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Monday
Dec012014

WANDERERS VIDEO

VIDEO: WANDERERS

Some people who aren't fans of science fiction wonder what all the fuss is about. Why would anybody be excited by the idea of going into space when we have everything we need right here on Mother Earth?

This short video called "Wanderers" by uses information from NASA missions and other sources, along with a narration by Carl Sagan, to create a beautiful vision of some of the spectacles that could be waiting for us "out there". Be sure to watch it fullscreen!

Have a look, and recapture your childhood enthusiasm about space travel all over again.

Thursday
Nov272014

INTERSTELLAR: GOOD SCIENCE, OR JUST GOOD FUN?

Now that a large number of SF fans have seen the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar I feel I can chime in and give my two cents worth.

The premise of the movie is that blights have devastated Earth’s agricultural crops, creating dust bowl conditions pretty well everywhere. Humankind needs a new place to live. Enter a team of scientists led by Michael Caine and a crew that includes Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. The spacecraft Endurance will travel through a recently-discovered wormhole to assess and possibly begin colonization of some planets orbiting a black hole in another galaxy. The planets have been surveyed by previous solo missions that were unable to return but have sent data.

I won’t give away any more of the story, but it’s a solid science fiction premise, a whole lot better than the usual “alien monster killing people on a spaceship” that seems to make up most of Hollywood’s SF output. There’s been a lot of praise for the science in Interstellar, and there ought to be, since famous physicist Kip Thorne was a consultant and executive producer. Heck, they had me onside as soon as I saw that the exterior space shots were silent (other than soundtrack music) with no cheesy rocket noises or whooshing sounds. The visual effects are gorgeous, and the plot and setting elements attributable to the influence of the black hole are right on the money. There’s a big metaphysical element to the plot that has little, if any, basis in science. But it does provide a satisfying dramatic structure for the whole exercise.

The Good: accurate science, stunning and yet authentic visual effects, excellent performances from a great cast, and in spite of its space journey premise, it’s a very human story.

The Bad: There’s an extended sequence involving Matt Damon that, in my opinion, could have been chopped and shaved a big chunk off the movie’s nearly-three-hour running time. It’s pure Hollywood, far less credible than the rest of the movie. Watching it, I kept picturing some stereotypical movie producer insisting that a scene like that had to be included or audiences would be bored. That attitude is to blame for theatres being dominated by stuff like Fast & Furious 7.

It might take a few years to know whether Interstellar will take its place among the classic SF films (few as they are), but in the meantime it’s a very worthwhile offering for those of us who don’t want to have to switch our brains off when we go to the movies.

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.