Thursday, June 14, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Catching up with the universe

From MIT: BOOK REVIEW: Catching up with the universe

How it Began
By Chris Impey
W.W. Norton
March 2012

I grew up in the Panamanian countryside, under pristine skies bursting with stars. Defenseless against the nightly spectacle, I had no choice but to become a backyard astronomer. A Spanish translation of Isaac Asimov’s The Universe (1966) transformed a romantic interest in constellations into a healthy scientific understanding of the cosmos. Asimov’s tome, although dated, satisfied my thirst for cosmological knowledge long enough for me to shift my attention to more mundane things. Two decades went by until I discovered — with a mix of delight and trepidation — that while I was not looking, a third revolution in cosmology, by no means smaller than those triggered by Copernicus and Hubble, was taking place right under my nose, during my lifetime.

Obscure and puzzling terms, such as dark matter and dark energy, were now ubiquitous in a discussion that I no longer recognized as familiar and that — much to my dismay — I was no longer able to follow with confidence. The good old Big Bang I was familiar with had now been revised and expanded to include exotic concepts such as an inflationary stage, an accelerating rate of expansion, and the possibility that our whole universe may be only a tiny part of a bubbling multiverse, explainable by means of microscopic vibrating strings. Ouch! Eager to catch up with the fantastic new questions and findings of the ongoing third cosmological revolution, I searched again for an instructive and entertaining book that could do for me now what Asimov’s book had done 20 years earlier.

Alas! A pilgrimage through the pages of a dozen books, each with diverse strength and shortcomings, was necessary for me to catch up with our current understanding of the universe. After the effort, I do feel confident, again, that — while still a layman — I am no longer an ignoramus in regard to current cosmological questions. Interestingly, the process of educating myself in these matters left in me the impression that the whole exercise had been terribly inefficient. The common person deserved — I thought — to have an up-to-date summary of the current understanding of the universe, presented in accessible language, and in a single comprehensive book.

Chris Impey’s latest work may be that book. If it is not, at least it comes closer to that ideal than any other volume I have seen in a long while. Let me put it in these terms: if I had to recommend a single book today to a friend wanting to learn the basics of what’s out there, Impey’s How It Began would be my first choice. Ambitious in its scope, up-to-date in its content, accessible in its exposition and pleasantly poetic in its execution, the book is an imaginative yet scientifically grounded promenade through the cosmos, which starts next door with a fact-packed (and fascinating!) look at the Moon and ends up, past the beginning of time and space, with speculation about the Multiverse.

But How It Began is more than a crash-course on modern cosmology: it is a sort of epic narrative about the human quest to understand the universe, to bring it within reach, and to find our place in it. It includes not only concepts from astronomy and cosmology, but also nuggets of knowledge from other fields that help put them in an interesting context. The whole volume seems designed to blow you out of the water. And it delivers. Some passages - like the description of the space race — read like a thriller, while others (such as the description of a desolate moonscape in Europa) read like a poem. Every page packs a punch, every paragraph presents a surprising fact, a memorable analogy, or an interesting anecdote. A sense of awe and marvel seems to permeate it all, as if Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe had been rewritten in the style of Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality.

Impey’s work is a far cry from the formulaic books on popular science that present findings in a chronological fashion, mere recollections of whose ideas replaced whose. Instead it is thoroughly original. It feels like a conversation in a cafe with an old and dear friend, who happens to be brilliant and engaging, versed in all things related to space and time. Refreshingly, Impey is unafraid to employ wildly diverse cultural, historical, even mythical references — as well as personal anecdotes — where they are less expected as long as they help convey the ‘wow’ factor of an explanation. Some visualizations that border on science fiction, as well as abundant quotations from thinkers of all epochs, have been used to good effect throughout the text. Undoubtedly an expert in his field, Impey is also a bit of a dreamer, a bit of a poet, and a lot of fun. This book, which takes strongly after its author, is — in my opinion — an entertaining and illuminating tour de force, which deserves to be read and savored slowly. For it is clearly a work of love.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mars Loses One of Its Most Famous Citizens–Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

From Scientific American: Mars Loses One of Its Most Famous Citizens–Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

If science fiction is kids’ gateway drug to science—and it surely was mine— then Ray Bradbury is a major pusher, in the ranks of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. Although they made us curious and celebrated rational thought, they didn’t gloss over the ramifications of scientific discovery and technological progress. And they did give us Earthbound types places to go and worlds to explore and a future full of possibilities—and all of them as close as the nearest bookstore or library. Bradbury, who started as a writer for pulp fiction magazines, was one of the science fiction authors who made the genre “respectable” literature.

More than eight million copies of Bradbury’s books were sold in 36 languages—and this was without digitization. He wrote more than 500 works that included novels, plays, children’s books, screenplays and short stories . Strange how this prolific visionary, who died June 5 at 91, seemed to abhor e-words, preferring the printed page. Perhaps he was thinking that electronic words are more easily censored or deleted than written ones—at least the latter hold out until the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451. And it may have just been his nature: as the mental constructor of spaceships, time machines and civilizations on other planets, he remained firmly grounded—he never traveled via plane until 1982 and had no driver’s license.

Bradbury stood with the great science fiction storytellers in his ability to superimpose the commonplace and the heinousness of reality over fantastic alien settings—or Earthly dystopias, such as in what some critics consider his greatest accomplishment, Fahrenheit 451, as well as his other works, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and on television shows including the Twilight Zone. And although he never won a Pulitzer, he did win a special citation from the committee in 2007. He also won the National Medal of Arts in 2004.

In high school, we were assigned to read The Martian Chronicles and would be tested on it. Bonus points for me—already a fan of science fiction, I had read it twice—yet like all great literature, I would realize as I matured that it was more than the space-set adventure I enjoyed, but rather a morality tale that unfolded as I learned more about history and watched real-life current events dutifully repeat it. Good authors are sneaky like that—they can sell any idea or parable, as long as it is gift wrapped in a good tale.

In The Illustrated Man, Bradbury used the frame narrative device employed by classics such as the The Decameron, or One Thousand and One Nights, which weaved unrelated short stories together. A young man meets an “illustrated man” who has tattoos that can tell stories. Some have ironic twists, such as the satiric, “The Concrete Mixer,” where a Martian invasion of Earth ends with the conquerors acculturated into and seduced by commercial American society, which then ends up taking over Mars. Another that stands out for me is “The Last Night of the World,” in which a person awakes from a dream that the world would end that night. Then he finds that every adult has had the same dream, yet people go about their day without changing their routines. The end is not due to war, famine or other calamity—it’s just “the closing of a book.” A wife asks her husband, “Do we deserve this?” He answers, “It’s not a matter of deserving; it’s just that things didn’t work out.” Sometimes the most dangerous apocalypse is the one that sneaks up on you. Any lessons to be learned here? As one who ponders apocalypse far too much (as I suspect most sci-fi readers do) I find his work a devious mix of the mundane, the alien and the terrifying that works so well in many his stories. After all, he could have just been playing on the fact that the characters in “Last Night” might be self-aware and know they live in a short story.

Of course in his 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, which stands with 1984 and Brave New World as harbingers, or at least warnings of possible and frightening destinies for humankind, the message is not so oblique: He tells of a totalitarian U.S. where all books are banned and burned. It seems obvious to us in the West, where we are in the midst of an information revolution, that unfettered access to knowledge is key to any open and democratic society, and that censoring any media or Internet site is a gross assault on our freedom. But efforts to filter the Internet in China, Iran and other authoritarian regimes shows that the censors’ fires still burn hot. Yet, Bradbury told the Times of London in 1993: “The real threat is not from Big Brother, but from little sister [and] all those groups, men and women, who want to impose their views from below. If you allow every minority to grab one book off the shelf, you’ll have nothing in the library.” Before we in the Free World get too righteous, we should look at home at such incidents as the attempts to ban the mention of evolution or global warming in textbooks in supposedly enlightened democracies.

The beauty of science fiction is born not simply of its predictive proclivities, but also of its festival of ideas, some fantastically outlandish, some horrifying, some so prescient that they now appear “outdated”—but only because they have come true. In expanding our minds with his imagination, Bradbury, who described himself as “a magician” and science fiction as “the art of the possible” (as opposed to the art of the impossible: fantasy) gave us a way to see humanity’s possibilities—both great and despicable. He also gave us the most important thing an author can bestow: really good stories.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Space Age Prophet

From the New York Times (op ed): The Space Age Prophet

HE’S finally gone, at 91, the last titan of the era when sci-fi fandom was a way of life. The maestros of that tight world were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein — and Ray Bradbury. You had to put Bradbury in that rank, even though your mom read him in The Saturday Evening Post. That could get embarrassing for those of us in the sci-fi hard core.

His pedigree was impeccable, though. He came from “Lassfuss,” the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, a primeval caldron of sci-fi geek culture, founded in 1934. In my own caldron of Austin, our literary mentor, Chad Oliver, came to us from Lassfuss. He told how he and Bradbury and the “Twilight Zone” screenwriter Charles Beaumont would hunt for all-night burger joints, talking sci-fi until dawn.

It sounded so wondrous that we never understood that we were hearing a hard-times story. This was Depression-era California, and the real Bradbury was displaced from the Midwest to Hollywood, like a Steinbeck Okie, one of countless thousands who went West and inadvertently created a big chunk of postwar culture.

He was so poor that he used to borrow sci-fi magazines from kiosks, read and replace them. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451” on a coin-operated typewriter.

As Los Angeles boomed with aviation plants and TV aerials, he came into his own. Many writers in his world seemed men out of time and place, but there was no one better to speak for, and to, postwar California than Ray Bradbury.

He was always the bookworm fantasist, but never in the reclusive, shabby-genteel Lovecraft fashion. Despite his rough origins, or maybe because of them, he had the gift of easy gab. When rockets scraped the sky he was the space age prophet, authentic because he was unencumbered by authority, true because he was making everything up.

Bradbury’s basement office was his universe, crumbling pulp magazines, paperback originals, fantasy-movie memorabilia and similar Depression-kid comfort icons. And yet, as much a part of the culture as he was, he was also, always, outside of it, looking back. Eschewing that dominant school of geek-fantasy world-building where every elf has a butler and a serial number, he was deep into the daydreamy just-suppose.

For instance: just suppose that buildings are fireproof. What would firefighters (his beloved dead uncle was a firefighter) do? They’d set fire to things! They’d burn books! They’d burn culture, all the evidence that their absurd world was oppressive and unfit for humanity.

It’s easy to forget that Bradbury wrote a lot of horror stories, too. Having been through the Depression and war to emerge in the anonymity of postwar America, how could he not? An emptied world where the smart machinery grinds on, yakking inanely, as the mainstream consumers are nuclear blast shadows stenciled on the outside of their suburban home — a vision from a smiling guy in short pants who spoke reverently of Buck Rogers comics.

People elided his dark, mournful side, because his affect was so brisk and boisterous. He was the sharpest of social critics, but never mean-tempered, like Orwell or Huxley. He was, rather, like that other great portraitist of hard-life Middle America, Edward Hopper, painting horror with an affect of stillness, bleakness, loneliness, bereavement and deprivation.

He used to speak of a mystical experience: instead of attending a family funeral, he ran off to a carnival. He found a sideshow huckster named “Mr. Electrico,” who told him that he was not a 12-year-old but a reincarnated spirit. He hit him on the head with an electrical wand and told him to aspire to immortality.

If it sounds like a half-hour fantasy TV episode, it’s probably because Bradbury wrote so many of those, years later. But more important, it’s a metaphor for sci-fi as a way of life: departing a funereal mainstream culture to play techno-tricks with the tattooed sideshow weirdos.

But if that was Bradbury’s origin myth, it’s also what he became. Wine from dandelions, lowly yet highly evolved, borne by the wind into the last places you’d expect to find them blooming. Exotic, yet common as the soil.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Back to Asimvo's Anecdotes...

I've decided to go back to front, starting with the essays in The Secrets of the Universe, the 22nd and final book of collected essays from F & SF.

Bear in mind that he had to have known he was dying of AIDS from a faulty blood transfusion while some of these essays were written....

Beginning anecdote from "The Salt Producers:, June 1990

When I was young, in the far-off distant days before antibiotics, we had a home remedy for any cut, scrape, or abrasion. In order to prevent infection, we smeared the spot with tincture of iodine-that is, a solution of iodine in alcohol.

It was ground into me that iodine wa the universal anti-infection treatment. It stung on application (ouch, ouch)but that was good for I always felt , as a child, that the stinging was a sign that all the germs were being killed.

But time has passed and home remedies have changed. My dear wife Janet is, of course, an MD, and so she is up on all the latest anti-infection stuff. Her greatest happiness in life is doctoring me for any minor problem I may have. (It's not my greatest happiness, but I love her dearly and am willing to endure the inconvenience if it will make her happy.) In any case, she plasters me with a variety of ointments and lotions and antibiotic creams.

However, in my medicine cabinet I insist on having a little bottle of tincture of iodine, and anytime I can hide a cut or scrape or abrasion from dear Janet's eagle eye, I smear it with iodine so that I can feel that healthy germ-killing sting.

And because I used it the other day for exactly that purpose (and was caught by Janet, who gave me Lecture 3A on the subject) I thought that, since I occasionally write an essay on one or another of the chemical elements, I ought to do one on iodine. Here goes--

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Liese Sherwood – Fabre A Writers’ Journey and Life

From News-Register Online: Liese Sherwood – Fabre A Writers’ Journey and Life
Liese Sherwood-Fabre’s journey into writing fiction began about 20 years ago when she got an A+ on her story about Dick and Jane’s Ruined Family Picnic. Since then she’d considered writing as a hobby only until she subscribed to Isaac Asimov’s science fiction magazine while living in Mexico.

Like most beginning writers, Sherwood-Fabre thought, “I can do that.” Although a labor of several weeks produced a 20-page short story that quickly got rejected by the magazine, she learned two things: “It was possible for me to complete a work and that I needed to learn more about how to write if I were to ever be published,” which, she said, is “not so easy when living abroad and before the Internet came into its current form.”

Her husband got transferred to Moscow, Russia shortly after she received the rejection letter and she took a contractor’s job with the U.S. Agency for International Development. In Russia, Sherwood-Fabre decided to continue developing her skills this time, on a novel.

“With one novel under my belt, I decided to begin another,” said Sherwood-Fabre. Only “this time, [the novel would be] set in Russia and [it was] partly inspired by an article [that] circulated through my office by Richard Preston.”

With Preston’s March 9, 1998, New Yorker article, “Annals of Warfare: The Bioweaponeers,” that described the plight of Russian scientists following the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iranians’ efforts to recruit [Russians] for their own laboratories and weapons programs, an idea was brought forth.

“What, I wondered, would push a scientist to agree to develop biological efforts for a foreign, radical government? [So,] I gave my main character no job, a sick child and friends with underworld connections and [thus] Saving Hope was born,” said Sherwood-Fabre.

Shortly after starting this novel, Sherwood-Fabre and her family returned to the U.S. and she enrolled in a creative writing class at North Lake College where she took classes to help with writing novels and short stories. It was in these classes that she found discipline in meeting deadlines as well as learning to listen to other students’ critiques of what she’d written. To this day, she holds Dr. Nancy Jones Castilla and current novel writing adjunct, Richard Abshire, in high esteem for all the help they gave her through the years.

Learning that the Romance Writers of America (RWA) was holding its national conference in Dallas, Sherwood-Fabre decided to attend with the goal of finding additional advice. Then, she joined the Dallas chapter of RWA; DARA (Dallas Area Romance Authors).

Finally, just before Christmas of 2011, Sherwood-Fabre learned that a new e-publisher, Musa Publishing, was seeking material for their booklist so she submitted her Russian novel Saving Hope, which was accepted almost immediately. “I reached the golden ring all writers seek – the publishing contract,” she said

Sherwood-Fabre’s Saving Hope debuted May 4 at www.musapublishing.com. You can also follow her upcoming releases and other evens by joining her newsletter at www.liesesherwoodfabre.com and you can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Bebo. You can also contact her at liese@liesesherwoodfabre.com.

Fabre’s “Pearls of Wisdom”

1) Perseverance is key. Of all those who start a novel, only 20 percent ever finish that first manuscript.

2) Editing is a basic part of writing. Sol Stein notes the difference between a published writer and a non-published writer is their attitude toward revisions.

3) Take classes (on-line, credit, not-credit). You’d be surprised at how many there are out there now.

4) Seek out a writer’s group you can call your own.

5) Get one or more critique partners.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Mystery of Big Data’s Parallel Universe Brings Fear, and a Thrill

From New York Times: Mystery of Big Data’s Parallel Universe Brings Fear, and a Thrill Not long ago, a woman in Tacoma, Wash., received a suggestion from Facebook that she “friend” another woman. She didn’t know the other woman, but she followed through, as many of us have, innocently laying our cookie-crumb trails through cyberspace, only to get a surprise. RSS Feed RSS Get Science News From The New York Times » On the other woman’s profile page was a wedding picture — of her and the first woman’s husband, now exposed for all the cyberworld to see as a bigamist. And so it goes in the era of what is called Big Data, in which more and more information about our lives — where we shop and what we buy, indeed where we are right now — the economy, the genomes of countless organisms we can’t even name yet, galaxies full of stars we haven’t counted, traffic jams in Singapore and the weather on Mars tumbles faster and faster through bigger and bigger computers down to everybody’s fingertips, which are holding devices with more processing power than the Apollo mission control. Big Data probably knows more about us than we ourselves do, but is there stuff that Big Data itself doesn’t know it knows? Big Data is watching us, but who or what is watching Big Data? It is perhaps time to be afraid. Very afraid, suggests the science historian George Dyson, author of a recent biography of John von Neumann, one of the inventors of the digital computer. In “A Universe of Self-Replicating Code,” a conversation published on the Web site Edge, Mr. Dyson says that the world’s bank of digital information, growing at a rate of roughly five trillion bits a second, constitutes a parallel universe of numbers and codes and viruses with its own “physics” and “biology.” There are things going on inside that universe that we don’t know about, he points out — except when it produces unpleasant surprises, as it did during the “flash crash” of the stock market in May 2010. And we had better find out what they are. Where is Hari Seldon when we need him? Unfortunately, he’s not real — yet. Hari Seldon, a mathematician and “psychohistorian,” who had figured out the laws governing history and society, was the central figure in Isaac Asimov’s magisterial “Foundation” trilogy. Set thousands of years in the future, the books follow Seldon’s and his followers’ attempts to preserve civilization during the impending collapse of the Galactic Empire. There is something both spooky and grand about the idea that our lives are part of patterns and currents still invisible to us, like climate cycles yet undetected in the geological record. Or maybe not so grand: In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “The Sirens of Titan,” all of human evolution and history has been manipulated from afar to deliver a widget about the size and shape of an old-fashioned beer can opener to a robot astronaut stranded by a broken spaceship on that Saturnian moon. Nevertheless, if you could discover those principles, you might be able — dare I say it? — to rule the world. Both Paul Krugman, the liberal Nobel laureate economist and Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, and Newt Gingrich, the conservative former House speaker and presidential candidate, have admitted to being inspired as young men by the dream of being Hari Seldon. Mr. Krugman told The New Yorker a couple of years ago that it was the lure of discovering such laws that made him want to be an economist. You might think that the “physics” of these systems should not be a mystery, since we created them. But that does not mean we know what will come out of them. Alan Turing, the British mathematician and computer pioneer who was born 100 years ago this month, showed that even a simple routine or set of instructions left to run endlessly can produce complex results. It “can (indeed will) produce statements (and behavior) that we cannot necessarily understand,” wrote Mr. Dyson in an e-mail. Surprises — what the complexity theorists call emergent properties — are part of the game. Do ants know they are in an anthill? In the 1970 science fiction movie “Colossus: the Forbin Project” — a favorite among computer scientists, including Mr. Dyson — scientists create a supercomputer network. The first thing Colossus discovers after being turned on is that there is a similar network in the Soviet Union. They join forces and take over the world. I wondered if such surprises occurred in the computer models used by the financial world. So I reached out to another Hari Seldon admirer, J. Doyne Farmer, a physicist and complexity theorist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and a founder of the Prediction Company, which is now owned by UBS, the giant Swiss bank. Dr. Farmer said classical economics had failed miserably to provide the right data for us to understand ourselves. He and others have begun to develop so-called agent-based models of the economy, asking in effect how the seemingly random behavior of individual ants can give rise to anthills with all their pulsing purpose, form and intelligence. It works great for ants, and it’s pretty to think that we might have something to learn about ourselves from our little six-legged friends as they carry off the crumbs from another picnic. Even if it means there is nothing more profound than a 22nd-century beer-can opener in our future.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Looking to Satellites for Solar Power

From OvercloclockersClub: Looking to Satellites for Solar Power

In 1960, the Isaac Asimov book I, Robot was first published. The book actually contains nine short stories dealing with the development of robots, before as their technology improves and with how they can be used to further humanity. One of these stories (Reason, specifically) is set on Solar Station #5, a satellite that captures the energy of the Sun and beams it back to Earth using microwaves. It appears Asimov was ahead of his time with this as researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow are working on satellites to do the same thing.

All solar panels on Earth are at an immediate disadvantage to any in space, because of the atmosphere and day-night cycle. In space the light is not filtered through the atmosphere and satellites can face the Sun more often than a solar farm on Earth. Satellites with solar panels and microwave emitters or lasers, energy could be very precisely beamed to any point on Earth.

The initial satellites the researchers are looking at would only be able to power a small village, but they intend to design larger satellites that could power an entire city. To achieve this, the researchers are also working on ways to assemble the satellites in orbit. Already a satellite system has been tested that put up a large web-like structure which acted as a base for other components to be built on to.