Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Maybe the Mayans had it right ;-)

Submitted for your approval ...

"VW agrees to kick the "Crackberry" habit": Is it a harbinger of sanity or an omen of pending doom?

"Will China Break?" as Paul Krugman suggests? Or will the bull safely exit the porcelain emporium?

While teams of particle physicists feverishly search for a needle in a haystack's worth of haystacks, one physicist spends $2,600 for a custom Lego kit to build a 9,500-piece scale model of CERN's Atlas (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) detector -- part of the hunt for the Higgs boson. Heavy.

From the Department of Don't Believe Everything You Read, be sure to read "Doh! Top Science Journal Retractions of 2011."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cosmic greetings of the season

(But as with Arthur C. Clarke's classic short story "The Star," you wouldn't want be in the neighborhood when the show began ...)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cyberwar heats up

Did you find my January cyberwar post futuristic?  If so, the future is now.

From AP (via Yahoo News), here's an item from security firm McAfee: "Report: Global cyberattack under way for 5 years." To begin: 
... cybercriminals have spent at least the past five years targeting more than 70 government entities, nonprofit groups and corporations around the world to steal troves of data.
 McAfee Inc. said in a report Wednesday that the attacks have targeted a broad range of organizations, including the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee and companies mostly in the United States.
McAfee did not say who may be behind the attacks but says the culprit is likely a nation state.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cul de sac

My life is crazy-busy these days. So: what better time than today to share a few of the more interesting items from my web-clippings file?

Remember the 1993 movie Six Degrees of Separation? Neither do I. Regardless, the Kevin Bacon game proves too easy. See "Facebook Claims 4.74 Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

As the Eurozone and the EU itself crumple, Brussels bureaucrats took the time to tackle a vital consumer-protection issue. See "Europe's ruling on water preventing dehydration – another 'angels dancing on the head of a pin' moment."

(That topic has a certain Douglas Adams feel about it, does it not? How soon can we expect new workplace protections for telephone mouthpiece sanitizers?)

But truly exciting -- and now I'm not being sarcastic -- is a recent initiative of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. To wit: "Darpa seeks nanotechnology defense against novel pathogens." Consider:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Where credit is due

Unless this is your first visit -- in which case, "Hi!" -- you likely know that I'm a onetime physicist and computer engineer, and that I remain interested in science and technology.

It continually amazes me how few people I meet have any interest in either subject area.

Admittedly, seemingly esoteric things can fascinate me. (Like whether, as recent experiments suggest, neutrinos can travel faster than light. Like the nature of dark energy: a label of convenience for our present state of ignorance, not an explanation for the accelerating expansion of the universe.)

But my fascination with the cutting edge of science isn't why others' disinterest in science and tech surprises -- and, yes, saddens -- me. Come. Travel with me to my youth.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Energizing! Explosive! Not to mention, Millennial!

Publishers and authors work on different time lines. And so, two books completed nine months apart can -- and in this case, will -- be published one month apart. Just a few days ago, covers for both new novels (covers that, with total objectivity, I think are keen) appeared on Amazon. The covers having gone public, I thought: why not show off them off here?

First up: Energized, a near-future technothriller about energy shortages, alternate-energy sources, and the assets available to us in space. The large foreground object -- if you weren't certain -- is a solar power satellite. (Aside to Analog-reading visitors: this novel is an updated version of the recently concluded serial of the same name.)

Look for Energized in July 2012.  (I'll have more to say here about the novel as that date approaches.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hacked off

It's not only me.  The list of folks being hacked -- about which we all should be hacked off -- is depressingly long. And no, this post isn't about the latest sorry litany of identity thefts or compromises of credit-card databases (as maddening as those incidents are).

It's about matters far worse.

A major factor in my novel Fools' Experiments (2008) was a hostile entity -- in this case, an artificial intelligence -- wreaking havoc on the physical world via the Internet. Born to cyberspace, the AI didn't understand the physical world, but -- justifiably ticked off, for reasons I won't go into here -- it undertook to compromise networked resources that it found to be well-protected. Someone obviously valued them.

If only network-accessible resources were well protected ...

Fast-forward merely three years. From PC Magazine: "Illinois Water Utility Pump Destroyed After Hack." On the same incident, also see, from Physorg.com: "Foreign cyber attack hits US infrastructure: expert."

And the SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) interface that provided the hacker with access to the physical-world pump? SCADA devices are common things -- widely at risk, at least in principle, to more such meddling.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Time traveling -- the old-fashioned way

None of us can travel to the past (as I've blogged: Trope-ing the light fantastic (time travel)), but that doesn't stop a person from wondering ....

I recently vacationed in England -- that's the Houses of Parliament to the left -- and my sightseeing tended toward the historical. Not exactly time travel, to be sure, but it sure carried my imagination far into the past. And I brought home some great (IMO) photos to help carry you there:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fleet of Worlds (at last)

I've blogged regularly about the Fleet of Worlds: the physical (however fictional) place; the most recent book in the series; the various species known to the Fleet's alien denizens, the Puppeteers; the exotic technologies used there (and elsewhere in Known Space); and relationships to Larry Niven's novel Ringworld and its series.

But I've never blogged about Fleet of Worlds the novel, even though it kicked off the Fleet of  Worlds series (more on that below) and is among my most popular books. Fleet of Worlds was released in 2007 -- but I didn't begin blogging till 2008. I never saw a reason to look back

Till now. Today, Tor Books (Larry's and my publisher) re-released Fleet of Worlds as a trade paperback.

What is Fleet of Worlds about?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Worrying about the right things?

What brings eyeballs to many a website (or, in Ye Olde Days, sold printed newspapers) is trouble. Something that has, or might, or inevitably must, Go Wrong.

The retractions (if any) or stony silence when disasters don't come to pass are less obvious. Is it any wonder that anxiety is the natural mood?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nails in the coffin

When is a storyline complete? 

Typing "The end" is no guarantee.  To the contrary, that simple phrase becomes a dare, firing the "But what if ..." circuit in authorial brains. Because in fiction, as in life, few things ever truly end.

Okay, the conflict has been resolved. Big deal: life is conflict. Like streetcars, another conflict will be along any minute.

So the Bad Guy has gotten his comeuppance. The world has been saved. Yawn.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


A few computer-centric curiosities from my file of virtual clippings:

Living Google-free. Impossible? (He asks ironically, while blogging on a Google property.) Here's the experience of someone who actually tried. How I Learned to Live Google-free: A quest to quit the most pervasive company on the Web (from IEEE Spectrum's Inside Technology blog).

Maintaining such independence, should you so desire, isn't getting any easier. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Google Acquires Facial Recognition Technology Company. Why? "The Web-search giant didn’t say what it plans to do with it."

 What has Google had to say about such technologies?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


A commonplace among authors (and common advice to those aspiring to write) is that ideas are "a dime a dozen." Meanwhile, one good idea can occupy an author for months, even years.

And yet, when readers email and con-goers inquire, the most frequent question asked of authors -- by far -- is "Where do you get your ideas?" (When the impetus is a random encounter, upon learning that I'm an SF author, the query becomes, "Where do you get your crazy ideas?") 

That's fair.  No matter how well an author handles the craft of writing, or even the world-building, what sticks with most readers is the premise or the plot. The idea, that is. The inspiration side of writing, not the perspiration side.

For example, what would John Varley's Titan be without the idea of a sentient world?  Or Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series without the idea of everyone who ever lived being reborn simultaneously on another planet? Or Eric Flint's 1632 without the idea of a modern West Virginia town being transported intact into the Europe of the Thirty Years War? Or Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park without the idea of cloning dinosaurs from ancient DNA? Or (in another genre) any of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes without the idea of a private detective versed in science, logic, and attention to detail?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The red queen of cosmology and astrophysics

 Charles Dodgson -- aka Lewis Carroll -- was a very clever guy. I could give many examples, but today I'm thinking of the Red Queen's race in Through the Looking Glass:
"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
 Why think about Alice's adventures?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Humans, Pak, Puppeteers: in one word

An exercise: describe humanity in one word.

Choose carefully. The term you pick must apply universally across nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, technology levels, and political systems. It must apply equally across thousands of years of history, today, and well into the future.  The term should also serve to predict the behavior of an individual person in any situation, independent of his or her past experiences, throughout his or her adult life.

Hmm. Humans can be cruel, selfish, and ruthless -- but we can also be altruistic, generous, and self-sacrificing. We can be curious, but we can also be oblivious to events all around us. We can be inventive or mired in tradition or anti-intellectual, slapstick or witty or humorless, adventuresome or stay-at-home. We love and hate. We can be suspicious, sympathetic, and gullible. We act both capriciously and with cold, calculating premeditation.

I'm not having a lot of luck with my own challenge.

I succumb on occasion to checking out comments about my own books, both by professional reviewers and by (via Amazon and Goodreads, for example) the general readership. Most authors do. And while it's always enjoyable to see praise, critiques provide more in the way of learning opportunities. As in: What aspects of a plot did some readers not accept? What character behaviors did some readers find implausible? What background elements might have been insufficiently described?

So: How does that exercise of authorial due diligence (or rationalization -- another human trait) have anything to do with today's challenge?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Everything's spinning out of control!

Okay, that's not a statistical finding -- maybe things are no more out of control than usual. Regardless, my files are bursting with craziness. Such as:

Seismologists in Italy are on trial for manslaughter for failing to warn of a serious earthquake. Who believes seismologists can predict earthquakes? It's madness!

As is, IMO, the growing popularity of burning food (aka, biofuels). From a recent WSJ interview with Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestle:
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent estimate predicts that this year, for the first time, American farmers will harvest more corn for ethanol than for feed. In Europe some 50% of the rapeseed crop is going into biofuel production, according to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe, while 'world-wide about 18% of sugar is being used for biofuel today.'"
Despite burning such big portions of the food supply, food prices spike. How can such things happen? If only the world made sense!

Maybe it does. Read the full article ... Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has much to say about the intersection of policies affecting energy, food, and water. Very interesting stuff.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Strange worlds

Today's topic: planets and moons in recent news. 

The European Southern Observatory (located high in the Chilean mountains) just released its latest exoplanet survey results. Bottom line: about 50 new super Earths, one of these worlds arguably within its star's habitable zone. (That's not to say anyone knows that HD 85512 b is habitable -- we don't know whether it has an atmosphere. But if this world has an atmosphere, the current understanding of planetary dynamics says liquid water could exist on its surface.) From Space Daily, see: "Latest Exoplanet Haul Includes Super Earth At Habitat Zone Edge."

(That article spoke to me because the novel I'm currently writing involves a super Earth.)

Here's another -- and quite different -- exoplanet. Again from Space Daily, see, "Strange planet is blacker than coal." But TrES-2b is not a giant lump of something coal-like. It's a Jupiter-like gas giant, closely orbiting its star. About 3 million kilometers close, its atmosphere heated to 1000 degrees C! So how the blazes (heh!) is that world blacker than acrylic black paint?

Monday, September 5, 2011


In the past couple weeks, despite the mid-Atlantic, inland location of my home, I've experienced an earthquake and been grazed by Hurricane Irene. As I type, Tropical Storm Lee is headed my way. I've taken to jokingly wondering when the locusts will come --

And yesterday, I noticed grasshoppers in my yard and garage. 

It's enough to render current events quite scary. 

In this morning's Computerworld: "Hackers steal SSL certificates for CIA, MI6, Mossad." With the stolen certificates, the perps had the ability to launch "man in the middle" attacks, impersonating the named intel agencies, Google, and Facebook, among notworthy organizations. Without details, the above article says Iran is implicated.

Monday, August 29, 2011

It's tough to make predictions ...

Especially about the future. (That quote is from Yogi Berra, if you didn't recognize it.)

And prediction seems as hard for the experts as for the rest of us. Consider two current events. No one predicted the recent 5.8 earthquake in Virginia. Lots of people predicted the course of Hurricane Irene -- but what practically no one got right was Irene's ground speed up the East Coast, or that the storm would significantly weaken before it reached NYC.

Or consider some ten-year anniversaries. AFAIK, the CIA did not predict the 9/11 attacks, or events anything like them. Or the sudden collapse earlier that year of the USSR.

What about between ten years ago and last week? Who predicted that in Spring 2011 a despairing Tunisian produce vendor would set off regime change across North Africa and into Asia Minor?

What these things have in common, IMO, is complexity. When we deal with chaotic systems like the atmosphere, or with the free will of millions of people, we're forced to simplify our analyses. People and weather may often behave according to probability and statistics -- but they don't always. In our daily lives, the Law of Large Numbers is more a suggestion than a rule.

It's often said that science fiction is in the prediction business. Sometimes SF authors are spot on. It's happened with elements of (near-Earth) space travel, organ transplants, and ubiquitous computer networks. So? Genre fans can as readily -- or, perhaps, more readily -- identify stories that got the future spectacularly wrong.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Of old masters and old futures

An important part of my writing regimen is ... reading. Or, more accurately, rereading.

That is: I reread stories and books that have made deep, lasting impressions, the better to understand why (or if, upon reexamination) those pieces resonate with me. Most recently, I reread classics by two masters of the genre: The Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert (1955), and The Puppet Masters, by Robert A. Heinlein (1951). Both are, in quite different ways, Cold War novels.  From there, the two diverge.

The Dragon In the Sea  is a novel of submarine warfare, set in a future clearly evolved from the early Cold War. The West is in a death struggle with the "Eastern powers," with Russia chief among them. Dragon is an overt Cold War adventure melded with a psychological thriller, as physical and mental pressures build on one submarine's crew

The storytelling is in third-person-limited point of view (POV) -- that is, we're in the heads of every member of one sub's crew, never knowing more than they know.

Frank Herbert, of course, is a master. He breaks two cardinal rules of modern SF -- and for him, it works. There's lots of detail about futuristic submarines and the mechanics of sub/sub duels -- as much a military procedural as an SF novel. The amount of detail explicitly conveyed would be disparaged today as an "info dump."

The other surprise to the modern reader: we sometimes jump from one character's head to another within single scenes. That, too, is contrary to modern style. I'll admit that I occasionally found those (non)transitions jarring.

The Puppet Masters involves extraterrestrial parasites who take control of humans (decades before the Go'a'uld of the Stargate franchise), the takeover being all but undetectable. The novel is often taken as a parable of Cold War paranoia.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tweeting with fire

Tweets, Blackberries, cells ... they connect us, build communities, and are literal lifelines in emergencies. In ruthless dictatorships, these services help oppressed populations organize to present their case for freedom.

These are Good Things.

But are they Unmitigated Good Things? Is freedom of speech an absolute right, no matter what idea is being expressed and what the consequences? What about when the idea being expressed is "Quick! Let's loot a store here -- the police are busy there"?

Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously pointed out that there is no First Amendment right to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. (He also pointed out that, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.") And thus I segue into the issue of competing rights having  -- I hope -- established my libertarian bon fides in prior posts, most recently "Privacy? We don't need no stinkin' privacy."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Metaphor alert

Black swan events.  That's the au courant metaphor for an unlikely situation that -- because of its seriousness if it does happen -- merits our preemptive consideration. Because, the theory goes, when one assumes something won't happen, one is wholly unprepared when it does.

Never mind that since the Roman poet Juvenal began all this black-swan stuff with his comment, "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno," it's become known black swans do exist -- image at left (thanks to J J Harrison and Wikipedia). Keep that irony in mind.

(And bear with me. I will get to a technology matter, something well within the purview of this blog. And to another metaphor.)

I won't dwell on the current market crack-up, because people with far more qualifications than I have already weighed in on the topic. All you can bear to read about this mess is only a googling away. That said, one thing is clear: the present global financial panic originated in a black swan event.  (Or two. We have both the once unthinkable S&P downgrade of US sovereign debt and the unraveling of the Eurozone to thank.)

It is a panic. As one trader observes in "Why markets are melting":

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Danger, Will Robinson

For my non-gray-haired readers, that subject is a tag line of the campy Sixties TV series Lost in Space. We will not discuss the 1998 movie version. Not ever. You have been warned.

Today's subject is more modern dangers. Let's begin with the sadly not shocking observation that "Private browsing: it's not so private." Among the problems, browser plug-ins often fail to respect private mode.

Omitted from the discussion: no matter how robust your browser's privacy mode, your ISP knows by IP address what data goes to and from your home. (Your browser may warn you of this risk -- for example, Firefox pops up an advisory at the start of every FF private-browsing session.) Perhaps you choose to route your web accesses through an anonymizer service. If so, why do you suppose that service is any more likely to respect/protect your privacy than your ISP?

Are you unhappy that someone might poke around your Internet activities? How about foreign powers poking around inside your nation's IT infrastructure? We've already seen cyberwar incidents involving Georgia, Estonia, and Iran, and many incidents of Chinese hackers poking about inside US networks. (Last January I posted here about cyberwar.) Conventional wisdom has it that the country which would be most at risk in a full-blown cyberwar is the US -- we are, after all, the birthplace of the Internet, and so have become the most dependent on it. So: it's good to finally see that "US Cyberwar Guidelines Officially Signed." Hopefully implementation will entail less dawdling than did drafting and signing ...

As a US military official is quoted by the WSJ in "Cyber Combat: Act of War":

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Because two Eds *are* better than one

Perhaps it's impossible to be serious when Sirius rises with the sun (see: Dog Days). And though my currently running serial in Analog is Energized, the current heat wave has rendered me enervated.

(But even when I am serious, I stay current with the goings-on aboard the space station RU Sirius. If you haven't discovered Brewster Rockit, you should.) 

But two Eds, you say ...

Monday, July 18, 2011

National navel-gazing

As Atlantis prepares to return to Earth, ending the era of the space shuttle, we have the discouraging news that Congress may cancel the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's long-planned successor to the Hubble.

The Hubble Space Telescope is, simply put, one of the greatest observatories ever built. The discoveries it made possible are simply astonishing. The ability to service and upgrade the HST on-orbit -- done five times! -- has been one of the few unambiguously good reasons to have space shuttles. Without the shuttle, the Hubble will die, and we'll have no way to repair it the next time.

Why cancel the JWST? Money, of course. It is over budget, by a not-insignificant $1.5B. But this telescope is exceedingly advanced tech. What high-tech project hasn't overrun its budget a bit?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Gw'oth revealed! (And other fun stuff)

Several Known Space alien species have been imagined by artists, both pro and fan. But not yet every species, and I've been eager for someone to visually capture the essence of the scary-smart, aquatic Gw'oth. I think that's natural, given that the Gw'oth are prominent among my contributions to Known Space. (If this paragraph isn't obscure enough, I'll be forthright: its neat images aside, this post is aimed largely at Known Space aficionados.)

What are the Gw'oth? These aliens [singular: Gw'o] were introduced in the novel Fleet of Worlds; they went on to figure prominently across the Fleet of Worlds series. Most important among the Gw'oth are the very few individuals who together can form -- what I can't characterize further without spoilers -- into a special group called a Gw'otesht.

What do they look like? I'm happy you asked. Here's a descriptive passage from Destroyer of Worlds:
     A Gw'o had five limbs arrayed about a central disc, sort of like a starfish. Spines covered the skin, again like a starfish. There the resemblance ended. A Gw'o's skin changed colors like a squid or octopus. Its appendages were flexible, like those of an octopus, and hollow like tubeworms. Tier after tier of sharp teeth ringed the inner surface of each tube. Eyes and other as-yet unidentified sensors peeked out from behind the teeth. Almost certainly Gw'oth had evolved from some type of symbiotic carnivorous worm colony. Yes, Gw'oth had become familiar, singly and in groups. Except--
      Fascinated and repulsed, Sigmund examined a pile of writhing Gw'oth. The archival image was flat -- in the era of Explorer’s visits, the Gw'oth had yet to develop holography -- and for that Sigmund was grateful. Those piled, pulsing tubes, ends swallowing one another, the throbbing flesh, the occasional limb disconnecting and groping free of the twisting mass (to breathe?) came just a little too close to ... what? A spill of loose intestines? A nest of snakes having an orgy?
 I took a bit of a vacation last week, during which I dropped by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And what did I discover at the MFA but -- most extraordinary! -- the Dale Chihuly exhibition of blown-glass sculptures. Through the Looking Glass, the exhibition is called -- but Alice was not the fictional character who came to my mind. 

So: you see me here with a Gw'otesht on a lunch break.

The Gw'oth are predators. Happily they settled for those purple worms instead of my arm :-)

Monday, July 4, 2011

All roads lead to nonsense

SF and Nonsense, that is. And, of course, some roads are more heavily traveled than others ...

In an April post, I looked at which posts and topics on this blog attract the largest audience. Funny thing: that self-referential post quickly became one of the most frequently viewed items here. Today I'll analyze SF and Nonsense another way: where viewers come from. (Not individually. I don't know that, nor would I want to. But I'm delighted when visitors comment here or email me.)

Since Blogspot began sharing statistics with their bloggers, they've accumulated a year's worth of information. First up, mining that trove of data: popular referring URLs.

Dramatic drum roll ...

Monday, June 27, 2011

You can't make this stuff up ...

I never expected to encounter a sentence like: "Genetically Engineered Cell Shoots Out First-Ever Biological Laser." 

Do cellular lasers sound trivial? They're not. Consider:
Aside from implying the future possibility of a self-healing laser that requires no battery, this breakthrough could allow doctors and scientists to view the inner workings of individual cells without a microscope. 
I instantly thought of an application not mentioned in the article: laser-based communications among medical nanobots. Visible light spans the wavelengths from about 380 to 780 nanometers -- while cells (and cell-sized machines, once we have them) are of the scale several thousand nanometers. Had cell-based lasers been thought possible a few years ago, I might well have used them for the nanobots in Small Miracles. (Instead I used chemical signaling -- just as natural cells do.)

The next topic is scary, but the headline is ironic: "LightSquared Network Faces Interference of Its Own Making."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hackpocalypse now

Is it only me, or is the world becoming eerily (and scarily) reminiscent of Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and True Names?

That is: is conflict moving from the physical to the virtual domain? Are freelance hackers and ad hoc groupings of same obtaining more and more influence over our daily lives? Is hacking the new, preferred choice in asymmetric warfare? Are we neck deep in a new, scary era?

It sure looks that way. Consider these recent events:

Monday, June 13, 2011

The time has come, the walrus said ...

... To talk of many things.

For shoes and ships and sealing wax, continue here.  For more recent arcana to have caught this SF author's eye, read on ...

"Criminal Minds Are Different From Yours, Brain Scans Reveal." (I like to think that my visitors do not have criminal minds.) I read with interest that:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Antimatter matters ... the hole truth(?)

Follow-up to my January post Antimatter matters ... the talented folks at CERN, who previously brought us the Large Hardon Collider, have learned to store antimatter effectively indefinitely.

(What is antimatter? Take two particles of identical mass and equal but opposite electrical charge. By convention the rarer type of the mirror-image pair is dubbed the antiparticle. When a fundamental particle, like an electron, meets its antiparticle, a positron, the pair transforms into electromagnetic energy. Proton/antiproton encounters also transform into energy -- but since protons and antiprotons are not fundamental particles [they're composed of quarks and antiquarks, which are], the transformation is a multistep process. The bottom line: you can't store antimatter in a regular-matter box.)

Back to the news ... "Ephemeral Antimatter Trapped for Amazingly Long 16 Minutes," reports Livescience.com. What makes this story newsworthy is that the antimatter being stored is atoms of antihydrogen. Positrons and antiprotons are electrically charged; suspending them in a vacuum -- so that they don't encounter any normal matter -- is no different in principle than storing electrons or protons in a vacuum. That is a trick routinely managed in particle accelerators worldwide, using magnets to interact with the particles' electrical charges.

Combine a positron with an antiproton (or an electron with a proton) into a simple atom and the electrical charges offset each other. A storage container for antihydrogen must interact with something other than electrical charge, because the atom, being neutral, doesn't have any overall electrical charge.

Interact with what, then? Tiny spinning electrical charges -- and they don't come tinier than charged subatomic particles -- generate tiny magnetic fields. The two spinning particles that comprise an atom of hydrogen or antihydrogen are slightly separated, and that separation creates a magnetic dipole. The CERN antimatter trap interacts magnetically with the trapped antihydrogen atoms.

Per my previous antimatter post, creating and capturing even a single antimatter particle takes some doing (and beaucoup money). Hence, CERN is dealing with only a few antihydrogen atoms at a time. Less science-y articles -- like this, from a USA Today writer -- alas likened the latest achievement to the Dan Brown book Angels and Demons, a present-day novel that employs antimatter in bomb-equivalent quantities.  A wildly exaggerated production level for antimatter is not too egregious as literary license. This is: characters in Brown's novel imbued the antimatter with all manner of theological significance. It was pure (with extreme euphemism) poppycock.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Crocodile cheers

I've progressed from bemused to troubled to angry at the spate of breathless headlines heralding some "final" activity of a space shuttle. A typical example: "Shuttle Endeavour gone forever from space station." The launch, docking, undocking, and landing of each shuttle in the fleet is getting this kind of  treatment. Oh, and the dispersal of the shuttles to museums draws press attention, too.

Why am I so cranky? Because endings are pretty much the only aspect of the U.S. manned space program to get much media interest. What doesn't draw much media attention?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I've had an interesting few months.  My out-of-print first two novels, Probe and Moonstruck, returned to print. My latest novel, Energized, began running as a serial in Analog (look for Energized in book format next year). And the fun continues ...

Today sees Betrayer of Worlds re-released in mass-market paperback format.  (It's been available in hardback, ebook, and audio formats). Here's what I had to say when BOW was first released.

Of Betrayer's post-publication reviews, here's my favorite: