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 ...