Communion Of Dreams


Rocket to Venus.

This is a delightful article: Space Oddity

I knew that there were various ‘societies’ (basically, clubs) focused on rocketry early last century, but I hadn’t heard of Robert Condit, who in the 1920s gained national attention for his idea of rocketing into space.

Was he serious? A grifter? Someone who took a little popular science knowledge and had some fun with it? (Gee, I can’t imagine that someone might do something like that.)

Who knows? But Condit knew more about getting to space than you might think. Two excerpts from the article indicate he wasn’t just a dreamer or con artist. Here’s the first:

Condit dreamed the rocket, and the Uhler brothers helped build it. They used angle iron ribs, perhaps supplied by the same mill that contributed to the Capitol. They wrapped the rocket in sailcloth from another mill and shellacked it in varnish to create a hard shell. An air compressor was installed to spray liquid fuel into eight steel pipes that they had outfitted with a spark plug and a battery to ignite the gas. There was room inside for one man, with access through the removable nose of the rocket. They lined the interior with 1½-inch pipes meant to supply water for the journey and to help insulate Condit from the black chill of space. There were two glass portholes to see out. Condit had everything he believed he needed: flashlight, first aid kit, and a bow and arrows, which would come in handy for “procuring small game for food,” he wrote in notes uncovered by the filmmakers.

And:

Condit did get a few matters right, though. He understood the need for a liquid fuel. He understood the Coriolis effect — that launching from Miami Beach, closer to the equator than Baltimore, would take advantage of Earth’s spin to help get him into space. This was 35 years before NASA established its launch operations at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Something else about the era and Condit’s project resonates for us now: the desire to quit the current reality, even if only in our fantasies for a little while. Again, from the article:

They also found letters from scientists and space enthusiasts, from children and adults, men and women alike, and from as far away as Czechoslovakia, all wanting to know more about his pending trip. Some had experienced the horrors of the First World War, and the idea of escaping to Venus sounded pretty great.

“They had lost a leg or had been injured and they were like: I’m willing to donate my life to go along and accompany you on this mission because I’m no longer any good to society in this way, but I could serve the furtherment of humanity and science by doing this,” Carey told me. “There were a lot of those types of letters.” (Goddard got letters like this, too, after he wrote about a rocket to the moon.) The letters contained the same basic message: Please take me with you.

Yeah, I think just about now a lot of us can empathize.

Jim Downey

PS: Next Saturday, as on the first of every month, anyone can get free downloads of my books. If you’re read any of them — particularly St Cybi’s Well*please* do me a favor and go review/rate it. It really does help with the search algorithms and browser response. Thanks.



Having artists and writers involved in space research and planning? What will they think of next?

A good friend (and fan of Communion of Dreams), passed along an article which made me chuckle. Here’s an excerpt:

Earlier this month, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology assembled a strange gathering: scientists, artists, engineers, and policy-makers, for a workshop designed to imagine how humanity could settle the solar system.

The workshop, held in early February, was titled Homesteading in Space – Inspiring the Nation through Science Fiction, with the express purpose of imagining how manned space efforts can take us to our neighboring planets, not just for a short visit, but for longer durations.

And she added this comment with the link: “The group gathered reminds me a lot of your group from COD.

Ayup. Here’s the relevant passage from Chapter 1:

“I’ve had my expert do a preliminary search through the old NASA archives. I recalled that they had protocols for dealing with such possible situations, and I doubt that anyone else has really thought much about it since the turn of the century.

“In addition to Don’s field team, the preliminary search suggests that another component should be theoretical, a mix of disciplines so that we can get as broad a spectrum of experience and mind-set as possible. Probably we should have an expert in computer technology. A cultural anthropologist. Someone with a background in game theory and communication strategy. An artist or two. We’ll see if a more thorough survey of the NASA material has any good suggestions beyond that. I’ll get to work identifying appropriate individuals.”

And here’s a discussion the chosen artist (Duc Ng) has with the team leader in Chapter 4 about why it’s a good idea to have such non-technical people included in any such group:

“Why do you have an artist on this team?” asked Ng.

“It was a recommended protocol in some of the old NASA guidelines. Artists have a broader perceptual framework, aren’t necessarily limited by ‘logical possibilities’.”

“And what does that mean to you?” Ng leaned across the table. “That I’m just another kind of sensor you can use? Think about it. Those folks at NASA may have had something else in mind.”

Jon paused with his breakfast. “Go on.”

“How about if intuition and creative insight are the guiding principles of the culture that created the artifact? Not just a technological culture with its unique aesthetic sense, but a culture of intuitives who eventually produced sufficient technology to create this thing. A culture just the obverse of our own: largely artistic, with a secondary interest in technology.”

“With only a secondary interest in technology, how could they ever become a space-faring race?”

Ng shrugged. “Who knows how long they had been at it? Their culture may be tens of thousands of years old. Even a very modest rate of technological development could have led them into space eventually.” He paused, sighed. “Look, my point is that we can’t get stuck just looking for a technological explanation. The very reason that artifact was created, sent here or left here, may have had nothing to do with anything scientific or what we would consider logical. It may have had as much as anything to do with the passions, the dreams of the creators.”

Dreams which may take us to the stars.

 

Jim Downey

With thanks to Jane for the link and observation!



“Uh, he’s already got one, you see.”

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has rightly been called one of the most important scientific tools in human history. It has brought the cosmos closer to us, just as it has helped to drive home an understanding of precisely how far away those twinkling lights in the sky actually are … and connected to that, just how old our universe is:

The depth of Hubble’s data, however, has touched or rewritten nearly every area of astrophysics. Ever since the discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s, astronomers had struggled with the rate of expansion and what it means. The so-called Hubble constant, the universal rate of expansion, was much in doubt, with two factions arguing very different conclusions from the data. The Hubble constant is also inversely proportional to the age of the universe, another key holy grail of science. One of the primary goals of Hubble was to measure the Hubble constant accurately, using a variety of distance indicators, and by the turn of the 21st century, this helped define a relatively accurate Hubble constant of 72±8 and an age of the universe, which the more recent European Planck satellite has refined further to 13.8±0.04 billion years.

 

It’s an amazing piece of technology.

But I can’t help remembering that even as amazing as it is, a few years ago it was revealed that it was considered so … obsolete … that US spy agencies had just given NASA two other surplus Hubble-type instruments they no longer wanted to bother to store. As I noted at the time:

…we’ve just found out that what we thought was at the limits of our technology is so obsolete that it can be handed off as so much surplus junk. And the implication is that while NASA is currently without the means to launch and service something like Hubble, that there are plenty other agencies within our government which are not so inconvenienced.

 

Which brings me around to the title of this blog post. Monty Python fans may recognize it from this scene in the Holy Grail:

Which I just happened to watch this week, and snickered over, remembering the news item about the HST from 2012. Though of course, in this case I hope that the National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t *quite* so taunting of NASA …

 

Jim Downey



Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

* * *

The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.

 

The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.

 

Jim Downey



Bits & pieces.

A number of unrelated items which I thought I’d share …

* * *

Astronomers Find Ancient Earth-Sized Planets in Our Galactic Backyard

Astronomers have announced what may be the most interesting exoplanet discovery yet made: five planets, all smaller than Earth, orbiting a very ancient star. And I do mean ancient: Its age is estimated to be more than 11 billion years old, far older than the Sun. These are old, old planets!

* * *

Perhaps you see the problem. If planets like Earth formed 11 billion years ago, and happened to form at the right distance for more clement conditions on the surface, life could have arisen long enough ago and started building spaceships long before the Earth even formed! They’d have planted their flags on every Earth-sized habitable planet in the Milky Way by now.

Where are they?

Oh! Oh! I know! Pick me!!

* * *

Thanks to all who helped spread the word about the 3rd anniversary promotion! It was a modest success, with a little shy of 200 books downloaded world-wide, including through the following Amazon portals:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Japan
  • Netherlands (for the first time!)
  • UK
  • US

* * *

Via BoingBoing, turn your iPhone into a thermal imaging camera in just seconds:

Yeah, I mentioned using this kind of imaging tech in the current novel some time back.

* * *

Speaking of tech predictions, this is the first step in the sort of thing I envisioned for the cyberware of Communion of Dreams:

Flexible spinal cord implants will let paralyzed people walk

* * *

I mentioned earlier that evidently the Wikipedia elves are trying to decide whether to nuke my entry there. It seems that they’re still debating it. As I noted on the BBTI Facebook page a few days ago, in response to comment by a friend that it seems weird that BBTI is little more than a footnote in that entry:

It’s a fair point. I certainly am known much better around the world for being the driving force behind BBTI than I am for a fun little art stunt which was intended to happen and then fade from memory. I know that BBTI has had a much bigger and more lasting impact in the real world.

So, whether or not an entry about me should exist at all, if one does exist, shouldn’t it be more about my part in BBTI rather than as a “internet performance artist”? Hell, even my work as a book & document conservator has had a much larger real impact than ‘Paint the Moon’ did.

Just a thought, if anyone wants to do some editing …

* * *

This doesn’t have anything to do with any of the books or anything I’ve predicted (that I can remember), but it is a pretty cool bit of astronomy:

Gigantic ring system around J1407b much larger, heavier than Saturn’s

Astronomers at the Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands, and the University of Rochester, USA, have discovered that the ring system that they see eclipse the very young Sun-like star J1407 is of enormous proportions, much larger and heavier than the ring system of Saturn. The ring system – the first of its kind to be found outside our solar system – was discovered in 2012 by a team led by Rochester’s Eric Mamajek.

 

* * *
And here’s a useful video for anyone out there who may need to remove some rust from old equipment:

I knew that this could be done with electrolysis, but I didn’t realize that it was actually quite so simple. I am definitely going to set up to do this on a number of old tools and suchlike.

* * *

A nice bit of space exploration history:

The Challenge of the Planets, Part Three: Gravity

 

* * *

And I think I will leave it at that for now.

 

Jim Downey



And the sky, full of stars … *

I should have some interesting news to share in a couple of days. But for now, I thought I would share this amazing post from Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy:

Andromeda

Yesterday, I posted an amazing Hubble Space Telescope picture. I don’t think it’s too soon to post another shot from Hubble… and I think you’ll agree when you see it, especially after you get an understanding of what you’re seeing.

First, the eye candy: The magnificent Andromeda Galaxy, as seen by Hubble.

 

And as Plait notes, that’s the low-resolution image.

Go enjoy the article, and marvel at the images he has/links to. Seriously — it is worth your while, if you’re any kind of a space-geek at all.

 

Jim Downey

*With apologies to JMS.



Sights and insights.

A mix of little things, playing catch-up for the last couple of weeks …

Why catch-up? Well, this might explain why I took a break for a while there.

And we’re off …

* * *

First thing, thanks to all who downloaded Communion of Dreams over the weekend, or helped to spread the word about it. There were a total of 693 downloads worldwide — and that includes various European portals, as well as Canada, India, and Japan! Pretty cool.

For those who have gotten the book, once you have a chance to read it please take a few moments to review it on Amazon or elsewhere – it really does help, and as I am finishing up writing St Cybi’s Well the feedback is most welcome.

Because, yeah:

1557496_654324411293554_1024650148_n

* * *

A long, but quite good, read about the value of the ISS: 5,200 Days in Space

* * *

And a fun bit of perspective from xkcd about getting there:

* * *

Some great images from one of the sites I’ve mentioned here before: Pentre Ifan

Petre Ifan is a haunting burial stack that stands in a verdant Welsh field as one of the most complete and dramatic stone dolmens still found anywhere on the planet.

* * *

Wow.

X-rays stream off the sun

Go see the full size image and explanation of the science. Worth it.

* * *

An excellent read by an old and dear friend: There’s an App for That: Cancer in the Modern Age

* * *

And another excellent read, all in all. But this paragraph is so painfully true:

“Writing is a strange and solitary activity. There are dispiriting times when you start working on the first few pages of a novel. Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.”

* * *

Any others to add? The 10 Sci-Fi Films That Defined 2014

* * *

Of course, reading is always better for you: Brain function ‘boosted for days after reading a novel’

See? I’m actually making you SMARTER! Keep that in mind when you write a review, will ya?

* * *

And that’s enough for now. I need to get back to my “strange and solitary activity”.

 

Jim Downey



Duuun dun duuun dun …*

I can’t help but hear the Jaws theme when I read something like this:

But this is all great news for astronomers: KKs 3 is a relic, so isolated and old it probably hasn’t changed much in a long, long time. Studying it is like having a time machine to study the ancient Universe. And we think that, billions of years ago, collisions between small galaxies like KKs 3 are what built up much larger galaxies. We know that the Milky Way is currently eating a few other small galaxies, so we can study those events and compare them to what we see in KKs 3 to learn more about how this process may have occurred so far in the past.

There’s a thought for you — galaxies as living entities, with the big ones as predators hunting smaller ones …

400 downloads of Communion of Dreams so far this weekend! The Kindle edition remains free through today, if you know someone who might like to have it.

 

Jim Downey

*Credit here, though it has been pretty widely transcribed that way in the last 40 years.

 



You are here.*

Sometime when I’m really bored I may go to the trouble to try and figure out when the first variety of this image was made — I remember it back to my childhood (I think … you know how tricky memories are):

 

 

Nice little bit of perspective, eh? Which of course is why it has become such a classic image in one form or another.

And that little bit of perspective gives rise to a very nice explanation and exploration of the Fermi Paradox (which I have written about/mentioned many times) over on Wait But Why. Here’s a bit from the closing paragraphs:

As we continue along with our possibly-futile search for extraterrestrial intelligence, I’m not really sure what I’m rooting for. Frankly, learning either that we’re officially alone in the universe or that we’re officially joined by others would be creepy, which is a theme with all of the surreal storylines listed above—whatever the truth actually is, it’s mindblowing.

Beyond its shocking science fiction component, The Fermi Paradox also leaves me with a deep humbling. Not just the normal “Oh yeah, I’m microscopic and my existence lasts for three seconds” humbling that the universe always triggers. The Fermi Paradox brings out a sharper, more personal humbling, one that can only happen after spending hours of research hearing your species’ most renowned scientists present insane theories, change their minds again and again, and wildly contradict each other—reminding us that future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

 

Of course, this whole question is at the very heart of Communion of Dreams. And, in a way, also at the heart of St Cybi’s Well. You’ll see.

But for now, go enjoy that post at Wait But Why. It’s quite good.

 

Jim Downey



Vast vision must improve our sight.*

Remember this from a post a couple months back?

Darnell shook his head, but peered closer where Eleazar pointed. He could see something faint on the rock, but couldn’t make the image resolve. So he took out his hand-held, removed the stylus. Pointing the stylus camera and the flash on the phone at the image, he tapped an icon on the screen. There were a series of quick flashes, and the screen filled with a close-up of the stone face. Eleazar looked on with some amusement as Darnell used a slider at the bottom of the screen to go up and down the spectrum, changing the image and bringing out details otherwise hidden in it. Darnell glanced up at Eleazar, saw his amusement, and explained “Multispectral imaging. Not nearly the resolution or range of real remote sensing equipment, but handy for some things.”

“Particularly when you’re going blind, eh?”

“Yeah. And until I can find my miracle, this helps.” Darnell smiled slightly, a wry, almost sad smile. “But the range of the image is well beyond what even good human sight can see – what even you can see.”

 

A cool article with some very fun interactive tools to see how the different ranges of animal eyes compare to ours:

Some animals, including your pets, may be partially colorblind, and yet certain aspects of their vision are superior to your own. Living creatures’ visual perception of the surrounding world depends on how their eyes process light. Humans are trichromats—meaning that our eyes have three types of the photoreceptors known as cone cells, which are sensitive to the colors red, green, and blue. A different type of photoreceptors, called rods, detect small amounts of light; this allows us to see in the dark. Animals process light differently—some creatures have only two types of photoreceptors, which renders them partially colorblind, some have four, which enables them to see ultraviolet light, and others can detect polarized light, meaning light waves that are oscillating in the same plane.

“None of us can resist thinking that we can imagine what another animal is thinking,” says Thomas Cronin, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies visual physiology. But while guessing animals’ thoughts is a fantasy, looking at the world through their eyes is possible.

 

Check it out.

 

Jim Downey

*Of course.