Communion Of Dreams


“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



Building a better human.

From Chapter 5 of Communion of Dreams, after the revelation that the Chinese orphan Chu Ling is a clone:

Jon looked around. He decided to tell them the rest of the bad news. “And that’s not all. There’s evidence that the original host had been genetically manipulated to radically change several characteristics related to intelligence.”

Bailey looked a little confused. “What’s that mean?”

Gish sighed. “It means that someone has created a better human, and now is producing copies.”

“Well, better in their eyes, anyway,” said Gates. Her voice contained a touch of bitterness.

 

Gee, here’s a bit of news:

Chinese scientists create first genetically modified human embryos

And so it has come to pass: Chinese scientists at the University in Guangzhou have created the first genetically modified human embryos. Although there had been rumors circulating for some time that it had already been done, until now, there has been no official scientific report.

 

Another prediction come true.

 

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



Serendipity.

Man, I love serendipity … all along I had planned on including the Pillar of Eliseg as one of the sites in St Cybi’s Well. It was one of the first places I saw in Wales, and I’ve always loved it and the nearby Valle Crucis Abbey. Well, they’ve recently discovered that there is an Early Bronze Age cist under the medieval ‘pillar’ — something which I also wanted to include for other reasons related to the story.

Now, the protagonist of this novel — Darnell Sidwell — lives in Tel Aviv, and we know from Communion of Dreams that he has some history doing volunteer work on archeological digs in Israel. So I checked the Wiki entry for Tel Aviv University, found a member of their archeology faculty who it would be logical for Darnell to have known and volunteered for. I just like to have those sorts of details all accurate or at least plausible. Yeah, it’s part of the reason why this book is taking me so long to write.

Anyway, I found a faculty member who fit the bill, and who is a specialist in the Early Bronze Age. Cool — everything worked out just fine. But in continuing to dig a little into that guy’s background and research, I found that he has done a lot of work at one particular site which it would be logical for Darnell to have also visited, if not actually volunteered there: Tel Megiddo, or often as just Megiddo.

But you probably know it as “Armageddon“.

Hehehehehehehe …

Jim Downey



Another step.

From page two of Communion of Dreams:

He paused there at the railing, right hand manipulating the thin-film controls under the skin on the back of his left hand. Looking out over the herd of slowly moving animals, a see-through display came up before him. Nothing new on the nets. So, whatever the emergency was, it wasn’t public knowledge yet. He turned, opened the door to the station, and stepped inside.

From a new article on Wired this morning:

Gannon is exploring modeling techniques that use the human skin as their primary interface. Her prototype is called Tactum. Instead of creating free-floating models in software like CAD, Gannon’s setup uses a Kinect camera and a projector to create a virtual modeling environment right on your hand.

The projector beams blue lights onto the skin. That light represents the base geometry of the band you’ll eventually wear. The Kinect tracks your body and space and keeps the projection aligned. To adjust the design, you drag it with your fingers; there’s no layer of mediation, you just manipulate the form directly. “You could be pinching, touching, poking, prodding and that visual geometry on your arm without having to go through any computer,” Gannon says. “Your skin and hand are the equivalent of the mouse and keyboard.”

Another step in Communion of Dreams becoming reality.

 

Jim Downey



A pair of fives.

Two new reviews of Communion of Dreams:

on March 23, 2015
Very well written..kudos to author. Just like seeing an engrossing sci-fi movie. Time flies as you turn the pages in this book!
And:
on March 17, 2015
An excellent new version of a future, well presented, lots of new ideas and interesting characters Enjoyed not being able to predict what was going to happen next!

 

Agree? Disagree? Nah, don’t tell me — go write a review yourself! After all:

 

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Jim Downey



Because I was not the President.*

First they flew to watch for illegal immigrants, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an illegal immigrant.

Then they flew to look for marijuana farms, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a marijuana farmer.

Then they flew to watch the White House, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not the President.

Then … and then … and then …

 

Jim Downey

*With apologies.




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