Monday, June 21, 2010

"Rationality is a Myth..."

Today's link takes you, not to a science article, but to a one about earthquake insurance. I don't care about your insurance portfolio. I barely care about mine - which may prove the article's underlying point regarding human psychology. Apparently, just because we have the science to make frightening risk predictions, it doesn't mean the human animal has the capacity to rationally quantify and cope with that risk assessment. And that's what fascinates me. My favorite quote: "Human beings are hard-wired to believe in their heart and soul that disasters don't happen and won't happen to them," says Dennis Mileti, a retired University of Colorado sociology professor and noted researcher. "Human beings are not rational when it comes to risk. Rationality is a myth invented by the Italians in the Renaissance." Evolutionary biology seems to hint that our brain development hasn't necessarily kept pace with our technology and science. What we understand intellectually doesn't always, or even often, translate into rational action. And we're only talking about a Californian's need to buy earthquake insurance. How does this sort of evolutionary biology meets hard tech in a life-threatening environment affect astronauts? Really, can humanity as we know it expand out into the stars only if the rose-colored, disaster-won't-happen-to-me glasses are in place? Are denial and a certain naiveté our best weapons when it comes to facing down almost certain death? Or can the brain be trained to overcome its own biology? If yes, is that adaptation? Or evolution?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Science Not So Fiction

My husband and I live aboard a sailing catamaran most of the year. Yesterday, I discovered water in the port bilge. These boats aren't supposed to have water in the bilges. The joke is that you clean the bilges of these boats with a hand broom and a dustpan. Fortunately, I know where this water is coming from - the hotwater heater leaks when it's turned on. The chances of the boat sinking because of this leak are slim. This morning, while trying to cook my breakfast and boil water for that all important first cup of tea, I ran out of propane and had to grab the wrench and go switch out the tanks. This is a slightly hazardous job. Propane is a heavier than air gas and it is highly flammable. Boats blow up because of undetected propane leaks and a single stray spark. My point? The whole living aboard the boat thing has given me new respect for the notion of spacefaring in a self-contained craft. This boat is three years old, yet we already have a list of kludges and fixes (and a list of those things which may be safely ignored - like the water heater leak) so that we can operate. This is only a sailboat. Our margin for error is really pretty big. Can you imagine trying to keep a boat in repair and in shape in space? Mess something up there and it's possible you won't be able to breathe. Leaks in zero-g would be catastrophic. Sure, my fresh water leak is inconvenient and wasteful, but all I have to do is put into a dock, grab a hose and refill my tanks. What are my options in outer space if one of my fuel tanks or water tanks springs a leak? Or worse - one of my O2 generators blows out? Yeah. In some of my books, the science fiction surrounding some of the stuff that goes wrong with space craft isn't entirely fiction after all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Coronal Rain

We have a stellar furnace at the center of our solar system and we know remarkably little about it. A new Solar Dynamics Observatory is apparently changing that. The link is worth a click through, if only for the photos. They are lovely. Be sure to click on the slideshow thumbnail on the right. Just the first photo of the sun turns our central star into something that looks like it belongs in a horror show - it's beautiful and kind of terrifying all at once. You can imagine that bright/dark star over a world of fiends. As to the point of the article, apparently, when plasma erupts from the sun, it arcs along magnetic lines in the corona and the plasma then falls back to the surface of the sun in vivid splashes - if one is allowed a watery metaphor for something registering 60,000 degrees Kelvin. The plasma falls in 'droplets' and are referred to as coronal rain. The mystery had been in why the drops fall so slowly. The new observatory offered enough detail of the sun's corona to allow scientists to realize that masses of hot gas are buoying the 'rain', slowing its descent through the solar atmosphere. Interesting, no? Nice possible romantic moment - escape your bad guys and sit watching a plasma eruption and the subsequent rain. From within the safe confines of your starship, of course. Or have to navigate close enough to a star to have to deal with the massive heat as well as the super-heated gases, as well as the potential plasma eruptions. Dodge one of those and remember that you have to dodge the coronal rain as well. Mm. Nothing like the threat of imminent death to get the creative juices flowing. Now. Where were those matches?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Life As We Don't Know It

Take a creative writing class and call me if someone doesn't say at least once "Write what you know". I've always wanted to ask how someone could write what they don't know because - well - how would you even begin? That's why, no matter how strange and alien a world may be in a science fiction novel, every alien aspect is described in terms of what we humans can reasonably know. Our aliens must be modeled on perfectly mundane, earthbound critters, if only because they're all we've got. Maybe. Based on a chemical puzzle, scientists hypothesize that Titan may be home to an alien cellular life form. If Titan is host to a brand of E.T., it certainly will not be life as we know it. Life on earth evolved in a watery soup and that watery soup remains captive in every cell in our bodies. On Titan, the soup wouldn't be H2O - it would be liquid methane and ethane. Which may mean that life as we don't know it is odder than we ever imagined. And possibly stinkier than we imagined.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


The other night, I was watching an episode of "Monster Quest". My husband leaned over to glance at my screen and smirk. "Not much science in that show, is there," he said. No. It was distinctly not a question. Truthfully? The observation is accurate. Far too few TV shows, even on the ostensibly science-friendly Discover channel, contain much in the way of actual science. I mourn the lack. However. For my purposes as a writer, while science tends to be my preferred tool for story generation, ultimately, stories don't care whether the science is good, bad, laughable, or complete drivel. Stories care about possibility, about what could be...if. So I sat through an hour of some guys ghost hunting in the Lizzie Borden house - an hour during which remarkably little happened. In the end, the investigators came away with one EVP (electronic voice phenomena) that defied explanation and that passed muster when put through a voice recognition specialist's tests to verify that it was indeed a voice and not just white noise. While ghosts and everything surrounding them is currently considered 'paranormal' and not 'scifi', what happens if science and technology finally bridge a gap and prove that ghosts occur? Are they then scifi? Will humanity find a way to A) communicate with the dead without use of mediums and B) find some way to profit from the whole deal? There's an old Star Trek episode (original series) wherein a transporter accident appears to kill Captain Kirk - he randomly appears as an apparition to various members of the crew until they work out that he's been trapped in some kind of space/time anomolie. They subsequently figure out how to sync the transporter to Kirk's space/time and recover him just as the air in his space suit runs out. Surely there's a SFR story in a recurring EVP haunting a heroine who has to figure out she's picking up either an alien dimension or an alien whose communications tech doesn't work like ours does (radio waves are so passe).

Monday, June 7, 2010


Scientists in China have managed to teleport information sixteen kilometers using photon entanglement. The scientists entangled two photons of light, then sent one about ten miles from Beijing. When they altered the state of the proton in Beijing, the proton ten miles away changed state in the exact same way at the same time. According to the article, it's one thing to mess about with protons, and quite another to assume that we'll shortly be putting the airlines out of business by teleporting to our vacations in Fiji. (How I wish that weren't the case...flying is not my favorite mode of transportation.) The experiment may yet lead to new computing and communications techniques allowing for faster, more secure transmission of data. Put computer modules inside a cyborg that calculate using entangled protons and you can effectively deprogram that cyborg by removing him or her from the planet - you'd unentangle the protons over distance. Presumably, as technology and knowledge advances, the distances over which protons remain entangled will increase, but still. Would it hurt in some vaguely physical way to have embedded processing modules essentially die inside your head? How easy (or difficult) would it be for someone to modify the protons of your onboard computer - re-entangle them to protons - and therefore programming - they control?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

First Deadline

I'm taking a break from science today in the hopes that others can learn from my mistakes. This past Sunday, I finished and turned in my second book. It was the first book I'd ever done on deadline. No. A real deadline - as in - someone waiting and counting on you deadline. I was two weeks late. Not the impression I'd wanted to make. How to fix this so it never happens again: the two words no artist ever wants to hear, but which, if said artist aspires to becoming a business person, must be said - Project Management.

1. Establish a post mortem habit. After every single project, assess what went well and identify what did not work. Include in that list everything that held you up, randomized your time and attention, and that dropped roadblocks in your path. Put everything down - making breakfast, doing the laundry, having to fix the flat on the aren't evaluating yet. You're listing. After you've listed, you'll evaluate. You will pick the things on that list of distractions that you're willing to allow to go on distracting you. May I suggest that you automatically allow spouses, children and pets to go on being distractions (within reason)? I understand divorce court really chews up available writing time and resources.
2. Identify areas for improvement and change. From your list, do you notice that you allowed email to randomize you? Or Facebook, Twitter, your blog, IM, etc? Give yourself x number of minutes per day to do those things, then stop and work. If you finish your day's goal, you can go play on your time-killer of choice. Not until then. Set aside one day per week for errands. Stick to it. Teach your family to clean up after themselves so that when you do vacuum, it lasts longer than three minutes. Ultimately, this second step boils down to learning to manage yourself and to…
3. Manage expectations. This was my biggest failure. I did not manage my family's expectations. I'd already written and sold a book and done it all while taking care of them...why should this second book have been any different? Because I had half the time in which to produce that book. I had no idea what that meant. Neither did my family. Now we do. I will actively manage their expectations of how many 'can you get, do, make, be, pretend...' things I can do in one week while still making deadline.

Sure. I'd built deadlines for myself before. They had no teeth. If you want to test yourself and your project management skill, give yourself six months. Build a 90k word book from idea to finished - not polished - just finished and edited and rewritten so it isn't 100% rough draft. And then remind yourself that this is the job you aspire to. Some days, that will be cause for deep despair. But then come the days when it's utterly exhilarating.