Afronauts Online

With all of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings going on, Nuotama Frances Bodomo’s strange little film, Afronauts, which is inspired by the Zambian Space Programme, has been made available online. You can watch it here.

I’m delighted to see from that website that Bodomo has been working on a full-length film. As part of the research she has been interviewing some of the original participants in that space programme.

Today on Ujima: More Music

Yes, I know it isn’t Wednesday. This week’s Women’s Outlook show should have gone out yesterday in the usual time slot, but once again technical gremlins intervened. So instead the show was run in the 10:00-12:00 slot this morning. You can listen to the first hour here, and the second hour here.

As with last week, the show is entirely music, but it is great music. Here’s the playlist:

  • Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman
  • Afro Celt Sound System – Whirl-y-Reel 1
  • Guillemots – Sao Paulo
  • Eddy Grant – Living on the Front Line
  • Maria Muldaur – Midnight at the Oasis
  • Zoe Rahman – Shiraz
  • Sylvester – You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)
  • Stereo MCs – Fever
  • Donna Summer & Barbara Steisand – No More Tears
  • Janelle Monáe feat. Esperanza Spalding – Dorothy Dandridge Eyes
  • John Coltrane – Blue Train
  • Tracy Chapman – Fast Car
  • Dreadzone – Tomorrow Never Comes

The Janelle Monáe song is, of course, there to encourage you all to go and see Hidden Figures when it is out in your area.

Mars, The Summer Planet

Thanks to Oliver Morton I have been alerted to a fascinating new scientific study of Mars which provides further proof that water once flowed on the Red Planet. A team from the Open University and the University of Leicester have analyzed rock formations from Gale Crater and have determined that they were formed by the evaporation of ancient lakes. They say that the rocks are very similar to those found at Watchet Bay in North Devon.

Which is all well and good, except that, as the North Devon Journal honestly points out, Watchet Bay is in North Somerset. (Kevin – we drove past it on the way to Minehead.)

Suddenly much becomes clear. Mars was once a planet covered by lakes and marshland. The locals drained the land with an extensive system of canals, or rhines as they called them, allowing them to plant vast apple orchards from which the famous Martian cider was made. One day, we hope, summer will return to Mars, the levels will bloom again, and the Martians will emerge from their caves.

There’s all sorts of nonsense you can build on this. Mon Olympus as the Martian equivalent of Glastonbury Tor, for example. Of course the most famous cave system in Somerset is called Wookey Hole, which suggests that the Martians might be a bit hairy.

Women Do Math (in the movies)

Now here’s a heartwarming story for International Women’s Day. Back in the 1960s, three brilliant African-American mathematicians — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson — were the brains behind NASA’s Friendship 7 program that launched John Glenn into space. Their story is told in the book, Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (due out in September). And recently casting has been announced for a 2017 movie based on the book. Taraji P. Henson was already on board to play Johnson. She has now been joined by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

Yep, that’s the Archandroid, in the movies, in a story about the early days of the space program. Awesome.

Kudos as well to Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley who are apparently in Shetterly’s book but not yet in the movie, probably because Hollywood likes to combine people into single roles for easy of story-telling.

Seriously, go read Shetterly’s website. It is great. Also, while you are about it, get Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction and read “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB”.

SF & Astronomy, A Boy Thing, Apparently

I have email from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific announcing that they have updated their list of science fiction that contains good information about astronomy and related issues. This is a good thing, I thought. We should be educating readers as well as entertaining then. Then I went and looked at the list.

COCKFOREST ALERT!!!

It is a very big list. I haven’t counted them. I did count the works by, or partly by, women (but not including those where the women are editors). That was a lot easier, though I may still have missed some due to initials, pseudonyms, etc. We have:

  • The Cassiopeia Affair, by Chloe Zerwick & Harrison Brown
  • “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death”, by James Tiptree Jr.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “Amnesty”, by Octavia Butler
  • “The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model”, by Charlie Jane Anders
  • “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”, by Pat Cadigan
  • “Schwarzschild Radius”, by Connie Willis

Is that all, really? Does nothing that Catherine Asaro or Joan Slonczewski has written qualify? Then again, Peter Watts isn’t on the list for good alien lifeforms, so maybe they just need to read a bit more widely. Can we help them out, please?

Update: I’ve been informed that Alex Brett, author of Cold Dark Matter, is also female. However, we are still only at about 3%.

Send Someone Into Space

As PR stunts go, this one is pretty spectacular. Lynx, the deodorant company, not the cat (I prefer the cat) is running a competition for people wanting to be astronauts. As I understand it, the top four in the UK get to go to a space camp thing in London, and from there the winner gets to go forward to an international camp where a crew will be selected. There is apparently some physical testing involved in the later stages, but the first round appears to be decided by voting. I guess they want to know if you can handle the media as well as the physical challenge.

Anyway, I know about this because an old friend of mine, John Precedo, has entered. There has to be a saying about how friends don’t let friends go into space, but John appears to be well off the pace. Even if all my Twitter followers voted for him he’d still be outside the top ten. So why not give him some love.

Well actually the why not is that in order to vote you have to give Lynx an email address, and that address will then presumably be spammed with advertising for smelly stuff forever afterwards. But you all have fake email addresses for such purposes, right?

Robots In Spaaaace!

Fireball XL5While many people in the US and UK are worrying about the possibility of a robot uprising, our friends in Japan are doing all they can to make it happen. Next year Japanese astronaut, Koichi Wakata, will be spending time on the International Space Station. With him will go his mission sidekick, Kibo, a humanoid robot designed to provide companionship and help with scientific experiments. Amongst his abilities will be face recognition, allowing him to converse with his fellow astronauts.

Kibo will only be 13 inches tall, and he won’t have the piloting skills of Robert the Robot from XL5. Hopefully he won’t have the personality of C3PO either. But it is a start. And we all know how it ends, don’t we.

Hola San Antonio: Panel Suggestion

I’ve just done a slightly tongue in cheek post for the Bristolcon website. Behind it, however, is a very serious piece of physics. NASA scientists are actively considering the ideas of Professor Miguel Alcubierre for constructing a warp drive for faster-than-light travel. Alcubierre got his doctorate at the University of Wales in Cardiff, and therefore deserves a place in the annals of Welsh science fiction (rumors that he worked part-time helping to set up the Torchwood Institute while he was in Cardiff have been officially denied by the Welsh Parliament). However, Alcubierre is Mexican by birth, and as of this year he is back home heading up the the Nuclear Sciences Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. So, friends in San Antonio, how about talking to NASA and getting them to send you Alcubierre and one of their experts to talk about FTL drives?

Mad Cosmology

It’s has been a while since the last “we’re all going to die” post, but this one is seriously cool. According to Nature, our galaxy is on a collision course with our nearest neighbor, Andromeda. Eventually the two galaxies will meet. Stars will smash into each other. The giant black holes at the center of each galaxy will duke it out for supremacy, one eventually eating the other. It will be awesome!

Um, except if you are caught in the middle of it. The astronomers who made this discovery have run simulations and they reckon that, as we are way out on the edge of our galaxy, we’ll probably be OK. They don’t say anything about the possibility of being bathed in vast fountains of gamma rays, though.

Still, the good news is that it won’t happen for 4 billion years. And long before that we may find that a trip to the nearest galaxy is no further than one to the other side of our own. How cool will that be?

Of course galaxies falling towards each other through gravitational attraction is not the norm for our universe. We know now that the universe is not only expanding, but that the rate of expansion is increasing. The latest Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to the guys whose observations proved that.

How that can be true, and what is means for cosmology, is explained in the following TED talk by Brian Greene. Along the way he gets into String Theory and explains how the ever-expanding universe might be proof that there are many others universes — not the classical multiverse produced by all probabilistic outcomes being true somewhere, but actual independent universes with their own separate big bangs.

The sad news is that we can’t see any of these other universes. Or at least, we won’t be able to unless our universe happens to accidentally collide with another one. Ooh, err…

A Time Before Time

Flicking through the iPlayer catalog this morning I noticed an Horizon program I hadn’t seen before. It was apparently first broadcast in October 2010, but must have been repeated recently for it to show up again. It is called What Happened Before the Big Bang? and it deals with the current state of bleeding edge cosmological theory.

Cosmologists are understandably concerned about the Big Bang theory because it appears to create something from nothing, and this program checked in on a number of possible explanations as to how that might have come about. They include things like repeating cycles of expansion and collapse, and the idea that our universe was born inside a black hole in another universe. However, I want to talk about just one of the alternatives.

This particular theory was first published in 2006 by Dr. Laura Mersini-Houghton, an Albanian physicist currently working at the University of North Carolina. I’m not sure if it has a name, but it is mathematical treatment of string theory that views the universe as a wave form. The interesting thing about it is that it purports to explain some existing cosmological mysteries such as Dark Flow. Perhaps most excitingly for SF writers, Mersini-Houghton’s theory not only postulates the existence of multiple universes, but claims that we can actually see evidence of one.

I am, of course, in no way equipped to judge such theories, though I’m aware that string theory itself is still controversial. I am, however, rather pleased with the prospect that other universes might exist, and that they have been discovered by a woman physicist from Albania. If anyone reading this knows more about the subject, please do comment. I’m also hoping that if I type the magic words “Hannu Rajaniemi” loudly enough that an expert on string theory might drop by and explain things to me.

Extreme Astronomy

This week’s Horizon program, “Seeing Stars” was short on the science and long on fabulous photography of beautiful desert landscapes and large, complex pieces of engineering. It was all about some of the strange new ways astronomers are observing the cosmos. While the intellectual content was a bit low, there was one marvellous sense of wonder moment near the beginning. They programme was following some work at the high-altitude Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. We are shown some pictures taken by the instrument. The narration went roughly like this:

That’s an area of about 300 by 100 light years, but if we zoom in on this particularly bright patch we get this picture. Here we can see a group of stars orbiting a bright object. That object is the accretion disk of hot gasses orbiting the super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Yeah. Cool.

A Star is Dying (Sorry Zaphod)

This one’s for you, Kendall. Momentous portents are in the offing.

According to the Huffington Post, the red giant star Betelgeuse is collapsing and could go nova at any time. The claim comes from Dr. Brad Carter of the University of Southern Queensland. Betelgeuse is already one of the brightest stars in our sky, and Carter believes that if it does nova it will be so bright it will look like we have two suns for a while. Goodness only knows what craziness that would cause, especially if it happens in 2012.

Exeunt in Maya costume muttering “the end of the world is nigh!”

Update: Phil Plait is a boring party pooper.

Cosmology Is Awesome

Via Jay Lake I have discovered a wonderful new development in cosmology. As this report explains, Nikodem Poplawski of Indiana University believes that he has found a new take on relativity that not only gets rid of the troublesome concept of singularities, but also shows that our universe must have formed inside a black hole, and provides an explanation for the origin of time. As cosmological speculation goes, that’s truly awesome. Of course it is still speculation right now, and Poplawski’s ideas need to be pored over by minds far more powerful than mine, but this sort of thing sure makes cosmology fun.

And The Object Was…

… a baby black hole.

That press conference by NASA I blogged about last week? They have discovered a black hole that is only 30 years old. That makes it younger than me, and probably younger than a lot of you as well.

In fact it might be younger than that. The 30 years figure is based on the appearance of the supernova whose collapse is believed to have formed the black hole. I’m guessing that the point at which the singularity was formed is not entirely certain. The black hole is visible now because it is feeding: i.e. dragging in material from the local region.

Of course in space, time is relative to distance, so while the black hole looks to be only 30 years old to us, it is actually around 50 million years old because that’s how many light years away it is. But for scientists studying the x-rays coming from it, it is still very exciting. Full details here.

But no alien spaceship, I’m afraid. Sorry.

An Exceptional Object

On Wednesday NASA put out a press release to say that they would be holding a special, televised news conference on Monday to discuss “the Chandra X-ray Observatory’s discovery of an exceptional object in our cosmic neighborhood.” There is no indication in the press release as to what this object might be, how it is exceptional, or what NASA means by “cosmic neighborhood”.

UFO websites are all over this. They are, of course, hoping that “exceptional object” means “starship” and “cosmic neighborhood” means “our solar system”. Millenarianist cults are doubtless hoping that it means a huge asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Given that Chandra is an X-Ray telescope, whatever it has detected is presumably very hot. That could be the exhaust gases from a starship, but it would be a pretty dangerous form of propulsion. It seems very unlikely that it could be anything like an asteroid or comet. It presumably isn’t the giant energy bubbles at the center of the galaxy, because they are primarily gamma ray emitters and were discovered by the Fermi telescope.

What Chandra is good at spotting, however, is supernovas. So for the benefit of Kendall, who put me onto this story and is eagerly waiting to be scared, I shall predict that Chandra has discovered a nearby supernova that is about to bathe the Earth in deadly radiation and we are all going to die. Of course this is “about to” on a cosmological timescale, so we may have a few centuries to enjoy ourselves before it happens.

Those of you with much better astrophysics knowledge than me are welcome to tell me that I’m completely wrong here.

Smarter Than Us?

Today in my Twitter feed I was pointed to this article (thanks Errol!) about how computers in telescopes are doing most of the grunt work for astronomers. The story leads with the idea that, “Astronomy could be the first discipline in which the rate of discovery by machines outpaces humans’ ability to interpret it.” That is, the machines are coming up with data in vast quantities, all of which needs to be looked at and interpreted. That’s quite impressive. But the thing that caught my eye was this:

Last year, Hod Lipson and pals at Cornell University developed a genetic algorithm capable of sifting through data looking for the laws of physics behind it.

And it seems to work. These guys generated a load of data by tracking the motion of things like simple harmonic oscillators and chaotic double-pendulums. They then set their algorithm loose on the raw data–not the manicured stuff but the warts’n’all measurements.

Their jaw-dropping result is that their algorithm derived Newton’s laws of motion from this data, without outside help.

Now that is one smart algorithm. But the article goes on to say that the software has come up with other relationships as well, some of which are not known physical laws. They could be false positives, but they could almost be brand new scientific discoveries.

Smart things, these computers.

Playing Catchup

There was no blogging yesterday because I was busy. I spent a whopping 12 hours on the day job, which was a disaster in every way except that the clients seem happy and I can bill for it. Today I need to get on with Salon Futura #2 in half the time I had hoped to spend on it. But so that you don’t have to be bored for another day, here are a few things to keep you busy.

A BBC survey finds that 18% of British people are “uncomfortable” about having LGB characters on television. That’s depressing, but a good excuse to mention that The Salon this month features Nicola Griffith, Hal Duncan and Cat Valente (and me) talking about writing LGBT characters.

That report doesn’t address portrayal of trans people at all because, as you should be aware by now, the purpose of trans people on British television is to provide the audience with someone who won’t be protected by the Press Complaints Commission that can be the butt of any cruel jokes going. However, the Liberal Democrat part of our coalition government wants to have an “action plan” on transgender equality. It remains to be seen whether the Tories will allow Ms. Featherstone to actually act on the plan.

Talking of gender issues, Kyle Cassidy had a bizarre encounter in a bar last night with someone who is obviously well on the way to becoming a Republican senator. Who would have thought that Hello Kitty could arouse such ire.

Everyone has been blogging about the potentially habitable planet that has been discovered, but in case you missed it, here’s the story.

More worryingly (and because I haven’t given Kendall a “we’re all going to die” story for ages), here are some cosmologists worrying that the amount of time in our universe may be finite. Apparently we only have about 5 billion years left. Warning: even Hannu Rajaniemi might need to work a bit to follow the argument.

And finally on the science beat, the news that dinosaurs might have been a bit taller than previously thought, because they had a lot more cartilage in their joints than we do. It would have been a great article if it wasn’t for this:

Using a “cartilage correction factor,” Holliday determined that many theropod dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus, were only modestly taller whereas ornthischian and sauropod dinosaurs, such as Triceratops and Brachiosaurus, may have been 10 percent taller or more. For example, Brachiosaurus, previously thought to be 42 feet tall, may actually have been more than a foot taller with the additional joint cartilages.

I’m guessing what they mean is that a Brachiosaurus’s legs would have been 10% longer. Much of its height is, of course, in the neck, which perhaps doesn’t have as much cartilage. But really, someone should have raised a red flag before that article saw print.

Trouble With Ra’s Acne

It is a long time since we had one of those “we are all going to die” posts, and I’m worried you might be missing them (hi Kendall!), so here’s a doozy.

Via Damien G. Walter I discover this article in New Scientist that suggests there’s something wrong with the sun. It is a very interesting survey of our knowledge of sunspot cycles, which appears to be somewhat lacking because there are currently nowhere near as many spots on Lord Ra’s face as predicted.

Of course this is hardy surprising. The sun is billions of years old, and we have only been observing it seriously for a a couple of hundred of them. Our data is incomplete. But there’s a prevailing view that sunspot activity is a bit like earthquakes or volcanoes: if you don’t get a lot of action for a long time, something big is probably on the way.

That something big is unlikely to be death rays, but it could play havoc with our technology. NASA, who have more interest in what happens in space than most organizations, is understandably worried. Cue the Daily Telegraph warning of “devastation”. Sadly they forget to mention Mayan prophecies or movies based thereon.