Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Progress comes of looking in the dusty corners

Climate-change assertions notwithstanding, there is no such thing as "settled science."

No, this isn't a post about climate change, neither for or against, convinced or skeptical. But I'm not above -- before I move on to today's main topic -- a crack against those (not typically scientists) who believe anything in science is ever proven. What science can do is:

(a) propose theories (read: models, aka simplified representations) of reality useful for solving problems and making predictions in particular circumstances and

(b) refine -- or refute -- theories as their shortcomings and limitations become clear, or as conflicting data show up.

(A favorite Einstein quote, after which I promise to come to the point: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”)

A brief history of time and space
Thus Newton's simple and elegant seventeenth-century theory of gravity sufficed until astronomers and physicists began theorizing about extreme conditions (e.g., in the vicinity of black holes) and were able to make increasingly precise observations (e.g., to discern in nineteenth-century observations the deviations between Mercury's actual orbital motion and the predictions of same from Newtonian theory).

These and other difficulties were resolved a century ago with Einsteinian gravity theory -- aka General Relativity. A century later, after many tests have been performed to poke and prod GR theory for limits to its accuracy and applicability, theorists look for alternative models (see Alternatives to General Relativity) and experimentalists continue to test GR's predictions and implications (see "Tests of general relativity").

And with all that by way of stage setting, let's have a look at some recent peering into the dusty corners of our physical understanding of the universe ...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Two worthy SFnal causes

I continue to be enthused that the Museum of Science Fiction is (with a bit of luck) coming to DC, to take its place alongside -- though not as a part of -- one of my favorite institutions, the museums of the Smithsonian. I've blogged before about MOSF, but it's been awhile. To remedy that lapse, here are a few recent highlights:

... the Museum has signed a partnership agreement with DC Public Schools and was approved by Reagan National Airport (DCA) to install the "Future of Travel" exhibit in mid 2015.

One of the coolest things happening w.r.t. MOSF is architectural, as in (reported by the Washington Post, "Contest seeks entries in science fiction museum design."

Seriously cool.
My architectural skills are exceeded even by my drawing skills, which are at the stick-figure level. (I paint pictures with words for a living, but somehow I can't see that technique extending to architectural renderings.) Hence I didn't enter MOSF's contest -- and it was just as well. I could hardly have competed with (at left) this winning vision.

Would you like to see MOSF open in Our Nation's Capital? Of course you would! Then consider the museum's ongoing fund-raising effort.

In any event, for more recent/complete museum news, check out MOSF's 3Q2014 progress report.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nanotech and starships and fusion, oh my!

Over a recent twelve-day period I:
  • gave a talk at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), followed by a behind-the-scenes tour of many of their projects involved with nanotech.
  • took part in a 100 Year Starship Symposium and, in the process, was a panelist for Science Fiction Stories Night.
  • attended a lecture on the state of fusion energy research, cosponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the National Electronics Museum.
Six days out of twelve immersed in cutting-edge science. Some days, I just love my job :-)

So what was all that about?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Slightly larger Small Miracles

I'm pleased to report that my medical nanotech thriller, Small Miracles, briefly out of print (and also electrons), was just re-released in a classy, trade paperback edition. And that new edition comes graced with an eye-catching new cover.

Back in print
What's Small Miracles about? Well, I blogged about that in 2009 when the original HB came out ("Small Miracles") and again in 2010 when the mass market paperback hit the streets ("Real nanotech. Real medicine. And zombies."). But in a buckyball (a nano nutshell, if you prefer) Small Miracles is a near-future, post-human thriller based upon the amazing potential of nanotechnology.

Or, as SFRevu put it:

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


That is to say, my energy-crisis, the-Russians-are-up-to-no-good, all-too-timely novel Energized was re-released today in its mass-market paperback edition.

In HB, PB, ebook, audio formats
A miscalculation has tainted the world's major oil fields with radioactivity and plunged the Middle East into chaos. The few countries still able to export oil and natural gas—Russia chief among them—have a stranglehold on the global economy.

Then, from the darkness of space, comes Phoebe. Rather than divert the massive asteroid, America captures it into Earth orbit to mine it for materials with which to build enormous solar-power satellites. Cheaply produced in orbit and able to beam vast amounts of power to the ground, these powersats offer America its last, best hope of avoiding servitude and economic ruin.

But special interests, from technophobes to eco-extremists to radio astronomers, want to stop the project. And the remaining petro powers will do anything to protect their dominance of world affairs. 

NASA engineer Marcus Judson is determined to make the powersat demonstration project a success—even though nothing in his job description mentions combating an international cabal…or going into space to do it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bit by bit

Today, a cornucopia of computing consequences ...

A calculating mind ...?
Last June I posted ("Less than meets the AI") about the program that "passed" the Turing test, and that this milestone seemed more a demonstration of natural gullibility than of artificial intelligence. Hence, I was pleased to read about an improved -- and more meaningful -- proposed test of a program's intelligence. See (from IEEE Spectrum), "Can Winograd Schemas Replace Turing Test for Defining Human-Level AI?"

Conceptually, the Turing Test is still valid, but we need a better practical process for testing artificial intelligence. A new AI contest, sponsored by Nuance Communications and CommonsenseReasoning.org, is offering a US $25,000 prize to an AI that can successfully answer what are called Winograd schemas, named after Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford University.

Here's an example of one:

The trophy doesn't fit in the brown suitcase because it is too big. What is too big?

The trophy, obviously. But it's not obvious. It's obvious to us, because we know all about trophies and suitcases. We don't even have to "think" about it; it's almost intuitive. But for a computer program, it's unclear what the "it" refers to. To be successful at answering a question like this, an artificial intelligence must have some background knowledge and the ability to reason.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The romance of physics

I recently streamed from Netflix (Amazon Video offers it, too) the 2013 science documentary Particle Fever. It's foremost about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), decades in the making, arguably the largest and most complex machine ever constructed by mankind. The movie is also about the long hunt for the elusive Higgs boson and the wondrous things that this elementary particle's discovery (and its specific properties, once fully characterized) might portend.

Literally awe inspiring
It's about the Standard Model of Particle Physics, one of the most successful theories in the history of science, and the even deeper insight(s) that might yet surpass it. It's also about conditions the briefest instant after the Big Bang, and -- at quite the opposite extreme -- about what the observed properties of the Higgs boson might imply about the end of the universe. And it's about whether even to speak of the universe is a misunderstanding, that (perhaps) we live, unknowingly, within a multiverse.

But beyond all these -- surely significant enough -- topics, Particle Fever is about the very human reasons why some of the brightest minds on the planet do physics. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lock In

The past week has been crazy busy for me -- and the next week(s) looks to be no different. I won't bore you with the details (or relive them myself). Instead, I'll share a little about the terrific novel with which I've unwound the past few evenings.

You'll get sucked in
John Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In, is a little bit of many things. But before the characterization, the set-up. In the near future a plague strikes, but rather than another zombie apocalypse, in a minority of cases -- still numbered in the millions -- the patients become entirely paralyzed. Not only can't they move, they can't speak. These victims are, in the vernacular, "locked in." Through technology -- surgically implanted, neural-net, brain/computer interfaces (here's my take on neural implants, from a few weeks ago) -- the locked-in connect with both virtual worlds and remotely operated humanoid robots.

And from that premise? A few thoughts, sans spoilers ...