Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (aliens)

Oh, come on.

Admit it: That (or some more colorful phrase of disbelief) is what you're thinking. How can aliens be only an SF trope? In such a huge and ancient universe, how can I dismiss the possibility of alien life elsewhere and elsewhen?

I don't. In fact, I plan to start a new series of posts in the new year dedicated to alien aliens.

This post is about non-alien aliens. You know the type: humans thinly disguised as aliens. Such species have served as stand-ins for Cold War allegories (e.g., two neighboring worlds locked in a war whose origins no one really understands), racial parables (e.g., two species on the same world, one pointlessly oppressing the other), and strawmen to advocate for (or against) birth control or euthanasia or gender equality or darn near any sociological pattern. When the medium is visual, these aliens are humanoid in appearance -- wouldn't want to be too subtle.

Near-certain signs of a trope alien: the aliens are cross-fertile with humans or (like decades of lurid pulp-magazine covers) find members of the other species sexually attractive.

There's no plausible basis for such aliens. Parallel evolution, you say? True, octopi have eyes much like humans -- but we can't bear each other's children! Panspermia? Suppose common seeds of life did drift, eons ago, to both Earth and Mars (or Earth and Rigel III). Since then, there's been a whole lotta evolution going on -- on both worlds. I have more genes in common with a redwood or a rattlesnake than a human can have in common with any extraterrestrial cousins.

Alien aliens: real SF. (I'd like to say meat-and-potatoes SF, but I'm guessing aliens aren't edible, either.) Stay tuned for next year's new series.

Social stand-in aliens? Trope. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Umm, *science* fiction?

Here's all you need to know about The Incredible Hulk: When Bruce Banner, the Jekyll side of the title character, gets really angry ... his mass, like, triples.

Since when does anger trump conservation of mass? Yes, the Hulk is a comic book (become TV series, become animated series, become comic-book movie, become video game -- shuffle and repeat until brain is pureed). Can't a comic have a nodding familiarity with the real world? (Yes, it can. Batman, for example, makes the effort.)

So incredible, yes ... just not in a good way. Despite more than one million hits when I google

"science fiction" and "incredible hulk"

you can't make me call it SF.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (universal translators, part II)

About a week ago, I dismissed the know-it-all, doesn't-need-training, universal translator as a trope. I left for another day -- which, it turns out, is today -- the matter of universal translators (UTs) able to learn all other languages. Call these Type II UTs.

At a minimum, the Type II UT is more credible than the know-it-all variety. Type II presumes that not all translations are self-evident. The Type II has to learn something. Maybe that's vocabulary. Maybe it struggles a bit with idiom. Still, Type II assumes that all languages ultimately fit within its array of lexical, syntactic, and semantic models. It still presumes some significant intersection of world views between us (as prospective builders of the UT) and the hive-mind slime molds of Rigel III.

But perhaps there is a loophole. Stories generally gloss over how the UT works. What if the UT is telepathic and thus gains insight into the utterly alien world view of the other mind? Another of my trope pieces concluded that technology-enabled telepathy might be possible.

Reading the hive mind of the slime molds might facilitate learning to translate -- but how would one read a mind whose thought processes, vocabulary, and symbolism are unknown? Wouldn't you need a Type I, doesn't-need-training UT to read minds on behalf of the Type II?

In hindsight, my "maybe technological telepathy can happen" post applies only to species with whom we already communicate. The aggregated output of a Martian's billions of neurons (or whatever he/she/leur/it uses) would surely be only so much noise to a telepath -- mechanical or otherwise -- never before exposed to it.

Can technology learn some languages? Most likely. Will it learn some faster than others? Sure, that makes sense -- the more the new language resembles a language the translator already knows, the better. But a universal translator? Trope city.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dark energy -- a constant companion?

The latest big -- one might say, cosmic -- news is that dark energy is not getting appreciably stronger over time. Some dark-energy theories had predicted a strengthening of the phenomenon.

This stability conclusion comes from comparing the sizes of distant (hence seen with old light) and nearby (hence seen with recent light) galaxy clusters. Old clusters evolved in a smaller, hence more gravitationally influenced universe. Cluster formation is influenced by both gravitational (attractive) and dark-energy (repulsive) influences. Maximum cluster sizes over time fit a model of dark energy whose strength has not varied by much over billions of years. Indeed, when combining observations made in different wavelengths, the latest findings say that dark energy hasn't varied by more than 10%.

Less than ten percent? That's verging on dark energy being the cosmological constant that Einstein introduced as an ad hoc adjustment to his theory of general relativity.

So now when I'm lying awake at night, I needn't worry that all the atoms in the universe will come apart in a Big Rip in a few billion years. THAT'S a load of my mind ;-)

Now if only we knew what dark energy IS ...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (universal translators, part I)

Ever notice how many SF stories, TV shows, and movies conveniently assume Our Intrepid Explorer can easily communicate with Never Before Seen Alien? Sometimes there's no attempt to explain it -- of course everyone in the Pegasus Galaxy speaks English (Stargate Atlantis). Never mind that their ancestors came from Earth before English came about, and often from halfway around the globe from the land became known as England.

Both parties speaking English in a First Contact situation certainly moves along the plot, but it demands much willing suspension of disbelief. The SFnal workaround is the universal translator (UT). This is a computer program that translates between any two languages. Some UTs require varying amounts of exposure to the new language, others can translate immediately.

(Before I continue ... there are many excellent stories that forthrightly tackle the challenges of establishing communications. A particularly mind-stretching favorite of mine is "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang.)

Is a UT plausible, or is it only a trope to move along plots?

For this post, let's take the easy case. That's the know-it-all UT. It knows each new language's vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and idioms (among other things) before ever encountering them. The implication is that there is a small number of meta-languages, encompassing all possible languages. With the shortest of snippets as a sample, the UT can derive the special case used by the newly encountered species.

Let's consider two species.

Case A, human. Language is constructed of a few tens of sounds (phonemes) used in combinations. Basic concepts reflect sight as the primary way of experiencing the world.

Case B, the aquatic hive-mind slime molds of Rigel III. They emit and absorb complex biochemicals to sense their environment and communicate. Information is encoded in (among other things) the types of molecules, concentration levels, and concentration gradients. Reactions with ambient chemicals can degrade communications. Amorphous blobs that the Rigelians are, they have neither fronts nor backs nor sides. Their sense of direction shifts with the currents, tides, and rogue waves.

How will the human-built "universal" translator fare when Our Intrepid Explorer first meets the Rigelians?

The instant-on, no-training-required UT? Surely a trope.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kilometerstone (et. al.)

SF and Nonsense is still a very new blog. Reaching 1000 visitors, in my book, counts as a milestone.

I'm not quite there yet. But miles? English units are so un-science-y. Earlier today, when the visitor count passed 621, I declared it a kilometerstone.

If that's a bit of a stretch, well, I wanted an administrivia post to which to append this item. Obscurely placed beneath my profile -- and in text that is, for reasons only Blogspot knows, available only in faint gray -- I've been running a readers poll. To wit: Would a monthly or bimonthly interactive chat about the state of science and science fiction -- the topics of this blog -- interest you? If you hadn't noticed it, or haven't voted, allow me to direct your attention to the poll.

The poll runs through December 31. If there's enough interest, I'll arrange a chat early in 2009 -- first announcing the details in the blog, of course.

If you have strong feelings about the timing of a chat (weekends, say, or weekday evenings), post a comment or send an email. As for my constraints, I live in the U.S. Eastern time zone. That's GMT -5 hours.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fictional frontiers

November 23rd was a red-letter day for me: my first radio "appearance." The venue was the popular-culture show Fictional Frontiers, aired weekly on a mass-market AM station: WNJC in Philadelphia.

I was invited to talk about my latest book, Fools' Experiments, but that was only the jumping-off point. The discussion covered artificial intelligence and nanotech, King Kong and hubris. (Finally, some good comes of those Greek tragedies assigned in high school.)

WJNC has now posted the interview (17 minutes). Depending on your Internet connection, the streaming version may sound great or like you're in a barrel. In the latter case, there's a downloadable MP3 version.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hollow (er, holo) episodes

Fair warning: today's post is a bit of a rant (and perhaps a bit of heresy).

I've mentioned revisiting the Star Trek universe. At this point, I'm well into Star Trek Voyager. Overall, I'm enjoying myself -- but I can fairly predictably spot episodes that'll make me sputter: anything holodeck-intensive.

To name just a few gripes:

1. Could the safety provisions be any less reliable, or the safety protocols any easier to disable? And after, say, the tenth incident, why has no one thought to fix things? It's lazy writing, pure and simple.

2. Holo matter is magical stuff that people can touch -- or that can strangle them -- when it is convenient, and is ephemeral at other times. It's limited to the holodeck, except (and I'm not referring to the "mobile holo-emitter") when it's not. More lazy writing.

3. Why, exactly, does the holographic doctor use a terminal to interact with a computer? Isn't he already a two-way, real-time program within the ship's computer network?

(And as to the shipboard network, a non-holo gripe: Why hand-carry little computers to deliver crew reports? Is email too advanced?)

4. Holo matter is projected and/or maintained by force fields. The illusion of a space much larger than the physical holodeck comes from a sort of virtual treadmill -- more force fields. And still no force fields to keep people in their chairs on the bridge during battle.

Virtual reality -- good. Holodeck -- faugh. I won't even dignify the latter as a respectable SF trope.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Welcome (redux)

SF and Nonsense recently became a featured blog for two of the big three print SF magazines, Analog and Asimov's. I could not be more delighted. If you arrived at my modest blog from one of the zine’s websites, today’s post is especially for you.

This blog captures my thoughts (and occasionally rants) about the state of science, fiction, and science fiction. I'm a physicist and computer scientist; I worked in high-tech for 30 years; I’m now a full-time SF author -- I figure I’m qualified. If not, well, electrons are recyclable.

If you're an Analog reader, you're probably familiar with my writing – a lot of it appears in Analog. My most recent Analog science article was in the September, 2008 issue. My latest short fiction is in the current (Jan/Feb 2009) issue. If you’re an Asimov's reader, my stuff appears there, too, although not (yet) as frequently. My latest Asimov's appearance was in February 2008. That said, I don't limit myself to the short form: I've had two new novels released recently.

However you arrived, it's good to see you. Look around, check out previous posts (and comment away), drop by my website, send me an email.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (AI)

Artificial intelligence is another old favorite of SF authors. Using ourselves as proof by example, intelligence is possible. So why not artificial intelligence? AI feasibility seems like a (pardon the expression) no-brainer -- except for the fact the research community has been on the verge of AI since computers were invented.

Maybe it would help if we could agree what intelligence, awareness, or consciousness mean. In the absence of agreement, we fall back on the Turing Test. We'll have AI when we can't tell an AI from a human on the other end of a comm line. Like beauty and obscenity, intelligence is in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps our anthropomorphism is the problem. As the hero in my book Fools' Experiments opines of the Turing Test:

What kind of criterion was that? Human languages were morasses of homonyms and synonyms, dialects and slang, moods and cases and irregular verbs. Human language shifted over time, often for no better reason than that people could not be bothered to enunciate. "I could care less" and "I couldn’t care less" somehow meant the same thing. If researchers weren't so anthropomorphic in their thinking, maybe the world would have AI. Any reasoning creature would take one look at natural language and question human intelligence.

I don't think AI is a trope -- just that we need to approach the problem a different way.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Writer Beware

Many readers aspire to be writers. Every big SF con has panels for aspiring writers. Every book signing I do, I'm asked about getting into writing.

Writing, like any business, has its quirks. One unfortunate quirk, alas, is an overabundance of people ready to exploit would-be authors. Scams abound.

Happily, resources also abound. Among the best resources is a website supported by the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

To wit, Writer Beware -- with a name that needs little explanation.

I'll also mention the insensitively titled but very insightful two-part article "The Clueless" in the August-September and October-November issues of the SFWA Bulletin. The Bulletin is available to non-members, and many libraries subscribe.

Another popular resource for aspiring writers is Preditors & Editors.

Want to write professionally? These sites are worth checking out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fools' Experiments

Fair warning: This is a commercial message.

Following two recent collaborations with Larry Niven, my latest solo novel, Fools' Experiments, was released today.
Charles Darwin wrote, “I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.”
Why would a computer-and-physics guy like me dabble in biology? The force of evolution drove life from the simplest of single-celled critters to sequoias and whales and people. Evolutionary techniques can also be applied to developing software -- and as with anything involving computers, the changes can come rapidly.
And Fools' Experiments? Consider well-intentioned but ultimately misguided scientists evolving software -- evolving artificial life forms -- and my authorial interest in the Darwin quote should become clear. Who says viruses, worms, and Trojan horses need be the last word in malicious software?

We are not alone, and it’s our own damn fault.
If you're curious about artificial life or the novel, Tom Easton (the long-time reviewer at Analog) offers this interesting discussion. And not surprisingly, the publisher has a bit to say.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

This dark universe

As SF fans (and everyone following modern physics) know, under prevailing theory the matter and energy we can see and feel -- the stuff like us -- is a mere 4% percent of the universe. To explain the motion of stars within galaxies, and of galaxies within clusters, dark matter is invoked. That’s 22% percent more of the universe. To explain the overall expansion of the visible universe, dark energy is invoked, accounting for the remaining 74% of the universe’s content. And most recently, some distant galaxies are seen to recede faster than dark energy can explain. Dark flow is now described as the visible manifestation of stuff so distant that it falls outside the visible universe, but which exerts an influence (likely gravitational) on remote objects we can see.

In all three cases, physicists infer the existence, and speculate about the nature, of unseen stuff. It’s that, or revisit the foundations of physics -- our understanding of gravity, for example -- to reinterpret their findings. Newton’s model of gravity turned out to be incomplete. Einstein’s is too, still disconnected after most of a century from quantum physics.

It’s not unreasonable, at least to me, that a future model of quantum gravity will necessitate a new look at all this inferred, anonymous, dark stuff -- including a new look at how much of it is really there.

That’s one curmudgeon’s opinion ...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (telepathy, part II)

I recently opined that natural telepathy is a trope and not speculative science, for lack of evidence or reasonable theory.

Technological telepathy is, IMO, another story (heh). EEGs already pick up something from neural activity. More sensitive electronics will, presumably, discern more. More advanced computers will, presumably, separate more (and lower amplitude) signals from the overall noise. Thereafter, the signal(s) can be sent anywhere using garden-variety comm technology. Somewhat more speculatively, the process can be reversed -- electrical fields impinging on synapses to influence the state of neurons.

And the reading and writing electrodes need not operate at a distance, separated from the brain by skull, scalp, and hair. There has already been experimentation with electrodes surgically inserted into the brain of a monkey. The SFnal next step is nanotech forming finer -- and many more -- electrodes in situ within the brain.

But will machine-aided telepathy "read minds" or "project thoughts"? Not any time soon, I suspect. Raw sensations, perhaps. Emotional states, maybe. The more complex the information one seeks to transfer, the more challenging. And might individuality bollix up the works? We're all wired slightly differently, for reasons genetic, environmental, and learned.

So technological telepathy? Not easy -- and for hard SF, still a bit of a stretch -- but by all means, fair game for the genre.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

For stuff that may not belong

This blog deals with my reflections on science and SF -- and only in passing, and in occasional posts, with my own writing.

For the past few years, I've produced an emailed newsletter, 2-3 times per year, for readers specifically interested in updates about my writing. As the months go by, more and more of those newsletters have fallen prey to overzealous spam filters.

So: I've established a private Google Group (more or less the same as a listserv):

Edward M. Lerner News and Discussion

for interested readers. The group is a better way to send the occasional announcement to those who have opted in -- with a reasonable chance that the resulting emails will end up where intended.

Members can -- but certainly don't have to -- send email to the group address, which will echo the email to other members. That's a way to discuss a book or story (or anything, for that matter) with fellow readers. I'll be copied, too, and will sometimes chime in.

If you're curious, check out the group. Joining requires a Google account. An account, if you don't have one, is free.

We now return you to the regular discussion of science and SF :-)

Monday, October 27, 2008

My fifteen minutes of fame

I recently had the pleasure of "appearing" on the popular SF podcast Cover to Cover. We discussed my last book, Juggler of Worlds and my upcoming (November 11) novel, Fools' Experiments. I'll post about FE when it's released. The interview starts at about 13 minutes, 15 seconds into the show (which isn't to say the whole show isn't interesting!).

And SF Signal asked me to participate in their Mind Meld feature, in which they ask the same question to a random(?) group of SF-industry people. The question this time -- one which authors are asked all the time -- was: Which authors and books have most influenced your writing? My answer appears with those of Joe Haldeman and Lois McMaster Bujold, among others. Good company.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Histories: alternate, future, and secret

Science fiction can set stories in the conventional past, like any garden-variety historical novel. Or SF can move characters -- see my previous post about the Time Travel Trope -- in and out of the conventional past. But SF can do so much more. The genre also offers:
Alternate history: What if history had gone a different way, like the South winning the Civil War? (Or, more intriguingly: What slight change -- like a Confederate battle plan not lost before the Battle of Antietam -- would lead to the South winning?) Thereafter, how might events unfold? Example: Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain.
Future history: A story set against a future so richly imagined that it feels like history. Examples: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or -- from the guy who arguably invented the concept -- Robert Heinlein’s Future History stories.
Secret history: A story that unfolds within history as we know it -- while making us understand that history in a new way. Example: Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, in which aliens were stranded in medieval Germany. More mainstream: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Combinations: Why not mix ’em up?
Playing with history, past and future, is a lot of fun. It must be -- we SF authors do it often. And mea culpa. Fleet of Worlds and, more so, Juggler of Worlds, both of which I co-wrote with Larry Niven are -- while standalone -- also secret future histories within Larry's Known Space.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cue Jiminy Cricket

I recently happened upon a wonderful science-fiction resource:

Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Stableford. Stableford, of course, is both an SF critic and a prolific SF author.

The encyclopedia is neither science nor SF, but rather a fascinating discussion of both. It reviews the science used in SF, the ways SF presents (and misrepresents) science, and identifies particular stories and books that illustrate particular themes and theories. It's (too) easy to while away an hour or two exploring topics like time travel or alternate history or first contact or ... pick your SFnal theme. Alas, it's priced like the library reference book that it is.

Does my subject line parse? Either way, that says something about our comparative ages.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Iceland meltdown

The current global financial crisis somehow feels SFnal, futuristic, cyberpunk, to me.

Much wealth -- as varied as commodities futures, options on stocks, and credit default swaps -- is no more than entries in computers. Information. Or maybe disinformation. The value of the underlying "assets" is a collective state of mind, subject to mood swings -- and so, to hysteria (er, news). Or, for anyone with a conspiratorial belief system, to manipulation.

And so Iceland, a thoroughly developed country, goes almost overnight from wealthy to broke (e.g., see this USA Today story), its metaphorical hand extended for aid. Iceland is hardly the only problem spot, of course, merely (IMO) the poster child for the current crisis.

I don't mean to exonerate or excuse any particular institution. In the case of Iceland, for example, accepting bank deposits equal to about ten times the GDP looks -- in retrospect, anyway -- like a really bad idea. An SFnal, post-national, bad idea.

It's not the future I was looking for ...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Trust the force (field), Kirk

I've been rewatching the old Star Trek series. (How did we live without Netflix? Those were primitive times.)

As much as I enjoy these old shows -- woohoo! a new way in almost every episode to rationalize breaking the Prime Directive -- one thing bugs me.

These ships use force-field technology everywhere. The shuttle bays are shirtsleeve environments with huge openings to space, so force fields hold in the air. Force fields also reinforce the hull (so-called structural-integrity fields) and retain the air after the frequent hull breaches. Force fields rather than metal bars keep miscreants in the brig. Force fields provide biohazard containment. And the Star Trek ships also project force fields: tractor beams pull in (overcoming strong and straining engines) enemy ships that would flee.

So why aren't there force fields to keep people in their seats? Instead, the bridge crew is thrown about like leaves. Every $%^#!! episode. All they need is a little force-field generator (triggered and calibrated by an accelerometer, if you want to get technical) in every seat.

Or, failing per-chair force fields, why can't the 24th century master seat-belt technology?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (telepathy, part I)

Next on our tour of SF tropes: ESP. Mind reading. Sixth sense. Telepathy.

Whatever your preferred term, I’m unaware of any verifiable proof. Demonstrations have been unrepeatable, or hoaxes, or not statistically significant. (Does anyone out there have data to the contrary?)

So, unproven. How about plausible? Nope, not that either. Because ...

Signals are weak. Brains do generate electrical energy -- reading electrical fields is how EEGs work. But the signals are very weak (neurons signal electrochemically across synapses). Hence, each EEG pickup only senses the aggregated signal from many neurons. EEG pickups are glued to your scalp to make dependable contact. It’s hard to see how one mind can sense the electrical emissions of a remote mind.

The environment is noisy. Your brain has about 100 billion neurons, many with thousands of synapses. They don’t all fire at once – but at any given time, lots are firing. Suppose remote reception were possible. How would a telepath pluck one person’s higher-level thoughts (versus, for example, real-time raw sensory input) from the din? And from the interference the other several billion of us would generate?

Wouldn't evolution favor telepaths? Telepathy seems valuable. Spot your enemies at a distance. Sense deceit. Avoid misunderstandings. Know exactly how to woo that potential mate (so mysterious to those who can’t read minds ;-) ). If humans ever could read minds, why didn’t the trait become common? So evolution argues against telepathy, too.

Natural telepathy among humans? In my mind, an SF trope. But technologically assisted telepathy? That’s another story (or at least another post). Stay tuned.

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
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


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


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.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Why IS fandom gray? (Part I)

Or more precisely, why is science fiction losing mind share among the young(er)? I have a theory. Several actually, but I'll limit this post to one.

To wit: Not all SF takes place off Earth -- only most of it. And for many, to travel off-Earth must seem like yesterday's future.

Those of us of a certain age (i.e., gray- and non-haired) grew up with the excitement of the space race. The progress was dizzying: suborbital flights, orbital flights, orbital rendezvous ... . From Sputnik to One Small Step in twelve years. Inspiring!

But for anyone thirty five or younger, the manned space program has been endless circling of the Earth. For far too long, the program has been the international space station -- where nothing, besides construction and repairs, ever happens -- punctuated by shuttle disasters.

Not so inspiring.

If SF is mostly in space, and space is mostly (a) boringly repetitive and (b) your father's notion of the future -- why would you read it?

Judging by the numbers, you wouldn't. And that's a damn shame.

The purpose of space exploration isn't to inspire SF -- but one of the best uses of SF is to inspire space exploration. Because when we stop exploring -- and Earth itself is rather well explored -- we lose something of what humanity has always been about.

Monday, August 25, 2008

So why am I here?

Why am I blogging? I mean, besides that everyone does?

I'm recently home from the 2008 Worldcon, this year's world science fiction convention. I saw old friends, networked, had fun -- and fretted about the state of the genre. Every Worldcon I attend seems smaller, and its attendees grayer. (Yes, I'm gray, too.)

I've read SF since, best guess, I was ten or eleven. Chances are I wouldn't have picked science as a career without the exposure -- and excitement, and sense of optimism -- SF imparted. I would have missed a lot. And I doubt I would have had a second career as a writer.

This blog is begun with the hope, however modestly, of giving back. Science and technology drive progress. They offer ways to tackle many of the world's ills (and yes, ways to create new ills). They satisfy the oh-so-human urge to explore.

So: I intend to post once or twice a week with thoughts about science, fiction, and science fiction. What's exciting. What's problematical. How SF as a genre helps or hurts science awareness.

(Will I mention my own books and stories? As examples, sure. My fiction, like this blog, deals with the things on my mind. But having said that, this isn't a commercial.)

That's why I'm here. It's time to post this and see who else is. Let's start a dialog!