Dinosaur 13

Dinosaur 13I just watched a very interesting documentary on Netflix called Dinosaur 13. Now, basically, I’m a big overgrown kid who never outgrew that dreaded “Dinosaur Phase” that most little boys (and some girls) go through (although, for my own niece, it was, and still is, sharks). So I’ll pretty much watch anything about dinosaurs (and, yes, I own all of the Jurassic Park movies, even the embarrassingly forgettable Jurassic Park III).

The document is about the discovery of “Sue,” a large Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, by Peter Larson and a team of well-organized fossil hunters in 1990. At the time of its discovery, it was the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton ever found. It was also only the 13th T-Rex skeleton ever found.

I certainly remember hearing about Sue in the news every once in a while during the 90’s. I knew that Sue was a superb T-Rex skeleton and that there was a fight over its ownership. But that’s about all I knew. I wasn’t conversant with any of the details.

Rex AppealWhoa. Let me tell you, the documentary covers all of that. It’s one of those tales that, if it weren’t true, it would be hard to believe it if you read about in a novel. It covers the way Sue was found, providing a fascinating view of the field of paleontology. It then segues into the realms go politics, the legal problems associated with fossil hunting and some truly crazy stuff.

It’s a riveting documentary, and highly worth watching. The producers also do their level best to show all sides fairly. Although, I still think by the end, if you’re like me, you’ll have definite opinions on who you think the bad guys are.

The documentary is based on the non-fiction book: Rex Appeal, by Peter Larson and Kristin Donnan, both of whom appear in the documentary. The subtitle is priceless, too: “The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur that Changed Science, the Law, and My Life.”

I ordered the book (from Amazon) immediately after I watched the documentary, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Posted in Science | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Latest Slideshare Stats

Slideshare Rocks!Many of my friends and readers know that I publish almost all of my presentations online on my “channel” at Slideshare.net. I have twenty presentations online, of which fifteen are technical presentations in the IT field (associated with my day job) and five are on topics more closely related to my creative endeavors. To date, I’ve received 93,146 views.

What’s most interesting to me right now, though, is that my five non-technical presentations, which are among my newest presentations, have together amassed 13,947 views. They are:

They’re ranked by number of views, which also currently corresponds to age. So “Public Speaking for Writers” has been online for only a little over a month. Interestingly, “21st Century Writer” is the fastest mover and will probably top the list within the next year.

Check them out if you get a chance. I’d like to think that I’ve made some pretty decent content available online for free. Please let me know if you find it interesting or useful (or both).

Posted in Science, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wanderers: A Short Film

OK, this short film from Erik Wernquist, which leverages the voice of the late Carl Sagan, is just plain cool. You need to watch it, you really do.

Here’s how Erik describes his project:

Wanderers is a vision of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System, based on scientific ideas and concepts of what our future in space might look like, if it ever happens. The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.

Without any apparent story, other than what you may fill in by yourself, the idea of the film is primarily to show a glimpse of the fantastic and beautiful nature that surrounds us on our neighboring worlds – and above all, how it might appear to us if we were there.

Mesmerizing stuff. For more information (and links to still pictures), see Erik’s article.

Posted in Film, Science, Science Fiction | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Watching the Moon Launch with WSFA

WSFA - Washington Science Fiction AssociationI had an interesting Friday night. I’ve lived in the Washington metropolitan area since 1987, when I first came here for a job. There’s a science fiction organization in the area called the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA), which I’ve known about for a long time, but I’d never attended a meeting because, for me, they’re on inconvenient nights in inconvenient places (the first and third Friday of the month, in Arlington and Maryland respectively).

However, as I embark seriously on an SF writing career, I really need to become familiar with the local SF clubs, conventions, etc. So, I decided to attend my first meeting yesterday. I secured the appropriate “kitchen pass” from my wife so that I could 1) go to the meeting, and 2) move our regularly scheduled “Friday Date Night” to Saturday instead.

As SF clubs go, WSFA is reasonably influential. They’re one of the oldest SF associations, formed in 1947 and meeting continuously since then. From the 1950’s to 1997, the organization ran a convention called Disclave; I attended a couple of those events back in the early 90’s. A few years passed without a convention, and then they started up Capclave in 2001, which I was already planning to attend (it’s on October 11 – 13 this year). They’ve also hosted the Worldcon twice, which is my favorite convention, and they hosted the World Fantasy Convention last year.

I showed up at the meeting, which was held at the residence of Sam and Judy Scheiner. I had a great time talking to a very nice group of people who love SF the way I do and, in some cases, know even more than I do about it. During the business portion of the meeting, of course, most of the discussion centered around the logistics for running Capclave in just a little over a month.

I also admitted, in public, to the group that I was trying to become an SF writer. That was … surprisingly daunting. Fortunately, folks were very encouraging.

Some other benefits to the meeting…someone brought a box of ARC’s (Advance Reader Copies) that were left over from Worldcon, and I managed to find a new book that sounded interesting (The Hidden Worlds, by Kristin Landon). Free books, always a good thing.

LADEE Moon LaunchLater we all trooped outside to a nearby park to watch the LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) launch, which was happening on Wallops Island just off the Virginia coast at 11:27 PM, near its more famous cousin, Chincoteague. A key player in the launch was a company called Orbital, which has its headquarters near my house. Ken Kremer, a science writer, has a lot more information about the launch in his article on the Universe Today web site, if you want to learn more about it.

We couldn’t see much of the launch. It was partially obscured by trees, and the rocket never got very high from our vantage point as it headed eastward from the launch site. Nevertheless, it was surprisingly thrilling to watch the moving speck in the sky and know that it was a moon launch, and not just a plane flying by.

Overall, I had a good time. I met some fellow SF fans, and had some good, spirited SF discussions. I learned more about Capclave, got a free book, watched a rocket launch, and scored a reduced-cost ticket to Capclave from someone who bought their ticket long ago but won’t be able to attend. I call that a pretty good night.

Posted in Science, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How About Those Trojans?

Asteroid BeltNasa released some interesting news about the Trojan asteroids today, which occupy leading and trailing positions in Jupiter’s orbit surrounding the L4 and L5 Lagrange points, respectively. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE) has been generating some interesting results, which NASA released at the 44th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Reno, Nevado. This research information will also be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Here’s a mind-boggling quote from NASA:

Before WISE, the main uncertainty defining the population of Jupiter Trojans was just how many individual chunks were in these clouds of space rock and ice leading Jupiter, and how many were trailing. It is believed that there are as many objects in these two swarms leading and trailing Jupiter as there are in the entirety of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

For science fiction fans, it looks like one of SF’s favorite character types, the space prospector, or asteroid miner, should be hanging out with the Trojans, maybe not in the main asteroid belt.

And there’s also news about the types of asteroids in the Trojans. According to Tommy Grav, a WISE scientist from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, the asteroids are mostly type D, with some Type C and Type P asteroids. The Trojans and the Greeks all seem to be similar to each other. However, they’re not like the other asteroids in the main asteroid belt or in the Kuiper belt, leading some to speculate that they may consist of leftover primordial material from the creation of the solar system — some of the oldest rocks in the entire solar system.

For more information see Nasa’s article about the WISE findings.

Posted in Projects, Science | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Apple Falls Down: Perspectives on Global Warming

On April 11, 2012, I presented an 11+ minute talk on global warming to the Ashburn Toastmasters Club. I recorded the video using video equipment borrowed from RubyNation and then edited it using Final Cut Pro. The final video is now available on YouTube, but it’s also embedded below for your convenience.

 

If you would prefer to just scan the content of the video, a transcript appears below:


 

I read something online that made me very angry. There’s a company out there…an organization called the Heartland Institute. They go around collecting money from conservatives, and from local companies … and they give that money to school systems to meet the educational needs that each school has.

I don’t have a problem with that. The problem I have is that they have an agenda.

Their agenda is to reduce the coverage of global warming, and to make it seem less important.

They do this by inserting words into the curriculum. Phrases like “the Earth is allegedly warming.” Or “some scientists think the Earth is warming.” Or my favorite – “the theory of global warming.”

This makes me angry because I’ve done some research, and I feel that global warming is probably the largest crisis the human species has ever faced.

It doesn’t look like much now, but it’s going to get a lot worse. And when I see an organization like the Heartland Institute actively taking actions that I think could hamper our capability to fight against global warming, it makes me very angry.

Now, I understand that global warming is a pretty complicated issue. It’s hard to wrap your head around global warming. Especially since there’s no smoking gun.

You can look at New Orleans after Katrina and say “My God! We’ve got to do something! People are going to die if we don’t help them!”

But right now, all we have is a couple of Pacific Islands that have disappeared. And a couple thousand natives have been displaced.

There’s no smoking gun right now.

It’s also clear to me that global warming is not going to go away. There’s no magic solution to it. And any solution we do have is going to come smack-dab from that tumultuous area where science intersects with politics.

So what I’d like to do tonight, I’d like to talk to you about global warming, and politics, and science, and apple trees, and maybe even the Titanic. And I’m going to try to do all this in something less than 30 minutes or so.

Politics

First, there’s one story that, to me, captures the essence of politics. Ronald Reagan, when he was a governor of California, took a stance on an issue. It doesn’t really matter what the issue was anymore, but he was so confident in his stance that he announced to his opponents and to his constituents that “My feet are set in concrete on this issue. I will not change my mind.”

As you might expect, a political battle ensued, and over the next couple of months … he lost.

He ended up in a situation where he needed to reverse the stance he’d taken. But that would have meant ceding victory to his opponents. He didn’t really want to do that.

So he held a press conference. In the early stages of a press conference, there’s always a little bit of fiddling with the equipment. And so he’s fiddling with the microphone, and this crackling sound goes out over the sound system. And people are looking at him … he’s the governor of California … they’re looking at him like: “My God! Is he deranged? What is he doing?”

And he stands there confidently, and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the sound you just heard was concrete cracking around my feet. I have decided to reverse my opinion on this issue.”

That was all the media talked about for the next two weeks. His opponents, they weren’t even given an interview. Simply by virtue of showmanship, he may have lost that battle but he won the war against his opponents.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian or anything else, that story to me is the essence of politics.

Politics is about showmanship, spin control, the perception of the truth (not necessarily the actual truth).

Science

Now, over here, we have science. In science, I’m not saying that the scientific field doesn’t have its politics, and there’s certainly feuding professors and things like that. But at the end of the day, science is about finding the truth.

And no matter what kind of noise comes from the scientific community, at some point … the truth will come out.

If there’s one thing, for me, that represents the essence of science, I’d like you to consider the lowly apple tree.

I’d like you to imagine for a minute that there’s an apple tree right here. Nice green leaves. Luscious red apples. After a moment, one of those apples falls to the ground.

Now, we all know that apples fall down out of trees. Our ancestors knew that. The Roman Empire knew that apples fell out of trees. Our caveman ancestors knew that apples fall down out of trees.

But it wasn’t until 1687, when a guy named Isaac Newton came along, with his Theory of Gravity and his Three Laws of Motion, that anybody could explain why apples fell down out of trees.

And then about 250 years later, a guy named Einstein comes along and says, “Well, you’re right for most situations, but for those situations that your theory can’t explain, I have my Theory of Relativity that explains those edge cases.”

So it took more than 250 years for the scientific community to really come to grips with why an apple falls out of a tree.

But the fact that an apple falls down … that’s a fact. Theories are explanations of why something happens. But the apple falling down, that is a fact.

Global Warming

Let’s consider global warming for a moment. Global warming is much like an apple falling out of a tree.

In the twentieth century, the sea level rose 20 inches. That can be measured. That’s a fact.

At the end of the twentieth century, the rate at which the sea level rose began to increase. That is measurable. That is a fact.

You can go to Antarctica, and you can measure how fast the ice is melting. It’s melting faster and faster. You can measure that. Those are facts.

Global warming is not a theory. Global warming is a set of facts all pointing in the same direction.

Now, I guarantee you, just like apples falling out of trees, gravity and Special Relativity — scientists are going to be working out the whys of everything having to do with global warming for the next 500 years. Because global warming, you know — your global climate, is a lot more complicated than an apple falling out of a tree.

What’s It Mean For Us?

So, global warming is a fact. What does global warming mean for us?

Right now, it doesn’t mean that much. Sea level has risen about 20 inches. As I said, there’s a few Pacific islands that have been displaced. But scientists are predicting — and this is a moderately conservative estimate — but by 2050 the sea level’s going to rise by another 3 feet. By 2100, it’s going to rise by another 3 to 5 feet beyond that.

And you start considering the impact of that kind of sea level rise on our coastal areas and our resort areas. I mean, let’s not even talk about New Orleans, and Venice, the Netherlands, and Bangkok, which are either already under sea level or very close to it.

A lot of coastal areas are going to be affected. Those coastal areas are very heavily populated, so over the next 80 years or so, you’re going to see about a billion and a half people on the move, being displaced because of global warming.

And I’m only talking about the water effects right now. New Orleans is certainly going to have problems. New York is coastal – it’s actually going to have problems in another 80 years in the way that New Orleans does, with storms and storm surges. You can get storm effects going much further inland. You can get effects like the salinzation of formerly freshwater water supplies because salt water extends further into the mainland whenever a storm occurs.

And that’s just the water. We haven’t really talked about the environmental impacts.

Consider, for example, a coral reef. A coral reef is composed of numerous plants – small plants that represent the foundation of an entire ecosystem. There are animals that eat those plants. There are fish that eat those animals. And we eat some of those top-level fish and shellfish. Coral reefs require sunlight, and are adversely impacted by rising sea levels. So, with global warming, we can have die-backs in all kinds of species.

Also, with rising global temperatures, we can have things like the desertification of central areas of continents, which could impact the United States. So, if you thought the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, which happened because of a multi-year drought — if you thought that was bad, consider what could happen with increased global temperatures.

So, from my perspective, when it comes to global warming, we’re almost like passengers on the Titanic. The ship has already hit the iceberg. We’re not seeing much in the way of effects yet. The ship is maybe tilting a little bit. But like the Titanic, if we don’t prepare for what’s coming, it’s going to get really ugly really fast. And preparation is going to be key.

Conclusion

And that brings me back to the Heartland Institute because I was very angry at them for hampering our efforts to educate children in what global warming is going to really mean for us. And by doing that, from my perspective, they are compromising, or potentially compromising, our capacity to respond to global warming in the future.

Because I believe, just as the so-called Greatest Generation was defined by World War II, I believe that the next 10 generations or so are going to be defined by how they deal with this global warming crisis.

So the first thing I want you to remember with global warming … the first step in anything like this … is to recognize that global warming is a real problem.

Right now, China and the United States are the top contributors of the green house gases that are generally considered to be instrumental in causing global warming. And in America, only 19% of people even perceive global warming as a problem. That means that to 81% of Americans, it’s just background noise.

So going forward, global warming … it’s a serious issue. It shouldn’t be background noise.

Posted in Science, Toastmasters | Tagged | 7 Comments

A Little Inspiration: Belt Structure

It’s common-place for SF writers to write about the asteroid belt in a sort of diffuse manner, without any real details that would help fix the features of the belt in your mind. There is a “structure” to the belt, as can be seen in the illustration below:

The Asteroid Belt

The numeric part of each asteroid’s name indicates the order in which the asteroid was discovered. In general, of course, the largest ones were discovered first. So, naturally, Ceres was the first discovered, then Pallas, Juno and Vesta, etc. Each of these, as well as many others, could be basis for a belt-based nation-state, or mini-nation.

As you can see, the belt extends from Mars out towards Jupiter. Some asteroids orbit nearer the inner edge, some in the middle (like Ceres), and some further towards the outer edge. There’s also an anomaly in the structure of the belt, the so-called Kirkwood Gap, in which far fewer asteroids are found.

All of these asteroids, of course, are orbiting the Sun at different speeds, and may thus be closer or more distant from each other based on where they are in their respective orbits.

Armed with these details, writers should be able to concoct more convincing stories set in the belt than many of the ones I’ve read in the past. Sometimes a little research goes a long way.

Posted in A Little Inspiration, Science, Science Fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lagrange Points Simplified

They’re always talking about Lagrange points in SF stories. What the heck is a Lagrange point? And why would you want one? Well, we’ll let Wikipedia provide the full explanation if you’re that curious. For the rest of us, let’s review the graphic below:

LaGrange Points, in a diagram featuring Jupiter

Lagrange points are named after the Italian-French mathematician, Joseph Louis Lagrange, who in 1772 set out to discover an easy way to calculate the gravitational interactions between an arbitrary number of bodies in a system. In point of fact, the L1, L2 and L3 points were discovered a few years earlier by Leonhard Euler. However, Lagrange discovered the L4 and L5 points, which, quite frankly, are considerably more useful than the other points.

In the graphic, Jupiter rotates around the Sun. The Lagrange points represent locations where an object of negligible mass (by comparison with Jupiter or the Sun), can occupy a stable position orbiting in conjunction with the two larger masses. Basically, if you put something smack-dab on a Lagrange point, it will stay there.

Now, the L1, L2 and L3 points are considered unstable. An object that ventures away from one of those points will gradually experience additional forces to pull it away. Venture too far away from L1, and you’ll be drawn to either Jupiter or the Sun, depending on which direction you moved.

By comparison, L4 and L5 are stable. An object at those points tends to remain at those points, which makes those locations ideal for space stations or observatories. Even better, in a rotating system, the L4 and L5 points actually take on a more expansive, kidney-shaped geometry, so they can “hold more stuff” than the other Lagrange points.

A good analogy is to think of the L1, L2 and L3 points as cones with a ball balanced on top. Any movement, and the ball falls off the cone. By contrast, the L4 and L5 points are like bowls, with a ball at the bottom of the bowl. Perturb the ball and it may rotate around the center of the bowl, but it will eventually be drawn back to the bottom.

Because L4 and L5 are stable orbital positions, Jupiter has collected numerous asteroids at the L4 and L5 points in its orbit. Asteroids at the L4 position, which leads Jupiter in its orbit, are known as the Greeks. Asteroids at the L5 position, trailing Jupiter in its orbit, are known as the Trojans. Their names are based on The Iliad, which also features the story of Troy. Both places would be ideal locations for a nation or mini-nation, or at least a center for industrial production.

Posted in Science, Science Fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Elevator Up, Please!

Space travel is dangerous and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Find out about an alternative way to reach orbit that is rapidly becoming feasible and may eventually change how we view our world.

 

Besides being a fun topic, this presentation accompanied an 8-minute talk that I did for the Ashburn Toastmasters. Most of my audience had never heard of a space elevator before, so I was able to show them something they’d never seen before. This talk also served as Project #8: Visual Aids in the Competent Communicator manual, which is all about giving a speech accompanied by visual aids — a PowerPoint presentation in this case.

Posted in Science, Toastmasters | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Little Inspiration: Icarus Flyby

This is another of those great pictures I found on the web and saved because I thought it was really cool, but I forgot to record where I originally found it. Accordingly, it took some research to track down where it came from.

Icarus Flyby

The picture was created by Adrian Mann for a Discovery magazine article on Project Icarus, a five-year-study on the topic of launching an unmanned spacecraft to an interstellar destination. I just like the picture for the way it fires your imagination when you view it. Way to go, Adrian!

Posted in A Little Inspiration, Science, Science Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment