Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Going postal. Or: The stats, stat.

About three years ago I first compiled a list/overview of what were then the most visited posts here at SF and Nonsense. To my surprise, Postscript (or is that post post?) was itself instantly popular. It remains third on the all-time list.

And so, an annual tradition was born. 

Serious posts :-)
From a stats snapshot I captured a few days ago (thanks, Blogger!), here's the complete all-time top-ten list.

Of moons, clouds, and the state of the art(s), a general science-and-tech news post from August 2013, shot straight to the top of the list. I found these items interesting -- but no more so than news I've highlighted in many other posts. I offer no theories why this specific post is so popular.

(If any readers care to offer an opinion, that'd be keen.)

Number two, slipped from the lead position last year, is Betrayer of Worlds, the October 2010 announcement of a novel's original release. This novel being fourth in a five-part series, the persistent popularity of its post is also something of a puzzler.

Number three, as already noted, is Postscript (or is that post post?), the original posting stats.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Wild and crazy (not always in a good way) stuff

It will surprise no one who often stops by this blog that I follow science news -- but that doesn't mean I get excited about every supposed finding. Perhaps that's because some reported results are made up. See, from Scientific American, "Publishers Withdraw More than 120 Gibberish Science and Engineering Papers." Because said papers were shown to be computer-generated nonsense!

Bigger than worlds
It should likewise be no surprise that I follow reports about hacking -- but this headline (from the IEEE) blew me away: "Hacking the Van Allen Belts: Could we save satellites and astronauts by wiping out the Van Allen belts?" I'd be loath to tinker with a system as little understood as interactions between Earth and its nearby space, but the possibility is fascinating. And I can see the case for restoring the Belts to their natural state before above-ground nuclear testing.

Because there are a lot of satellites. Don't take my word for it when you can see "Every single satellite orbiting Earth, in a single image."

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A mission of (anti-)gravity

More than sixty years after its first publication, Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement (the pen name of Henry Clement Stubbs) remains one of SF's premier examples of world-building. Clement, a chemist, gave much thought to the physics, chemistry, climates, and biology of the fictional world Mesklin.

And a wondrous place Mesklin is, too. For valid -- if unusual -- reasons, its surface gravity varies from about three times Earth normal at the equator to hundreds of times Earth normal at the poles.

A classic
Mission of Gravity is also a great adventure yarn.

Last year's movie Gravity was very popular, widely praised, received ten Oscar nominations and just recently was awarded seven Oscar wins. It is, without doubt, an exciting tale. The cinematics are stunning. The crafting was meticulous.

The science, alas, is atrocious. You needn't take my word for it, since Entertainment Weekly has it covered. See, " 'Gravity': Panel of astro-experts on the science behind the film." I weep for the science adviser (whom, I suspect, is relieved to have gone unmentioned on the screen credits).
The ISS: it's BIG

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Physics with a Bang

Modern physics is on a roll. Less than two years ago: the discovery of the Higgs boson. Providing evidence long sought for the mechanism through which (some) particles exhibit the property known as mass, this discovery led to a Nobel prize the very next year. That must be in record time.

National Ignition Facility
Last month: the quest for a sustainable fusion reaction reached an important -- if interim -- milestone: a fuel gain greater than one. Deep within the National Ignition Facility, tiny fusible pellets, blasted by 172 synchronized laser pulses, yielded more energy than had been input. Meaningful nuclear reactions are happening after each pellet is imploded/crushed so as to raise its internal temperature to 50 million degrees Celsius.

(Alas, we remain far from the Holy Grail of fusion R&D: exceeding end-to-end energy breakeven. The input of the recent milestone is very narrowly defined as that part of the incident laser-beam energy absorbed through the pellet surface -- because a fair chunk of the beam energy gets reflected. To reach end-to-end breakeven, the energy produced will have to exceed all energy pumped into the lasers. Ditto, there must be an allowance for the fraction of fusion energy that goes unrecovered -- because no process is 100% efficient. The quest continues.)

But the truly magnificent news, reported just last week by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: "First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation." A Nobel in the making, almost certainly.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sorry that I was so right

The background of my 2012 novel Energized includes an energy supply shock triggered by Russian meddling in the Middle East. The crisis is further complicated by many energy-consuming countries having become dependent upon Russia for gas and oil. They are unwilling or unable to risk angering their supplier.

Several critiques of the novel commented on an "obsolete" Cold War mentality. Post-Soviet Russia wouldn't act that way. Right?

Wrong. And, to be honest, those comments continue to rankle.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Choosing among my "children"

Any author will tell you, it happens to them. Often.

A friend, friend of a friend, relative, relative's in-law, coworker, neighbor, new acquaintance, long-lost schoolmate, out-of-the-blue emailer, LinkedIn connection, con-goer coming up after a panel, ... asks,  "I'd like to try one of your books, so which do you recommend?"

And, as any author will also tell you, that's like asking a parent to choose among his children. (It may be coincidence, but nine months is about how long the average novel takes me to write.) Okay, this isn't exactly Sophie's Choice. It doesn't even risk my answer getting back to one of the "children" and scarring them for life.

Still, answering that question is hard. I can't imagine putting nine months or so into a book without forming an emotional bond. One's first book, of course, is special. So, in another way, is the most recent book. So, in yet a different way, are the ones that went on to have sequels. Some books become special to me for the fascinating research involved, or the particular subject matter, or yet some other personal association.

But, just as I opened this post, people do ask -- and I'm flattered they do. So, although I can't bring myself to pick one child, perhaps I can help someone else to decide.  The remainder of this post is adapted from the answer I sent to a recent "what do you recommend?" email.

Prospective readers, please continue ...

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Because a distraction seems therapeutic

I'm glued to the latest news, rumors, and speculations about events in and surrounding Ukraine. On a lesser scale, I also can't look away from the collapse of Mt. Gox and the turmoil attendant to the markets for bitcoins (and other virtual currencies). 

So: in search of diversion -- for myself, in any event, and perhaps for you -- herewith, a few interesting items of science and technology news.

On at least one topic -- the proper etiquette for the use Google Glass -- Google shows signs of listening. See "Google: How not to be a 'Glasshole'."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What in the world(s)?

Had we but world enough, and time ...

One of the best known, best realized, most beloved worlds of science fiction is surely Dune, the centerpiece, eponym, and (in a sense) main character of Frank Herbert's most acclaimed novel. If you share even a fraction of my affection for the story/world, you're certain to enjoy " 'Dune' concept art shows the evolution of David Lynch's sci-fi vision" (for Lynch's 1984 film realization).

It IS a grand canyon
(If there is a flaw in Dune, it's homegenity: a "desert planet."  Why do I consider that a potential flaw? Because the one inhabitable world known to science is far from uniform. Check out -- everyone of 'em on Earth -- "50 of the most incredible natural phenomena you’ve ever seen.")

In the of-but-out-of-the-this-world category ...