Saturday, March 25, 2017

Look! Up in the sky!

Nope. Not Superman. I have so ODed on superheroes, and there are more interesting things to be seen in the sky (though you may need a Really Big Telescope).

Such as? A planet(s), perhaps?

Pluto closeup (Thank you, New Horizons)
How many planets does the Solar System contain? Have you gotten over Pluto's demotion? Are eight planets too few for your taste? Planets being large, is "dwarf planet" an oxymoron? Good questions, all.

Help's on the way -- a new definition of planet has been suggested, the least of its features being a return to planetary status for Pluto. Said trial balloon has, as of yet, no official status, but still ...

To summarize that proposal, if an object is sub-stellar (and exhibiting, or having undergone, fusion is a pretty unambiguous characteristic) and it's basically round: that's a planet. None of the "cleared out its orbital neighborhood" judgment call, the cause of Pluto's demotion. The proposed rule would apply nicely to bodies orbiting other stars, where we have no possibility (for the time being, anyway) of knowing what orbital neighborhoods have or have not been cleared. By this definition, dear old Sol has about a hundred known planets (with the familiar Moon becoming our closest planetary neighbor)! For more about this proposal, see "Behind the Push to Get Pluto Its Planetary Groove Back."

It's an interesting concept, but I'm not completely on board. I like that mass -- which can be ascertained across even many light-years of distance -- is the determining factor:
  • Anything massive enough will collapse to be basically round. 
  • Anything too massive will sweep (or have swept) up enough hydrogen from its precursor nebula to initiate fusion ignition.
I don't like that in the new proposal the distinction between orbits-a-star and orbits-a-nonstar would go away. IMO -- and I'm not the only person to express this opinion -- we have a perfectly fine label for any round sub-stellar body: world. I'd be for world to be the label for any sub-stellar body that's round. There would then be three classes of worlds: planets (orbit stars), moons (orbit planets), and free-floating (orbit neither stars nor planets [but likely orbit much larger constructs, like star clusters or a galaxy as a whole]). Less massive objects, never round, would still be called asteroids.

Speaking of orbiting things ...

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It keeps going, and going ...

The Energizer bunny, you say? Sorta kinda. The topic for today's post is my 2012 technothriller Energized. Which is to reveal (dramatic drum roll) ...

Energized has been picked up by Arc Manor, for its Phoenix Pick imprint. This will be my third reissue via Arc Manor, and my fourth book overall with them. (Last year's Dark Secret was also published by them but as its first release.)

The original/2012 Tor Books cover
Hence: Energized will be returning to print and all the popular ebook formats. (The novel remains available in a plethora of audio formats.)

When? I've found that it's safest not to mention a specific publication date -- these things change -- any earlier than when typeset page proofs have made an appearance. Not too long, I hope. When I can venture a reasonably solid prediction, you'll see it here first.

Meanwhile -- and especially if you're curious about the splendid nearby/original cover (that object in the foreground is a solar-power satellite, miles square) -- check out what I posted when the Energized first made its appearance ...

Friday, March 10, 2017

Stranger than fiction?

Analog has just posted the finalists in its most recent annual readers poll, aka the Analytical Laboratory, aka the Anlabs. Prestige-wise, we're not talking Oscar or Tony Awards here -- but among genre aficionados, to be recognized by readers of the premiere hard-SF magazine is a high honor. So ...

I am delighted to report that all three of my 2016 fact articles, the latest installments in my The Science Behind the Fiction essay series, were among the finalists. They are: 
  • Human 2.0: Being All We Can Be, January/February 2016 & March 2016.
  • Here We Go Loopedy Loop: A Brief History of Time Travel, May 2016 & June 2016.
  • A Mind of Its Own, September 2016 & October 2016.
The 2016 Anlab finalists -- in story, poetry, and nonfiction categories -- are newly posted on the zine's website. That's some fine reading, from authors both long familiar and new! (But this opportunity, as they say, is For a Limited Time Only! And they are wise.)

In May, the winner in each category will be announced.

And who knows? Lightning could strike a second time. The second essay in my long-running SBtF series, aka “Faster Than a Speeding Photon: The Why, Where, and (Perhaps the) How of Faster-Than-Light Technology" was, as I discussed here, some years back, the Anlab nonfiction winner for 2012.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A new spin on things

What goes around, comes around? To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season? A wild game of Twister? This post will have us consider three different sorts of spin -- none, I hasten to add, of the political variety -- but nary a one of today's topics comes from that teaser intro. And every spin to follow is apropos of this blog.

Well? Are you intrigued?

Down a quantum rabbit hole?
To begin, consider the quite limited -- one is tempted to say, "toy" -- nature of the few implementations to date of quantum computers. A key obstacle: finding a way to build qubits that won't be exquisitely prone (as approaches heretofore tried have been) to decoherence. (Decoherence is any process by which a quantum storage or computing element lapses from a state of superposition into a particular -- and hence, classical -- bit.) In plain English, qubits have been fragile.

Coupling of the spin of an electron with an external magnetic field may offer a way to make a more robust qubit. See "Could this provide the spin control quantum computing needs? A new way of encoding information could redefine the quantum bit."

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

As hard as ... hydrogen?

At sufficiently high pressure, hydrogen liquefies starting at about 33 Kelvin.(*) That's cold. At about 14 Kelvin and yet more pressure, hydrogen will become a solid. And, it has been theorized since 1935, under enough pressure solid hydrogen can take metallic form.

(*) For mysterious reasons, absolute temperatures are shown in units of Kelvin, and not (as every other temperature scale would suggest) degrees Kelvin.

Not quite this easy
How much pressure? In round numbers, call it five million standard atmospheres. The amazing thing is, Harvard scientists reported last month that they had formed metallic hydrogen in the lab. "U.S. scientists create metallic hydrogen, a possible superconductor, ending quest." That's seriously cool. And high pressure.

Monday, February 13, 2017

This (maybe) is how the world ends ...

SF writers enjoy wreaking (fictitious!) mass destruction, and I'm no exception. In Dark Secret, for example, I pretty much sterilized the solar system with a gamma ray burst. (That's not a spoiler ... you find this out early in the novel. The story is all about what comes after the discovery of that imminent danger.)(*)

Amazon link
(*) I know what you're thinking: gamma rays travel at light speed -- because they are (high-frequency) light. If the arrival of gamma rays is the first you know about a GRB in the galactic neighborhood? Well, you're toast. That said, one of the mechanisms that can produce a GRB emits "I'm going to blow" indications before the actual blast (warnings which you won't detect without a gravitational-wave observatory, such as, but more sensitive than, LIGO).

How else, at a global or grander level, might things go Really Bad? I haven't done a death-by-asteroid novel (yet), but rocks from the sky are popular among my peers. (Though not so much with dinosaurs. Just sayin'.) A recent study suggests that asteroids may pose a bigger risk to us homo saps than formerly supposed. See "Fresh craters point to constant 'churning' of moon's surface." The takeaway: More than 200 new craters popped up on the moon over the past seven years – a third more than expected.

And the moon, after all, is quite nearby ...

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The universe never ceases to amaze

A few wonders (some still at the speculation stage, admittedly) to ponder:

Light's not only pushy, it can be a drag. "Sun's own light may be slowing its surface spin."

A little light music ...

One of the key parameters in modern cosmological thinking is Hubble's Constant -- and we may not yet know its value. "HOLiCOW! Astronomers measuring the expansion of the universe confirm that we still don’t understand everything."

Pulsars are very power emitters of energy in radio frequencies. Pulsars pulse with metronomic regularity -- except, apparently, not all of them. "Astronomers discover two pulsars with an 'off' switch: Now you see them, now you don’t." (Shades of the "on-off star" in Vernor Vinge's excellent A Deepness in the Sky.)

Rock of ages ...

And again close to home, "The solar system’s weirdest asteroid has frozen water on its surface: 16 Psyche, a metallic relic of the early solar system, just got weirder." (Does 16 Psyche ring a bell? Well it might. Just last month NASA picked it as the target for a future asteroid mission: "NASA Selects Two Missions to Explore the Early Solar System.")
 
And perhaps that's enough weird for one post ...

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yippee ki-yay

A roundup from the fringes of physics ...

Do magnetic monopoles exist? (Think of a magnetic monopole as a tiny north pole without a matching south pole, or vice versa -- even though bisecting a bar magnet always produces two smaller bar magnets, each with a north and a south pole.) No magnetic monopole has ever been detected, but some post-Standard Model (hence, speculative) theories of particle physics allow for magnetic monopoles. Here's one more notion about how -- if magnetic monopoles are real -- we might detect them: "Can corkscrewing lasers solve an enduring particle physics mystery?"

Part of ITER, under construction
Will we ever have fusion reactors? It seems like controlled fusion technology has been twenty years into our future for at least fifty years. The latest forecast for international science's premier fusion project (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, aka ITER) is again forecasting success in about twenty years (2035, to be precise). See "ITER Council endorses updated project schedule."