Communion Of Dreams


A matter of perspective.

It all depends on your point-of-view:

 

Jim Downey

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Looking back: “Yes.”

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on November 24, 2007.

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I have a special place in my heart for Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday program. Oh, I’ve long enjoyed his reporting and work at NPR, but in particular it was the experience of being interviewed by him in 2001 for my “Paint the Moon” art project which endeared him to me. As it was just at the beginning of the media coverage of that project, and most people as yet didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the project, it would have been easy to mock the idea and portray me as something of a fool – but Simon was kind and considerate in his interview with me (which took almost an hour to do from my local NPR station facilities), and the end result was an interesting and insightful segment for his show.

Anyway, I go out of my way to try and catch the broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday each week, and today was no different. One of the segments this morning was an interview with Pat Duggins, who has covered over 80 shuttle launches for NPR and now has a new book out titled Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. In the course of the interview, Simon asked the following question (paraphrased; I may correct when the transcript of the show is posted later): “Are Americans unrealistic in the expectation of safety from our space program?”

Duggins paused a moment, and then gave an unequivocal “Yes.”

I had already answered the question in my own mind, and was pleased to hear him say the same thing. Because as I have mentioned before, I think that a realistic assessment of the risks involved with the space program is necessary. Further, everyone involved in the space program, from the politicians who fund it to the NASA administers to aerospace engineers to astronauts to the journalists who cover the program, should all – all – be very clear that there are real risks involved but that those risks are worth taking. Certainly, foolish risks should be avoided. But trying to establish and promote space exploration as being “safe” is foolish and counter-productive.

I am often cynical and somewhat disparaging of the intelligence of my fellow humans. But I actually believe that if you give people honest answers, honest information, and explain both the risks and benefits of something as important as the space program, they will be able to digest and think intelligently about it. We have gotten into trouble because we don’t demand that our populace be informed and responsible – we’ve fallen very much into the habit of feeding people a bunch of bullshit, of letting them off the hook for being responsible citizens, and treating them as children rather than participating adults. By and large, people will react the way you treat them – and if you just treat people as irresponsible children, they will act the same way.

So it was good to hear Duggins say that one simple word: “Yes.”

What we have accomplished in space, from the earliest days right through to the present, has always been risky. But for crying out loud, just going to the grocery store is risky. None of us will get out of this life alive, and you can be sure that for even the most pampered and protected there will be pain and suffering at times. To think otherwise is to live in a fantasy, and to collapse at the first experience of hardship.

I think that we are better than that. Just look at all humankind has accomplished, in spite of the risks. To say that Americans are unwilling to accept a realistic view of death and injury associated with the exploration of space is to sell us short, and to artificially limit the progress we make. I think it *has* artificially limited the progress we have made.

One of the most common complaints I get about the world I envision in Communion of Dreams is that the exploration of space is too far along to be “realistic”. Nonsense. Look at what was accomplished in the fifty years that lead up to the first Moon landing. In a world filled with trauma, war, and grief, some risks are more easily accepted. In the world of Communion, post-pandemic and having suffered regional nuclear wars, there would be little fixation on making sure that spaceflight was “safe”, and more on pushing to rapidly develop it.

We can go to the planets, and then on to the stars. It is just a matter of having the will to do so, and of accepting the risks of trying.

Jim Downey



More words.

Following up from Sunday

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

* * * * * * *

There was a very interesting discussion on the Diane Rehm show the other day with Stuart Firestein, who is the chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University as well as a professor of neuroscience. The whole thing is worth a listen, but in particular there were a couple of particular bits I wanted to share. Here’s the first:

So in your brain cells, one of the ways your brain cells communicate with each other is using a kind of electricity, bioelectricity or voltages. And we’re very good at recording electrical signals. I mean, your brain is also a chemical. Like the rest of your body it’s a kind of chemical plant. But part of the chemistry produces electrical responses.

And because our technology is very good at recording electrical responses we’ve spent the last 70 or 80 years looking at the electrical side of the brain and we’ve learned a lot but it steered us in very distinct directions, much — and we wound up ignoring much of the biochemical side of the brain as a result of it. And as it now turns out, seems to be a huge mistake in some of our ideas about learning and memory and how it works.

* * * * * * *

I stared at the body, blinking in disbelief. We were in the shadow of the First Step, so the light was dull. The body lay about 10 metres from where I stood and was angled away from me. It jerked – a horrible movement, like a puppet being pulled savagely by its strings.

We had been on a well-organised and, so far, successful trail towards the summit of Everest, worrying only about ourselves. Now a stranger lay across our path, moaning. Lhakpa shouted down at me and waved me to move on, to follow him up onto the Step. I looked back at the raggedly jerking figure.

From here.

* * * * * * *

From about halfway through Chapter 6 in Communion of Dreams:

“But smart how?”

Jon looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there are lots of kinds of intelligence, and I’m not just talking about the reasoning/emotional/spatial/mechanical sorts of distinctions that we sometimes make. More fundamentally, how are they smart? Are they super-geniuses, able to easily figure out problems that stump us? Or maybe they’re very slow, but have been at this a very long time. Perhaps some sort of collective or racial intelligence, while each individual member of their species can barely put two and two together. There are a lot of different ways they can be intelligent.”

* * * * * * *

(Warning – the page from which the following comes contains gruesome images and text.)

Above a certain altitude, no human can ever acclimatize. Known as the Death Zone, only on 14 mountains worldwide can one step beyond the 8000 meter mark and know that no amount of training or conditioning will ever allow you to spend more than 48 hours there. The oxygen level in the Death Zone is only one third of the sea level value, which in simple terms means the body will use up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it.

In such conditions, odd things happen to human physical and mental states. A National Geographic climber originally on Everest to document Brian Blessed’s (ultimately botched) attempt at summiting, described the unsettling hallucinogenic effects of running out of oxygen in the Death Zone. The insides of his tent seemed to rise above him, taking on cathedral-like dimensions, robbing him of all strength, clouding his judgement. Any stay in the Death Zone without supplementary oxygen is like being slowly choked, all the while having to perform one of the hardest physical feats imaginable.

It makes you stupid.

* * * * * * *

Again, Stuart Firestein:

And in neuroscience, I can give you an example in the mid-1800s, phrenology. This idea that the bumps on your head, everybody has slightly different bumps on their head due to the shape of their skull. And you could tell something about a person’s personality by the bumps on their head. Now, we joke about it now. You can buy these phrenology busts in stores that show you where love is and where compassion is and where violence is and all that. It’s absolutely silly, but for 50 years it existed as a real science. And there are papers from learned scientists on it in the literature.

* * * * * * *

Update at 12:10 p.m. ET. Dragon Has Docked:

Dragon has finished docking with the International Space Station. That makes SpaceX the first private company to dock a cargo spacecraft to the space station.

That happened at exactly 12:02 p.m. ET, according to NASA.

* * * * * * *

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Last weekend four more people died attempting to summit Everest. Partly, this seems to have been due to the traffic on the mountain. Yeah, so many people are now attempting to climb the mountain that there are bottlenecks which occur, which can throw off calculations about how long a climb will take, how much supplemental oxygen is necessary, and whether weather will move in before climbers can reach safety.

In theory, everyone who attempts such a climb should know the odds. One in ten people who attempted the summit have died.

But we live in an age of accepted wonders. We think we’re smart enough to beat the odds.

Jim Downey

(PS: I hope to wrap up the third & final part of this set, get it posted this weekend.)



A wisp, glowing green.

From Chapter 3:

Wright Station was one of the older stations, and its age showed in its design. The basic large wheel structure, necessary when centrifugal force simulated gravity, was still evident, though significantly altered. The station hung there as they approached, motionless. The aero slowly coasted toward a large box well outside the sweep of the wheel, connected to the wheel by an extension of one of the major spokes. This was the dock, and it was outside the AG field.

Sound familiar?

Though I do think that were someone to film Communion of Dreams, this scene would more closely reflect this reality, taken from the ISS:

Still, it is fascinating that we have already so deeply connected music with space imagery. And that what is seen as a pale blue dot in the distance is, up close, a living world with a thin sheath of atmosphere – a wisp, glowing green.

Tomorrow is a promotional day: the Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams will be free for any and all to download. Share the news.

Jim Downey



Of knitting needles and space stations.
February 9, 2012, 11:01 am
Filed under: Amazon, Feedback, ISS, Kindle, Marketing, Promotion, Publishing, Science, Science Fiction, Space, YouTube

Ah, fun with physics up on the ISS:

Very cool.

Book update: if you ordered a signed copy of Communion of Dreams prior to February first, you should have received it in the last day or two. The next batch of books will be going out the middle of next week – so there is time to get in your order!

Actual sales of the book continue to plug along as well, 3-4 per day. Not stunning, but steady. And I keep hearing from people how much they have enjoyed it – that’s always great, thanks! Please, if you have read the book, go write a review and help spread the word to your friends and any forums you participate in.

Sometime later this month I’ll probably offer another one-day promotion when anyone can download the Kindle edition for free – watch for it!

Jim Downey



How you gonna keep ’em down on the ground…
November 13, 2011, 10:38 pm
Filed under: Art, ISS, movies, NASA, Science, Space, tech

Do yourself a favor, and watch this:

(Remember to run it full screen, in HD, for best effect.)

Jim Downey



Maybe there’s hope for us, after all.
April 3, 2011, 6:19 pm
Filed under: ISS, Music, NASA, Predictions, Religion, Science Fiction, Space, Violence, YouTube

This is from the end of Chapter Three, set on a space station in Earth orbit:

There was a knot of perhaps 15 people, all facing one another around a bunch of tables shoved together. They finished their song, and clapping was heard throughout the atrium.

Jon smiled at Gates, explained. “Spacers. Crew off those two ships docked outside. Choral music has become something of a tradition the last few years, and each ship usually can field a fairly good ensemble of at least a half-dozen singers.”

“Huh. I had no idea.”

Another song started, this time with more voices. “C’mon, let’s go on down there.”

Why do I post this? Because of this wonderful clip:

Not choral music, but flute as an accompaniment to a song. The provenance of her flutes is impressive in itself. But the fact that we’re seeing a highly-trained, wonderfully intelligent person in orbit doing this just really makes my day . . . and re-affirms my faith in humanity overall.

It is sometimes easy to be cynical and depressed at the things we do.

This makes up for it.

Jim Downey