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Wednesday
Nov262014

PREDICTING THE FUTURE IS HARD ENOUGH WITHOUT CLIMATE CHANGE

Any science fiction writer placing a story in the near future pretty much needs to mention that most overworked term these days: “climate change”. We can build expected changes into the future environment, or we can say it all turned out to be a hoax, but ignoring it entirely will probably make readers think we screwed up. There’s a big risk either way you call it, though, because those in the “hoax” camp will probably look like fools before many more years have passed, while those who try to predict the changes have a really tough challenge ahead of them.

As if predicting the future wasn’t already an exercise in masochism.

Most analysts who try to guess how countries will cope with climate change have painted a fairly rosy picture of my home country of Canada. After all, warmer temperatures will extend our growing season, give us hot summers and warmer winters, increase tourism and immigration, right? Not to mention thirsty markets for our abundant fresh water. Except the winter of 2013-2014 showed a different side of climate change. And this year is following the same frightening path so far, leading Canadians to stock up on Valium or booze, whichever is most likely to preserve our sanity through a winter that just won’t end.

So how do warming global temperatures add up to longer, more vicious winters?

The Jet Stream is a huge westerly current of air caused by the rotation of the Earth, and it affects virtually all of our weather in the Northern Hemisphere. Well, it’s been going all wavy lately, allowing Arctic air to flow much farther south than it ever should, bringing record cold and brutal early winter storms (just do a Google Image search for “Buffalo snowfall”). A new study published in Nature Geoscience blames the disappearing Arctic ice pack: larger amounts of dark water (instead of white ice) absorb more sunlight and the warmer air above it pushes the Jet Stream far to the north, but the downswing of that new loop extends much farther south. The loop to the south can sometimes allow Arctic air to flow all the way to the southern U.S.. And the effect isn’t in any hurry to move on, so these unusual cold snaps can last for weeks. A good summary can be found here.

I’ve read other explanations, but the effect is the same: foot-long nose icicles and citizens ready to strangle each other by March.

There’s a good chance that some of the results of warming temperatures will be pleasant ones. We can only hope. Because if these harsher winters do become the new normal, winter-weary Canadians and New Englanders won’t even be able to make our usual desperate escape to Florida for a few months.

’Cause most of it will be under water.

Wednesday
Nov192014

DEAD AIR BOOK TRAILER

"Dammit, Jim, I'm a writer, not a web programmer."

OK, so I'm still stumbling my way through this new world of author promotion. And maybe I'm a little bit slow off the mark in producing a book trailer for a novel that's been out for a couple of years. But I figured "better late than never", so here's the new trailer for my mystery/thriller novel Dead Air.

Of course you can find out a lot more plus read reviews and a sample chapter here.

Enjoy!

 

Wednesday
Nov122014

PHILAE HAS LANDED

Photo taken by the Philae lander on approach.

There were cheers and tears and hugs all around at the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft Mission Control. The Philae lander successfully made the first-ever landing by a man-made object on a comet at 11:04 am EDT. This is the biggest moment in a mission that was launched in 2004. The lander quickly began to send telemetry to confirm contact and that it still has power, although the landing didn’t go exactly as planned. Because the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was expected to be soft and granular, and its gravity is negligible, the Philae lander carried harpoons that were programmed to fire upon landing and anchor the small probe to the ground. It’s now known that those harpoons did not fire, and Philae may have bounced once when coming down (the landing site isn’t totally flat, and the craft hit the surface at about human walking speed). Fortunately the landing gear also included screws that would gently dig into the comet material to hold Philae down, and it appears that at least some of the screws have dug their way in. Talk about mixed emotions, reaching the pinnacle of a ten-year mission and not being completely certain the Philae will hang on!

More information will have to wait until Thursday when the craft and the comet are in the proper alignment with Earth again, but so far the mission team has a lot to be proud of.

Assuming the best scenario, Philae will soon dig samples of the comet and we’ll finally find out what comets are really made of. That will be important information about the early stages of the solar system, when comets formed, and might be invaluable knowledge for when we send spacecraft to mine the asteroids and outer moons. Some comets might turn out to be handy fueling stations.

As much as anything else, the Rosetta mission is encouraging because it shows how much can be accomplished through broad multinational cooperation. There are a lot of partners involved in this venture, from a lot of different nations—not just Europe. And hopefully each one will get to enjoy the many scientific rewards in the days to come.

Tuesday
Nov112014

WILL WE ALWAYS HAVE WAR?

November 11th is Remembrance Day in my home country of Canada, a day to remember all of those soldiers wounded or killed in conflicts since our nation began, and those in uniform who guard her still today, in the hope that remembering is the first step toward eventually eliminating war. Coincidentally, this week I was also reading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, originally written in the 1970’s after the author had served in the Vietnam War. The book won the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards in 1976 plus a number of others, so you can still find it in print and it’s very much worth a read. Without giving too much away, the novel describes an interstellar war with an alien race that lasts more than a thousand years, and it made me wonder if we truly will still have war millennia from now.

Even without factoring in extraterrestrial aliens, it seems to me that we will continue to make war as long as:

1)    There are large inequities between groups of people.

2)    We enable and reinforce ways to define ourselves as “us” and “them”, allowing us to think of “others” as “the enemy” instead of just people.

3)    We can convince ourselves that killing and dying is preferable to communicating and compromising.

4)    War is an economic tool.

5)    There are people who can order others to be sacrificed at no cost to themselves.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that technological progress related to combat is all about more powerful weapons and defenses, and not at all about trying to end war (except in the sense of winning faster by gaining an advantage).

What would peace-fostering progress be like?

It seems to me that the best way to reduce inequality around the world is some form of world government. Not to replace current national and regional governments (at least not right away), but to tackle big picture issues fairly, address the problems that truly do affect all of us on this planet, and to be the final arbiter of regional disputes. And we’d better hurry this along, because climate change is going to create some horrendous refugee crises and border conflicts within the next few decades if we aren’t proactive and very, very cooperative.

We’ve got more ways than ever before to learn about others who share our world, and communicate in spite of barriers of distance, language, or culture. We need to continue to encourage pan-global socializing, partnering, and trade. We’re a lot less likely to want to go to war with a place where we have business partners and friends.

War as an economic driver? Surely there are other large-scale projects we can all get aboard that demand a similar mobilization of resources. The conquest of space is an obvious favourite of mine, but harnessing the energy of sun, wind, tide and other natural forces to replace fossil fuels would also be a win for everyone (but the oil companies). I’m sure there are lots of other worthy international pursuits that don’t involve killing and dying.

Conflicts within my lifetime have all too often (if not always) involved leaders misleading their people into thinking war was the only way. Well, neural research has made great strides in detecting and understanding brain processes. How hard could it be to fit leaders with virtually infallible lie detectors—a little gadget attached to the skull at their swearing in ceremony? It’d give them the means to say, “Sure, Joe, I know you gave a lot to my campaign, and I know you’ve got some new missiles you really want to try out. But no can do this week, sorry.”

And how many wars do you think would be declared if there were a global law that any leader who sends troops to die must also sacrifice themselves—under a death sentence, not commutable, to be executed immediately following the death of the first soldier or civilian?

I think that just might cool the bloodlust in a big hurry.

Tuesday
Nov042014

DO ACCIDENTS MEAN PRIVATE SPACE COMPANIES AREN'T UP TO THE CHALLENGE?

One of the most significant affirmations of privately-operated space exploration was when NASA signed multi-billion-dollar contracts with Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX to send supply missions to the International Space Station.

You must know by now that the most recent of those scheduled resupply launches ended in disaster on October 28th when the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds after liftoff and was completely destroyed. The vehicle was unmanned and no-one was hurt, but the Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft being launched contained very expensive cargo (I’ve seen estimates of over $200 million). Fortunately the crew of the ISS still has lots of food and other supplies to keep them going for months, but a lot of important equipment was lost.

Even worse news came only days later on October 31 when SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s experimental rocket plane broke up in-flight and crashed, taking the life of the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot, who ejected. SpaceShipTwo was the core of Richard Branson’s plans to take tourists into space in coming years. In spite of reports that the engine exploded soon after it was released from its launch aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, this wasn’t true. Cockpit video has shown that the co-pilot unlocked the plane’s “feathering” system—like a kind of airbrake—while the craft was still under rocket-powered acceleration. Although that should not have deployed the feathering system on its own, aerodynamic forces might have triggered it. The investigation continues.

NASA also has its Commercial Crew Program in which three companies are developing launch and land systems to replace the space shuttle program in taking astronauts into orbit. In October of last year, one of the contenders, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s “Dream Chaser” lifting body suffered a landing gear malfunction during an unmanned glide test and the crash landing caused serious damage. Sierra Nevada’s competitors, Boeing and SpaceX, are also running behind schedule on their programs, but observers say the frustratingly slow NASA bureaucracy gets some of the blame for that. This will probably be the year that NASA chooses from among the three programs, and a lot is on the line. It costs NASA $70 million per seat to send astronauts to the International Space Station hitching a ride with the Russians on a Soyuz spacecraft.

It seems trite to simply say that space exploration is a risky business, but what strikes me as unfair is the suggestion by some that these incidents may prove private enterprise can’t be counted on to safely carry out such a demanding activity as spaceflight. A ridiculous notion. Government organizations like NASA don’t build the components of their rockets and spacecraft—they contract them out to private aerospace manufacturers like Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin and dozens of others. Private space companies who carry the full responsibilities and risks themselves have the same level of expertise available to them, and as much or even more incentive to do things right. While many government contracts of all types go to the lowest bidder, space companies like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp., and Virgin Galactic subsidiaries like Scaled Composites know that a couple of failures can mean the end of them. They don’t have the resources of governments to weather such huge losses.

The painfully slow progress of human space exploration over the past half-century shows that government bureaucracy is not the best way to take on the challenges of a risky but rewarding frontier. Although last week’s events were heartbreaking, it’s far too soon to write off the private entrepreneurs.

We need them.