Oct 202013

A while back, I wrote a post about aesthetics vs. practicality in designing science fiction spaceships, which also extends to any sort of speculative design.

Recently, a discussion exploded on the same board over an initially small misunderstanding that went rampant really fast. You can read about it here, if you care to (it spans three pages). The short version is that I pointed out some conceptual flaws in this particular artist’s explanation for how the FTL1 drive works. After some back and forth, wherein the artist got increasingly hostile to having their idea poked at, they fired off a massive post/rant. I almost gave into the temptation to respond to it, but that little voice in the back of my head said, “Dude, get real. They’re not listening. They’re not going to listen. They’ve got too much baggage going into this for your points to get through. Just leave it.” So I did. I apologized for upsetting them, restated that my only goal was to share information/correct misconceptions, complimented them on their model, and wished them well on their worldbuilding. Then I bowed out.

This all played out from 10/17 to 10/18. Yet I’m still thinking about it. I don’t feel any better now than I did when it all played out; if anything, I might be feeling even worse. Enumerating all of the reasons why would take too long, but there’s one point that I wanted to home in on because I see it everywhere and it needs to die.

in case nobody told you…the FI in sci fi means Fiction!!! The concept of this system is based on an assumed understanding of physics that guess what? We don’t and may never have

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. The fiction in science fiction serves the exact same role as it does in fantasy fictioncrime fiction, literary fiction, romance fiction, and every other stripe of fiction out there: it serves to indicate that the story, characters, and setting are made-up. Period. Done.

The science in science fiction clarifies the broader genre: these are made-up stories, characters, and settings where science is the driver behind what is different. New technologies, alien species, and so on; just as magic–the truly fantastic–drives fantasy fiction. There can absolutely be overlap: technological magic, magical technology, whatever you like. But these are the distinguishing features of the genres that give them a unique place.

Continue reading »

  1. That’s “faster than light”…but if you’re not familiar with that term, then most of this post is going to seem even more ridiculous to you. []
Jan 192013

This is a cross-post from a CG forum I frequent, spurred by discussion relating to the size of weaponry on ships in Star Trek. It’s highly nerdy1, but it’s something I care a great deal about.

Three comments spurred my response. The first comment mentioned how small the weapons on a particular ship seemed, when compared to something like battleship guns from a WW2-era seagoing ship. The second comment, in response, defended the smaller size by pointing out that phasers don’t need to worry about bullet or shell size, and so can be smaller. The third comment, posted by the same person that posted the first comment, then said:

You could also say that the beam generator IS huge, but is inside the hull, and all we see is the final beam steering mechanism. That’s kind of like the way that all you see of a WW2 gun system is the turret housing and barrels, not the spaces beneath devoted to powder storage, shell storage, powder and shell elevators, and rotation/elevation gear.

I just find it a bit irritating that so much stuff in science fiction is so SMALL. 20-foot fighters, shuttlecraft with no place that you could fit a modern car engine, stuff like that. Apparently, I’m in the minority with these thoughts, though.

I replied:

I think there’s a certain balance to be struck.

On the one hand, a lot of designs are all style and no substance, which gives rise to your examples of tiny fighters or shuttles with no place for internal machinery. I absolutely agree with you about this: an artistic rendition of something intended to represent a real thing in the context of the world in which it exists should have some level of engineering sense behind it, not just aesthetics.

That’s not to say things can’t be built impractically because of aesthetics — look around at the world for plenty of examples of this! But at the very least, the thing being presented should be internally consistent enough with its setting so as to stretch suspension of disbelief to a minimum. This is something I feel strongly about and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read someone use “Well, it looks cooler this way” as a justification for a nonsensical design decision. I cry a little (on the inside, where no one can see) every time I see someone say something along these lines. Breaking reality “because it looks cooler” rarely ends up being true; reality has a lot of really cool stuff to offer if one takes the time to explore the “real” options!

On the other hand, I think this particular comparison is unfair for a few reasons.

  • First, Starfleet’s ships are military vehicles in part, not wholly warships as WW2 battleships were and modern Navy vessels are. It is reasonable that their armament would not be their primary focus.
  • Second, we’re talking about very different mechanisms with very different engineering requirements (see my tirade above). A large-bore projectile weapon needs to follow certain design guidelines to address: containing the propulsive explosion that propels the projectile (i.e. big, thick barrels); guiding the projectile’s path so that it can predictably hit its target (i.e. length of the barrel, rifling?); a turret motor strong enough to turn this large, heavy barrel or set of barrels (one governing factor in the size of the turret); and a turret mounting fixture robust enough to handle the recoil of such a large-caliber explosive. All of these factors inform how big the guns are on a battleship.Flip it around and look at the design requirements for a phaser. Phasers are either pure beam weapons or some form of accelerated particle beam (they’re often referred to as “nadion beams” in the shows and are explained in the TNG Tech Manual as dependent on the “rapid nadion effect,” though it makes no explicit mention of these being part of the final beam). In either case, they’re described as using plasma as an energetic first stage. If they’re “special lasers” (i.e. beam weapons), then one may suppose they’re some form of gas laser; if they’re “nadion particle beams,” then they’ll have the requirements of particle beam weapons. In either case, there’s a lot less recoil; the “barrel length” equivalents are a lot shorter; and the resulting machinery necessary to move the “barrel” equivalent is a lot smaller.
  • Third and finally, history shows that as technology advances, things get smaller per unit performance they provide as operating and design principles are better understood, manufacturing technique improves, and dependent technologies advance alongside. Suppose materials science introduces a manufacturing medium that provides all of the necessary resiliency requirements of the materials that go into big, heavy ship turrets, but at a tiny fraction of the size and mass. This will lead to a reduction in turret size with no loss in performance. When we’re discussing a ship ostensibly built 200-300 years from now, and compare the technological advances to the state of the art from 1713 or even 1813, supposing that “heavy guns” take up less space is not entirely unreasonable, so long as the earlier point about accounting for the underlying design holds true.

The key quote in all of that, though is this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read someone use “Well, it looks cooler this way” as a justification for a nonsensical design decision. I cry a little (on the inside, where no one can see) every time I see someone say something along these lines. Breaking reality “because it looks cooler” rarely ends up being true; reality has a lot of really cool stuff to offer if one takes the time to explore the “real” options.

This isn’t just true in the realm of visual arts, either. To stick with a Trek example, take the recent Star Trek reboot/alternate universe/alternate timeline/whatever movie. For me, one of the biggest science issues in the movie was the reference to a “supernova” that threatened to “destroy the galaxy.” Supernovae are huge explosions that absolutely can release enough energy to wipe out life…in the immediate area. Also, this energy travels at the speed of light. Even if a star did go supernova, the faster-than-light society of Star Trek would have a great deal of advanced warning about it, and no2 supernova is going to threaten the entire galaxy, or even the entire Federation3 or Romulan Empire.

Sure, the movie had things like warp drive, Red Matter, time travel, transporters, and so on, but those are part of the setting: they are inventions that the creators request that we, as an audience, suspend our disbelief and accept. We do so because it is plausible that, in the framework of the narrative they’re presenting, such devices might exist. It is not plausible that a supernova–a real thing that we know something about–would threaten the galaxy. It’s a single line of dialog and most people aren’t scientifically literate enough to have even noticed, which I often see trotted out as an excuse to not worry about changing it. That’s just it, though: tweak a single line of dialog by consulting with someone who knows a thing or two about supernovae and other energetic spatial phenomena and you can change that line into something that doesn’t ruin the plausibility of your narrative for those that do know how supernovae work.

Justifying things and understanding the functional underpinnings of your fictional mechanisms that stand to challenge your audience’s suspension of disbelief is good for maintaining that suspension of disbelief, but make sure your justifications and explanations don’t break reality, unless you have a very good explanation for why and understand the consequences thereof.

  1. Are you shocked? []
  2. At least, none about which I’ve ever heard. []
  3. Given the size the Federation is routinely depicted as spanning []
Sep 182012

A recent article posted by Gizmodo, titled “NASA Starts Work on Real Life Star Trek Warp Drive”, has stirred up a bit of excitement, and rightly so. Unfortunately, as with so many science-related articles, it’s big on hype and over-promises with both its headline and article text.

First, this isn’t new. In 1994, Miguel Alcubierre published a paper12 detailing how we might construct a warp drive within the framework of general relativity. White (the NASA scientist mentioned in the Gizmodo article) is building on Alcubierre’s work, as others have (Van den Broeck, Krasnikov, et. al.).

The trick with a warp drive, or any space-time distortion within the framework of general relativity, is that it requires negative energy. What the hell is that? Just as matter has energy equivalence (E=mc2), “negative matter” has negative energy equivalence (-E=-mc2). We have circumstantially observed negative energy effects3, but only at tiny, tiny quantum scales.

When Alcubierre first formulated his warp drive (which, to be more precise, was a specific set of parameters fed into the field equations of General Relativity to attain the desired spacetime “metric” that would create a warp field), he realized that the (negative) energy cost of the drive would be greater than the mass of the entire universe4. Many scientists, inspired by his work, have come along since then and proposed improvements that have brought this requirement down5. This is what White is talking about with his “500 kg” figure.

The mass-energy equivalence of 500 kg of matter works out to 4.49×1019 Joules, or the equivalent of 10,740 megatons (10.7 gigatons) of TNT. In 2008, the world’s energy consumption was 4.74×1020 Joules, so it represents about 10% of the global energy production. Not an unattainable number, but still enormous–especially when it’s meant to be concentrated in one spot (a spaceship).

Assuming we had the ability to harness and channel that much energy, and assuming we could “flip” it so that it was negative energy rather than positive6, there are still some unresolved questions. The “great” thing about a warp field is that you’re moving spacetime, not an object through spacetime, so you don’t have to “obey” the speed of light. Light within your pocket of spacetime moves as fast as light always has: way faster than you. Light outside your pocket of spacetime moves as fast as it always has, too: way faster than you (outside of that pocket). The pocket itself is what moves faster than light.

But…that still means it’s possible for an observer to “see” you arrive before you leave, thereby introducing all sorts of time travel/causality issues. Causality is fundamental to, basically, everything we know about anything. Thing one happens, causing thing two to happens. Exceeding the speed of light — the speed at which information travels — breaks this. Thing two happens, then thing one happens and causes thing two. What? It doesn’t make sense; it’s not how the universe works. There is mounting evidence that, in fact, the universe must work with causality intact78, based on some really niche quantum mechanics stuff. This, alone, isn’t necessarily reason to lose hope, though. There are a number of scenarios and/or limitations wherein it’s possible that the nature of the warp field might distort space in such a way as to prevent “light cones” (descriptions of space and time relative to an observer) from inverting. TBD.

Finally, when one travels through space, one collides with all the little particles of dust out there. Space is unfathomably empty, but there are still a lot of them. Think about riding a motorcycle and bugs splattering on your helmet. Now, imagine that your motorcycle is traveling ten times as fast; those bugs just turned into bullets, and you’re dead if you hit one. Now, imagine you’re traveling faster than light and, rather than the bugs splatting against your windshield, they’re getting “caught” in the warp field’s leading edge as you travel through space. This particulate matter converts into energetic photons and other, more-exotic particles, at once, building up a doomsday radiation wave in front of your ship. When you get wherever you’re going, and shut off your warp field, this radiation wave is set loose. Everything in front of you, at the very least, is wiped out by what amounts to a supernova. It’s entirely possible that it isn’t directional, and instead just detonates — taking you with it.

So, yes, hurray! for serious reserach into FTL, and for not being satisfied with the speed of light being the absolute maximum speed at which one can traverse the universe. But just because NASA’s working on it, don’t kid yourself: this is a puzzle with a lot of really huge hurdles to overcome, some of which may be literally insurmountable.

And if they do build it, it might look like this.

  1. Alcubierre’s original paper on arXiv []
  2. The more digestible wikipedia article on the “Alcubierre drive” []
  3. The Casimir effect []
  4. The paper detailing the issue with needing ridiculous amounts of negative energy []
  5. Chris Van Den Broeck, Serguei Krasnikov, et. al. []
  6. We have no idea where to even begin with this one; we don’t even know enough to say if it’s possible or not! []
  7. Novikov’s self-consistency principle []
  8. Hawking’s chronology protection conjecture []

Science saved my soul

 Posted by at 14:56  No Responses »
Sep 262011

Three summers ago, I was staying in a caravan, a long way from the nearest city. It was usually pitch black at night. I had given my word that I would not smoke inside, so at 1 AM I stepped outside for a cigarette. After a few minutes of standing in the darkness, I realized that I could see my hand quite clearly, something I’d notice I could not do on previous nights. So, I looked up, expecting to see the glow of the full moon.

But the moon was no where in sight. Instead, there was a long, glowing cloud directly overhead. The Romans called it the Via Lactea — the road of milk. Today, we call it the Milky Way.

For those who missed the lesson in school that day, the basic facts are these. Remembering that one light year is equivalent to six trillion miles, our galaxy has a total diameter of somewhere around one hundred thousand light years. Our sun is located toward the edge of one of the galaxy’s spiral arms, about 26,000 light years out from the central bulge of the galaxy. It takes 200 to 250 million years for the sun to complete one orbit of the central bulge. Surrounding the galaxy, above and below the disk in a spherical halo, there are approximately two hundred globular clusters, which make contain up to a million stars each. The Milky Way itself contains two hundred billion stars, give or take.

These numbers are essential to understanding what a galaxy is, but when contemplating them, some part of the human mind protests that it cannot be so. Yet an examination of the evidence brings you to the conclusion that it is. And if you take that conclusion out on a clear, dark night and look up, you might see something that will change your life.

This is what a galaxy looks like from the inside, from the suburbs of our sun. Through binoculars, for every star you can see with your naked eye, you can see a hundred around it, all suspended in a gray-blue mist. But through a modest telescope, if you wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and get the focus just right, you will see that mist for what it really is: more stars. Like dust, fading into what tastes like infinity.

But you’ve got to have the knowledge. Seeing is only half of it. That night, three years ago, I knew a small part of what’s out there: the kinds of things, the scale of things, the age of things, the violence and destruction, appalling energy, hopeless gravity, and the despair of distance.

But I feel safe, because I know that my world is protected by the very distance that others fear. It’s like the universe screams in your face, “Do you know what I am? How grand I am? How old I am? Can you even comprehend what I am? What are you, compared to me?” And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, “Dude, I am you.”

When I looked at the galaxy that night, I knew the faintest twinkle of starlight was a real connection between my comprehending eye, along a narrow beam of light, to the surface of another sun. The photons my eyes detect, the light I see, the energy with which my nerves interact, came from that star. I thought I could never touch it, yet something from it crosses the void and touches me. I might never have known.

My eyes saw only a tiny point of light, but my mind saw so much more. I see the invisible bursts of gamma radiation from giant stars converted into pure energy by their own mass, the flashes that flashed from the far side of the universe long before Earth had even formed. I can see the invisible microwave glow of the background radiation leftover from the Big Bang. I see stars drifting aimlessly, at hundreds of kilometers per second, and the spacetime curving around them.

I can even see millions of years into the future. That blue twinkle will blow up one day, sterilizing any nearby solar systems in an apocalypse that makes the wrath of human gods seem pitiful by comparison. Yet it was from such destruction that I was formed. Stars must die so that I can live.

I stepped out of a supernova. And so did you.

In light of this unarguable fact, this hard-earned knowledge, this partial but informative truth, what place then in the 21st century and beyond for the magical claims of organized religion?

The first religions were primitive by any definition. For reasons of limited population, communication, and plain old geography, they never grew to be anything other than a local concern. But religions mutate in time and grow in sophistication, as each generation of holy men learn what works and what doesn’t, what makes people obedient and what causes rebellion, what ideas people can easily escape and which will haunt them until they have to pray just to stop the nagging fear.

When populations grew, due to the slow but steady growth of knowledge, as if confronted by a bumper harvest, the religions went into an arms race with each other. From gods of wind and thunder and sea, the threats, incentives, and claims of power escalate until every dominant organized religion has a god that is all-powerful, all-loving, all-seeing, and words like infinity and eternity are deployed cheaply, while all other words are open to abuse until they mean exactly what the religions want them to mean.

That night, under the Milky Way, I who experienced it cannot call the experience a religious experience, for I know it was not religious in any way. I was thinking about facts and physics, trying to visualize what is, not what would I would like there to be. There’s no word for such experiences that come through scientific and not mystical revelation.

The reason for that is that every time someone has such a “mindgasm,” religion steals it simply by saying, “Ah, you had a religious experience.” And spiritualists will pull the same shit. And both camps get angry when an atheist like me tells you that I only ever had these experiences after rejecting everything supernatural. But I do admit, that after such experiences, the moments when reality hits me like a winning lottery ticket, I often think about religion.

And how lucky I am that I am not religious.

You want to learn something about God? Okay. This is one galaxy. If God exists, God made this. Look at it. Face it. Accept it. Adjust to it, because this is the truth, and it’s probably not going to change very much. This is how God works. God would probably want you to look at it, to learn about it, to try to understand it. But if you can’t look, if you won’t even try to understand, what does that say about your religion? As Bishop Lancelot Andrews once said, “The nearer the church, the further from God.”

Maybe you need to run: away from the mosque, away from the church, away from the priests and the imams, away from the books, to have any chance of finding God.

Squeeze a fraction of a galaxy into your mind, and then you’ll have a better idea of what you’re looking for. To even partially comprehend the scale of a single galaxy is to almost disappear. And when you remember all the other galaxies, you shrink one hundred billion times smaller still.

But then you remember what you are. The same facts that made you feel so insignificant, also tell you how you got here. It’s like you become more real. Or maybe the universe becomes more real. You suddenly fit. You suddenly belong. You do not have to bow down. You do not have to look away. In such moments, all you have to do is remember to keep breathing.

The body of a newborn baby is as old as the cosmos. The form is new and unique, but the materials are 13.7 billion years old, processed by nuclear fusion in stars, fashioned by electromagnetism. Cold words for amazing processes. And that baby was you; is you. You’re amazing. Not only alive, but with a mind. What fool would exchange this for every winning lottery ticket ever drawn?

When I compare what scientific knowledge has done for me, and what religion tried to do to me, I sometimes literally shiver. Religions tell children they might go to Hell and they must believe, while science tells children they came from the stars and presents reasoning they can believe. I’ve told plenty of young kids about stars and atoms and galaxies and the Big Bang and I have never seen fear in their eyes. Only amazement and curiosity. They want more.

Why do kids swim in it and adults drown in it? What happens to reality between our youngest years and adulthood? Could it be that someone promised us something so beautiful that our universe seems dull, empty, even frightening by comparison? It might still be made by a creator of some kind, but religion has made it look ugly. Religion paints everything not of itself as unholy and sinful while it beautifies and dignifies its errors, lies, and bigotry like a pig wearing the finest robes.

In its efforts to stop us facing reality, religion has become the reality we cannot face. Look at what religion has made us do, to ourselves and to each other. Religion stole our love and our loyalty and gave it to a book, to a telepathic father that tells his children that love means kneeling before him. Now I’m not a parent, but I say that those kids are going to turn out messed up. It cannot be healthy, for a child or a species.

We were told, long ago and for a long time, that there was only the Earth, that we were the center of everything. That turned out to be wrong. We still haven’t fully adjusted. We’re still in shock. The universe is not what we expected it to be. It’s not what they told us it would be. This cosmic understanding is all new to us, but there’s nothing to fear. We’re still special, we’re still blessed, and there might yet be a Heaven. But it isn’t going to be perfect and we’re going to have to build it ourselves.

If I have something that can be called a soul that needed saving, then science saved it…from religion.

Some people find it really very depressing that the universe can only support life for another thirty billion years.

Thirty. Billion. Years. Are you fucking kidding me?


Moonshot Insanity

 Posted by at 16:57  No Responses »
Oct 092009

I’m upset.

This happens when people exhibit kneejerk reactions without first trying to understand the details. In this case, I’m referring to LCROSS and the moon impactor study.

I value science and the pursuit of knowledge. As such, I’m going to make a point-by-point rebuttal of one of the more egregious reactionary articles I’ve read concerning this topic. That article may be found here*.

On Friday, NASA is planning to crash into the moon. I’m just wondering: who gave them permission to crash into the moon? Not once, but twice.

The USA is a democratic republic. The people elect representative officials to legislate, execute, and adjudicate. NASA, a government agency, owes its budget to the whims of congress (legislative) and answers to the president (executive). The people working at NASA do so because the representatives we’ve elected have chosen them as the best candidates for the job. This trickles down from the guy in charge to the lowest intern, with all the intermediary managers having delegate responsibility.

So, in short, we gave NASA permission to pursue scientific endeavors as they best see fit by electing our current representatives.

Further, the people at NASA are qualified. Very qualified. They know what they’re talking about and they’ve gone through a lot of schooling. I’m going to quote the excellent Atomic Rocket.

So you know, university Physics is essentially three years of this discussion among like-minded enthusiasts.

Done with supercomputers, access to the textbook collections of five continents and thirty languages.

On four hours sleep a night.

With no sex.

You’re not going to find the loophole these guys missed.

Continuing on with the absurdity…

The rocket and satellite will smash into the moon at 5600 mph (more than seven times the speed of sound). The size of the explosion will be equal to that of 1.5 tons of TNT and will release 772,000 pounds of lunar dirt into a 6.2 mile high spray of debris, NASA’S own version of shock and awe, in a purported experiment to see if any ice or water is released.

I’m just wondering, who signed the paper? Who did the risk assessment? I mean, what if something goes wrong?

Remember that first paragraph? These guys are experts. They did the risk assessment. Trust them; they don’t have their job “just because.” We often refer to less-than-complex matters by saying, “it’s not rocket science.” Well, guess what: this is rocket science, and these are rocket scientists.

It’s a big explosion. Suffice it to say that any amateur astronomer west of the Mississippi with a home telescope will be able to view it from their backyard.

I could say something scientifically lame and ask, “What if it gets thrown off its axis?” or something funny and suggest something (that I actually sort of believe), like, “What if it somehow throws off the astrology?” Or that we’re not risking — as we have the earth with continued experiments of this kind — sending the solar system out of balance.

This is a failure to understand scale.

The moon orbits the Earth once every 27.3 days at a distance of 384,399 km. This works out to an orbital velocity of about 3,700 km/hour. The moon has a mass of 73.5 billion billion metric tons. Thus, the moon has a total kinetic energy (relative to the Earth) of 7.76 x 1028 Joules, or the equivalent of about 18,500 billion megatons of TNT.

And you’re worried about an impactor with 8.09 x 10-18% (that’s 8.09 billion billion billionths of a percent!) the kinetic energy?


The moon is under constant meteor bombardment, as well. You need only look at its pockmarked surface for confirmation. A common 5-meter ferrous (i.e. iron) asteroid crashing into the moon at the same speed as the impactor is going to have 250 times the kinetic energy.

The irony is that one of the purposes of the experiment is to assess whether there is any water on the moon and is it worthwhile to send another manned mission to the moon. If we’d just send up two guys with a bucket and shovels, we wouldn’t have to bomb the moon at all.

The amount of money and planning that goes into every manned mission is enormous compared to unmanned missions. Getting people into space, along with all the required support equipment (atmosphere, water, food, etc.) is hard and requires a great deal of fuel. Keeping people alive in space is harder. Sending up unmanned probes is comparably easy.

I’m not a big fan of explosions, anyway. In Iraq or Afghanistan or the South Pole of the Moon. But who does have a territorial prerogative there?

The explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan are chemical explosions meant to kill people. The “explosion” on the moon is an impact-derived plume of dust meant to learn something and potentially help people. Big difference.

Who has jurisdiction?

By international decree, no one has jurisdiction over space territory. Yet, anyway.

Who has the right to say that it’s okay to blow up a crater on the moon? Or Jupiter? Or Saturn, for that matter?

See above about experts.

If we think there is water there, how do we know we’re not affecting some life form, as well?

Do you worry about wiping down your counter tops with a disinfecting wipe? You are, after all, deliberately killing off microbial lifeforms when you do so. Any form of life on the moon is going to be extremely simplistic and if it exists in one location, will likely exist in many.

It sort of reminds me of two kids in a backyard with a firecracker that they don’t really know how to set off.

This comparison implies that NASA scientists don’t know what they’re doing. Frankly, it’s just insulting.

It’s causing great excitement in the astronomy sector. NASA is running a live broadcast on its website (wonder if they’re selling ads). A NASA spokesman announced, “It’s going to be pretty cool.” The Fiske Planetarium in Boulder is serving free coffee and bagels. “People like explosions,” the Planetarium director is quoted as saying, “and this is going to excite them.”

There’s a good reason for this: it’s an interesting, visible experiment that may lead to revolutionary results.

Well, I for one, don’t like explosions. Call me a pacifist, call me cautious, call me an environmentalist, or call me something worse, I don’t really care.

This is a non-destructive explosion in the pursuit of better understanding of the world. Better understanding is at the heart of pacifism and environmentalism.

The only thing you can be called is reactionary and ignorant.

ADDENDUM: Here’s a YouTube clip showing the impact.

* This article may or may not be a humor post, but if it is, it accurately illustrates widespread sentiment I’ve seen expressed on numerous websites.

The Edge of Space

 Posted by at 16:31  2 Responses »
Sep 292009

A story has been going around about a group of students that managed to send a balloon “to the edge of space” on a shoestring budget. While there, it snapped pictures of the Earth, the atmosphere, and space.

This story is factually incorrect and misleading. This balloon did not make it to the edge of space.

First, balloons rely on buoyancy. You can’t be buoyant if there’s no atmosphere in which to be buoyant.

Second, as the atmosphere gets thinner, so too does the pressure exerted on objects grow lighter. This is why, for example, boiling water requires different temperatures at varying altitudes. A balloon is inherently reliant on the gas pressure contained within its membrane. If the pressure inside is too great in comparison to the equilibrating pressure outside, such as one finds when one gets very high in the atmosphere, the membrane will break. In layman’s terms, the balloon pops.

Third, the “edge of space” has a (somewhat arbitrary) definition in the form of the Kármán Line. This line is 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) above sea level, and was the threshold for the Ansari X prize. The student balloon made it to an altitude of 17 miles, 45 miles short of the Kármán Line.

As a corollary to the above, though, the “edge of space” is a somewhat arbitrary notion. The atmosphere does not simply “end” at any point. It grows thinner and thinner until it is infinitesimal and indistinguishable from the general particulate density of “empty” space. There’s no true number for this. This misconception is similar to the idea that astronauts are in “zero G.” In fact, the gravitational pull from Earth on orbiting astronauts is not greatly reduced from that pulling on you right now. The difference is that they are in a continuous state of free fall (the accurate and preferred term) due to their orbital pattern and a handful of other factors. Earth’s gravity doesn’t attenuate to near-0 (for an average human of 70 kg / 150 lbs.) until you get three million kilometers away (0.05% normal gravity). By comparison, the moon is a scant 380 thousand kilometers away.

I don’t in any way want to belittle the accomplishment of the students in question. They did a great and admirable thing. My issue is with how it’s being reported. Scientific achievements are almost universally treated incorrectly and inaccurately by media outlets and it sucks.

Apr 142009

The first particularly intriguing article I stumbled across this morning was about a blind man that sees with sound. He’s managed to teach himself how to “see” by clicking his tongue and using the reflected sound to analyze his environment. I find it astounding that a human being, with no particular biological organ devoted to the geometric interpretation of acoustic data, can do this and, what’s more, that it can even be taught.

The second article, also from New Scientist, deals with diabetes. I don’t have diabetes, nor am I at risk to “get” it, but I find anything dealing with overcoming human ailments through science fascinating. It seems as though a stem cell treatment on trial patients in Brazil has freed most of them from requiring insulin treatments. As one who scoffs at the crowd decrying stem cell research as immoral, that research in the field has produced such promising medical advances is heartening and satisfying.

While we’re rattling down the points-of-interest list, a friend pointed me at an amusing pictorial blog today called This Is Indexed. The general theme of the blog is taking two potentially disparate groups and using them as axes on a graph to depict a humorous correlation. Man, was that a Vulcan/android-esque description or what? Anyway, worth a look.

Apr 092009

Every so often, I come across a story about simple technological solutions to big problems that makes me smile. This is one of those stories. A guy spent the weekend with his daughters working on a little project: a solar-powered oven. They succeeded. The total cost of their invention? About $5.

From CNN.

When Jon Bohmer sat down with his two little girls for a simple project they could work on together, he didn’t realize they’d hit upon a solution to one of the world’s biggest problems for just $5: A solar-powered oven.

The ingeniously simple design uses two cardboard boxes, one inside the other, and an acrylic cover that lets in the sun’s rays and traps them.

Black paint on the inner box, and silver foil on the outer one, help concentrate the heat. The trapped rays make the inside hot enough to cook casseroles, bake bread and boil water.

What the box also does is eliminate the need in developing countries for rural residents to cut down trees for firewood. About 3 billion people around the world do so, adding to deforestation and, in turn, global warming.

By allowing users to boil water, the simple device could also potentially save the millions of children who die from drinking unclean water.

Bohmer’s invention on Thursday won the FT Climate Change Challenge, which sought to find and publicize the most innovative and practical solution to climate change.

“A lot of scientists are working on ways to send people to Mars. I was looking for something a little more grassroots, a little simpler,” Bohmer said Thursday.

Bohmer, a Norwegian-born entrepreneur based in Kenya, said he also had been looking at solutions “way too complex, for way too long.”

“This took me about a weekend, and it worked on the first try,” Bohmer said. “It’s mind-boggling how simple it is.”

The contest was organized by the Forum for the Future — a sustainable development charity — and the Financial Times newspaper. Among the judges were British business magnate Richard Branson and environmentalist Rajendra Pachauri. The public also voted on the finalists.

Bohmer’s invention beat about 300 other entries, including a machine that turns wood and other organic material into charcoal, wheel covers that make trucks more fuel efficient by reducing drag, and a feed supplement for livestock that reduces the methane they emit by 15 percent.

Bohmer named his invention the Kyoto Box, after the international environmental treaty to reduce global warming.

The box can be produced in existing cardboard factories. It has gone into production in a factory in Nairobi, Kenya, that can churn out about 2.5 million boxes a month.

Bohmer has also designed a more durable version, made from recycled plastic, which can be produced just as cheaply.

He envisions such cardboard ovens being distributed throughout rural Africa.

“In the West, we cook with electricity, so it’s easy to ignore this problem,” he said. “But half the world’s population is still living in a stone age. The only way for them to cook is to make a fire.

“I don’t want to see another 80-year-old woman carrying 20 kilos of firewood on her back. Maybe we don’t have to.”

Making Fantasy Worlds

 Posted by at 16:53  No Responses »
Oct 062008

Many GMs like to play in existing campaign worlds. One of the most popular was/is Forgotten Realms, which has all but become D&D’s de facto setting. Others play in an alternate version of the real world, such as is the case with many World of Darkness games. Then there are the ultimate crazies: the world builders. Count me among this bunch.

I’ve been preparing to run an original sword-and-sorcery game of late (using GURPS), set in a fantasy world of my own devising. In researching for the daunting task of crafting an entire planet, I did a fair amount of reading on what makes something fantasy as opposed to historical fiction, science fiction, et cetera. The resounding answer: magic. Magic regarded as the universal defining characteristic that sets fantasy apart from its peers.

This made a lot of sense to me, since the real question one must ask when tampering with reality is this: what ramifications will the thing I’m changing have? This is the core idea behind science fiction, for instance, with the “thing I’m changing” usually being a piece (or many pieces) of technology. I think that it’s often overlooked in fantasy, though. Magic just “is” in a lot of fantasy, without the ramifications clearly thought-through. D&D, my favorite whipping dog, is guilty as hell of this. With as many wizards are running around hurling fireballs, D&D societies are often far, far too similar to a romanticized modern-day medieval world.

Thinking through the ramifications of magic was one of the key questions I first tried to answer. I found that I had a crystal-clear picture in my head of what I wanted…but the task of articulating that picture was arduous. The details are irrelevant to this post, but suffice it to say that I wanted magic to be difficult, limited without serious investment, and completely impossible to “alter the world” (i.e. D&D’s Wish spell). The result: a world left largely unaltered by magic, but altered just enough that it was no longer ours.

I then seasoned this with the idea that there was prevalent low-key magic, more akin to ultra-effective herbalism. I didn’t want to deal with the realities that people faced in medieval life like poor sanitation, rampant disease, poor medical understanding, and so forth. All that is handwaved away by “peasant magic,” which is powerful in its own right, but too limited to result in a shift in the balance of power.

Everything else — the arrangement of the society, the types of fantastic creatures, and so forth — comes after this critical decision is made. In truth, these subsequent pieces may dictate what picture it is you paint, but the decision about magic is the canvas, the medium, the type of brush, and the technique you use.