April 21, 2018

Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

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Could we be too smart for our own good? We recent finished a real page-turner, a near future science fiction thriller in an all too plausible future reality. The Genius Plague by David Walton out late last year from Pyr Books is a tale of a fungal spore out of the Amazon jungle, taking over humanity. Tales of strange mental feats and a rare and indecipherable tribal language emerges from South America and catches the attention of NSA cryptolinguist Neil Johns. The spore not only boosts the intelligence of its hosts, but encourages them to take the necessary steps to ensure its own survival and propagation… even at the expense of the human hosts themselves. The CIA and U.S. military are dispatched to deal with the threat, and promptly become infected, as hosts for the fungal spores disseminate it with crop dusting aircraft.

Sound far-fetched? Well, there’s good evidence to suggest that lots of our own behaviors are largely motivated by our own bacterial gut flora. A zombie-like brain parasite will cause ants to climb to the top of a tall blade of grass and wait for the fungus to split its carcass open, spreading more spores. toxoplasma gondii in the gut of your average feline is another great example, as it will cause mice to become attracted to the smell of cat urine, causing the cat which generated said urine to consume the hapless mouse, and well, the cycle of life continues. Rabies is another grizzly example of a virus that hijacks the mind of its host for its own nefarious ends, all to ensure its survival own. And heck, addiction itself in humans is a sort of symbiosis: have a pleasant narcotic effect on the human brain, and those brains will find ways to propagate you and assure that you will survive and thrive. Perhaps, just such an infection is out there in the jungle, awaiting human contact. Neil’s brother Paul, a mycologist (one who studies fungus) barely survives an infection on an exploratory stint in the rain forest, and later becomes a champion for the fungus itself. The idea is enticing even to Neil, as their father suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the spore seems to, at first, bring back the man they thought they had lost themselves. But as the fungus begins to win over converts, a larger threat looms, as the solution may be to enslave what’s left of humanity itself in order to preserve it. We’ll stop short of any further spoilers there, but we will say that the book climaxes with a great showdown at the home of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, one with a horrific vision for the possible future of mankind. There’s a great story on the science of evolution in The Genius Plague as well, one that makes it all the more terrifying: the fungus itself isn’t intelligent; its just learned a great new strategy from the standpoint of its own survival, to make sure humans want to keep you around. Neil later realizes that the only way to defeat the fungus may be to convince it (in the minds of the infected) that it’s own survival depends on hiding rather than thriving, another common evolutionary tactic.

Be sure to read The Genius Plague for the vision of an all too real apocalyptic thriller.

Review: Beyond Earth by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix

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What’s next in space exploration? We are literally at a crossroads now at the end of the second decade of the the 21st century, a time of crisis and opportunity. Sure, technology has come a long way, as we all carry exponentially more computing power in our pockets than was used to take humans to the Moon.

We also seem, however, to be stalled in low Earth orbit, as the moving goal post of humans on Mars always seems 20 years away…

We read an interesting road map that just might show us the way to get space exploration rolling again. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix out from Pantheon Press is an exciting look at what could be. Both authors draw off of their respective and extensive backgrounds in space exploration technology and the very latest developments and innovations in space flight.

And this sort of optimism is coming none to soon. Already, the gap between the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program and the promise of SLS—another moving goal post—is longer than the transitional span between the final Apollo era mission (The Apollo-Soyuz test project) and the launch of space shuttle Columbia on STS-1. The James Webb Space Telescope is facing yet another delay, and one by one, our eyes in the outer solar system are going dark, as Cassini, Juno and New Horizons all wrap up their respective missions. And while it’s true that NASA is set to receive another budget boost in 2018, we’re stuck in a flip-flop loop from going to Mars, then the Moon, then back again with every change of administration.

Beyond Earth looks at the overall big picture, and what new players like SpaceX and their Mars or Bust vision might mean. I particularly like how the book flips from one chapter to the next between a future science fiction narrative versus modern science reality—there’s enough idea to provide sci-fi fodder here for any budding writer.

The core tenet, however driving Beyond Earth is not Mars, but a much more distant goal: the case for colonizing Saturn’s large moon, Titan. The authors correctly point out that the large moon has an atmosphere thick enough that bulky pressure suits aren’t needed… and dense enough that a wing suit equipped human could fly. There’s lots of methane and ethane fuel just lying around on the surface, and lots of available carbon for us carbon-based lifeforms. The chief problems presented by Titan are its chilly temperatures and immense distance from the Sun. Big problems for sure, but not insurmountable.

We still maintain that we need to start practicing with a self sustaining colony in Antarctica… a harsh but still much human-friendlier location than anywhere in the solar system.

The book also delves into real ideas for exotic virtual particle drives, ships that begin with a thrust gentler than a puff of air but eventually build up to enormous velocities. And while such a system might still be very much on the drawing board. Spacecraft such as NASA’s Dawn mission at Ceres used a similar Xenon-fueled ion drive to build up a small but dependable thrust.

be sure to read Beyond Earth to get a look at where 21st century space exploration may (hopefully) be headed.

Dating Artemis: An Astronomical Sci-Fi Mystery Solved?

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I love it when a hard science fiction book presents an astronomical mystery.

I came across just such a mystery reading Artemis, the latest science fiction novel out late last year from Andy Weir.

Artemis presents the story of Jasmine Bashara, a young girl trying to make her way in the first settlement on the Moon. Artemis is a thriving town, built around Earth tourism at the Apollo 11 Sea of Tranquility landing site.

We won’t introduce any spoilers here; suffice to say, if you like some hard science blended into your fiction, you’ll love Artemis. Like The Martian, Artemis also seems to be near-future science fiction, both culturally and technologically. We say “near” as in something that’s plausible over the next half-century or so. Also like The Martian, Artemis doesn’t peg the exact date when the events transpire… or does it? As an amateur astronomer and avid sky watcher, I noticed a few clues that just might pin down the exact future date of the tale.

Dating the Martian

Weir puts lots of research into his novels. With The Martian, he states that if you can work out the Hohmann transfer windows between the Earth and Mars needed for the Ares III mission to rescue and return Mark Watney back to Earth, then you could pin down the date in the 2030s when the events in The Martian transpired.

Is there a similar puzzle in Artemis? Well, I think there could be, based on you key celestial sights mentioned in the book.

Artemis runs on Kenya Time, as missions headed to the Moon depart from the equatorial country, taking advantage of its maximum rotational boost eastward and its favorable laws encouraging space companies to set up shop there. Kenya Time is Universal Time, +3 hours.

The most conspicuous objects in the sky as seen from the Apollo 11 landing site are the Sun and the Earth. “Daytime” on the Moon lasts about two weeks from sunrise to sunset… but the Moon is locked with one hemisphere turned perpetually Earthward, so the Earth would never set. Instead, Earth would go through phases like the Moon does as seen from the Earth, as it slowly circles a spot high in the sky due to the rocking nutation and libration motion of the Moon.

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 8 in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA

The phases you see from the surface of the Moon, however, are opposite to what you see on the Earth. This means when the Moon is Full from the Earth, Earth is at New as seen from the Moon. Likewise, waxing versus waning phases are reversed.

Artemis gets these phases right where it makes mention of them. On their own, however, one cycle of phases is pretty much like another… even making mention of something like an eclipse wouldn’t really pin the date down, as several lunar and solar eclipses happen, every year.

We get a possible lead, however, from the following passage when the protagonist checks her Earth-phase watch:

”Lene checked her wristwatch. ‘Ten thirteen a.m…and there’s currently a half-Earth, by the way. It’s waxing.’”

Now, that’s a little more specific… converting 10:13 AM Kenya Time to 7:13 Universal Time we just need to reverse the phase, and find when there’s a waning Last Quarter (half) Moon seen from the Earth around the same time.

Combing through the Astro-Pixels listing of Moon phases for the 21st century for Last Quarter Moons that will fall on 7:13 UT plus or minus one minute , I came up with the following possibilities:

August 30th, 2021 (it’s not likely that there’ll be a lunar outpost in just over three years!)

August 9th, 2099 (more likely).

Earth on August 9th, 2099 as seen from the surface of the Moon. Credit: Stellarium.

Of course, a few caveats are in order. Phases such as New, Full and Quarter are only instants in time. You could look up at the Moon (or the Earth, from the surface of the Moon) several hours one either side of Quarter phase and it would still appear pretty much half-illuminated. I own a Casio watch that shows the current phase of the Moon, for example… but it would be hard to pin down the exact moment of the Full or Last Quarter Moon with just the watch display alone.

Our very own “Moon phase watch…” photo by author.

Is the passage a true “tell” planted by the author? Maybe, maybe not. There are other methods the author could’ve used that are even more exact. Transits of Mercury and Venus across the face of the Sun, for example, are also visible from the surface of the Moon. On November 12th, 2190, for example, Mercury will transit the Sun, just hours from a solar eclipse… and if you’re visiting the Apollo landing site on November 13th, 2236, you can see Mercury transit the face of the Sun, during an eclipse:

Perhaps, future celestial phenomena will make their way into an Artemis sequel?

Read more original hard science-fueled tales by Dave Dickinson.

 

Book Review: The Castle in Cassiopeia by Mike Resnick

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There’s nothing like the swashbuckling action of jumping from one globular cluster to another. We recently came across just such a fast-moving tale, with The Castle in Cassiopeia by Mike Resnick, the latest in his Dead Enders saga out from Pyr Books. [Read more...]

Review: Cosmic Watch

Cosmic Watch screenshot.

To understand the motions of the sky is to understand our place in the Universe. We recently came across a neat new App available for Apple and Google Play named Cosmic Watch, ($4.99 US) which simulates the sky view from a unique perspective.

The App: Cosmic Watch allows you to toggle between the topocentric versus geocentric view, showing the planets, Sun, Moon and constellations in time and space. You can overlay constellations along with the planes of the galaxy, ecliptic and the celestial equator. You can toggle between the astronomical constellation overlay view, astrological zodiac view, and solar system yearly calendar view.

Astrology vs Astronomy

Yup. We said astrology. Cosmic Watch uses the older traditional “12 Houses” of the zodiac approach, not taking into account precession. The modern astronomical constellations (incorporating precession) are included on the astronomical view, a nice touch. There’s no “interpretive astrology” (i.e. “today’s a good day for starting to learn to play the bongos,” etc) just a simple true sky positioning of celestial objects. The astronomical view does, though, list constellations such as “Scorpius” by their astrological names (Scorpio)… hey, modern astronomy shares its hoary roots with the arcane practice of astrology; I meet up with the astrologically-minded at star parties all the time, still curious about the reality of the Universe, not a bad thing

On the “outside in” perspective: Cosmic Watch utilizes a unique view: you’re outside the cosmic sphere, looking down at the Earth in the center. Of course, this is an imaginary apparent view, but handy when you’re trying to find things in the sky. This is also the sort of view that was common on early medieval armillary spheres, and you can see this “outside in” view on early star charts.

Screen capture of the April 8th, 2024 total solar eclipse using Cosmic Watch.

Cosmic Watch may be of limited use in the field, but it is a useful teaching tool and planner.

As a cosmic cartographer and chronicler of all things celestial, we found one feature immediately useful: the Cosmic Watch App allows you to see when the Sun, Moon, constellations and planets reach the zenith, and over what geographic location this occurs. This takes the guess work out of, say, finding the optimal position of a meteor shower over the Earth, something difficult to do with other planetarium programs with their standard “inside looking out” perspective.

Check out Cosmic Watch, for a sky view that’s out of this world.

Review: Blockbuster Science by David Siegel Bernstein

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So. The future is now. Is it what you expected? As a child of the 1970s, 2017 seemed like an imaginably far off date. Heck, 2000 seemed impossibly remote, a year straight out of science fiction. And while we’re not vacationing on Phobos and traveling via teleporter just yet, we are all carrying computers in our pocket, and everything is finally made of plastic. [Read more...]

Review: Raining Fire by Rajan Khanna

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There’s one small plus to the current worldwide wave of jingoistic nationalism currently sweeping the world: dystopian science fiction is sure to do really well. Science fiction tends to reflect the hopes and fears of contemporary society, and you can often chart the swing from a shiny white, Star Trek outlook, to a fighting over gasoline, Road Warriors doomsday vision by the fiction we create and consume.

One fine new addition to the dystopian genre is this past summer’s Raining Fire by Rajan Khanna. Out now from Pyr Books, Raining Fire features a horror vision world wracked by a global pandemic, which has reduced humanity to squabbling tribes. Airships and floating city tech provides a backdrop for a brutal drama of slavery and Feral humans driven insane and violent by disease, a sort of steampunk world thrust forward into a desperate future vision.

It’s against this formidable world that we meet Ben Gold, an airship pilot with nothing left to lose. Already stripped of his airship, his allies and his friends, Ben is definitely looking for payback. He also lost Miranda, the only true love of his life, and the story is speckled with diary and journal entries from her that gradually paints a picture of what has come before.

In the end, Ben must face off against the Cabal, a group of sinister scientists (why are scientists always sinister in scifi tales?) and the Valhallans, who are wreaking continent-wide havoc from the flying city of Valhalla.

A high functioning alcoholic, Ben is the archetypal reluctant hero, a man who’s drinking hasn’t quite caught up to him… yet. Raining Fire has lots of action, and is a great portrayal of a man pushed past the edge.

Be sure to read Raining Fire as a great addition to modern dystopian science fiction!

There’s lots more dystopian science fiction to be had… here are some of our faves:

-Earth Girl: This was a gem of a story a out few years back. Imagine getting exiled to the worst place of all: living back on ancient Earth.

-The Hunger Games: A classic… true story, the wife and I both read the books after we saw the first movie, a very rare occurrence. We usually feel that seeing the movie let’s us off the hook (think Lord of the Rings) from saying we’re going to get around to actually reading the books… someday.

-Stand on Zanzibar: A trip of a book, straight out of the groovy 1960s.

-1984: Everything you need to know about the 20th century, in one book.

-The Crossing: Blood of the Lamb: A scary world to contemplate.

And speaking of scary dystopian fiction, be sure to check out Hulu’s amazing adaptation of A Handmaid’s Tale… this one’s all the more frightening because it hits so close to home and the current political climate. I think I’d much rather live in a future with ravaging airships than a world with the brutal and callous repression of personal liberties depicted in the series.

Reader Feedback, New Changes and More

Observing ‘scopes are happy scopes…

(photo by the author).

You responded, and we listened.

Well, maybe complained is more the term. But after a short bit of consideration, we did indeed implement a few changes that we felt were warranted. Anyhow, if you’ve read this far, you’re not a spam-spewing robot, and maybe while you don’t necessarily agree with everything on this site, at least you’re paying attention… [Read more...]

Review: Masterminds by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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Never let it be said that we don’t get around to each and every review book sent to us… eventually. Such is the case with this week’s featured review, Masterminds by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, out from WMG Publishing. A Retrieval Artist novel and the final climatic installment of the Anniversary Day saga, Masterminds brings the action-packed saga to its thrilling conclusion. Fans of this saga and this space will recall our reviews of Blowback, A Murder of Clones, Search & Recovery, The Peyti Crisis, Vigilantes and Starbase Human. [Read more...]

Life Lessons From the Classic Strategy Game RISK

Prepare for battle…

Credit: Risk/Hasbro/SMG Studio

Leave it to technology, to bring back an old friend in a new way. We’ve recently joined the realm of the online gaming community, about a decade plus behind the rest of the world. I know, we finally got tired of having our computer beat us at chess. Anyhow, we noticed a free app featuring the game Risk while idly scrolling through the Google Play store, and decided to give it a try. [Read more...]

Astronomy Video of the Week – Howling at Totality

Our grim view, moments before totality.

Screams break the silence…” So, where were YOU last Monday? If you were like us, you made the pilgrimage to stand in the path of the total solar eclipse. We’ll admit, we — like many viewers east of the Mississippi River — battled touch and go views of the eclipse through rolling clouds as we watched from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in southwestern North Carolina.

Luckily, one of the more unique events along the path had mostly clear skies, as totality crossed over the Moonstock music festival in southern Illinois. And Ozzy Osbourne opened his set right on cue just moments before the start of totality with Bark at the Moon. We’ve looked over about a dozen bootleg mobile phone videos capturing the event, and this is one of the best balances of the eclipse and the performance:

This isn’t Bonnie Tyler singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” that’s for sure… although that did indeed occur as well. Totality during Monday’s eclipse was indeed about one metal guitar solo long, and kudos to Zakk Wylde for shredding on while the Sun didn’t shine. Heck, Ozzy even timed the final howl at the Moon along with the audience just as a brilliant diamond ring signaling the end of totality split the sky. Here we are in 2017, still screaming at the sky and making a mighty din, beseeching the Moon to return our Sun.

Performances during a total solar eclipse give you one take and one take only to get it right. The 1960 film Barabbas, for example, features a crucifixion scene shot during a total solar eclipse in Italy. More recently in 2015, the band Hamferđ performed their song Deyđir varđar during totality over the Faroe Islands.

Kuddos to Ozzy for pulling this one off. What’s next? Well, you don’t have to wait until the 2024 and the return of totality to the United States, as we’ve got a total solar eclipse passing over several world-class observatories in Chile less than two years from now on July 2, 2019…

Any takers, in the newly minted next generation of metal fans and eclipse chasers?

 

Astro Video of the Week: Making a Binocular Solar Filter

From eclipse glasses to binocular solar filter…

Scrambling to prepare for the Great American Eclipse at the last minute? This final Friday before the August 21st 2017 total solar eclipse, we thought we’d share with you a fun and easy project. Lots of folks across North America just recently got their hands on a pair of solar eclipse glasses for the event. While millions are expected to stand along the path of totality, most folks will only witness varying partial phases of the eclipse, and will need to use eclipse glasses throughout the event. [Read more...]

Astronomy Video of the Week: Hunting for the Oldest Eclipse

Totality from the 1914 eclipse over Sweden.

(Credit: N. Nordenstrom)

An astronomical mystery came our way this past week.

If you’re like us, you’re gearing up to meet the shadow of the Moon in just 10 short days. While interest in the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse crossing the United States runs high, we wondered: what’s the oldest video of an eclipse featuring totality that is readily accessible online?

After numerous challenges and queries to the astronomical community, we came up with this old film seeming to show the total solar eclipse of August 21st, 1914 over Sweden.

Unfortunately, the team hosting the site declined to share the video with us for YouTube and a wider audience… on YouTube, the oldest video including totality seems to be this fine footage featuring the January 24th, 1925 total solar eclipse over New York City courtesy of British Pathe:

Now, video technology dates back to the 1880s… surely, someone must have tried to capture totality during solar eclipses in those early decades? More than likely, those early efforts have yet to be digitized, or are poorly indexed on ye ole web. Searching “total solar eclipse” of YouTube currently yields a flood of videos running the gamut from astrology and conspiracy theories to actual real science, a tough challenge to sift through to find anything of true historical value.

Back to the Swedish 1914 video. This eclipse occurred over war torn Europe during the opening months of World War I. We actually wrote about this eclipse and how the war foiled early efforts to measure Relativity from Crimea. Sweden was neutral during the war, and witnessed a fine spectacle just past local noon.

Now, there’s a cryptic statement at the end of the description of this video, claiming “the eclipse of this film is a fool in any case”. We ran this by a Swedish friend of ours in the event that Google translate was missing a nuance, and this does indeed seem to be the case…

The trouble is, if it is indeed a fake, it’s a good one. To the experienced eye, the footage showing totality and the corona of the Sun does indeed look real. Note the similarity of the 1925 footage above and the 1914 video in question. Also, timings given for the partial phases of the Sun are correct.

Plus, it’s tough to shoot totality, as exposure times drop dramatically when the Sun is eclipsed. More than likely, the very first attempts to make a video of totality weren’t successful. A sequence towards the end of the clip does show the partial eclipse superimposed over the crowd viewing it… is this what the commentator is alluding to?

Or perhaps, the totality footage is spliced from a different eclipse. There were indeed total solar eclipses over Europe in 1912 and 1905 leading up to 1914. Apparently, video was indeed shot during the April 17th 1912 total solar eclipse over Costa Lobo, Portugal, though it hasn’t made its way to the web…

The book Catchers of the Light mentions astronomer Nils Nordenmark (also listed in the opening credits of the video) and his successful attempt capturing the 1914 eclipse.

Another thing worth noting is the solitary sunspot seen on the disk of the Sun during partial phases of the eclipse in the video. Any sketches of the solar disk from or around August could cinch this… tantalizingly, Mount Wilson observatory didn’t start doing daily sunspot sketches until a few years later in January 4th, 1917.

So for now, the title of oldest eclipse video featuring totality remains a mystery, an enigma that I’ll open up to the larger audience. It’d be great to put this one to bed in time for the Great American Eclipse… any takers?

 

Ghosts of Eclipses Past

Trouvelot’s classic view of the 1878 eclipse over Wyoming.

Image in the Public Domain.

Are you ready?

There’s a great line from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the Three Stages of Sophistication which every civilization must pass: “1. How can we eat? 2. Why do we eat? And 3. Where shall we do lunch?” [Read more...]

Astro Video of the Week: NASA Opens the Archives

What a fun circus ride…

Ever wonder what sort of secrets NASA is REALLY sitting on? We got an early birthday surprise early this past week, when the Armstrong Flight Research Center (formerly the Dryden Space Center) released hundreds of old videos on YouTube, some of these have existed around the web on various sites, some are new to the online era. [Read more...]

Review: The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside

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Quick: who was the father of modern electrical theory? Talk about the early age of electricity and names such as Thomas Edison, James Maxwell and Nikola Tesla come to mind… all of these pioneers deserve their due, sure, but chances are, you have never heard of Oliver Heaviside.

The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside: A Maverick of Electrical Science by Basil Mahon seeks to change that, and presents the life story of the man who’s life work gave birth to modern electrical engineering. [Read more...]

Review: No Humans Allowed

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“Your droids,” says the unnamed bartender in a famous sci-fi flick, “they’ll have to wait outside.”

Perhaps, cyber-discrimination is a pressing social issue in a “galaxy, far, far away…” But what if those protagonists ever manage to turn in table on humanity? [Read more...]

Astro Video of the Week: White Dwarf, Brown Dwarf

+19th magnitude white dwarf WD 1202-024. (SDSS)

Wanna see a wacky planetary system? A recent discovery by MIT, Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Bishop’s University researchers was announced at the 200th AAS meeting in Austin, Texas and made the news rounds last week, but I don’t think folks really got a good grasp on just how strange a binary system WD 1202-024 really is. [Read more...]