November 20, 2018

Review: Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe

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There. We said it.

So, you think you know Sir Isaac Newton? Some of the most fascinating tales of science and history lurk in the footnotes, down the tiny side avenues and rabbit holes that most traditional biographies only hint at. Rittenhouse passed out during a transit of Venus. Tycho had his nose shot off during a duel.

Of course, most science history books only tease us with these glimpses and asides in favor of the standard narrative of discovery. One recent book that breaks this trend is Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe by Florian Freistetter out from Prometheus Books.

Sure, you learned Newton’s laws of motion in high school science class. You’ve heard the apocryphal tale of the apple. But did you know that, as the head of the Royal Mint, Newton also actively persecuted counterfeiters? Or that he was not only a staunch critic of his contemporaries, but a firm defender of his own work?

The book portrays Newton at his idiosyncratic best, an abrasive character with a drive to understand the inner workings of nature and the universe at all costs. Newton was fascinated with the nature of gravity and light, and once famously stuck a needle in his eye (don’t try this at home) in order to better understand the nature of sight and light perception. Though these early experiments may seem frivolous at best and dangerous at worst, Newton did give us the first functioning design for a reflecting telescope that now bears his name, the Newtonian reflector.

The book also delves into the controversy over the invention of calculus and Newton versus Leibniz. A product of his time, Newton’s efforts in early chemistry were also tied up with its arcane roots in alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a material said to have the ability to transmute any substance into gold. The ruling powers of the day so feared Newton’s reputation that the King of England actually issued an edict against any such transmutation, lest it collapse the national economy overnight.

Newton also dabbled in the occult, and analysis of the Bible in search of hidden meaning and the history of early humanity. Newton also used his studies in the chronology of the Bible to extrapolate the date for the apocalypse in 2060. This fascinating aside gives a glimpse into a time that may seem strange to us today, an era when science and magic were still intertwined. Kepler, for example still practiced astrology, and took an entire year off from his studies of planetary motion to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft.

And while these aspects of Newton’s life and works may seem strange, it also paints a picture of how science with true predictive power and the scientific method emerged. Sure, we all memorized Newton’s three laws of motion in high school, but he also set physics on the right track, a quest to unify the fundamental forces of nature that continues today.

Be sure to read Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe. You’ll never see Newton in the same light again.

 

Review: The Phantom Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching

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Love maps? Looking for something a bit unconventional and unique? We recently finished a fascinating compendium of the world as it never was, and lands that were thought to be. We’re talking about The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps by Edward Brooke-Hitching, out from Chronicle Books. The Phantom Atlas is a definitive collection of lands that never where, though they found their way onto charts and atlases, some persisting until very recently.

The book breaks down 58 fascinating entries in alphabetical order, from the Strait of Anian to the Phantom Lands of Zeno. Even if you’re a hardcore geographer or historian, I’ll bet there are at least a few you haven’t heard of. In our case, I’d say about half of the entries were new to us.

Some of these were fleeting apparitions, Fata Morganas at sea, icebergs or mirages. Others were embellishments, tall tales meant to stir up interest or investments.

Some of our faves from the book include:

The tragic story of the Territory of Poyais: in 1822, soldier of fortune turned con artist Gregor MacGregor convinced prospective settlers (twice!) in Scotland and England to buy phony land deeds and pack up and head to a supposed new colony in Honduras. When they arrived, the settlers found nothing more than a malarial marsh.

Norumbega: I found this one interesting, as it’s one of the few entries that ties in with my home state of Maine. Also, it relates to the fascinating tale of David Ingram, who supposedly walked 3,000 miles across North America in 1568.

Wak-wak: what’s not to love about a supposed island off the coast of Japan and Korea where human-shaped fruit hangs suspended on trees?

A few popular lands also made the cut, including Atlantis, El Dorado, and the lands of Prester John, an Ethiopian king rumored to want to come to the aid of besieged Crusaders in the Holy Lands.

Why study false maps? Well, the map entries in the book give us insight into just how our ancestors viewed the world around them, and how this view is changing, even today. Did you know, for example, that an expedition ventured out to look for the fictitious Bermeja Island… in 2009, seven years after the launch of Google Earth? Or that sounding measurements made in 1948 in the North Atlantic suggest that Mayda Island may have once been real, before it was submerged by volcanic activity beneath the waves?

The Phantom Atlas also provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of map making, and how our view of the world has evolved to the picture we have today. Editing is a laborious task even today, and one can only imagine how tough the task was in the Middle Ages, as cartographers only had limited information and the anecdotes of wayward seafarers. The temptation is often strong to simply embellish and fill in the gaps on maps with islands and lands that, while they tell a good tale, simply do not exist.

Be sure to pick up The Phantom Atlas for a look at the world as if never was, though we once thought it should be.

Cosmic Watch: An Update

Cosmic Watch screen grab.

Who wouldn’t want your very own Earth and Solar System to play with? Recently, we reviewed the Cosmic Watch App. This application (available for Android and Iphone for $4.99 US)… released last year gives you a unique “outside looking in view” of the apparent sky along with the planets, Moon, Sun and constellations… [Read more...]

Review: My Plastic Brain by Caroline Williams

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Looking to change your brain? Sure, we’d all like to be smarter, more math savy, or simply able to flip automatically into creativity mode on command… but are such changes possible?

Science writer Caroline Williams takes us on a fascinating personal journey through the modern world of neuroscience to see if such changes are possible. My Plastic Brain: One Woman’s Yearlong Journey to Discover if Science can Improve Her Mind out from Penguin Random House looks at developments in the forefront of the field, and where we may be headed. This is a very timely book, as the concept of “mindfulness” is thrown around lots these days… we also find ourselves bombarded by an endless stream of digital distractions, all vying for our seemly shortening attention span. Are we modifying our brain, every time we compulsively check Facebook? Should we heed calls for digital detox, made ironically on podcasts and YouTube?

Williams casts a critical and skeptical eye over the current trend of brain training and modification, seeking out the scientific experts in the field. Like us, Williams has dabbled with meditation but is leery of its many purveyors as a panacea, those with the glassy-eyed stare who’ve seemed to have “drunk the Kool-Aid…” I’d agree with the sentiment… meditation is great for dealing with anxiety and putting oneself in a “relaxed and ready,” state, just don’t tell me it’ll cure cancer.

The author agrees that the brain state of anxiety “isn’t good for anything,” and undergoes training to get herself in a mode where she can exhibit the grace under pressure “it’s all good” mentality in formerly stressful situations. She also looks to refine her geospatial sense of direction by wearing a belt around the neighborhood that vibrates (!) giving her the innate sense of true north. She also works to overcome math anxiety, and see if she can give herself a better sense for numbers through brain training.

The author also delves into some fascinating applications for such training, and methods that may be just around the corner. Particularly interesting are the possible applications for chronic sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Those who endure PTSD daily say its like being in a constant state of high alert, where the brain seems stuck at open throttle with little or no respite.

The author’s research also delves into an often under-appreciated mode of thought, one that’s just now becoming recognized as an essential mode for creativity: mindfulness‘s relative, mindlessness. Simply put, this is the sort of daydreaming boredom that allows us to start puzzling together old ideas in new ways, as our brain meanders about. Are we losing this trait, as we can now fill every available moment of our lives with tailor-made digital distraction? And should we choreograph children’s lives to keep them gainfully employed with each waking moment?

This might also explain something we’ve noticed over the years, where our most creative thoughts and problem-solving peaks come while out running. We’re away from distractions, and we only grudgingly recently allowed our smartphone to come along on our daily runs, if only to measure and chronicle our daily course.

Perhaps in the end, doing whatever makes us ‘zone out” –whether it be running, mediation, or killing zombies in a video game—are equally therapeutic. The author seems to have brought her anxiety level down and found a way to change settings into a mindful creative mode, something we’d like to turn on at will.

Be sure to read My Plastic Brain for a good look at what’s possible and where we might be headed in terms of brain training and modification.

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.

 

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: 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: Being in the Shadow by Dr. Kate Russo

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Headed to the August 21st total solar eclipse? You could do well to listen to those who have stood in the shadow of the Moon before. Like many other umbraphiles (those who chase after eclipses), we’ll be headed northward to greet the Moon’s shadow two short lunations from now as it races across the contiguous United States from coast-to-coast for the first time in nearly a century.

This will be the first total solar eclipse for us, and the celestial spectacle is sure to mint a whole new generation of eclipse chasers… but what is totality really like? Dr. Kate Russo’s Being in the Shadow gives us a glimpse of how the November 13th, 2012 eclipse unfolded through the testimonies of several individuals who share their experiences leading up to, during and after the eclipse. These aren’t astronomers, scientists or even veteran eclipse chasers: rather, these are all eclipse neophytes who, for one reason or another, decided to witness the event. These testimonies offer a unique perspective on the eclipse. They also give you a sense of what so many other eclipse chasers reiterate: it’s hard to describe the eclipse experience, a “false dawn” at midday where reality turns on its head.

These stories also underscore two key facets of a total solar eclipse that are sure to come into play this August: 1. getting into the path of totality is a must for the true experience. We saw the 1994 annular solar eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie, and can attest that a 99% eclipsed Sun is still pretty darned bright. And 2. While all safety precautions need to be undertaken during the partial phases of a solar eclipse, you can indeed look at totality (the solar corona is about twice as bright as a Full Moon). Often, the public gets bombarded with “don’t look at the Sun” messages leading up to an eclipse, to the point that people hide inside and shutter their windows. But if you fail to see the ethereal glow of totality, you’re missing the key climax of a total solar eclipse.

Being in the Shadow is an essential read leading up to the Great American Eclipse. I’d also recommend Dr. Russo’s Total Addiction. And us? We’ll be waiting for the shadow of the Moon in Columbia, South Carolina on August 21st, a fine display of hubris owing the the possibility of clouds on a summer afternoon, we know… hey, we’ll have our trusty Fiat handy, ready to dash down (or up) the path as needed on eclipse day. And then just seven short years later April 8th, 2024, the United States gets another total solar eclipse crossing from the southwest to the northeast, right over my hometown of Presque Isle, Maine… where will you be?

- Also: Read our free e-book 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, for a tale of eclipses, Edison’s Chickens and more.

- Check out 12 Great Eclipses in History via www.listosaur.com

- Eclipse… science fiction? Check out our original tales: Exeligmos, The Syzygy Gambit and Peak Season.

Review: Quantum Fuzz

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Feeling lost in the world of quantum physics? It has been said that only a few human brains on the planet truly understand the bizarre world on the quantum scale. It is true that it involves a fair amount of “mathiness” to even grasp much more than the basic predictions of quantum physics. [Read more...]

Review: Starlight Nights by Leslie Peltier

An astronomy classic!

Did you know that there are oodles of books out on the web for free? And no, we’re not talking about Amazon Prime, but sites such as Project Gutenberg where stuff that’s long since been in the public domain is free to download as a pdf for off-line perusal on ye ole smart phone. [Read more...]

Review- The 2015 Rhysling Anthology edited by Rich Ristow

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Did you know: science fiction poetry is a thing? We’ll make the confession that we barely knew that the sub-genre (and the sub-sub genres within) existed before we got into the reviewing and writing game of the modern web. [Read more...]

Review: Kepler and the Universe by David Love

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One of the greatest and most tragic tales in the history of astronomy is the life of Johannes Kepler. And though many are familiar with the 16th-17th century scientist, mostly due to his laws of planetary motion, few know the story of Kepler the man. [Read more...]

Free Fiction Friday: A Standard of Deviation Part 7

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Ready to jump back in to our latest saga? Then without further fanfare, here’s chapter 7 of our latest sci-fi tale. Remember, if you’re new to the tale, to start back with chapter 1, and you can read A Standard of Deviation and other tales like it in its entirety online.

A Standard of Deviation

by

David Dickinson

Chapter 7

But such wanton fantasies were to be quickly abandoned in favor of the present. I was wakened early by the sergeant at arms to flashes beyond the port bay window.

“Ma’am,” he called out as he shook me in a calm manner that hid the urgency of the situation. “You’re going to have to depart, immediately. The Scrappers have found the station.” [Read more...]

Review: A Ray of Light in a Sea of Dark Matter

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What is it?

It’s an amazing revelation of modern cosmology to realize that we’re comprised of the rare exceptions of the universe. Baryonic matter, the stuff that you, your Iphone and radio telescopes are made up of, is the left over minority in the cosmos.

It turns out that it’s all dark, at least to our limited primate eyes.  A Ray of Light in a Sea of Dark Matter by Charles Keeton is a short work which narrows in on the subject, looking at the discovery and history of the hunt for dark matter and where the research and the field of cosmology might be headed. Part of the Pinpoints series out from Rutgers University Press, A Ray of Light looks to address a modern question of science in a simple and concise way. [Read more...]

Review: Explore the Cosmos Like Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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Ever want to explore the universe through an astronomer’s eyes?

The reboot of the Cosmos television series has cemented Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s place in the universe as the successor to the late great Carl Sagan. But before he was a science celebrity and a household name, Tyson was a research astrophysicist as well as a tireless science popularizer and the director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. [Read more...]

Mathematical Curiosities by Alfred S. Posamentier and Ingmar Lehmann

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Today, we’ll delve into the exciting and exhilarating world of mathematics. Wait, wait, come back…

This week we’ll be looking at Mathematical Curiosities: A Treasure Trove of Unexpected Entertainments out from Prometheus Books by Alfred S. Posamentier and Ingmar Lehmann. [Read more...]

Review: The Cosmic Cocktail by Katherine Freese

A stellar recipe!

It’s the hottest topic in modern astrophysics. What exactly is dark matter and dark energy? It is kind of amazing to think that astrophysicists do not yet completely understand just what most of the universe is made of. [Read more...]