FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE NIGHT SKY

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On this page, I write about scientific events, discoveries, and general science topics from a science fiction fan’s (and writer’s) point of view. I’m not sure someone can be a fan of real science fiction if they aren’t fascinated by science in one way or another. And since the beginning of science fiction, the scientific field that’s inspired a huge percentage of SF is the exploration of space. Unlocking the universe beyond our sheltering home planet.

Space travel is an absolute natural for storytelling—the drama is built right in because of the hazardous nature of the enterprise, not to mention guaranteed interpersonal conflict when you throw high-performing types into peril together. There’s the innate suspense of encountering the unknown, plus the childlike wonder evoked by settings that boggle the imagination.

But why are we so fascinated by what’s “out there” when we have such a beautiful and hospitable home world right here?

For that I think we have to credit our love of the night sky. We can be certain that, from the moment our evolutionary ancestors developed curiosity, they gazed up at the sparkling points overhead in the vast blackness and wondered what they were. Why they formed the patterns they did. Why they moved, some faster than others. What it meant when one streaked across the heavens trailing a tail of fire. And the Moon, mistress of the night: was that a human face she showed? Why did she sometimes hide it? How did she work her magic over the deep waters?

I can’t say that those midnight observations were the beginning of science, but they certainly spurred the drive for knowledge, and they still do.

From identifying constellations, to oohing and aahing at meteorites; from staring in awe at a lunar eclipse, to tracing the craters and seas of the Moon with a captivated eye, a clear night sky always puts on a show. And it’s all free! Of course, many of us live in cities where light pollution obscures these delights, but if you make the effort to venture into the countryside and see the glorious sweep of the Milky Way overhead, you’ll be hooked. Then get your hands on a modest telescope. No matter how many pictures of Saturn I’ve seen, to actually look through a lens and find that glowing donut with a ball in the middle, and know that it’s really hanging over my head, though millions of kilometers away…it’s simply awe-inspiring. Even a pair of binoculars will bring the rugged landscape of the Moon into vivid view.

For some of us, at least, the next natural step is to imagine seeing such places up close. The strange worlds of our own solar system, or possibly even more amazing sights around other stars. You can’t help but become a devoted follower of space news, especially with so many astonishing missions of exploration in recent years (just take a look at this recent post of mine). And for the places that technology can’t yet take us, science fiction will always be there to indulge our cravings.

If you feel the sky calling to you, but are missing out because you don’t know where to begin, the internet offers everything you need. One great site to get you started is Jenny Brown’s '2019 Astronomer's Guide to the Night Sky'. Jenny not only lists the dates and other relevant details of the marquis events of the celestial showcase, like eclipses, meteor showers, conjunctions of the planets and such, but also provides a guide to which planets are visible in the night sky at a given time and place, and the best times for viewing them. Terminology is clearly explained, and it’s all laid out in simple language with plenty of weblinks should you want to dig a little deeper. Jenny’s page is obviously the pet project of a night sky enthusiast who loves to share her passion.

Once you’re ready to plunge headlong into astronomy and space exploration news, there’s a rich feast awaiting you at sites like Universe Today, Space.com, Sky And Telescope, and of course NASA’s own website with details on all of their missions. If you’re bringing a youngster along on your journey, check out KidsAstronomy.com. And there are lots more to be found with a quick online search.

In the end, it’s not about fostering new generations of science and science fiction fans (although that’s a worthy goal in itself), it’s about kindling a deep appreciation of the wondrous universe in which we live. Our existence isn’t confined to four walls, or a few streets, or even a bustling city. It’s a whole cosmos that’s beyond our ability to fully grasp.

But we can have a blast trying to.

FUTURE VISIONS INDEED

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Since I’m a science fiction writer, you can safely assume that SF is also my favourite thing to read. So when my writing is published in an anthology or magazine, it’s the best of both worlds—reaching new readers, and getting to read the other great offerings in the collection.

I’m pleased to have a short story included in the recently published anthology Future Visions Vol. 3 edited by Brian J. Walton. And proud to have work in the same company as these excellent tales.

My story Elysium is the last one in the anthology (a placement I’ve always been partial to) but there’s no fear a reader won’t get that far. SF short fiction often finds its genesis in exposing the unsavoury underbelly of current trends, teases out the possibilities, and weaves a poetry of its own from the threads of our human frailties. That’s well demonstrated in this collection, and although it would take too long to detail every story, here are a few of my favourites:

Margery Bayne’s Another Life distills a looming moral dilemma down to just two people in crisis as a woman named Dana wakes up, only to be told that she’s been in a coma for 23 years. Exploring love, memory, obligation, and a slippery slope of personal rights, Another Life is, above all, very human.

After All by Bret Carter tells the story of Ben who believes he might be the last true musician because technological developments and corporate greed have warped his beloved art form beyond recognition. But his efforts to fight back unleash a devastating force (and you won’t thank Carter for what he leaves in your brain, either).

In Space Witch Yolande Ryle imagines the first manned spaceflight to Ceres. It’s the most light-hearted tale in this collection, even playing with the line between magic and advanced technology, but it explores a question that’s held my interest for a long time: are we Earthlings being watched? And judged? And what if the judgment doesn’t go our way?

A Lament For Marla by Mike Adamson takes us to the dark aftermath of climate change in a story that deliberately evokes Soylent Green (by name) but the way its conclusion links hope with degradation packs a powerful punch.

Nolan Janssen’s The Running Mill paints the terrible cost of the free market system to a future America where the jobless poor run on treadmills to produce clean power. But when one talented runner is given a chance to make his mark on the world, the shining dream isn’t all it’s made out to be.

A nasty mash-up of social media and the self-improvement mania takes a frightening twist in A Century of Faults by Evan Scott Edwards. And a well-meaning attempt to save the world from a growing shortage of bees veers in a disastrous direction in P.R. O’Leary’s Pollen.

And there are still more engaging stories by Robert Jeschonek. Michael W. Clark, Joseph Aitken, B.A. Paul, and, oh yeah…me. My story Elysium follows ex-cop Gib Thorne as he tries to solve a rash of seemingly unrelated deaths while coping with his terminally ill mother’s “upload” into a digital afterlife. If there’s life after death, can there be murder, too?

Short stories are like tantalizing appetizers compared to the full meal of a novel, so if you’re looking to stimulate your science fiction taste buds with some pungent flavours, Brian J. Walton is a very savvy editor and I’d recommend his whole Future Visions series—new offerings are published about every two months. Future Visions Volume 3 is a great place to start, available in Kindle and paperback editions.

Bon appétit!

BEYOND THE FARTHEST...SNOWBALL?

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

Congratulations to the China National Space Administration for the successful landing of their Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the Moon January 3rd (the first time it’s ever been done), as well as the deployment of the Yutu-2 rover. Its tracks in moondust prove China is now a major player in space exploration.

Other than that, recent space news stories are full of exotic names and exotic places—names like the Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, Ultima Thule, Farout (which sounds more like the expression of an enthusiastic hippy than a scientific designation!)

In the first minutes of New Years Day 2019 the NASA spacecraft New Horizons hurtled past an object identified as (486958) 2014 MU69, a name that doesn’t fall trippingly from the tongue so it was given a nickname chosen by the public: Ultima Thule, an ancient Greek and Roman phrase meaning the farthest of places, beyond the known world. It isn’t actually even the farthest place in our solar system, but it is now the most distant object ever visited by a man-made device. New Horizons is the craft that sent terrific pictures back from Jupiter and then went on to astonish us with stunning images of Pluto, so it’s a little probe with a great track record. Since Ultima Thule is more than 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth, receiving data from New Horizons is a slow process (it will take many months for all of it to come in), but pictures show what’s called a “contact binary”, meaning two objects that formed separately but then fused together into one, and it looks like a reddish snowman about 30 kilometres long. The scientific community has long expected that the so-called Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune consists mostly of objects like slush balls made of water, ammonia, and methane that orbit the Sun as far away as fifty AU (astronomical units—the distance between the Sun and Earth). Learning more about Ultima Thule will increase our knowledge of how the solar system was formed.

The other trans-Neptunian object to get attention recently is one nicknamed Farout, officially 2018 VG18. Discovered in November 2018, Farout is the most distant object ever observed in our solar system. It’s currently between 125AU to 130AU from the sun—about 3.5 times as far as Pluto—though its orbit will carry it farther and closer to the sun at times. As unimaginably distant as that is, our solar system is thought to extend much farther to include the theoretical Oort Cloud, a spherical area that might extend as far as 200,000 AU from the sun and be composed of more slushy iceballs, remnants of the original cloud from which the solar system formed billions of years ago. The Oort Cloud hasn’t been observed directly, but is thought to be the source of many comets with very long orbits. By comparison, the nearest star to ours, Proxima Centauri, is currently about 268,500 AU away (4.246 light years).

Such distances are incredible when considered in a straight line, but to recognize that they apply in every direction, in three dimensions, the sheer volume of space involved is truly beyond our minds’ ability to process. After all, you could fit all of the planets in the solar system side by side in just the space between the Earth and our Moon with room to spare, so a sphere 100 AU across and more is one heck of a lot of real estate!

What could be “out there”? That’s the domain where theoretical astronomy and science fiction thinking converge. A fertile realm for the imagination.

Could there be a super-Neptune “Planet X”, ten times as big as Earth? Or the proposed brown dwarf star ominously named “Nemesis”? If so, why not a whole second planetary system orbiting in the darkness?

Could there be life? We already know of microbes and other life forms that can survive under the most extreme conditions. We have no reason to assume that life couldn’t arise in those dark realms. Even on Earth some forms of life in the deep oceans depend on chemical energy rather than the sun. At the very least, if all those slush balls and hypothetical dark planets don’t support native life, they could still provide waystations (or hiding places) for visitors from other stars. Are there advanced aliens watching us from the shadowy borders of our home system? Fleets of conquering ships just waiting for the order to strike? Maybe one navy with plans to conquer, battling with another determined to save us from enslavement. (Maybe I’ve been reading too many space operas!) Or what if there are giant life forms, planet-sized or larger, to whom we’re no more significant than bacteria?

If comets can be knocked out of the Oort Cloud by a galactic tide and fall toward the Sun and inner planets, could there be larger, much more dangerous threats lurking beyond sight? Vagabond moon-sized rocks? Maybe wandering black holes remorselessly devouring everything in their paths? (Actually, scientists would probably have spotted such powerful gravitational effects. Phew!)

Flights of fantasy aside, I’m kind of partial to the idea of giant forms of life “out there”. SF writer Robert J. Sawyer described mega-beings made of dark matter in his novel Starplex. It just feels right that such vast spaces should be inhabited by something and not simply empty voids. I also think it’s quite possible that alien visitors would bide their time in the dark reaches, observing us before deciding to make contact.

Some people may wonder why we go to such effort and cost to send a machine six billion kilometres to look at an oversized slushball. The fact is, in investigating things we expect to find in the great beyond, we really have no idea what we might find. That’s what makes it so exciting.

FUTURE VISIONS: VOLUME 3

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My newest published short story goes “live” this week at Amazon.

Future Visions: Volume 3 offers prophetic visions from 12 of the most promising sci-fi minds, curated from all over the world. My story “Elysium” is a good example:

While the terminally ill cheat death by uploading their consciousness into a digital simulation, young people are falling victim to a series of freak fatalities. An ex-cop discovers critical clues to the mystery in his personal life, if he can survive long enough to decipher them.

Some of the other offerings include:

A better version of you, courtesy of AI...

A grieving husband willing to do anything to bring his wife back...

A universe where story and reality no longer stay separated.

All this, plus a swarm of killer mechanical bees, add up to a thrilling collection from writers peering into the future.

A Century of Faults by Evan Scott Edwards

A Lament for Marla by Mike Adamson

After All by Bret Carter

Another Life by Margery Bayne

Elysium by Scott Overton

Last Contact by Joseph Aitken

New World by Michael W. Clark

Pollen by P. R. O'Leary

Space Witch by Yolanda Ryle

The Man in the Sci-FI Suit by Robert Jeschonek

The Removal of Blue Sky by B. A. Paul

The Running Mill by Nolan Janssens

The Future Visions Anthologies will bring you stories like these every three months, and much more. Pick it up this week at special introductory pricing! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07LD7CRX9

A NEW GOLDEN AGE OF SPACE EXPLORATION?

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Unless you keep up with current space news, it may be easy to feel that the Golden Age of space exploration is behind us. After all, the last time humans set foot on the Moon was the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Heady stuff, but really, there hasn’t been much going on since, has there?

Actually, the amount of space exploration that’s been happening in recent decades is astonishing. It’s just that almost none of it has involved human crews. The one major exception is the International Space Station, which recently marked twenty years in space (its first components and first occupants were launched in November 1998). It’s been continuously manned since November 2000, and has hosted 227 crew and visitors, some as many as five times. It’s operated by a partnership of five space agencies (representing 17 countries) and has been visited by citizens of seventeen different nations. I’m not sure which is its most important contribution: the amount of data the ISS accrues every single day about how humans can live and work in space, or what it teaches us about the international cooperation needed to make us a spacefaring species. Nonetheless, because the ISS has been around for twenty years, and we can even watch it go by overhead, the general public probably underestimates its importance and may simply have lost interest.

So what else has been going on?

2004 may seem like a long time ago, but do you remember the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko? We watched its Philae lander drop toward the barbell-shaped object with fascination, and held our breath as it bounced and ended up at a angle that prevented it from collecting solar energy, which spelled its doom. But we did witness comet off-gassing and a snowstorm. Then in January 2005 NASA’s Deep Impact mission visited two other comets, 9P/Tempel and 103P/Hartley.

The Dawn spacecraft was deactivated just one month ago after visiting the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres (in the asteroid belt), producing amazing photos and detailed maps of these remnants of the solar system’s formation (or possibly fragments of a planet that broke up). It was also an important test of ion thrusters for propulsion instead of standard rocket motors.

NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto was a huge success in 2015 when it sent back photo after brilliant photo of the icy world and its moon Charon, after already providing fantastic imagery and data from Jupiter and the Jovian moons in 2007 en route. But New Horizons isn’t done yet. It’s speeding its way toward a Kuiper Belt object designated as 2014 MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule, meaning beyond the farthest horizon) and will reach it this coming New Years Day (Jan. 1, 2019). Such objects are also thought to be leftover material from the solar system’s formation, probably slush and ice balls—after all, that’s the region most comets come from.

Although it met its end a little over a year ago (Sept. 15, 2017), deliberately plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, can we forget the awesomely majestic pictures provided by the Cassini-Huygens probe? It spent thirteen years exploring Saturn, its moons and its rings, and the results were astounding.

Fast forward to this year: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was launched in August 2018 and will fly through the outer atmosphere of the sun, known as its corona, seven times closer to our star than any spacecraft before it. But the big attention this week was the successful arrival of the InSight lander on Mars, which is tasked to penetrate into the Martian soil and probe the crust of the planet for the first time. Because of the high risk of failure, the landing got ‘live’ coverage and lots of media attention when it succeeded.

Yet we shouldn’t forget two more asteroid missions: the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which has dropped a small lander onto an asteroid named Ryugu and is still in orbit there, and the NASA OSIRIS-REx probe that will arrive this Monday Dec. 3, 2018 at the asteroid Bennu. (Both of these asteroids are called “diamond-shaped” but they remind me of those old pressed charcoal briquettes for the barbecue!)

In the meantime, there have been lots of missions within the Earth-Moon system, and the U.S. is working with private companies and other countries toward a return by humans to the Moon by 2023. Closer to home, there have been important advances in rocketry, especially from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is capable of launching satellites, and then landing safely back on Earth, enabling it to be re-used (most recently on Nov. 15th). This is a vital advancement toward making commercial uses of space affordable. And, of course, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle in current use, ostentatiously launched a Tesla Roadster into space Feb. 6, 2018 on its first test flight, carrying a mannequin nicknamed Starman in a space suit at the wheel.

Why is all of this important? What are the benefits?

If you’re reading a blog like this, you probably don’t need a sales pitch. But the more we learn about how the cosmos, our world, and our species came about, the more we can predict where we will all go from here. That’s just good survival protocol. Exploratory missions to comets and asteroids in particular are potential goldmines of information about the early solar system, but also may answer the question of how life arose on Earth, since scientists speculate that life here may have come from “out there”. They could also bring us closer to understanding how to protect ourselves from extraterrestrial microorganisms drifting down onto our planet from the far reaches of space. Not to mention identifying potential collision risks to our home from all of the celestial objects whizzing through the solar system.

The more we can learn about how humans can survive, thrive, and work in space environments, the closer we come to making use of them in ways that will benefit all of us. Conditions of zero-gravity, readily-available vacuum, and deep cold can facilitate the production of medicines and other exotic substances very difficult to make on Earth. Mining of asteroids, the processing of ores, and other manufacturing processes performed in space could bring much needed relief to the stressed environment of Earth. If we can find other places to live, or adapt other places to make them liveable for humans, we can help ease the population pressure on our home planet and, maybe more importantly, ensure that humanity would no longer be at risk of extinction from a planet-wide disaster.

Even the process of all this exploration is beneficial. Partly because of the cost in resources, material, monetary, and mental, large-scale endeavours like these demand international cooperation at government and corporate levels, but also one-on-one between members of space crews. Our best hope of survival as a species is to curb our tendency toward conflict and live together peaceably.

Exploration? Oh yes! And I haven’t even mentioned astronomical endeavours like the Hubble and Kepler telescopes that have peered into the farthest depths of the universe and confirmed the existence of planets around other stars.

A Golden Age? Actually, that’s selling it short. This kind of exploration is priceless.

CAN WE RESTORE THE SPECIES WE'RE MAKING EXTINCT?

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For 20,000 years and more the skies of North America darkened Spring and Fall with the migration of from three to five billion birds. They were called passenger pigeons. Deforestation and hunting through the 1800’s changed that. In 1914 the last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The American bison once numbered as high as 30 million. By 1889 humans had reduced their population to about a thousand animals. Fortunately, some humans found reasons to reverse that trend and there now might be as many as half a million bison living on the continent.

We have the ability to destroy the animals, birds, reptiles, and fish with which we share the planet like no other species in history, but we also have the power to stop the destruction, and are now even learning to bring species back.

There have been five mass extinctions on Earth beginning with the end of the Ordovician Era 444 million years ago that saw the end of 86% of all life forms at the time. You’re more likely to think of the last one, the end of the Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago that saw the demise of the dinosaurs. Most of those extinctions have been blamed on sudden climate change, including the asteroid strike that wiped out Dino and his buddies. It takes millions of years for the number of species to reach pre-disaster levels. And, needless to say, those are replacements—the original creatures are gone for good.

Now, many scientists believe we’re undergoing a 6th extinction event, this time caused by…guess who?

The passenger pigeons and the dodo are just two of the 140 bird species, 34 types of amphibian, and at least 77 mammals that scientists say have become extinct since the year 1500, thanks to human activity, especially the destruction of their habitat. Those are the ones we know about. There are still a lot of species, especially insects, reptiles, and amphibians, that have never been classified and could very well be gone before we ever know about them. Some estimates suggest the planet loses hundreds of species a year. And as our powers to shape the environment grow, intentional and not, the rate of extinctions is quickly rising. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently predicted that virtually all species currently considered critically endangered and more than two-thirds of endangered species will be gone within the next century. Scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark have calculated that it would take up to 5 million years of evolution to return the planet’s diversity to current levels, and 7 million years to return it to what it was before modern humans showed up and began our path of destruction.

Is there hope? Of course there is. We can curb our out-of-control consumption and stop so much habitat destruction, razing of rainforests, scouring the bottom of the oceans, and spewing plastic and pollution everywhere. Will we? Well, that’s a whole other question.

What about the species already gone, and those it’s likely too late to save? That’s where human technology can actually have a positive side. There are a number of exciting initiatives that point the way to a brighter future.

I’ve mentioned the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway in previous blogs. Built ten years ago to preserve and protect the world’s plant diversity from disaster, it’s reputed to contain a million different varieties now. Seeds evolved to remain dormant when required, so they store pretty well. But what about animals and birds? Projects like the Frozen Ark in Nottingham, UK and the Australian Frozen Zoo in Victoria are working to preserve large collections of frozen DNA from the creatures of the world. That has its challenges certainly. So what if you didn’t have to physically preserve the DNA? For some years now it’s been possible to sequence DNA—transcribe the whole chemical code that determines a species (and an individual’s) cellular makeup. The UK’s Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Gardens and Wellcome Sanger Institute have joined together in the Darwin Tree of Life Project to sequence Britain’s 66,000 species of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi. Harvard University and other partners around the world are undertaking similar initiatives in the hope that the genetic codes of one-and-a-half million species will eventually be mapped.

Mind you, all of that is like having the full blueprints of a house without the tools or materials to actually build it. We don’t have the technology to recreate plants or animals from scratch like building a Lego set from the instructions. But one day we will.

In Melbourne, Australia, an American scientist named Ben Novak has been working to recreate passenger pigeons by engineering the DNA of ordinary rock pigeons. A team at Harvard is attempting to produce a woolly mammoth by splicing mammoth DNA into the genome of Asian elephants. The tool they use is called CRISPR-Cas9, a combination of repeating RNA (to use as a guide) and the protein Cas9, which allows scientists to basically “cut and paste” DNA in existing sequences. Inserting DNA from an extinct species into the genome of a genetic relative species is how the fictional dinosaurs were created in Jurassic Park (though if anyone’s trying to do that in real life, they’re not admitting it!)

So with all of these efforts to preserve and some day recreate plants and animals, we could theoretically re-introduce forms of life to our planet after they’re gone, or even take them to a new planet somewhere and reform that world in Earth’s image to some degree. That’s very hopeful. Does it excuse us for causing these extinctions in the first place? Absolutely not!

Surely it would be so much better to get our ravenous impulses under control and actually share our beautiful planet with the other species that belong here just as much as we do.

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE AN E.T.?

NASA, JPL

NASA, JPL

In my last blog post I looked at some of the reasons it’s not surprising that we haven’t yet discovered signs of life elsewhere in the universe. Life signs are hard to unequivocally identify as such, because other things might be the cause. Alien species might be so different that we can’t recognize the energy signatures or communication transmissions their societies produce. And space is so incredibly vast that our search efforts have covered only a miniscule portion of even our own galaxy.

But let’s say we ultimately succeed. What will we do if we encounter life on other planets and in other solar systems? Will we protect it? Exploit it? Or destroy it out of fear of contamination, or simply because it’s in our way?

The questions get even bigger when it comes to advanced, sentient life forms. Will we look at them as friends or enemies, benefactors or threats? It’s much too facile to say that it will depend on how they treat us. We should know ourselves well enough to understand that what we bring to a relationship, on whatever scale, is what we’ll probably take from it. When Europeans arrived in North America, some looked for harmonious cooperation with the indigenous peoples and got along well with them (though their arrival still wasn’t good news for the original inhabitants). Others sought to conquer and subjugate, and immediately made enemies. And that was among fellow humans. Concepts like friendship, kinship, cooperation, loyalty, duty, authority, and many other critical social dynamics may have no equivalent at all in an alien culture, or radically different applications and priorities. We can’t know ahead of time, so does that mean we shouldn’t prepare at all?

No, that would be foolish. Even though alien mindsets are by definition hard to predict, we have to try. Even more importantly, we need to be clear about our own motivations, and establish strong rules about how we will behave regarding alien life at all levels of development. Just as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forms the basis of how we deal with local space bodies, we need similar laws to be established governing our interactions with alien life forms. We need this before we make such a discovery. It’s no good locking the barn door after the horse is gone. Whether the aliens we discover are benevolent, malevolent, or ambivalent, our relationship with them will get off to a better start if we can demonstrate that our species abides by strict laws that ensure we’re not reckless aggressors or exploiters ourselves, and that we’ve built a good foundation toward understanding and cooperating with others.

Where would we begin to formulate possible responses to extraterrestrial life forms, in all their potential variety? Laugh if you like, but I think a great start would be to gather all of the human/alien encounter stories in science fiction and evaluate the interactions described in them! Who has given more thought to such scenarios than us? It would be a large task, I admit, but so is scanning 33,000 light years of space.

Speaking of which, although SF stories over the decades have gradually prepared our minds to accept the idea of alien species, those depictions haven’t all been positive, to say the least! Conclusive evidence of a civilized race beyond our planet would panic many people and send shockwaves through our global economy. Even the most optimistic of us won’t be able to totally shrug off movies like Alien or Independence Day. So we have to prepare ourselves and our society for that reaction—if we can’t, then we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to draw attention to ourselves. For the past century, we’ve been spewing radio and TV signals out into the cosmos like a giant locator beacon. Even worse, much of its content would give an observer the impression that we’re unrelentingly warlike and violent. We can’t call those signals back, but maybe it’s past time to find a way to block them from going beyond our atmosphere (although internet-based entertainment sources like Netflix are helping).

I’m all in favour of passively searching for signs of life in space. I am most definitely not in favour of deliberately calling attention to ourselves. Let me simply ask: if the native North Americans of the 15th Century had suspected that there was even one chance in a hundred that the arrival of Europeans on their shores would have the effects it did, would they have built big signal fires on the beaches inviting one and all to come and visit? (They didn’t—it’s a metaphor for what some scientists suggest we should do, which is just incredibly naïve.)

It might not be possible to ever fully prepare ourselves for First Contact with an alien species. Lets not blindly rush into it!

There’s another reason that might explain why we haven’t yet detected signs of civilization elsewhere, and it’s a disturbing one. It’s possible that, once species advance in technical knowledge to the point where they can control planet-changing chemical processes (like human carbon emissions) and hugely destructive energies, they may destroy themselves. If that’s true, and inevitable, or even quite common, the span of time during which their civilization might be detectable from light years away could be quite short. Humans are now capable of annihilating ourselves, but that’s only been true for a century or so. What if most highly-advanced technological societies don’t make it much longer than that? Consider that we’ve only had instrumentation capable of scanning the heavens over multiple wavelengths of light and radio frequencies for a half-century or thereabouts. If there were an advanced civilization radiating lots of energy into space from a solar system fifty light years from Earth, they would have to have been doing so within the past century for us to even know they existed. And only if their radiations were aimed this way, and if we were looking in the right place!

What if, when we venture out into interstellar space, we encounter the remains of such extinct cultures? Science fiction is full of such things, from Clarke’s Rama, to Niven’s Ringworld, Pohl’s Gateway technology, to the Stone from Greg Bear’s novel Eon. Scientists (and SF fans) get excited about what we could learn from alien civilizations, dead or alive, that would advance our technological capabilities. If you ask me, there are deeper lessons that are much more important for us to learn. Such as how such cultures interact peacefully with others. And how to survive our own ever-increasing planet-killing powers.

We want to know if we’re alone in the universe. Okay. While we’re looking, let’s do everything we can to prepare ourselves for the answer.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE E.T.'S GONE?

Close Encounters mothership.jpg

It’s strange that, living on a planet that teems with millions of different species, humans wonder if we’re “alone in the universe”.

The question usually refers to conscious, thinking beings like ourselves, not just any form of life. But the first step to knowing if there are other sentient beings in the cosmos is to find out if there is any kind of life beyond Earth at all. That’s not an easy search.

For one thing, it’s only in the past few decades that we could say for certain there are planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. It didn’t make sense that our sun would be one-of-a-kind, but it took modern astronomical equipment and detection methods to confirm the existence of extrasolar planets. Now astronomers speculate that most stars probably have planets, and most likely have one or two planets in the so-called habitable zone, which we define as habitable because their orbits should provide surface temperatures that allow for liquid water. It bears saying that the liquid water temperature range is what we humans and similar life forms require for survival, but even here on Earth we’ve discovered life forms that exist in hellishly extreme conditions, like deep-sea volcanic vents and under Antarctic ice. Plus we can imagine life based on elements like silicon instead of the carbon molecules that construct Earth organisms, increasing the number of planets that might be inhabitable by some kind of life. Given that there are hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, the number of possibly-habitable planets is… really, really high! And let’s not forget that uninhabitable planets, like gas giants, might have habitable moons. (Jupiter’s moon Europa is a strong possibility for hosting life.) That multiplies the numbers yet again.

All of this should give a boost to science fiction writers because, in all the vastness of the universe, every one of our stories about strange alien species and civilizations could be reasonably plausible.

The skeptic will ask, “So where is everybody?” (known as Fermi’s Paradox.)

Which brings me to my second point, that signs of life are really hard to identify as such because they could have other causes. For example, living species are known to have provided Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen, but it can be produced by other chemical processes, too—oxygen markers in the spectral analysis of a planet’s atmosphere are no guarantee of life. So when it comes to basic life in general, we can identify places that have conditions we believe would support life, but we can’t know it’s actually there until we go and take samples. Look how challenging that’s been on Mars, and it’s the planet next door!

It should be easier to find signs of advanced alien life-forms because we expect civilizations to give off indications of high energy use, or even radiate electromagnetic transmissions like the TV and radio signals we’ve been shooting off into the void for decades. Except we have no reason to expect that an alien species would have senses comparable to our vision and hearing—they might not even be able to detect our TV and radio signals, much less interpret them, and we might not be able to detect their forms of communication. There could be lots of civilizations relatively near to us, yet communicating and using energy in ways so different from our own that we don’t recognize what we’re looking at. Or we’re not using the right instruments to distinguish them at all.

The difficulty is made many times worse by the vastness of the universe. In a recent study published in The Astronomical Review, the researchers wondered how much of the local galactic neighbourhood had actually been searched by SETI efforts (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), listening for potentially alien radio signatures. They picked a zone of space roughly 33,000 light years across, comprising a good portion of our galaxy’s densest part plus nearby globular clusters, and they determined that, proportionally, the area that had been effectively searched was the equivalent of a bathtub of water compared to all of Earth’s oceans. I guess there’s a chance we could have missed something!

SETI was relegated to a back burner for a few years, but has now been welcomed back into the astrobiology fold, and there’s no doubt we will continue to expand the areas of space that we’re searching and improve our search methods.

Technology can be great. But will we put as much effort into the implications of all this? There are lots of big questions to be answered. How will our society cope with the knowledge that life exists elsewhere, especially if it’s an advanced species? How will we, as a race, behave when we encounter such life?

I’ll get into those things a little more in my next post. So keep your fingers crossed that ET doesn’t show up before then!

HITCH A RIDE TO THE MOON?

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You’ve just opened an invitation: it says you’ve got an exclusive seat reserved on a spacecraft that will soar to the Moon and back. But you have to give an answer in five minutes. GO!

Would you do it?

I’m not talking science fiction this time. Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket-building company intends to send their Big Falcon Rocket (say it with a slight slur and yes, the name’s an intentional joke, but it’s also real) out around the Moon carrying nine passengers as early as 2023. The passengers will be Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and perhaps eight artists of various disciplines. Maezawa has booked the flight at a price tag rumoured to cover most of the project’s five-billion-dollar cost, but he hasn’t said who he has in mind to invite along. Maybe just artists. But maybe not. What if he changes his mind? What if he decides to hold a lottery?

One time, many years ago, in my radio career, I was doing the commentary at an air show. A parachutist approached and asked if anyone wanted to join him on a tandem jump—right then. If I’d said yes, I’d have been in the air ten minutes later ready to fall out of a plane and plummet toward the Earth, trusting my life to a stranger and a big sheet of fabric. I wanted to go—I’d always said I’d like to try sky-diving. But I didn’t. For one thing, the air show commentary was my responsibility and finding someone to fill in on such short notice wouldn’t be easy, or considerate to the organizers. For another, my young son was with me, and would be watching if I went splat. So I passed.

I have to admit that if I had the same offer today, I’d probably just plain chicken out, no excuse required.

But would I like to ride a rocket and pay a close-up visit to the Moon? I’m a science fiction writer—of course I would!

In theory.

The reality is that travel by rocket is still really risky. Rockets do still explode on the pad or during launch, sometimes destroying satellites and probes worth many millions of dollars (SpaceX itself has seen a half-dozen of its rockets explode, though a number were while attempting to land on their tails—a technique that has more recently become consistently successful). Lives aren’t usually lost because human flights are a very small percentage of rocket launches, but it has happened and could happen again. You could beat the odds to get a seat on the flight, only to beat the odds in a much more unfortunate way. And the launch is not the only dangerous part by any means. Maezawa and his companions will be flung out on a round trip of nearly 800,000 kilometres—four days on their own, far beyond any hope of help should they get into trouble. The FBR is big, designed to eventually ferry up to one hundred commercial passengers at a time, but on this first jaunt the surplus space will be used to carry extra fuel and food supplies in case something goes wrong.

What could go wrong? Anything. Everything. Failures that would be meaningless on Earth might be critical in the freezing vacuum of space hundreds of thousands of kilometres from home.

Hang on…is science fiction writer Scott Overton hinting that he might turn down a chance to travel to the Moon?

I don’t think I’m a coward. I’ve happily flown in all kinds of different aircraft of various sizes and vintages, and would once have ridden shotgun with Canada’s Snowbirds aerobatic team if the weather had cooperated. At some point, commercial flights to the Moon will have a track record of safety, and there will be an established infrastructure for rescue missions. That sounds worth waiting for, doesn’t it? The Maezawa junket won’t land either—it won’t even go into Moon orbit, but just swing around once and head back to Earth. If I ever go that far, I’ll darn well want to land and walk around! Otherwise, although I’m sure the view will be mind-boggling, there just might be an element like when I visited the Grand Canyon and didn’t go down into it. After taking in the “breathtaking vistas” I realized that it looked just like all of the pictures I’d seen of it. It was too big. Untouchable. So the experience was ultimately lacking.

But isn’t there something irresistible about being among the first private citizens to go to the Moon? Well, we all remember Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and maybe Michael Collins (who stayed in the Apollo 11 command module and didn’t land), but 21 other men went to the Moon. How many of the others can you name? Maybe some of the artists who accompany Maezawa will be remembered if the art they produce is of lasting value, otherwise they’ll just be “also along for the ride”. And before you judge me too harshly, Maezawa has invited Elon Musk himself along, and Musk has indicated he might go. Only might. This from the guy whose company actually builds the rockets. In his words, “When you’re pushing the frontier, it’s not a sure thing.”

If all this sounds like sour grapes because I’m not likely to be aboard the FBR for its epic journey, I’m not saying I would turn down an invitation, just that it might not be the automatic Yes that my chosen vocation would seem to dictate. If I’m honest.

Still, Yusaku Maezawa, if you’re reading this…it never hurts to talk, right?

A DOUBLE-FEATURE EBOOK SALE

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If you’ve visited this page and become curious about my fiction writing, there’s an exceptional opportunity to get a taste of it this week with not one, but two sales promotions from the ebook platform Kobo.

Until Sept. 23, 2018 my e-anthology BEYOND: The Stars is free through Kobo. It features three space-themed stories (and if you like it you should also take a look at my other e-collections BEYOND: Time and BEYOND: Technology, or the print compilation BEYOND: Time, Technology, and the Stars which features fifteen stories).

Before I turned exclusively to science fiction and fantasy, my mystery/thriller novel Dead Air was published and nominated for a Northern Lit Award in my home province of Ontario, Canada. It not only has an insightful story mixed with lots of action and suspense, it’s also a rare insider’s view of the radio business (I was a broadcaster for more than thirty years). This weekend, until Monday Sept. 24, 2018, Dead Air is a page-turning bargain at half-price—just $2.49 from Kobo.

Normally I’d send you to my own web Bookstore, but I like Kobo a lot, and I’m grateful for it’s global reach. This week I’ve picked up new readers in at least sixteen countries (and it isn’t over yet!)

Join the fun.