Communion Of Dreams


This is not a drill:

An international team of scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is investigating mysterious signal spikes emitting from a 6.3-billion-year-old star in the constellation Hercules—95 light years away from Earth. The implications are extraordinary and point to the possibility of a civilization far more advanced than our own.

The unusual signal was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, but was kept secret from the international community. Interstellar space reporter Paul Gilster broke the story after the researchers quietly circulated a paper announcing the detection of “a strong signal in the direction of HD164595.”


Even if it is a signal directly beamed at us, it would require a Kardashev Type I civilization (about 200 years beyond where Earth is currently). If it is just beaming off in all directions, it’s another whole magnitude of power — about a Kardashev Type II.


Yeah, I’d say it warrants paying attention to.


Jim Downey

Here there be robots.

Oh, this is just delightful:

Here there be robots: A medieval map of Mars

Recently I’ve been really into old maps made by medieval explorers. I thought it would be fun to use their historical design style to illustrate our current adventures into unexplored territory. So here’s my hand-drawn topographic map of Mars, complete with official landmark names and rover landing sites.

Go check out the whole thing, but here’s a glimpse of the map itself (which is much larger on the original post):


You can even support the artist and buy a copy! Quick, before they’re all gone!


Jim Downey

HT to Margo Lynn.

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!

All alone in the dark of night?


Earth could be unique among 700 quintillion planets in the Universe, study finds

So much of humanity’s astronomical research is based around the notion of finding something like us out there – whether that’s looking for environments that could sustain life, ranking planets in terms of their potential habitability, or comparing distant worlds to our own.

But what if – statistically speaking – the odds are stacked against us finding another planet even remotely like Earth? That’s the thinking behind a new study by an international team of researchers, which has taken what we know about the exoplanets that lie outside our Solar System and fed the data into a computer model.

Their resulting calculations, designed to simulate how galaxies and planets have formed over some 13.8 billion years, produces a “cosmic inventory” of terrestrial planets – and one in which Earth very much looks to be unique.


Perhaps not:

Jon nodded. “Thanks. So what’s the meeting about? What happened?”

“Dr. Jakobs tried to contact you this morning. After hearing her message, I bounced it up to Director Magurshak. They found something on Titan. An artifact.” Seth paused, looked down at his hands, “a nonhuman artifact.”

Jon sat there for a moment, trying to digest what Seth said. According to what pretty much everyone thought, it wasn’t possible. SETI, OSETI, META and BETA had pretty much settled that question for most scientists decades ago, and twenty years of settlement efforts throughout the solar system hadn’t changed anyone’s mind. Even with the Advanced Survey Array out at Titan Prime searching nearby systems for good settlement prospects, there had never been an indication that there was an intelligent, technologically advanced race anywhere within earshot. Seth knew Jon well, didn’t let the silence wait. He looked back up, eyes level and unblinking, “It isn’t a hoax. The artifact is definitely nonhuman, or at least non-contemporary human. Mr. Sidwell found it out near his base. Dr. Bradsen will have as much a report on it as is available, which isn’t much.”


Jim Downey

The Storytellers.

You should read this: Born to Be Conned. Seriously, it’s a very good examination of the human tendency to construct narratives to explain the world around us, and how that trait can easily be manipulated and used against us. Here’s a good passage, explaining why we’re susceptible to grifters of every sort:

Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.

And the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.

The piece also reminds me a lot of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, because of this insight:

Before humans learned how to make tools, how to farm or how to write, they were telling stories with a deeper purpose. The man who caught the beast wasn’t just strong. The spirit of the hunt was smiling. The rivers were plentiful because the river king was benevolent. In society after society, religious belief, in one form or another, has arisen spontaneously. Anything that cannot immediately be explained must be explained all the same, and the explanation often lies in something bigger than oneself.

I don’t mean to pick on religion here, just to point out that this is a very human trait. In fact, I have often wondered whether it is a defining human characteristic, something which could easily set us apart from other intelligent species. It’s fairly easy to imagine how intelligent, sophisticated, technologically-advanced civilizations could be constructed by species which don’t have this human gift for storytelling. You can, after all, have curiosity and scientific inquiry, art and poetry, even narrative and historiography, without having something like literary fiction.* I think that it might be interesting to write a science fiction story/series based on the premise that humans become the storytellers of the galaxy, because of our unique ability to create explanation narratives unrelated to reality.

How very meta.


Jim Downey
*Of course.

The shape of things to come.

From Chapter 3 of Communion of Dreams:

Apparent Gravity was the third major application of the theories set forth in Hawking’s Conundrum, the great opus of Stephen Hawking which was not published until after his death in the earlier part of the century. He hadn’t released the work because evidently even he couldn’t really believe that it made any sense. It was, essentially, both too simple and too complex. And since he had died just shortly before the Fire-flu, with the chaos that brought, there had been a lag in his theory being fully understood and starting to be applied.

But it did account for all the established data, including much of the stuff that seemed valid but didn’t fit inside the previous paradigms. Using his theories, scientists and engineers learned that the structure of space itself could be manipulated. The first major application led to practical, safe, and efficient fusion power. Rather than forcing high-energy particles together, the forces keeping them apart were just removed. Or, more accurately, the manifestation of space between them was inverted. It took very little energy, was easy to control, but only worked in a very localized fashion

Then there’s this excellent non-technical explanation of a new theory of Shape Dynamics. An excerpt or two:

Their latest offering is something called “shape dynamics.” (If you’ve never heard of shape dynamics, that’s OK—neither have most physicists.) It could, of course, be a dead end, as most bold new ideas in physics are. Or it could be the next great revolution in our conception of the cosmos. Its supporters describe it as a new way of looking at gravity, although it could end up being quite a bit more than that. It appears to give a radical new picture of space and time—and of black holes in particular. It could even alter our view of what’s “real” in the universe.

* * *

In most situations, shape dynamics predicts what Einstein’s theory predicts. “For the vast majority of physical situations, the theories are equivalent,” Gryb says. In other words, the two frameworks are almost identical—but not quite.

Imagine dividing space-time up into billions upon billions of little patches. Within each patch, shape dynamics and general relativity tell the same story, Gryb says. But glue them all together, and a new kind of structure can emerge. For a concrete example of how this can happen, think of pulling together the two ends of a long, narrow strip of paper: Do it the usual way, and you get a loop; do it with a twist and you get a Möbius strip. “If you glue all the regions together to form a kind of global picture of space and time, then that global picture might actually be different.” So while shape dynamics may recreate Einstein’s theory on a small scale, the big-picture view of space and time may be novel.

Another prediction come true?

Not really — there were intimations of this theory when I was working on CoD, and it is a *very* long way from being accepted as valid, as the Nova article discusses.

But still …


Jim Downey

PS: new review of Communion of Dreams was put up yesterday. Check it out.



It’s been a couple of months. Let’s have a bit from the current chapter I’m working on.


It was full dark before he passed through Llangynog again, and headed up the Tanat valley. It was just past the first quarter Moon, and the sky was clear and brilliant. One of the things he always loved about visiting Wales was that the light pollution was minimal and he could see the stars almost as well as when he was on a shuttle run. About halfway up the valley to Pennant Melangell he stopped the Rover, shut it off and got out.

He stood there, leaning back against the cold metal and glass, and looked up, letting his eyes adjust. Slowly, more stars emerged, and he was able to trace the passage of several satellites in low orbit. There were plenty that he couldn’t see from the ground, ‘darks’ which were in the service of different intelligence agencies and military forces, but he knew they were there, watching, listening, perhaps even waiting to hunt on command.

And it struck him just how much this echoed something Megan had told him less than three weeks previously: “Look at it with new eyes,” she had said. “Try and see it as the believers see it.”

Was this the same thing?

He could pull out his hand-held, call up the appropriate app, and hold the camera pointed at the sky, and it would show him the satellites his eyes couldn’t see. But to do so would necessarily block his direct vision, his direct experience of the real sky above.

He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket to protect them from the cold, and relaxed a little as he leaned against the vehicle. For now, he’d just take in the whole of the now-visible Milky Way as it arced high above.


This image will give you an idea of how dark the skies can be in Mid-Wales:

Wales Dark Skies photo WalesLightPollutionMap.jpg

Jim Downey