TESS and the Serĉanto

For Orlando Jax I came up with the idea of the Gildo de la Serĉanto:

On the planet Montrachet, in the old city of Duclair, is La Rue des Navigateurs, the Street of the Navigators. On this street the early space trading companies built their grand guild houses, did their deals in the cafes and bars, and pleasured their nights away in Les Maisons de L’Amour, the houses of love.
As the known galaxy expanded, so the centre of trade moved further away from Montrachet, and eventually so too did most of the trading companies, leaving their grand monuments as museums to a place in the past.
However, there is one guild house that never turns off its lights. It stays open, ever listening, always waiting for news. It is not a grand building, nor is it particularly remarkable save for the fact that it is the Gildo de la Serĉanto.
A known galaxy can only expand if there are Navigators willing to take the risk and venture into those uncharted deep dry oceans of space. These pioneers are the Serĉanto, and the guild keeps a record of every one of their voyages in the Ledger. There are many names in the Ledger, and against each name is written the nature of their quest and its outcome. Many Serĉanto do not return to tell their story in the comfortable lounge bar of the guild, but over time word gets back as to their fate and the Ledger entry is completed.

It’s fantastic that our search for habitable planets has just taken another step forward in the shape of TESS – the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.  TESS was launched on top of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and at the time I’m writing this, is 12 days 3 hours 40 minutes and 42 seconds into its mission.  TESS continues the work done by the Kepler spacecraft but will be able to search for Earth like planets orbiting stars which are anywhere between 30 to 100 times brighter than those surveyed by Kepler.  NASA hopes TESS will reveal thousands of new Earth and Super-Earth planets that can then be examined more closely by the new James Webb Telescope and existing large ground based telescopes.  Have a look at this page to get a feel for the science objectives which really are quite amazing.

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The TESS spacecraft – image courtesy of NASA.

We continue to build our ledger – our very own “book of wonders” – of places that in some future time people might call home.

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A glimpse into the ledger of habitable worlds – from phl.upr.edu

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Obsolescence

I recently fulfilled a boyhood ambition and bought a Sinclair Sovereign calculator.  They were made for a short period between 1976 and 1977 – over forty years ago.  Back then I would look longingly at them through shop windows but never had the money to actually buy one.  Now thankfully I do, but the price you pay for one of these things means that they are probably worth more now than when they first appeared.  Quite impressive for a piece of forty year old technology.

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A black Sinclair Sovereign (next to a Rotring fountain pen to give you a sense of scale)

Why?  Why want of these things?  There is a better calculator on the average Android phone.  The display is only 8 digits and it’s red LEDs!  The battery probably only lasts five minutes if you’re lucky.

Well sometimes our desire for objects transcends any practical use they may have.  You can’t do anything with a great painting but we have a sense of its intrinsic value because of the emotion the quality of the picture makes us experience.  And it’s a very personal thing.  The Sovereign is all about design – I simply love the design, and that design makes it desirable, for me at least.  The Victoria & Albert Museum in London agrees with me.

Just when I thought I was in a kind of calculator inspired Nirvana, disaster!  They no longer make the batteries.  Apparently the batteries contained mercury and were a bit of an environmental disaster so production was stopped.  Luckily there is an alkaline based alternative which seems to work, but this set me thinking about the whole business of obsolescence and the impact it will have on future generations.  I have a feeling that in this world which is increasingly digital, if we’re not careful the record of much of what we do and say will be lost over time.  I’ll give you an example.  At home I have a computer cassette.  At some point I obviously did the right thing and backed-up some work, and I used the technology of the day.  But this cassette is from an old Sun system and I probably couldn’t find a working machine to read it, and even then I have no idea what sort of character encoding the data would be in.  So to all intents and purposes, whatever is on that cassette is probably lost.  I can’t think it’s anything that the world is going to miss, but hopefully you get the point.

Think about all those digital photos you take – do you ever print them out?  Are any of them going to survive beyond you, or even worse your current electronic device?  Does it really matter anyway?  Well yes it does.  Societies do rise and fall, and when they fall much is usually lost – look at the great civilisations of South America.  So I think we do have to be mindful of this.  Fortunately we do have the museums of the world, and for our digital assets there are organisations like the Internet Archive.  It’s reassuring to know that you can still visit the world’s first world wide web page (sort of).  But at a personal level I think the best way to deal with things is to print to paper.

A great tale that highlights the importance of paper assets is given to us by Walter Millar’s “A Canticle for Liebowitz“.  We do have to keep digital data – and we will have to keep migrating to new technologies as the old ones become obsolescent, but if you have really important stuff of your own, put it in a book – and let a space-faring alien “Indiana Jones” discover it in several millennia.  You’ll be famous (again), eventually.

Finally, talking of digital data, this is fredintheshed1 describing the Sinclair Sovereign.  I wonder if future generations will ever marvel at a Sovereign?  I bet they will, in the same way that we cherish artefacts from our own pre-history.

 

 

Ursula K Le Guin

I feel compelled, in my own small way, to recognise the passing of Ursula K Le Guin.  She died on 22nd January 2018 but leaves us a fantastic legacy in the form of her numerous novels and the worlds they create in our minds as we read them.  I went rummaging around my collection of books and found I owned three by her:

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My three books by Ursula K Le Guin

The first two will be familiar to everybody who loves science fiction and fantasy.  The Left Hand of Darkness, a story set in the cold world of Gethen.  You can feel the chill winter coming from the page.  Genly Ai is an envoy who has landed on Gethen to encourage the King to join the Ekumen, the group of trading worlds.  Central to the whole plot is the relationship between Genly and the Prime Minister Estraven.  The story is as much about (human) political intrigue as it is about the strange but familiar world of Gethen.  Ursula gives us the concept of kemmer when the people of Gethen become ready to mate and at which time can transition between the sexes – an idea that turns on its head our traditional understanding of male and female.  We also get to meet the ansible, the communications device which defies the speed of light limit and enables instantaneous communication between worlds.  According to World Wide Words, ansible has been borrowed by several writers to express this capability.

The Dispossessed – set on the world of Urras and its habitable moon Anarres.  It is a story about society and the way we chose to live, about the structures that we tolerate which have power and influence over us.  Anarres lives by the principles of its founder Odo, and essentially follows anarcho-syndicalism – people only have what they are and what they contribute.  Urras in contrast is more regulated and Earth-like.  We realise the effects of these two systems as we follow Sherek, a physicist who is seeking to develop the theory of Simultaneity and who has to use the resources of both societies to achieve his goal.  It is also a love story – I felt keenly the sense of longing Sherek has for Takver, his partner, when circumstances keep them apart.  I struggled to get started with this book – took me three attempts.  But it was worth the effort.

The third book Steering the Craft is in her own words “a self-guided set of discussion topics and exercises for a writer, or a small group of writers, interested in the craft of narrative prose.”  I have to confess that I’ve owned this book for several years and have never read it.  Perhaps if I had, Orlando Jax would be a little better for it.

I take great comfort in the fact that Ursula’s first novels were rejected by publishers but that she persevered and gave the world some fantastic stories.  I’m particularly looking forward to reading the Earthsea series (and watching the Gorō Miyazaki made film – which she wasn’t that happy about).

Thank you Grand Master.

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Ursula K Le Guin

 

SpaceX

I watched in awe as SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy, put a Tesla Roadster into an orbit that will see it visit Mars and then to cap it all recover two of the rocket assemblies in a perfectly synchronised landing.  After all that, the SpaceX team would be quite justified in thinking they had had a pretty good day – it was amazing!

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SpaceX boosters returning to Earth (not lifting off!)

All this technology has very practical uses today in terms of resupplying the International Space Station and launching satellites, but that would appear only to be a means to an end – a way to fund the much bigger dream of turning humans into a multi-planetary species and to become a truly spacefaring civilisation.

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

— ELON MUSK, CEO AND LEAD DESIGNER, SPACEX

And I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment.  If you read science fiction you’ll know that this idea was a done deal years ago – we will become a spacefaring civilisation – C J Cherryh outlined one vision as to how this will come about in “Earth and Outward: 2005-2352” at the start of Downbelow Station.  So what is the big deal?  Well the difference is how some people, like NASA, the Russians and Elon Musk have the ability (and resources) to connect the vision to its physical implementation.  They take that vision and through hard work, skill and shear bloody minded perseverance, step by step, make it real.  It’s fantastic and inspirational.  I have great ideas all the time and most of them evaporate by the time I get to kitchen and am told that somebody needs to do the washing up.  Thank the Maker that there are organisations who get beyond those kind of problems.

People say we should fix the world’s problems before we start spending a fortune on space travel.  In an ideal world we would have already done it.  But our political structures don’t give us the mechanisms to solve these problems.  If an African dictatorship is siphoning off the wealth of a country and letting it’s people starve, who are the “they” who can stop them?  If a poor Asian country decides to ethnically cleanse one of its provinces again who is the “they” to call them out?  There is no magic “fix it” squad that can charge in to solve these problems.  The best we can do is to support and strengthen the institutions we have and be relentless in our fight against corruption at every level.  In the meantime though we shouldn’t stop the rocket men and women building their dreams.

Now I’ve only got two gripes about this whole endeavour:

  • We’re still using chemical propellants.  Where’s the Gravity Plate?  We came up with that idea decades ago.  Granted the implementation may be a little problematic, but seriously get on to it guys!
  • I would have preferred that the car SpaceX sent into space was better looking – something like a Jaguar XK8.  I’m not going to labour the point though – given that it was Elon’s Roadster built by his own company you could say that’s fair enough.
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This is just so cool!  A Tesla Roadster, David Bowie and good advice from Douglas Adams

The one thing I do know is that I’m probably too old now to make the trip to Mars.  By the time it’s all up and running I’m sure I will have shuffled off this mortal coil.  It would have been fun though to watch the Sun set over a Martian mountain range whilst sipping on a Gin and Tonic.  What there will be time for however, is to watch the next Hollywood Sci-Fi blockbuster where the ship has to rendezvous with the Tesla Roadster and use its still functioning battery to save the life support system.

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Gratuitous action shot of a Jaguar XK8.  Yeah baby, yeah!

 

 

Getting stuck on the Hugos and Nebulas

I’ve always loved science fiction – so much so that with the Orlando Jax book I actually tried to write some.  But if you have limited time for reading where do you go to get the best “bang for your buck”?  How do you know the book you’re about to invest time with is worth the effort?  There are so many good books out there!  Well back in 2009 I stumbled across a list of Hugo and Nebula award winners from the second hand book selling site AbeBooks.com.  Now if a book has picked up that kind of award it has to be worth reading – surely.  So I set about working my way through the list.

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My recent Hugo and Nebula winning reads

Having read forty of these books now (up to 1982/1983) I’m struck by the huge variety in the subject matter, and the sheer breadth of imagination of these authors.  From full on space battles in “The Forever War” and “Starship Troopers” to the mysterious and disturbing “The Left Hand of Darkness” to the scale in time and place of “Dune” and “A Canticle for Leibowitz” – it is quite amazing.  I’m currently reading “Startide Rising” by David Brin and in this book we’re stuck on an unfriendly water-world being chased by any number of hostile aliens with a space ship crew most of whom are dolphins!  But it all makes perfect sense in its own way.

Now forty books in the space of about nine years is not a great reading rate – so I wondered what was going on, and it became obvious that there were times when I got really stuck on a book – sometimes for over a year.  The worst culprits were:

  • Time Scape – Gregory Benford – 31 months
  • Downbelow Station – C J Cherryh – 20 months

Now both these books are great stories but there was something about them that made me have to work hard to get through them – and that after several false starts.  Other books you can just pick up and fly through.  I don’t know why this happens – but I guess that it comes down to the way the narrative grabs your attention.  If you find that subconscious link in the subject matter or the literary style then you can pull yourself along at a cracking pace.  If you’re working hard to read the book it probably means you haven’t made that link yet – and may never.  I look upon it as another fascinating dimension to the way we tell stories.

If you haven’t tried it, AbeBooks.com is a great place to find old and out of print books.  The books themselves are usually very cheap ($1) and all the book sellers I have used have delivered as promised.  The only downside is the postage – the book may be a dollar, but getting it to you costs seven.

As soon as I have dealt with the stranded dolphin crew I’m off into the cyberspace world of Neuromancer.  I have read that before and remember loving it – the start of the whole cyber-world genre which has developed into such a rich seam of ideas.

Other Dimensions

I’m always on the lookout for a cunning device that is going to let us move at speeds greater than the speed of light.  I recently re-acquainted myself with Douglas Adams‘ fantastic idea of the infinite improbability drive in the spaceship “The Heart of Gold”.  It’s amazing what you can do with a good Brownian motion source (a really hot cup of tea).

Putting the tea aside for a minute, I stumbled upon an idea recently that might show some promise.  Before I go there though, let’s remind ourselves as to the basic problem.  This is a form of the Lorentz Transformation equation for mass:

Mass increase equation

where m is the actual mass of an object, v is that object’s speed relative to an observer, c is the speed of light and m’ is the object’s mass as measured by the observer.  For a better explanation of this and other equations, have a look in the book “Relativity for the Layman” by James Coleman.  In the diagram below I’ve plotted what happens with the m’ result as the speed increases – and very little does till we get close to the value of c – and then it all goes horribly wrong for the interstellar traveller:

Mass incease calculations

As you get close to c the Universe catches up and plays speed cop – your mass gets infinite, and in accordance with F=ma you then need an infinite amount of force to nudge yourself over the c limit.  All very frustrating.  The thing I would love to know is what property or characteristic of c makes it so controlling?  I think I begin to understand thanks to Brian Greene and his book “The Elegant Universe“.

Up to now, when people have referred to the speed of light as being a barrier, I’ve wondered why would a simple speed be so important?  But Brian in his book spells out another way to look at this – c is not just a speed, it’s a quantity that defines how we are able to move around the world we can see and its four dimensions.  It’s an upper limit on all combined movement within forward-back, left-right, up-down and time.  I guess we express it as a speed because that’s the usual way we see its effect, but actually it is a multi-dimensional quantity.  I still don’t really understand why that it is the case, but it makes a lot more sense than a simple speed limit.

But then Brian tells us about the work of a Polish mathematician, Theodor Kaluza:

Einstein had formulated general relativity in the familiar setting of a universe with three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. The mathematical formalism of his theory however, could be extended fairly directly to write down analogous equations for a universe with additional space dimensions. Under the “modest” assumption of one extra space dimension, Kaluza carried out the mathematical analysis and explicitly derived the new equations.

He found that in the revised formulation the equations pertaining to the three ordinary dimensions were essentially identical to Einstein’s. But because he included an extra space dimension, not surprisingly Kaluza found extra equations beyond those Einstein originally derived. After studying the extra equations associated with the new dimension, Kaluza realised that something amazing was going on. The extra equations were none other than those Maxwell had written down in the 1880s for describing the electromagnetic force! By adding another space dimension, Kaluza had united Einstein’s theory of gravity with Maxwell’s theory of light.

After that it wasn’t quite the success story it seemed to be but regardless of that, is this the cunning device?  For us to be able to build galaxsia class ships we need a new form of propulsion system that we can build and control, that is going to take us beyond the speed of light.  Simple mass-reaction engines are never going to be enough.  We need something that can literally “grab hold” of spacetime and manipulate it.  If this fifth dimension has electromagnetic properties that we recognise, can we not create a field generator that allows us to access and use this fifth dimension?  Who knows, it could be the sliding door that allows us to step around the c limit.

Throughout the history of science fiction, authors have created any number of field generators to achieve all sorts of goals.  On Earth now we have truly massive ones – look no further than the Large Hadron Collider.  Perhaps what we need is a bit of inspired lunacy and for somebody to plug one of these things into a good Brownian motion source – a really hot of cup of tea – and then stand back.

Travelling

One of the most exciting aspects of travelling is thinking about it before you leave.  But what inspires you to make that trip?  For me it can be the advertising, but not the glossy “here is a video of the resort” type stuff.  I find most appealing those adverts that just hint at something exotic or beautiful without really showing you what it is – your mind takes over and fills in the rest.

Some of the best examples of this is found in the poster art produced for the new airlines that appeared in the 1920s and 30s, a time when aircraft were just becoming large and safe enough to make commercial flights a real possibility.  Some of these posters are gorgeous in the way they juxtapose a sleek craft against a desirable destination – a destination that can now be reached in a few hours rather than the days it would have taken by boat and train.  For some excellent examples of what I mean have a look at the book “Art of the Airways” by Geza Szurovy.

Fast forward and NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have done a similar thing, but this time those desirable destinations are other planets discovered recently by the Kepler space telescope.  This amazing machine detects planets by measuring the tiny variations in light given off by stars as planets track in front of them.  NASA and JPL commissioned a team of artists to render travel posters for a number of these new world and the results are fantastic.  Click here to see the posters in the context of the planets, and here to see what the creative team were thinking when they designed them.  The one I find quite spooky in a way is PSO J318.5-22 – the planet with no star, a rogue, or free-floating planet.

It’s important that in the future people do make the trip to see new worlds or Orlando Jax would have nobody to steal from.  The book opens with the attack on the pleasure cruiser the Eversence.  The back story behind this is that the Eversence is a space cruise ship operated by Cerulean Space Lines, a company that has been trading since the days before faster than light speed, when all that was possible were visits to the planets within the solar system.  Once the pride of the fleet was the Archangel, a ship that picked up passengers from the MBX space elevator for a direct run to the resort on Olympus Mons, Mars.  This is my contribution to future travel poster art.  For an A2 pdf version click here.

Small poster bitmap