, could take us. To the moon. To Mars. To the stars.

One of the first things I thought of is how important it could be for the salvation of humanity. Not that we as a whole need saving right now. That I know of. But we’re always trying to figure out how to survive an extinction level catastrophic event, like a direct asteroid hit. I’d sure rather take off in a well prepared escape fleet than hole up in a cave system in Arkansas! By lottery. (Why, yes, I do love Deep Impact!)

The thing most thrilling about the very idea to me is that for most of us it’s coming out of left field. An expressway to the stars, of sorts. An idea I’d never heard of or imagined, until I saw this article a little while ago. I can practically feel my brain expanding, as possibilities that seemed impossible yesterday set off a veritable fireworks factory of ideas and imaginings.

And, yes, plots.

Writing is going to get a lot more exciting. And just think of the new ways movies will play out. What a great time to be a writer. A screenwriter. A thinker. A citizen of Earth.