Saturday, September 27, 2008

Interview -- Juggler of Worlds

I was recently interviewed by Sci Fi Wire, the news service of the Sci Fi channel.

We talked mostly about Juggler of Worlds, newly released. There's also a bit of preview of my next novel, Fools' Experiments. (FE, unlike Juggler, is a Lerner solo.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Umm, up?

The 9/25/2008 Washington Post had a banner for NASA's 50th anniversary. The banner asks: "Where do we go now?"

My modest suggestion ... how about: past low Earth orbit?

And since, sadly, NASA must reacquire the ability to leave LEO, a shorter-term goal. How about: not retiring the shuttle until there's something to replace it?

That is: let's not be so lame that NASA must buy rides from the Russians to reach the space station largely built by NASA itself. Meeting this latter goal requires only the political will -- in the White House and Congress -- to maintain the shuttles a few years longer.

You wouldn't think these answers were rocket science.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (time travel)

We all love time travel, judging from how many books and movies use it. Time travel is certainly a great plotting device. But is time travel plausible? Is it fair game for SCIENCE-based SF -- or is it a trope?

I’m limiting this post to travel backwards in time. Many time-travel stories revisit a past event, whether to view, alter, or safeguard the event. And most forward-traveling stories involve a return to the time traveler’s present.

The case against travel to the past as real physics? One (and a biggie): Travel backward in time eliminates causality. Two (also known as the Fermi paradox of time travel): If travel to the past is possible, then why aren’t we, at least near pivotal historical events, knee-deep in time travelers?

IMO, the best argument for the feasibility of time travel is the symmetry of basic physical laws. The equations (of, say, ballistics) work equally well whether time flows forward or back. Hence, some would argue, the so-called arrow of time is strictly perceptual. Hence (here comes the leap of faith) time is just another dimension that – if we but learn how – one can traverse.

Of course those direction-of-time-symmetric equations can’t be solved exactly for more than one or two of anything. Deal with lots of molecules – say, cream poured into a cup of coffee – and anyone can see whether film of the event runs forward or backward. Hence, I find the symmetry argument unconvincing.

So that’s three strikes. Yer ... a trope. Now excuse me while I TiVo The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

(And yes, I’ve perpetrated a couple time-travel stories [anyone out there know which?]. As I said, we all love time travel stories.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

End of the world postponed

Tongue firmly in cheek here.

CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) has temporarily shut down the Large Hadron Collider to fix a helium leak. Presumably the helium is from liquid helium coolant for the big electromagnets.

CERN estimates two months before it resumes startup of the LHC . Those expecting microblack holes to eat the Earth must fret a bit longer.

Here is the little bit so far announced.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Psycho history

What else do you call it when the Dow is down 500+ points Monday and up 400+ points Thursday (and up another 300+ points so far today, Friday, as I type)? When panic and rumor drive the markets? When the government and central banks make enormous new funds injections, nationalizations, and regulatory changes on a daily basis?

Psychohistory, of course, is the imaginary future social science at the heart of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Blending history, sociology, and statistical analysis, psychohistorians predict the course of societal evolution, and even find the occasional tipping point from which events can be nudged onto a different course.

We are far from having such abilities.

Giant financial companies like Fannie, Freddie, and AIG, with trillion-dollar portfolios, are built on statistical analysis. History, one hopes, plays some role in executives’ understanding of current events and future prospects. History also guides government policies towards markets and regulation. I’ll assert that the processes of any large organization -- whether a corporation, government, or market -- are, at some level, a study in applied sociology.

(Some might argue that the credit crunch and attendant market implosion reflect economics, not sociology. To that opinion, I would answer: Economics describes how a society agrees to allocate its collective resources. If/when/how society regulates its economic institutions -- i.e., how it sets government’s role -- is likewise part of the social compact. If economics isn’t soc, it’s surely akin.)

Now giant financial companies are falling like dominoes. They are, to some part, victims of their own greed -- but also of investor panic. Old fashioned, rumor-driven runs on the bank. Mass phenomena. Within the realm of sociology. And the experts -- inside and outside of these companies -- didn’t see it coming.

Where was Hari Seldon when we needed him?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Juggler of Worlds

Full disclosure up front: Today's post IS explicitly about my own writing. I have a new book released today, and that's still enough of a novelty (heh!) to be special.
Juggler of Worlds is my second collaboration with NY Times bestseller Larry Niven (the first was Fleet of Worlds). Juggler takes place in Larry's far-ranging Known Space venue – and Juggler's release is what's had me musing in a recent post about faster-than-light travel in SF.

Known Space brims with aliens and interstellar adventure -- with plots briskly advanced by FTL drives. And Juggler itself? It has a brilliant human paranoid with a gift for sniffing out alien plots, plenty of aliens plotting, and heroic aliens, too. If you're a Known Space aficionado (NOT required), Juggler is an opportunity to discover that much of what you believe about Known Space … isn't quite what you thought.

Curious about Known Space? The Incompleat Known Space Concordance is a neat resource.

If you're curious about Juggler of Worlds itself, check out Amazon or see what the publisher has to say.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (FTL)

Nothing goes faster than light, right? Relativity theory settled that, surely.
Okay, that's orthodoxy. But quantum mechanics is also orthodoxy, and physics has yet to reconcile relativity with QM. So there's something basic we don't understand. (I'll look at string theory, the brave new hope for reconciliation, in another post. It isn't pretty.)
Must SF prove relativity wrong to use FTL as anything other than a trope? In my opinion, no. It's sufficient to rely (implicitly or explicitly) on issues with and ambiguities in accepted theory. To name a couple:
Maybe the speed of light, even if we can't exceed it, isn't a constant. Check out Faster than the Speed of Light by physicist Jaoa Magueijo. Variable light speed does away with the kludge to Big Bang theory that is cosmic inflation. And some of Magueijo's variable-light-speed theories envision faster light speed in the vicinity of cosmic strings. (These aren't the strings of string theory. The terminology is unfortunate.)
And string theory -- despite its lack of concrete success -- is mainstream physics. String theory envisions extra dimensions beyond the 4-D space-time continuum of relativity. Maybe the 4-D universe we experience is afloat in up to (in the predominant theory) 11 dimensions. As long as string theory remains mainstream physics, it's hard to see why science fiction can't use some sort of subspace, hyperspace, or extra-dimensional (see [membrane theory) shortcut with the net effect in this universe of faster-than-light travel.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

LHC and WSJ

Today's The Wall Street Journal carried an opinion piece entitled "Don't Buy Into The Supercollider Hype," contributed by physicist Michio Kaku. His subject matter, of course, was the Large Hadron Collider and the too-common, misplaced concern that the LHC will endanger the Earth.

Theoretical physicists are hardly WSJ's usual sort of op-ed contributor. I was delighted to see this timely piece in one of the few national-circulation papers (and pleasantly surprised how parallel Dr. Kaku's argument ran to my September 9th post, LHC and FUD.)

I applaud the WSJ varying from its usual op-ed fare (not that there's anything wrong with that) to debunk the anti-scientific silliness spreading about LHC.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (Intro)

SF is rife with tropes (say that quickly ten times).

In mainstream lit, a trope is a figure of speech: metaphor, simile, irony, or the like. Words used other than literally. In SF, a trope is more: science used other than literally. I think of an SF trope as a willing-suspension-of-disbelief contract between author and reader.

Tropes. That’s how SF stories get (to name a few) faster-than-light travel, telepathy, and time travel. Author and reader agree -- despite contradiction with prevailing scientific theory and/or the lack of supporting evidence -- to include such an element in a story.

Let’s start with FTL. Clearly many of us want fast interstellar travel in our SF. Consider these media franchises: Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, Aliens. In the written form: Brin’s Uplift universe, Niven’s Known Space, and Herbert(s)’s Dune series.

So why FTL? To plot on worlds we might want to colonize. To plot with aliens enough like us (e.g., oxygen breathers) to covet the worlds we will. Astronomy has long eliminated the other worlds of this solar system from consideration.

It wasn’t always so. Once there was Terra Incognita. Homer could confront Odysseus with fabulous creatures somewhere in the Mediterranean. Not that long ago, leading scientists thought Mars was hospitable to life and even saw evidence there of intelligence.

Many SF authors and readers have embraced the trope of FTL travel. Or is it a trope? That is, is FTL a fantasy? That’s the subject of an upcoming post.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

LHC and FUD

That's the Large Hadron Collider -- the world's largest particle accelerator, being turned on tomorrow -- and Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.

The LHC, an international research facilities years and billions of euros in the making, may answer some of the big outstanding questions in modern physics. Like: why does matter have mass (looking for the hypothesized Higgs boson)? Like: what is dark matter?

In a few days or weeks or months, depending how long start-up takes, the LHC will smash relativistic protons into each other, producing energy densities not seen in the universe since moments after the Big Bang. That's how science learns things: doing what we haven't done before.

And FUD? The blogosphere is agog with hysteria that LHC will create an Earth-devouring black hole. Google LHC disaster, and find 500+ hits. Google LHC catastrophe for another 400+. Yes, some of those hits are for entries -- like this one -- hoping to calm the hysteria. The sad truth is that the debunking effort is necessary. And that mainstream press, discussing the LHC, often dignifies the hysteria by "some are concerned" paragraphs.

Any black hole created in an LHC collision will be smaller than an atom -- and atoms are mostly empty space. Any black hole radiates energy (and mass and energy are equivalent) -- black holes evaporate unless enough mass falls into them to compensate for the evaporation. So any black hole created at LHC, being too small to have a significant chance of hitting anything, will evaporate before it can be a risk.

And if high-energy collisions can create threatening black holes -- then natural cosmic rays, which are *always* present, would have done us in by now.

Take that, FUD.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Why IS fandon gray (Part II)

I blame Sesame Street.

Bert, Ernie, and company conditioned generations of kids to demand their information in tiny bites. And that learning must entertain. We can't require any of that pesky thinking and effort.

And the results? Pop-ups on TV remind us what we're watching. And newspaper audiences, like SF fandom, have become gray. For too many, news must fit on a screen -- and that screen is becoming an iPhone.

Mastering science takes time and effort. Ditto opening a new frontier. And -- here's a shocker -- both keep fading in popularity.

Why read the literature of the final frontier if you can't imagine ever getting there?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The silence is deafening (Part I)

Or, if you prefer, where IS everyone?

I refer to the so-called Great Silence. If, as much conventional wisdom has it, a very large universe must have other intelligences in it somewhere, why haven't we heard from them? Their disinterest? Our colossal boringness? The impossibility of interstellar travel? Because high-tech civilizations inevitably destroy themselves? Because high-tech civilizations always evolve into a singularity?

In my last post I bemoaned humanity's fading interest in going into space. All the resources in the universe apparently fall short as an inducement. Finding someone else out there might kindle some interest. One can hope.

Let's start with the Drake Equation, a conceptual framework for estimating the number of communicating species out there. It's one guess multiplied by another multiplied by another ... not AN answer but a way to consider the probabilities. Putting aside how people guess at the various parameters (like the fraction of stars with life-friendly planets, and the fraction of those that develop technological civilizations), many estimates conclude with the prediction of SOME other beings out there.

It would surely shake up our routines if we were to connect with ETs. Only so far we haven't. Why?

Government doesn't think the search worthwhile. SETI -- the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- lost federal funding years ago. Looking for microbes on Mars is something, and I enthusiastically support it, but I don't understand why government won't make a fraction of the same investment to listen for intelligence in nearby solar systems.

SETI presumes hypothetical other species are signaling us, either with intentionally beamed messages or the radio/television/radar leakage presumed of any advanced society. By the latter standard, humans began signaling more than a century ago with our earliest radio experiments. How far away such leakage can be detected is a function of instrument sensitivity and the data-processing smarts of the beings at the other end. (Earth's signals must be extracted from the loud background noise of the sun's natural radio emissions.)

With private funding the search continues, as with the Allen Telescope Array now under construction, backed by significant investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. (At last something useful comes of those Microsoft monopoly profits.)

In decades of listening, however sporadically, we've heard nothing. So some propose METI, Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence, also known as active SETI. Rather than hope the murmur of Earth's unavoidable radio emissions is overheard and answered, METI envisions beaming powerful signals at specific target stars.

Who is entitled to speak for humanity? Anyone who has time scheduled on a radio telescope? What can or should they say about us?

If there are extra-solar ETs and they're not talking, do they know something humans don't? Maybe shouting is a breach of decorum. Maybe those who shout bring hostile xenophobic aliens, or kinetic kill weapons, down on their heads. Scientist and SF author David Brin has thought about this far more than I (see SETI Search).

Or maybe they (whoever they are) are already here, merely not announcing themselves. If so, surely they'd tap into our Internet. The IETI (Invitation to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) folks ask any such visitors to speak up.

Are We Alone? is among the biggest of all questions Whatever the answer, that's major information.

Who might be out there fascinates me. How humanity would react to proof of aliens' existence fascinates me -- and it shows up in much of my fiction. To give examples, my novel Moonstruck deals with a near-future first contact -- of the they-show-up-one-day variety, not signals-based. My novelette "By the Rules" (which first appeared in Analog), on the other hand, is closer to the IETI mold. My InterstellarNet series (stories in multiple venues) opened with a SETI-contact story and continues to evolve (as the series name suggests) into an interstellar Internet. If you're curious, check out my website.

So is anyone out there? Lots of SF fans, if no one else, are eager to hear from you.