Archive

Posts Tagged ‘space exploration’

Look up, go there, send home pictures

Humans have been throwing things at Mars since at least 1960 (I’ve never been convinced that we really know all the unsuccessful Soviet space missions). The first US mission to Mars was launched in 1964, but Mariner 3 didn’t make it.

Mariner 4 was the first to get there, entering Mars orbit doing its flyby on July 15, 1965.

After a bunch of failures (the Mars Curse in action) and a couple of successful orbiters, Viking 1 landed on July 20, 1976, ten years after the first orbiter reached Mars, and its twin Viking 2 landed shortly thereafter.

The next batch of missions, both ours and Soviet, failed (see above, Mars Curse). Mars Global Surveyor entered orbit in 1997, and sent back data for ten years, far longer than expected. Mars Pathfinder landed in 1997 and sent the rover Sojourner out to look around.

Mars Odyssey entered orbit in 2001, and is still sending pictures home.

My favorites until earlier this month were the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, wandering Mars since 2004. Planned to run for 90 Martian days, Spirit chugged on until 2010, and Opportunity is still roving.

XKCD Spirit

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been in orbit since 2005, with the HiRISE sensor sending back some incredible high-resolution images (end of mission planned for 2010, but still going). (The missions that have gotten there have done amazing things.)

The Phoenix Lander studied Martian water in 2008-2010.

Mars Science Laboratory (Curiousity rover), sent to look for organics, landed on August 5, surviving the seven minutes of terror quite nicely.

I watched Curiosity land (on Mars! from a tent! on a hand-held computer! truly we live in the future), and so did the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Curiousity has been sending back amazing photos of its surroundings, which have been assembled into a 360-degree panorama.

Not only did they drop Curiousity safely, NASA’s been doing a brilliant job with the social media and internet. Curiosity is on twitter as @MarsCuriosity, and can be tracked here. This educational/citizen science website is wonderful: Be a Martian.

We’ve done amazing things, and learned a lot: just compare the Mariner 4 images to HiRISE or Curiosity’s pictures. I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Note: this article first appeared on Starship Reckless.

Sally Kristen Ride, one of the iconic First Others in space flight, recently died at the relatively young age of 61: she was the first American woman to participate in missions. Her obituary revealed that she was also the first lesbian to do so. Like other iconic First Others (Mae Jemison comes to mind), Sally Ride was way overqualified – multiple degrees, better than her male peers along several axes – and she also left the astronaut program way before she needed to (more about this anon). Even so, Ride remained within the orbit of space exploration activities, including founding NASA’s Exploration Office. She was also part of the board that investigated the crashes of Challenger and Columbia; Ride was the only public figure to side with the whistleblowing engineer of Morton-Thiokol when he warned about the problems that would eventually destroy Challenger.

When Sally Ride was chosen for her first mission – by an openly sexist commander who still had to admit she was by far the most qualified for the outlined duties – the press asked her questions like “Do you weep when something goes wrong on the job?” This was 1983, mind you, not the fifties. The reporters noted that she amazed her teachers and professors by pulling effortless straight As in science and – absolutely relevant to an astronaut’s abilities – she was an “indifferent housekeeper” whose husband tolerated it (she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time). Johny Carson joked that the shuttle launch got postponed until Ride could find a purse that matched her shoes.

Ride and Jemison had to function in this climate but at least they went to space, low-orbit though it had become by then. There were forerunners who never got to do so, even though they were also overqualified. I am referring, of course, to the Mercury 13.

This was the moniker of the early core of women astronauts who trained in parallel with the Mercury 7 and outperformed them – except, as is often the case, they did so in makeshift facilities without official support. Here’s the honor roll call of these pioneers whose wings were permanently clipped (the last names are before marriages changed them): Jane Briggs, Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Mary Wallace Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jerrie Hamilton, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrie, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Bernice Trimble.

The Thirteen, never officially part of NASA (they were selected by William Lovelace, who designed the NASA astronaut tests, and the initiative was supported by private donations), had to have at least 1000 hours of flying experience. They underwent the same physical and psychological tests as the men and did as well or better at them: all passed phase I, several went on to phase II, and two completed the final phase III. This was not because any failed II or III, but because they didn’t have the resources to attempt them.

When the Thirteen gathered at Pensacola to show their abilities, the Navy instantly halted the demonstration, using the excuse that it was not an official NASA program. The women, some of whom had abandoned jobs and marriages for this, took their case to Congress. Several people – among them “hero” John Glenn – testified that women were not eligible to fly in space because 1) they didn’t have the exact advanced degrees specified by NASA (neither did Glenn, but he got in without a whisper) and the agency would not accept equivalents and 2) they were prohibited from flying military jets (yet women flew such jets from factories to airfields in WWII; when some of the Mercury 13 flew military jets to qualify, NASA simply ratcheted up that rule).

Space aficionados may recall that the Mercury program’s nickname was “man in a can” – the astronauts had so little control that engineers had to manufacture buttons and levers to give them the illusion of it. Nevertheless, NASA made military jet piloting experience a rule because such men, notorious cockerels, were considered to have The Right Stuff – and Congress used this crutch to summarily scuttle the Mercury 13 initiative, although there was brief consideration of adding women to space missions to “improve crew morale” (broadly interpreted).

It took twenty years for NASA to decide to accept women as astronauts. Just before it did so, hack-turned-fanboi-prophet Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Time crowing that he had “predicted” the “problem” brought up by astronaut Mike Collins, who opined that women could never be in the space program, because the bouncing of their breasts in zero G would distract the men. When taken to task, Clarke responded that 1) some of his best friends were women, 2) didn’t women want alpha-male astronauts to find them attractive?? and 3) libbers’ tone did nothing to help their cause. Sound familiar?

Women have become “common” in space flight – except that the total number of spacenauts who are women is still 11% of the total. Furthermore, given that the major part of today’s space effort is not going to Mars or even the Moon but scraping fungus off surfaces of the ISS or equivalent, being an astronaut now is closer to being a housecleaner than an hero. We haven’t come so far after all, and we’re not going much further.

I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked. As I wrote elsewhere:

“I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human. Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle against reflexive institutionalized misogyny. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.”

This holds doubly for space exploration – for the goals we set for it, the methods we employ to achieve it and the way we act if/when we reach our destinations.

Addendum: I did not discuss Valentina Tereshkova, who was both the first woman cosmonaut and the first civilian to fly into space. because I wanted to keep the focus of this article on NASA. Nevertheless, I should mention her as well as Sveltana Savitskaya, the first woman to do a space walk, whose first mission preceded that of Sally Ride.

Sources and further reading

Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (one source of the Clarke “distracting breasts” incident and also excellent in its own right)

Site dedicated to the Mercury 13: http://www.mercury13.com/

2nd Image: some of the Mercury 13, gathered to watch the launch in which Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission. Left to right: Gene Nora Stumbough, Mary Wallace Funk, Geraldyn Cobb, Jerri Hamilton, Sarah Gorelick, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice Trimble.

“Arsenic” Life, or: There Is TOO a Dragon in My Garage!

Note: This article was originally posted at Starship Reckless.

GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, phosphate-dependent organism — title of the paper by Erb et al, Science, July 2012

Everyone will recall the hype and theatrical gyrations which accompanied NASA’s announcement in December 2010 that scientists funded by NASA astrobiology grants had “discovered alien life” – later modified to “alternative terrestrial biochemistry” which somehow seemed tailor-made to prove the hypothesis of honorary co-author Paul Davies about life originating from a “shadow biosphere”.

As I discussed in The Agency that Cried “Awesome!, the major problem was not the claim per se but the manner in which it was presented by Science and NASA and the behavior of its originators. It was an astonishing case of serial failure at every single level of the process: the primary researcher, the senior supervisor, the reviewers, the journal, the agency. The putative and since disproved FTL neutrinos stand as an interesting contrast: in that case, the OPERA team announced it to the community as a puzzle, and asked everyone who was willing and able to pick their results apart and find whatever error might be lurking in their methods of observation or analysis.

Those of us who are familiar with bacteria and molecular/cellular biology techniques knew instantly upon reading the original “arsenic life” paper that it was so shoddy that it should never have been published, let alone in a top-ranking journal like Science: controls were lacking or sloppy, experiments crucial for buttressing the paper’s conclusions were missing, while other results contradicted the conclusions stated by the authors. It was plain that what the group had discovered and cultivated were extremophilic archaea that were able to tolerate high arsenic concentrations but still needed phosphorus to grow and divide.

The paper’s authors declined to respond to any but “peer-reviewed” rebuttals. A first round of eight such rebuttals, covering the multiple deficiencies of the work, accompanied its appearance in the print version of Science (a very unusual step for a journal). Still not good enough for the original group: now only replication of the entire work would do. Of course, nobody wants to spend time and precious funds replicating what they consider worthless. Nevertheless, two groups finally got exasperated enough to do exactly that, except they also performed the crucial experiments missing in the original paper: for example, spectrometry to discover if arsenic is covalently bound to any of the bacterium’s biomolecules and rigorous quantification of the amount of phosphorus present in the feeding media. The salient results from both studies, briefly:

– The bacteria do not grow if phosphorus is rigorously excluded;
– There is no covalently bound arsenic in their DNA;
– There is a tiny amount of arsenic in their sugars, but this happens abiotically.

The totality of the results suggests that GFAJ-1 bacteria have found a way to sequester toxic arsenic (already indicated by their appearance) and to preferentially ingest and utilize the scant available phosphorus. I suspect that future work on them will show that they have specialized repair enzymes and ion pumps. This makes the strain as interesting as other exotic extremophiles – no less, but certainly no more.

What has been the response of the people directly involved? Here’s a sample:

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, first author of the “arsenic-life” paper: “There is nothing in the data of these new papers that contradicts our published data.”

Ronald Oremland, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s supervisor for the GFAJ-1 work: “… at this point I would say it [the door of “arsenic based” life] is still just a tad ajar, with points worthy of further study before either slamming it shut or opening it further and allowing more knowledge to pass through.”

John Tainer, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s current supervisor: “There are many reasons not to find things — I don’t find my keys some mornings. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Michael New, astrobiologist, NASA headquarters: “Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism.”

At least Science made a cautious stab at reality in its editorial, although it should have spared everyone — the original researchers included — by retracting the paper and marking it as retracted for future reference. The responses are so contrary to fact and correct scientific practice (though familiar to politician-watchers) that I am forced to conclude that perhaps the OPERA neutrino results were true after all, and I live in a universe in which it is possible to change the past via time travel.

Science is an asymptotic approach to truth; but to reach that truth, we must let go of hypotheses in which we may have become emotionally vested. That is probably the hardest internal obstacle to doing good science. The attachment to a hypothesis, coupled with the relentless pressure to be first, original, paradigm-shifting can lead to all kinds of dangerous practices – from cutting corners and omitting results that “don’t fit” to outright fraud. This is particularly dangerous when it happens to senior scientists with clout and reputations, who can flatten rivals and who often have direct access to pop media. The result is shoddy science and a disproportionate decrease of scientists’ credibility with the lay public.

The two latest papers have done far more than “challenge” the original findings. Sagan may have said that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but he also explained how persistent lack of evidence after attempts from all angles must eventually lead to the acceptance that there is no dragon in that garage, no unicorn in that secret glade, no extant alternative terrestrial biochemistry, only infinite variations at its various scales. It’s time to put “arsenic-based life” in the same attic box that holds ether, Aristotle’s homunculi, cold fusion, FTL neutrinos, tumors dissolved by prayer. The case is obviously still open for alternative biochemistry beyond our planet and for alternative early forms on earth that went extinct without leaving traces.

We scientists have a ton of real work to do without wasting our pitifully small and constantly dwindling resources and without muddying the waters with refuse. Being human, we cannot help but occasionally fall in love with our hypotheses. But we have to take that bitter reality medicine and keep on exploring; the universe doesn’t care what we like but still has wonders waiting to be discovered. I hope that Felisa Wolfe-Simon remains one of the astrogators, as long as she realizes that following a star is not the same as following a will-o’-the-wisp — and that knowingly and willfully following the latter endangers the starship and its crew.

Relevant links:

The Agency that Cried “Awesome!”

The earlier rebuttals in Science

The Erb et al paper (Julia Vorholt, senior author)

The Reaves et al paper (Rosemary Rosefield, senior author)

Images: 2nd, Denial by Bill Watterson; 3rd, The Fool (Rider-Waite tarot deck, by Pamela Cole Smith)

Interplanetary Communications

There have been numerous means of sending a message from point a to point b over the span of human existence, within the past couple centuries it has become possible to ask someone at point b what the weather is like without actually sending someone to physically deliver your missive. Naturally people have started to take the ability to receive an instantaneous response for granted and most science-fiction (and a few fantasy) authors have naturally incorporated it into their works, even including some form of “interplanetary internet” in some cases. Though sometimes they don’t think things through too much, making mistakes such as interstellar wi-fi, to prevent such errors why don’t we take a quick look at how communications may work across interplanetary and interstellar distances.

Electromagnetic Radiation

First off there’s the single most common medium of transmission since the mid-20th century, radio waves. Transmitters translate text, verbalization, or other forms of data into discrete or continuous pulses of electromagnetic radiation (aka light) with wavelengths ranging from 1 millimeter to 100 kilometers and frequencies of 300 GHz to 3 kHz and a receiver detects and re-translates the information sent. Their low frequency and long wavelengths mean that radio waves have very little energy compared to other forms of EM radiation (and most definitely cannot cause cancer) but can potentially carry information for light-years before losing coherence. However radio waves are limited to the speed of light, so any attempt at calling someone further out than a light-minute or two (for reference, the sun is about eight light-min from earth) is going to experience a considerable amount of lag as the time it takes the waves to travel to their destinations becomes noticeable. In addition signals sent using radio will become incoherent with distance, depending on the frequency, the absolute limit being one or two light-years.

Another common means of communication is concentrated pulses of visible light, usually along glass fiber-optic cables which shield the signals from interference by the atmosphere. This method allows for far superior data quality than radio but atmospheric gases or particles can block them easily, as can physical objects that radio waves can pass through. In the vacuum of outer space there is considerably less matter in any form that can block an optical signal, however, especially if the signal is transmitted in the form of a laser capable of maintaining integrity over great distances. Lasers are also less susceptible to jamming or disruption by solar flares. But there has to be a clear line-of-sight between the transmitter and receiver and even lasers spread out and become incoherent over interstellar distances.

The Internet

As for how the internet might cope with space travel, e-mail and social networks would still be possible, and probably the primary form of communication between planets, but instant messaging would no longer be “instant” and if you think AOL back in the 1990s took a long time to load webpages, you probably wouldn’t have the patience to try surfing the internet from Mars. In all likelihood deep space colonies would form their own separate internets, with unique web sites inaccessible on earth or any other fairly distant regions. Certain websites that may be determined to be “important” enough might set up localized servers that would receive updates from one another at specified intervals, but you’d have to wait several hours and most likely need a massive transmitter to look up any other sites based outside your local region of space.

Neutrinos

Neutrinos, those supposedly massless particles that don’t interact with most normal matter and instead pass right through it, gained some publicity a few months ago when readings by CERN supposedly indicated that they travel slightly faster than the speed of light. Those readings were determined to be an equipment failure (a disconnected wire) but another group of researchers managed to do something not quite as amazing with neutrinos, but still significant. They managed to use neutrinos to send a one-word message through 240 meters of solid rock. Granted, the transmission speed was very slow, only 1 bit/second, and it took a particle accelerator to send the message, but still the neutrinos experienced negligible interference from materials that would block radio or optical signals completely. They could be very useful for communicating for people deep underground or underwater, or on the other side of a planet or star even. Neutrino transmission would need to be very tight beams like lasers to compensate for the low transmission rate, but the advantages of a transmission medium that is near impossible to block are considerable. Of course, if someone managed to place a neutrino detector between the sender and the receiver they could read the message without anyone knowing.

Quantum Entanglement

One of the science “buzzwords” of the century is “quantum mechanics”, relating to the behaviors of subatomic particles. One thing that science-fiction authors have extrapolated from the various “weird” properties covered under quantum mechanics is the use of “entanglement” to send messages instantaneously over any distance. The idea is that when two particles are “entangled” at the quantum level they can be separated and whatever happens to one particle happens to the other one instantaneously. Somewhere along the line someone decided that that could allow communication faster than the speed of light. In addition to sending messages instantaneously a quantum entanglement communique would be impossible to intercept as it would be teleported to the receiver. The harsh reality is that the act of observing an entangled particle breaks the connection with the paired particle, attempting to send data with entangled particles would by necessity require observing them.

However, quantum entanglement can be used to encrypt messages sent by conventional (currently only dedicated fiber optic cables) means such that only those who possess one of two “keys” can interpret the data. By encoding a transmission in the form of quantum states of a particle one ensures that the very act of intercepting it would corrupt the data and alert the holders of the keys as to how much of the message was intercepted. And it actually has been done, some governments and companies who consider security worth the expense use quantum cryptography for their most secure data transmissions, the Swiss canton of Geneva used it to send national election ballot results to the capital in 2007 for example. There have also been experiments with sending quantum encrypted messages over radio as well, it seems likely that the technology will become more prevalent over the next few decades. Though of course it only works between two specialized devices that have to be physically transported to their working locations.

The Utterly Fantastic

Of course, even quantum-encrypted FTL neutrinos would take years to travel from one solar system to another, so many authors have turned to the farther fringes of science in order to maintain “instantaneous communication”. For example, tachyons which are highly hypothetical particles that travel faster than light and which most scientists don’t believe exist. Or if their universe allows physical travel through some sort of “hyperspace” they might send radio transmissions through that same dimension where the normal laws of physics don’t apply. Heck, you might even use mentally “bonded” telepaths, worked for Heinlein.

Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

— William Butler Yeats, “Second Coming”

The last few years have been heady for planet hunters. First the hot Jupiters; then the will-o’-the-wisp Glieslings and their cousins; and in the last year, the results from the Kepler mission which detected planetary systems in the low thousands; one of these is Kepler 22.

Kepler 22 is a G5 type star (our sun is G2, about 10% bigger and hotter) 600 light years away with a planetary entourage. For anyone who was in a sequestered jury room or a silently running nuclear submarine, what got splashed across the news media on December 5 was the confirmation that one of the Keplerings is a super-Earth (2.4 times the radius of our planet) that is solidly within the habitable zone of its primary – habitable defined as the region where water can remain liquid. It circles its primary in 289 days and its estimated average temperature is a balmy 22 C/75 F if (big if) it has an atmosphere thick enough for a mild greenhouse effect.

That’s what we know, and it’s important and exciting enough. Here’s what we don’t know, which makes the exclamations of “Twin Earth!” annoying: we don’t know its mass (though the wobble velocity puts an upper limit of 36 Earth masses on it), its composition, the composition of its atmosphere or if it has any moons. Equally annoying are the suggestions to name it The Christmas Planet or the barely less mawkish Hope, right down there with the naming of putative Gliese 581g something like Betty (not even Elizabeth, which at least would celebrate an unforgettable historic figure, plus several literary ones).

The Kepler findings are pinning down the still-loose middle terms of the Drake equation by strongly indicating that most suns have planetary systems, and most planets are of the small rocky variety. Of the approximately 2,000 systems Kepler tentatively identified, about fifty have planets within the habitable zone, of which perhaps ten are “Earth-like” (loosely defined).

Half a percent may not sound like much. But given the quarter trillion suns in our galaxy, the numbers mount up quickly. Plus, of course, the size and location of the newcomer inevitably raises expectations: if Kepler 22b is rocky and has decent amounts of water and a reasonably thick atmosphere, the probability of life moves into the “likely” zone. So it’s not surprising that the Allen Array turned its dishes in the direction of Kepler 22 (no requests for Warren Zevon yet, but the night is still young) – or that the concept art is coming in thick and fast.

It is a great pity that Kepler 22b is so far. Even expeditions with quasi-exotic propulsion systems (or exceptionally nice humans in flawless arkships) would take a long time to reach it. But the lengthening list of not-quite-Earths is a powerful enticement not to abandon the faltering beacon of space exploration. Once again, I will close with what I said about Gliese 581g:

“Whether [Kepler 22b] is so hospitable that we could live there or so hostile that we could only visit it vicariously through robotic orbiters and rovers, if it harbors life — even bacterial life, often mistakenly labeled “simple” — the impact of such a discovery will exceed that of most other discoveries combined. Unless supremely advanced Kardashev III level aliens seeded the galaxy like the Hainish in Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen, this life will be an independent genesis, enabling biologists to define which requirements for life are universal and which are parochial.

At this point, we cannot determine if [Kepler 22b] has an atmosphere, let alone life signatures. If it has non-technological life, without a doubt it will be so different that we may not recognize it. Nor is it a given, despite our fond dreaming in science fiction, that we will be able to communicate with it if it is sentient. In practical terms, a second life sample may exist much closer to home — on Mars, Europa, Titan or Enceladus. But those who are enthusiastic about this discovery articulate something beyond its potential seismic impact on biology and culture: the desire of humanity for companions among the sea of stars, a potent myth and an equally potent engine for exploration.”

Image: 1st, one of the four Kepler 22b imaginings by space artist Ron Miller. 2nd, comparison of Sol and Kepler 22 (NASA/Ames/JPL).

Postscript: Immediately after my discussion of Kepler 22b, Christopher Jones interviewed me for Trek.fm. He asked me many interesting questions about the 100-Year Starship symposium, long-generation starships and the future of humanity on- and off-earth. You can hear the interview here.

Life, Death, and Water Mythology

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for some time. The movie is loosely based on Tim Power’s  novel by the same name. In anticipation of this event, I talked my fearless editor into letting me celebrate with a post or two.

While chatting about potential topics related to the movie centering around water and the fountain of youth, she mentioned water myths in the context of space travel. I was surprised at first. I so seldom think about such things when I consider space exploration. Sure on alien lands, encountering alien cultures I can absolutely see it. I just don’t think of any kind of belief system in relation to spaceships and travel. The one exception might be John Scalzi’s  The God Engines.

Ok so let’s try an experiment. I am going to share with you locations, creatures, and ideas both real and fantastic that belong to our collective human mythology involving water. They will be direct quotes from various sources.  As you read over them, try and think how they might fit into stories involving space travel. Are you with me? Good. Read the rest of this entry »

Announcing the 2nd annual Science in My Fiction contest!

Science in My Fiction and Crossed Genres Publications are thrilled to announce our 2nd annual Science in My Fiction contest!

Last year’s contest was a huge success, and we’re excited to see what new and creative ideas authors can come up with this time!

This year the contest is slightly different. Here’s how it works:

Authors write a science fiction or fantasy short story inspired by a scientific discovery or innovation made or announced within the past year. It can’t be peripherally added: the science must be integral to the story. We’ll be looking for thoughtful, creative and well-researched application of science to a story. Writers must include a link to a relevant article or study of the applied science when they submit their stories.

Entries will be narrowed down to 10 finalists by the Crossed Genres publishers. Then a panel of judges will read and rank the finalists based on a points voting system. The top 3 stories will be published in Crossed Genres’ Science in My Fiction 2011: Offworld, an anthology of the 3 winning stories plus the 12 monthly stories published to the SiMF blog (Release date: 11/24/11).

Why is the anthology called Offworld? That’s the twist to this year’s contest. All story submissions must be set somewhere off Earth. It can be in orbit, on the moon, a distant world or in deep space, but the story has to take us away from the comfort of our home planet.

The winner will receive professional pay (5¢ per word) for their story, plus print and ebook copies of the anthology. Second place will receive 3¢ per word plus copies, and third place will receive 1¢ per word plus copies.

FULL DETAILS AND GUIDELINES FOR THE CONTEST HERE

2011 CONTEST JUDGES:

Tobias Buckell – Author (NYT Bestselling novel Halo: The Cole Protocol)
Liz Gorinsky – Hugo-nominated editor, Tor Books & Tor.com
Cameron McClure – Agent, Donald Maass Literary Agency
Joan Slonczewski – Campbell Award-winning author; Professor of Biology
Lavie Tidhar – Author (The Bookman, Camera Obscura)

Huge thanks to our amazing panel of judges for agreeing to help us out!

Submissions will be open from June 1 through August 31. So show us your science chops – prove to us there’s still a place for science in SFF!

FULL DETAILS AND GUIDELINES FOR THE CONTEST HERE

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

“Nothing is as soft as water, yet who can withstand the raging flood?”
– Lao Ma in Xena (The Debt I)

Being a research scientist as well as a writer, reader and reviewer of popular science and speculative fiction, I’ve frequently bumped up against the fraught question of what constitutes “hard” SF. It appears regularly on online discussions, often coupled with lamentations over the “softening” of the genre that conflate the upper and lower heads.

In an earlier round, I discussed why I deem it vital that speculative fiction writers are at least familiar with the questing scientific mindset and with basic scientific principles (you cannot have effortless, instant shapeshifting… you cannot have cracks in black hole event horizons… you cannot transmute elements by drawing pentagrams on your basement floor…), if not with a modicum of knowledge in the domains they explore.

So before I opine further, I’ll give you the punchline first: hard SF is mostly sciency and its relationship to science is that of truthiness to truth. Remember this phrase, grasshoppahs, because it may surface in a textbook at some point.

For those who will undoubtedly hasten to assure me that they never pollute their brain watching Stephen Colbert, truthiness is “a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” Likewise, scienciness aspires to the mantle of “real” science but in fact is often not even grounded extrapolation. As Colbert further elaborated, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” And therein lies the tale of the two broad categories of what gets called “hard” SF.

Traditionally, “hard” SF is taken to mean that the story tries to violate known scientific facts as little as possible, once the central premise (usually counter to scientific facts) has been chosen. This is how authors get away with FTL travel and werewolves. The definition sounds obvious but it has two corollaries that many SF authors forget to the serious detriment of their work.

The first is that the worldbuilding must be internally consistent within each secondary universe. If you envision a planet circling a double sun system, you must work out its orbit and how the orbit affects the planet’s geology and hence its ecosystems. If you show a life form with five sexes, you must present a coherent picture of their biological and social interactions. Too, randomness and arbitrary outcomes (often the case with sloppily constructed worlds and lazy plot-resolution devices) are not only boring, but also anxiety-inducing: human brains seek patterns automatically and lack of persuasive explanations makes them go literally into loops.

The second is that verisimilitude needs to be roughly even across the board. I’ve read too many SF stories that trumpet themselves as “hard” because they get the details of planetary orbits right while their geology or biology would make a child laugh – or an adult weep. True, we tend to notice errors in the domains we know: writing workshop instructors routinely intone that authors must mind their p’s and q’s with readers familiar with boats, horses and guns. Thus we get long expositions about stirrups and spinnakers while rudimentary evolution gets mangled faster than bacteria can mutate. Of course, renaissance knowledge is de facto impossible in today’s world. However, it’s equally true that never has surface-deep research been as easy to accomplish (or fake) as now.

As I said elsewhere, the physicists and computer scientists who write SF need to absorb the fact that their disciplines don’t confer automatic knowledge and authority in the rest of the sciences, to say nothing of innate understanding and/or writing technique. Unless they take this to heart, their stories will read as variants of “Once the rockets go up, who cares on what they come down?” (to paraphrase Tom Lehrer). This mindset leads to cognitive dissonance contortions: Larry Niven’s work is routinely called “hard” SF, even though the science in it – including the vaunted physics – is gobbledygook, whereas Joan Slonczewski’s work is deemed “soft” SF, even though it’s solidly based on recognized tenets of molecular and cellular biology. And in the real world, this mindset has essentially doomed crewed planetary missions (of which a bit more anon).

Which brings us to the second definition of “hard” SF: style. Many “hard” SF wannabe-practitioners, knowing they don’t have the science chops or unwilling to work at it, use jargon and faux-manliness instead. It’s really the technique of a stage magician: by flinging mind-numbing terms and boulder-sized infodumps, they hope to distract their readers from the fact that they didn’t much bother with worldbuilding, characters – sometimes, not even plots.

Associated with this, the uglier the style, the “harder” the story claims to be: paying attention to language is for sissies. So is witty dialogue and characters that are more than cardboard cutouts. If someone points such problems out, a common response is “It’s a novel of ideas!” The originality of these ideas is often moot: for example, AIs and robots agonizing over their potential humanity stopped being novel after, oh, Metropolis. Even if a concept is blinding in its brilliance, it still requires subtlety and dexterity to write such a story without it devolving into a manual or a tract. Among other things, technology tends to be integral in a society even if it’s disruptive, and therefore it’s almost invariably submerged. When was the last time someone explained at length in a fiction piece (a readable one) how a phone works? Most of us have a hazy idea at best how our tools work, even if our lives depend on such knowledge.

To be fair, most writers start with the best of intentions as well as some talent. But as soon as they or their editors contract sequelitis, they often start to rely on shorthand as much as if they were writing fanfiction (which many do in its sanctioned form, as tie-ins or posthumous publication of rough notes as “polished products”). Once they become known names, some authors rest on their laurels, forgetting that this is the wrong part of the anatomy for placing wreaths.

Of course, much of this boils down to personal taste, mood of the moment and small- and large-scale context. However, some of it is the “girl cooties” issue: in parallel with other domains, as more and more women have entered speculative fiction, what remains “truly masculine” — and hence suitable for the drum and chest beatings of Tin… er, Iron Johns — has narrowed. Women write rousing space operas: Cherryh and Friedman are only the most prominent names in a veritable flood. Women write hard nuts-and-bolts SF, starting with Sheldon, aka Tiptree, and continuing with too many names to list. Women write cyberpunk, including noir near-future dystopias (Scott, anyone?). What’s a boy to do?

Some boys decide to grow up and become snacho men or, at least, competent writers whose works are enjoyable if not always challenging. Others retreat to their treehouse, where they play with inflatable toys and tell each other how them uppity girls and their attendant metrosexual zombies bring down standards: they don’t appreciate fart jokes and after about a week they get bored looking at screwdrivers of various sizes. Plus they talk constantly and use such nasty words as celadon and susurrus! And what about the sensawunda?

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow. I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

SF isn’t imploding because it lost the fake/d sensawunda that stood in for real imaginative dreaming, just as NASA isn’t imploding because its engineers are not competent (well, there was that metric conversion mixup…). NASA, like the boys in the SF treehouse, is imploding because it forgot — or never learned — to tell stories. Its mandarins deemed that mesmerizing stories were not manly. Yet it’s the stories that form and guide principles, ask questions that unite and catalyze, make people willing to spend their lives on knowledge quests. If the stories are compelling, their readers will remember them after they finish them. And that long dreaming will lead them to create the nuts and bolts that will launch starships.

Images: 1st, Stormtrooper Walking from Grimm’s Pictures; 2nd, the justly famous Sidney Harris classic from What’s So Funny About Science?; 3rd, Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, photo by Robert Trachtenberg for Rolling Stone; 4th, The Gate, by Peter Cassidy.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds:

Why Science Needs SF
Why SF Needs Science
Why SF Needs Empathy
Why SF Needs Literacy
Why SF Needs Others

I guess this one might be called Why SF Needs Fiction!

Once Again with Feeling: The Planets of Gliese 581

Gliese 581 may be small as stars go, but it looms huge in the vision field of planetfinders.  As of late last week, measurements indicate the system has six planets of which three are Earth-size and -type, within the star’s habitable zone, with stable, near-circular orbits.

The Gliese 581 system has a persistent will-o-the-wisp quality.  Almost each of its planets (c, d, e and now g) has been pronounced in turn to pass the Goldilocks test, only to have expectations shrink when the data get analyzed further.  The first frisson of excitement arose when 581c was determined to be Earth-type, which quickened the usual speculations: atmosphere? water? life?  We don’t know yet and our current instruments cannot detect biosignatures at that distance (short of an unencrypted request for more Chuck Berry).  But there are some things we do know.

Gliese 581 is a red dwarf, a BY Draconis variable.  This makes it long-lived; on the minus side, it may produce flares and is known to emit X-rays.  Planets in its habitable zone are so close to it that they are tidally locked, always presenting the same face to their star.  The temperature differentials resulting from the lock imply hurricane-force winds and tsunami-like tides.  Gliese 581g, like 581c, is large enough to retain an atmosphere; the hope is that, unlike 581c or Venus, its specific circumstances have not resulted in a runaway greenhouse effect.

The real paradigm shift is the discovery that this solar system has many earth-size rocky planets, in contrast to the hot-Jupiter/hot-Neptune preponderance in most others.  The second enticing attribute of Gliese 581 is its relative closeness — a distance of merely 20 light years.  It is still millennia away by our present propulsion systems.  But I nurse the dream that if we see anything remotely resembling a biosignature, we will strive to reach it.  In the meantime, I suggest we give it a name that fires the imagination.  Perhaps Yemanjá, the Yoruba great orisha of the waters, in the hope that the sympathetic magic of the name will work.  Perhaps Kokopelli, the trickster piper of the American Southwest cultures, who may entice us thither.  I will conclude with the final words of my first article on Gliese 581:

“Whether Gliese 581c [g] is so hospitable that we could live there or so hostile that we could only visit it vicariously through robotic orbiters and rovers, if it harbors life — even bacterial life, often mistakenly labeled “simple” — the impact of such a discovery will exceed that of most other discoveries combined. Unless supremely advanced Kardashev III level aliens seeded the galaxy like the Hainish in Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen, this life will be an independent genesis, enabling biologists to define which requirements for life are universal and which are parochial.

At this point, we cannot determine if Gliese 581c [g] has an atmosphere, let alone life. If it has non-technological life, without a doubt it will be so different that we may not recognize it. Nor is it a given, despite our fond dreaming in science fiction, that we will be able to communicate with it if it is sentient. In practical terms, a second life sample may exist much closer to home — on Mars, Europa, Titan or Enceladus. But those who are enthusiastic about this discovery articulate something beyond its potential seismic impact on biology and culture: the desire of humanity for companions among the sea of stars, a potent myth and an equally potent engine for exploration.”

Images: Top, comparison of the Sun and Gliese 581 habitable zones (the diagram is by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux; the image of 581g was originally created for 581c by Ginny Keller); bottom, Kokopelli playing his flute.

Living in Microgravity

In Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees and its sequel The Smoke Ring, the crew of an interstellar exploration party settles an unusual habitat: a torus of gas containing plants, animals and water orbiting a neutron star.

Astronaut Pedro Duque watches a water bubble aboard the IS

While some of  the Smoke Ring colonists live on giant trees that provide pseudogravity, many live in free fall. Even though original crew that settled the Smoke Ring had been selected for their physiological tolerance of microgravity, their offspring did not develop normally.

Pregnancy was easy in low gravity. Women became pregnant many times during their lifetimes. Infant mortality (“lost ones”) was high, perhaps around sixty percent; the natives seemed to take it for granted.  [...] the growth of bones and organs was altered by altered gravity. Some children could not digest food. Some grew strangely, until their kidneys or livers or hearts or intestines would no longer work because of their shape
~ The Smoke Ring

However, those who survived childhood were quite tall and thin and functioned just fine with misshapen limbs in free-fall. Humans adapt well to new environmental conditions.

While Niven’s depiction of the biological effects of microgravity seem plausible,  we’re only beginning to understand the long-term effects of microgravity on the human body.  From studies of astronauts on Skylab, the International Space Station, and the Space Shuttle we know that the physiological effects of weightlessness include loss of bone density,  muscle weakness, and a reduction in immune system function. Those physiological issues haven’t caused serious complications to astronauts when they return to Earth. Human bodies are resilient.

But what about long-term human colonies in low gravity? That’s currently the realm of science fiction, and there are lots of aspects to consider.

Will people be able to have babies? One obvious concern is that human reproduction will be serious affected. While frog and fish embryos appear to develop normally, the lack of gravity appears to impair the early stages of mouse development. Clearly more research needs to be done before people consider having babies in space the old-fashioned way.  Could there be a technological solution?

And what about the other needs of colonists, who will be subject to the physical changes of aging and will have plenty of leisure time? There have been a few interesting inventions along those lines, such as special adjustable eyeglasses for free fall and the 2Suit, meant to “stabilize human proximity” for sex.  Other inventions are sure to be developed as soon as there is a market for them.

Astronaut Carl Walz performs on the space shuttle.

The colonists would also certainly develop new customs specific to their living conditions. Take, for example, the free-fall banquet in John C. Wright‘s story “Guest Law”:

[The Captain's] feast was arranged in a circle around her, little colorful moons of ripe fruit, balls of wine-jelly, spheres of lacy bread, meatballs or sausages tumbling end-over-end. As the feast progressed, she would rotate slowly clockwise, to let one delicacy after another come within reach of hand and foot (toe-foods for the foot, finger-foods for the hand) and the order of the orbiting food around her was organized by traditional culinary theory.

Since the captain’s head was always “up,” the feasters must be attentive, and match their rotations to the captain, eating neither too swiftly nor too slowly, nor grabbing for any favored food out of order.

Nothing like that could take place in gravity!

So while science fiction has indeed frequently touched on different aspects of living in free fall, there still many aspects of living in microgravity that are ripe for science fictional speculation.

  • Will medicine be able to prevent the effects of low gravity on bone loss and muscle tone? Would that even be necessary?
  • What advances in technology would make life in microgravity easier?
  • How could genetic engineering improve human life in microgravity?
  • What would childhood and old age in microgravity be like?
  • What sort of microgravity-specific rituals would develop?

Background reading:

Edited to add: A study released by NASA today shows “Astronauts can become as weak as 80-year-olds after six months at the International Space Station