Monday, October 16, 2017

Fleet of Worlds: The Tintinnabulation

On October 16, 2007, Fleet of Worlds was first published. That is: ten years ago to the day.

Larry and Ed at 2015 Nebula weekend
This epic space opera, a collaboration with Larry Niven set in his Known Space future history(*), remains my most popular title. Fleet of Worlds has been translated into eight languages. It was selected (by what was not yet called the SyFy channel) as a Sci Fi Essential title, had a slot as a Science Fiction Book Club featured book, and was a finalist for a Prometheus Award.

(*) Which isn't to say that Fleet assumes the reader is familiar with any other story or book. But if you are a Known Space aficionado? If the name Beowulf Shaeffer rings a bell, or the title Ringworld elicits fond memories, I'm happy to say Fleet offers you the occasional Easter egg ...

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Wave like a nice black hole ...

I have posted enthusiastically several times about gravitational-wave detections by LIGO (that's the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) beginning with Leggo my LIGO, in February 2016. Gravitational waves being very weak, only cataclysmic events -- such as the collision of two black holes -- are (so far, anyway) detectable by the gravitational waves they emit. Of course black holes colliding are very cool events to be able to detect.

In breaking news, the Nobel Committee also thought this was pretty keen: "Three Americans win Nobel Prize in physics for gravitational wave discovery."

Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. The three Americans are members of the LIGO-Virgo detector collaboration that discovered gravitational waves. The prize was awarded “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” the committee said in a news release.

That's one LIGO instrument
LIGO consists of two detectors, placed half a continent apart. To have just one won't do, because it's necessary to distinguish between the tiny jiggle of passing gravitational waves and, say, the rumble of nearby thunderclaps or passing trucks. As a bonus, when both instruments detect a signal, the slight difference in arrival times (the waves traveling at light speed) gives a rough sense for the direction from which the signal originated.

Emphasis on rough.

And another current event, from Sky and Telescope: "Fourth Gravitational Wave Event Detected." What makes this latest detection different from the original three is that, together with LIGO, the Advanced Virgo detector of the European Gravitational Observatory also recorded the event. It's the first for Virgo. And also, a Big Deal. From the S&T article:

With just the two LIGO detections, the uncertainty area measured some 1,160 square degrees on the sky," says Shoemaker. "By adding the Virgo data, this could be brought down to just 60 square degrees."

Mind you, 60 square degrees still covers a lot of sky -- the full Moon covers about a quarter of one square degree. But a reduction from 1160 down to 60 remains a huge improvement. Optical telescopes have not yet seen anything unusual in the target area, but  ... maybe next time.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The coming software apocalypse

I have railed on occasion in this blog about crappy software. The software I most often use, whether on my phone, my PC, or even in the cloud, is not life critical. The sometimes buggy, sometimes horribly designed, apps may frustrate me -- but they don't endanger me.

Down the rabbit hole
But what if mission- and life-critical apps are as buggy and as poorly designed as the stuff we use every day? The truth of the matter is: most apps are. We're talking about apps with millions of lines of code, too complex for any individual to fully understand. Apps that now (or soon) drive cars. Control power plants. Diagnose cancers. Fly planes. (What? You think that even today pilots fly planes? Often not. Pilots interact with computerized controls to specify intentions. Networked computers do the actual flying.)

Leading me to an excellent and thought-provoking -- and, be forewarned, lengthy -- recent essay in The Atlantic: "The Coming Software Apocalypse: A small group of programmers wants to change how we code -- before catastrophe strikes."

(Before offering a select few observations from this article, allow me to reminisce that I didn't always write SF for a living. I spent 30 years in information technology, at such marquee companies as Bell Labs, Honeywell, Hughes Aircraft, and Northrop Grumman. I designed and built software [and also sometimes hardware], led projects, and managed development teams of up to 300 engineers and scientists. Many of the systems I worked on were mission-critical. Most had to operate in real time, be fault-tolerant, accommodate many concurrent users, withstand hacking, or be widely distributed geographically -- or even do all those things at once. In short: I like to believe I know something about development of complex software. And yes -- the conventional practice of software development needs improvement.)

Now on to a few choice quotes from the essay:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Astronomy, old and new

We're accustomed to news of exciting celestial discoveries made by American (meaning here: of the USA -- a useful clarification because of other topics to come) observatories and astronomers. It turns out, and I was surprised to read this, that American interest in astronomy goes way back.  

JQ Adams: astronomy geek
The Atlantic had a recent fascinating piece about that history. To wit -- archaic wording chosen with malice aforethought ;-)  -- "The Surprising Space Ambitions in Colonial America: Long before NASA, private individuals and communities banded together for the pursuit of geopolitical power and scientific discovery." The article starts in colonial times, but doesn't stop there. Who knew, for example, that John Quincy Adams was an advocate for astronomy? Good stuff. 

Speaking of NASA, they recently went far afield to study the Kuiper Belt Object next up on the itinerary for the amazing New Horizons probe. And the journey was worth it. The agency reports: "NASA’s New Horizons Team Strikes Gold in Argentina." The (metaphorical) gold? That the KBO toward which New Horizons is hurtling seems, in fact, to be two objects, in tight orbit around their common center of mass.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Hacked off *still*. You should be, too.

So. The passage of several days has done nothing to alleviate my pique. At what? That the "Equifax security breach leaks personal info of 143 million US consumers: Criminals snagged info including names, social security numbers and more." If anything, as the details emerge, I've gotten angrier.

What details?
The upshot? Million of people scrambling to obtain and review -- and often, to freeze -- their credit reports. Millions of people unable even to take such proactive steps, because Equifax's switchboard and website are totally overwhelmed. Thousands, at least, of retailers (who issue, for example, auto loans and private-label credit cards) and other financial institutions confronting a major hit to their businesses from consumers' prospective identity thefts and credit-report freezes.

And continuing with today's cyber (in)security story line, had you noticed ...

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Making the world safe for frogs (and other diversions)

Frequent visitors to SF and Nonsense may have inferred my scientific/technological interests lean most often toward physics, astronomy, and space exploration. True enough. That said, other items are sometimes too quirky or too important not to catch my eye. Herewith several such -- and, I'll venture, you'll also find them noteworthy.

After all, who doesn't want to read "Dinosaur Extinction Allowed Frogs to Conquer the Planet."

The mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs paved the way for a totally different type of creature to take over -- frogs.

The slimy amphibians exploded in numbers and diversified in the millions of years after a massive asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, taking advantage of the huge holes in the ecosystem that extinct creatures left behind, a new study suggests.

Interested in the quest for extraterrestrial life? Here, possibly, is a new criterion for narrowing the search space. "Ultraviolet light may be key to finding alien life."

Ultraviolet light may have played a critical role in the emergence of life on Earth and could be a key to finding life elsewhere in the universe, a study ... at Harvard suggests. The study found that red dwarf stars might not emit enough ultraviolet (UV) light to kick-start the biological processes most familiar to our planet.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Water, water everywhere (but beware which sort you drink)

One of my longtime favorite novels is Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, in which a major plot element is "ice nine." This is a form of H2O, not naturally occurring in nature, that's crystalline at room temperature. A seed crystal of ice nine turns all regular water in which it is in contact to more ice nine. Bear in mind that we are about 90 percent water. Quite the unique doomsday device ...

Highly recommended
Today's post isn't a book review (although I highly recommend Cat's Cradle; we're talking about one of Vonnegut's best). The book came to mind because of what is our topic: the recent real-world discoveries of new forms of H2O).

On the liquid side: "Physicists Discover Two Low-Temperature Forms of Liquid Water: A Stockholm University-led team of physicists has discovered two low-temperature phases of liquid water with large differences in structure and density." Sort of the opposite of ice nine, which is solid at an unexpectedly high temperature.

The takeaway: 

"When we think of ice it is most often as an ordered, crystalline phase that you get out of the ice box, but the most common form of ice is amorphous, that is disordered, and there are two forms of amorphous ice with low and high density. The two forms can interconvert and there have been speculations that they can be related to low- and high-density forms of liquid water.

Not ice nine (fortunately)
“We found that water can exist as two different liquids at low temperatures (minus 234 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 148 degrees Celsius) where ice crystallization is slow,” said Anders Nilsson, professor in chemical physics at Stockholm University, and senior author of the paper reporting the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science."

And on the solid side, we have "To make hot ice, take one diamond and vaporise with a laser: Creating an exotic state of water that may exist on other planets is a high-pressure job." ("Vaporise" is not a typo... this article is from Cosmos, an Aussie zine.) The takeaway here:

Friday, September 1, 2017

A month to savor

Happy days :-)

My novelette "My Fifth and Most Exotic Voyage" is the cover story in the September/October issue of Analog. (And what a great cover it is! Hat tip to Eldar Zakirov.)

Who is the narrator? Well, who dressed in that distinctive manner made four famous voyages? You might suppose this to be Christopher Columbus ... but not so.

And in the September issue of the Grantville Gazette (Universe Annex), the reluctant detective of "The Company Man" (perhaps you met him in the May issue) returns as "The Company Dick." And matters aren't faring any better for him in this novella ...