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Wednesday
Aug062014

THE BEST FUEL IS NO FUEL, IMPOSSIBLE OR NOT

There was quite a stir a week ago as NASA confirmed the success of an engine that runs without fuel. Your first reaction will be, “Where can I get one of those for my car?!” So perhaps I should call it a propulsion method with no apparent propellant. And it might be usable for spacecraft, but your Chevy is going to have to keep on sucking gas.

The first version of this system was something called the EmDrive by its British inventor, Roger Shawyer. The EmDrive produces thrust from electrical energy by bouncing microwaves inside a sealed container. Physicists said such a thing was impossible because it violated the law of conservation of momentum: to get something moving, you have to exert a force, whether it’s feet on pavement or hot rocket exhaust sprayed in the opposite direction—you gain momentum by taking it from something else. But Shawyer wasn’t deterred. He even got support from a Chinese team that built an EmDrive in 2013 and found that it produced enough thrust to potentially move a satellite around in space.

Non-Chinese physicists still weren’t buying it until an American named Guido Fetta built a microwave thruster of his own, persuaded NASA to test it out, and on July 30th, 2014 the NASA team unveiled its results: impossible or not, the microwave thruster did produce thrust using electrical energy alone—no propellant. The amount of thrust was much less than the Chinese results (Shawyer blames this on Fetta’s design) but still undeniable. The NASA scientists only reported their methods and results—they did not choose to speculate about how the thing works. But as Wired magazine points out, they implied that the microwave thruster may be pushing against the “quantum vacuum plasma”: a froth of the universe’s tiniest particles that, according to quantum mechanics, pop into and out of existence constantly in empty space. In that case, it’s not violating any laws. It’s also not impossible.

This is big news. One of the greatest challenges involved in space travel is the mass of propellant needed for any type of rocket engine. To be able to do without propellant is huge. An EmDrive thruster could be powered by solar energy or presumably, for interstellar travel, a nuclear reactor. The thrust produced is small, but steady, and over the vast distances of space it’s steady that wins the race.

To me, the aspect of the news that’s even more delightful is that it’s yet another instance of someone proving that the “impossible” is no such thing. I realize that the discovery of the laws under which the universe operates is at the core of advancing human knowledge. But when will people stop using the word impossible? I couldn’t begin to list all of the “impossible” things that have proven to be not only possible, but sometimes the next law against which other impossible things are measured.

For now, our best scientists still believe that such things as faster-than-light travel and time travel are impossible. As a science fiction writer, I don’t dare accept that because it would spoil too many great stories! But more than that, I’ve come to see that “impossible” just means “not yet” or perhaps “not within our current understanding”. I’d strongly urge scientists to remove the word from their vocabulary—there’s just too good a chance that they’ll eventually have to eat it.

Tuesday
Jul222014

APOLLO: THE LITTLE CAPSULE THAT COULD

Remembering humankind’s first landing on the moon forty-five years ago this week stirs a mix of emotions. To an SF-geek-from-birth like me it was a dream come true. I watched the landing “live” on TV (it was also the first time my parents let me drink wine!) It seemed like the human race’s colonization of the solar system had begun. In lots of ways we now live in a science fiction world of personal communicators, video conferencing, laser weapons, and stun guns (tasers, not phasers), but we haven’t colonized any other planets. No-one’s even been back to the moon since 1972. Space travel hasn’t ground to a halt, but it has stayed close to home.

It’s been said that the real impetus for the moon landings was political. These days, other than a small number of purely scientific probes, ventures into space are increasingly for economic reasons, with private enterprise becoming more and more involved. That’s not a bad thing, except that it’s bound to the vagaries of fickle market forces. Still, I’m grateful that there are entrepreneurs with enough vision to take such risks, knowing that returns on their investment are far from guaranteed. There are vastly greater amounts of money being pumped into technology to give your smartphone a bendable screen, or to let you instantly share pictures of your cat’s latest antics with thousands of your closest friends, because that’s where the profits are. Much has been made of the fact that the USB stick you use as a keychain is more powerful than the computers that navigated Apollo 11 to the moon and back. Think how much better we could do these days if we really wanted to.

Too expensive? Detractors have always pointed out that the money spent on the space program (more than $100 billion in today’s dollars for Apollo and its predecessors) could have been put to better use alleviating poverty and sickness on Earth. I find it far more objectionable that six members of the Walton family (Walmart) have a net worth of more than $140 billion.

It’s become a cliché to compare the cost of space exploration to the amount of money spent on weapons, but it’s an important comparison. Because the conquest of space is about life, not death: ensuring a future for our planet and all of its inhabitants. Transplanting manufacturing and resource extraction to the asteroids and moons to ease the stress on a depleted Earth wracked by climate change. Offering new frontiers for those oppressed by overpopulation. Maybe most of all, making sure that earthly forms of life are preserved for the future. There have been at least five mass extinction events since life began on Earth—we don’t want to still be stranded here for the next one.

Politics or not, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the dusty surface of the moon, we felt that the human race had achieved something truly momentous. Was that the last time we felt that way? Is it because of changing priorities, or have large scale problems brought on a global crisis of confidence?

We need the big dreamers to come to the forefront again. Instead of “how do we keep from backsliding?” we need more “I think I can, I think I can!

Tuesday
Jul152014

HOW SMART SHOULD OUR APPLIANCES BE?

It’s pretty cool to think that someday soon our fridge will detect that we’re low on milk and alert us about it, or even order more on its own. What if it also alerts our doctor that we’re eating too much cheese and not enough veggies? What if that information gets to our insurance company? Or if the government can tell we’re cheating the employment insurance system with an unreported job, because we’re buying expensive cuts of meat?

How smart do we really want our appliances to be?

Two stories got me thinking about that this week: Google just announced that it will join with Samsung and a number of other players to form the Thread Group, a means to establish a standard protocol for the “internet of things” (IoT). Which makes excellent sense—imagine the headache if our Proctor Silex toaster can’t tell our Whirlpool fridge that the bread is stale! And a new Telus/IDC study shows that 30% of medium and large businesses in Canada plan to deploy IoT in some way within the next two years. Since the internet of things could incorporate everything from your pacemaker to health monitors on cattle to traffic sensors to home smoke alarms, and countless more devices, there’s no question that within another ten years we’ll be surrounded by “smart” objects.

My SF writer brain thinks this is outstanding. Then my everyday brain slaps me upside the head and reminds me that I can’t even keep up with all the settings on my iPhone. Am I going to actually allocate time to decide whether or not my microwave should have “Location Services” enabled and if my bathroom soap dispenser should be able to talk to my treadmill? Not going to happen. Default settings will reign, meaning someone else’s idea of what information my personal belongings should collect and who they should send it to.

Yikes. I don’t think even George Orwell would have imagined being ratted out by his electric toothbrush. Although the more likely result is that I’ll start to brush my teeth and an ad will pop up on my bathroom mirror, assuring me that I can get even more whitening power for less money if I switch to new Galaxy toothpaste with Quantumcleen®.

The purpose of the internet of things is to make the products we use more efficient, and more useful, to make us better informed for the choices we face, to make our lives run more smoothly. It certainly has the potential to do all those things and more. As long as we know what we want and make our desires clearly heard. Right now, it’s big business that’s driving the move toward IoT, with the cooperation of governments, and we have a pretty good idea that what they want isn’t always what we want.

I don’t dare think about what could happen if our devices become even smarter. ‘Cause if my vibrating La-Z-Boy and my entertainment system decide to go on strike until I upgrade my cable subscription…I’m turning Amish.

Wednesday
Jul092014

READ TO YOUR KIDS...IN YOUR FUNNIEST VOICE

Want to save yourself big money on medical bills and parental leave days?

Read to your kids.

OK, that’s simplifying things a bit, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has now strongly suggested that doctors prescribe “reading together as a daily fun family activity”. It’s a position the Canadian Paediatric Society has held for some years. Basically, the better your reading and writing skills, the more likely you are to get well-paid employment, and having a better income makes it much easier to get and stay healthy. The doctors offer up lots of data, and point out the importance of literacy to national economies, too—you can read a good overview here—but it doesn’t take a hundred studies to know that we all love stories. That sharing stories is one of the oldest forms of communal entertainment there is. That reading to little kids can a be real blast, for everybody involved.

I suppose, as a science fiction writer, I’m expected to forecast that within a hundred years there’ll no longer be any books and we’ll all just passively suck up video entertainment instead. But I don’t believe that. Reading is just too good a thing to ever go away, although the future of literacy does depend on showing our kids how much fun it can be.

What’s in it for you?

For one thing, reading to your kids gives you a great chance to practice those cartoon character voices and foreign accents—you know, the ones you do while singing along to the radio in the car. Your fellow motorists have never truly appreciated them, and traffic cops can get downright hostile, but your kids will think they’re great. Or at least they’ll have a lot of fun rolling their eyes and saying adult things like, “Oh Daaad.” I used to randomly throw in a Donald Duck voice that I’d perversely refuse to do when requested. And if you take it further and “re-imagine” the story as you go (as the Hollywood producers would say), the kids get to fine-tune their persuasion skills as they beg you to “read it the right way.” The paediatricians call these parent-child bonding experiences. I call them fun. They’re even cheap—compare a trip to the library to the price of an amusement park ticket or weekly violin lessons. In case you need help getting started, there are websites galore to offer advice, like this one from Reading Rainbow.

If you want to instil a lifelong love of science fiction, try sharing some of the SF novels of the classic era once the kids get a bit older. Maybe you can’t name every different car model you pass on the way to school, but you can be the cool parent who knows about things like black holes, the three laws of robotics, and the Ringworld. Another good thing is that Clarke, Asimov, and Bradbury rarely included sex scenes that you’ll have to skip. Niven, well….

As a bonus, you just might rediscover the great stories that made you fall in love with reading. Like the best of old friends, they’re still there waiting for you.

Wednesday
Jun252014

LESS THAN A WEEK LEFT TO GET DEAD AIR FOR $3.99

There’s less than a week left to take advantage of the discount offer from my publisher for ebook versions of my novel Dead Air. It’s a rich mystery thriller about the radio business (which I’ve inhabited all my life).

What would you do if you learned that someone wanted you dead, and was taking action to make it happen? That’s what radio morning man Lee Garrett faces in Dead Air, and you can read about his trials for just $3.99 if you buy an ebook version of Dead Air before the end of June.

Read the first chapter here and follow the links to buy your copy.