Writers and Scientists, Saving the Future

By Carl Slaughter: Scientists and science fiction writers speak out on Trump, science, climate change, and environmental responsibility.

Getting warmer. Sci-fi writers sound off about climate change — “We Asked Sci-Fi Writers About The Future Of Climate Change”.

Jeff VanderMeer, Lidia Yuknavitch and others discuss solutions to the urgent problem.

Voting with their feet. Will they or won’t they? “Update: Some 100 groups have now endorsed the March for Science”.

The March for Science, set for 22 April, is creating a buzz in the scientific community. The march arose as a grassroots reaction to concerns about the conduct of science under President Donald Trump. And it has spurred debate over whether it will help boost public support for research, or make scientists look like another special interest group, adding to political polarization.

Leaders of many scientific societies have been mulling whether to formally endorse or take a role in the event, which will include marches in Washington, D.C. and some 400 other locations.

Pinning it down. Some will be wearing a special decoration: “These pins defend scientists and science in the Trump era”.

The couple behind the pins that said “I love you” in American Sign Language, made for the Women’s March in January, are back with a new pin raising money for science and research.

Ahead of the “March for Science” on April 22 in Washington, D.C. and all over the world, Kate Lind and Nate Stevens of Pincause designed a new pin with illustrator Penelope Dullaghan. This one says “Science not silence,” with a rocket ship launching into space.

“This is a critical time for not just the science community, but for humanity and our planet. Staying silent is no longer an option,” Lind said in an email.

What’s at risk. What science will be sliced from the budget? “Trump wants to cut billions from the NIH. This is what we’ll miss out on if he does”.

The Trump administration wants to cut billions of dollars from funding biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health. It’s unclear if it will be able to, considering how funding for cancer, diabetes, and other disease research tends to have bipartisan consensus, and many prominent Republicans in Congress are opposing the cuts.

The White House has suggested the size of the agency’s budget — roughly $32 billion in 2016 — is the problem. “Only in Washington do you literally judge the success of something by how much money you throw at the problem, not actually whether it’s solving the problem or coming up with anything,” Sean Spicer, President Trump’s press secretary, said in March, defending the proposed cuts of $6 billion to the 2018 budget. (There’s also talk of slashing $1.2 billion from NIH research grants this year.)

Bu we can judge the success of the NIH by measures other than the amount of money being spent at it. Because for decades scientists have been studying a version of this question: “What does public spending on biomedical research actually buy us?”

A lot, it turns out. So let’s run through some of the evidence…

Astronomy Update

By Carl Slaughter: A roundup of astronomy news.

Dry country. Water on Mars  — gone, baby, gone.

“We’ve determined that most of the gas ever present in the Mars atmosphere has been lost to space,” Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator of the MAVEN mission, explains. That lost gas — somewhere in the neighborhood of 65% — greatly depleted the planet’s atmosphere, causing oceans, lakes, and rivers to dry up as the vital elements were swept away into space by intense radiation and solar wind.

The count. Nine planets, 100 planets.  Why stop there  Redefine a sun, redefine a moon, redefine an asteroid.  Go all the way and redefine life.

Most of us grew up learning that there are nine planets in our solar system. Back in 2006 that all changed, when Pluto was demoted from being labeled a proper planet to its new classification as a dwarf planet, leaving just eight true planets in our celestial neighborhood. Now, a group of scientists says Pluto should definitely be added back to the planet list — oh, and that there are over 100 other objects in our solar system that should also be called planets.

Right stuff. A super-earthlike planet.

Do you like Earth? Yeah, it’s pretty neat, huh? Well despite living on a planet as awesome as our own, astronomers are super eager to find more Earths, just for fun. A planet called Gliese 1132 B (GJ 1132b if you feel like making it slightly shorter) is one such planet. It’s called a “Super Earth” because it’s larger than our own planet, but is thought to be made of similar stuff, and researchers just discovered something extremely awesome that makes GJ 1132b the most Earth-like exoplanet humans have ever found: it has an atmosphere.

The new Number 9. Planet 9 – convincing evidence.

Using data from the SkyMapper telescope at the Australian National University, nearly 21,000 citizen volunteers browsed an astounding 100,000 images of the region of the solar system where the mythical Planet Nine is thought to exist. The group labeled over five million objects, and rapidly completed the classifications in just a few days, instead of the years upon years that it would have taken a single astronomer to perform the same task.

Disturbance in the force 11,000 neighboring galaxies fizzle out.

When we think about the survival of the human race we often focus on making sure our planet stays alive and habitable, but out there in the depths of space there are entire galaxies being killed off in a manner that is utterly perplexing scientists. A new paper (PDF) from researchers working at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research addresses the odd and extremely troubling trend and attempts to propose an answer for what exactly is leading literally thousands of galaxies to die premature deaths.

There goes the neighborhood. The Borg, solar flares, crashing meteors, now a traveling black hole.  The universe just isn’t safe any more.

Supermassive black holes are one of the scariest, most destructive and utterly intimidating forces in the universe, but the good news is that they usually don’t do a whole lot of moving around. They often reside at the center of large galaxies, like our own Milky Way, with a gravitational pull keeps us all swirling around it. So what could be more frightening than a stationary black hole? How about one that is flying through space like a colossal vacuum, sucking up whatever it happens upon? Astronomers think they’ve spotted one doing exactly that.

Say cheese. First picture of a black hole.

The closest astronomers have come to directly “seeing” a black hole happened last year, when the LIGO observatory detected the spacetime-warping gravitational waves radiating from a pair of black holes that collided some 1.3 billion years ago.

That’s cool. But for astronomers, it’s not enough. What’s eluded them is a view of the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole from which, when crossed, there is no return. After the event horizon, gravity is so intense that not even light can escape.

We’ve never seen a direct image of a black hole. But if an audacious experiment called the Event Horizon Telescope is successful, we’ll see one for the first time.

More on black holes. “Massive explosion from unknown source billions of light years away baffles astronomers”

At 10:49pm Western Australian time on February 2 this year, cosmic gamma rays hit the Nasa satellite, Swift, orbiting the Earth. Within seconds of the detection, an alert was automatically sent to the University of WA’s Zadko Telescope. It swung into robotic action, taking images of the sky location in the constellation Ophiuchus.

Up Above the World So High

By Carl Slaughter: Hover technology is making news.

They’re here. Video proof — hoverbikes are now real.

Okay, so maybe the 21st century under-delivered on the whole flying car thing, but it appears we’re a lot closer to another form of personal flight than you probably thought. It seems the hoverbike, a tried and true addition to any futuristic science fiction arsenal, is already a reality. Hoversurf just released a trailer for its first fully manned hoverbike, built on a heavy duty drone platform called the Scorpion 3, and it’s just as cool as it sounds.


Don’t be dubious about Dubai. Hovercraft available possibly as early as this summer.

Science fiction from the 1940s and 50s might have predicted we’d all have our very own personal flying cars by now, but back here in reality things are a bit different. Still, with Airbus, Uber, and others expressing some serious interest in creating personal sky vehicles for the world to use, it’s clear that the flying car promise wasn’t a total farce. In fact, Dubai might actually make autonomous flying vehicles a common sight as soon as this summer, and the city’s transportation authority just revealed that it’s been testing a self-driving, single passenger quadcopter from Chinese company EHang.

Hovercraft evolution. Hovercrafts, hoverbikes, now a now a hoverboat.  Holy envy, Batman.  Judging from the video, the hydrofoil technology seems to have eliminated the bumping associated with boating.  OK, now one of you science geeks explain to me what hydrofoil is.

Can we just take a moment to marvel at human ingenuity? It’s brought us the toaster, the smartphone, and now it’s given birth to this ridiculous electric boat car that has no business even existing, but it does anyway. It’s called the Quadrofoil Q2S Electric Limited Edition, and everyone on the planet should own one. I mean, just look at this ridiculous thing…

To The Stars

By Carl Slaughter: A roundup of space exploration news.

Luna, ho! China accelerates its Moon program.

The Chinese government just announced that it’s planning on speeding up its roadmap for space exploration, with planned trips to the Moon in 2017 and 2018, and even a Mars probe mission by 2020. China’s Chang’e 5 mission is scheduled for 2017, and will attempt to land a high tech probe on the Moon where it will observe, dig, and collect samples before returning to Earth.

The big sleep. Space hibernation research receives $500,000 NASA grant.  (Surely there’s a couple of zeroes missing from that grant figure.)

Spaceworks Enterprises is currently using a grant from NASA in the amount of $500,000 to develop systems that could keep a human alive in “low metabolic stasis” for long space trips, such as those to Mars. Spaceworks CEO John Bradford told reporters at a recent panel that “it’s medically possible” to create a system like the one from the film [Passengers], though the first steps will be smaller than the decades-long hibernation Pratt and Lawrence endure.

Not waiting. Lockheed Martin projects Mars base by 2028.

Speaking at a meeting of the National Space Club at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Lockheed Martin’s Tony Antonelli explained that a trip to Mars isn’t just theoretical, but would utilize technologies that either currently exist or are actively being perfected. “We’re not waiting for the future and some kind of magic,” Antonelli explained.

Stepping stone. Boeing’s Deep Space Gateway.

Boeing is helping develop the Space Launch System, NASA’s next endeavor to get humans into space with the goal of returning to the moon and eventually Mars.

While it won’t be until late 2018 before the SLS Exploration Mission-1 takes flight, down the line Boeing would use SLS launches to get a habitat Boeing is calling the Deep Space Gateway near the moon. This habitat would be powered by a solar propulsion system and Boeing says it could be used for both government and commercial deep-space partnerships including missions to the moon.

Map of the future. Integrated Space Plan update.

As a spokesperson for Integrated Space Analytics noted, the Integrated Space Plan (ISP) will offer a detailed, 100-year forecast of the future in space. An ISP was first developed in the 1980s, giving people a good idea of how major space infrastructure elements fit together. In 2014, the team from Integrated Space Analytics updated the ISP, and brought it to the internet for the first time.

Follow the money. Goldman Sachs Tells Investors: Space economy will become a multi-trillion dollar industry within the next two decades.

“Since 2000, more than $13 billion has been poured into space-related start-ups and established companies.”

“Space mining could be more realistic than perceived … a single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum.”

Freebies. Download NASA software free.

Of course, most of the available downloads are related to topics that are perhaps of no real use for you (unless you’re launching satellites from your rooftops), like rocket science and propulsion, but there’s health monitoring, environmental science software, and data processing tools.

With 15 different categories, ranging from Design and Integration to Climate Simulators, there’s plenty of browsing material for you to check out at your leisure, but NASA kindly compiled a Top 20 most requested software titles for you to start your software download journey.

Sky scheduler. Monitor Space.com’s Space calendar.

LAST UPDATED April 7: These dates are subject to change, and will be updated throughout the year as firmer dates arise. Please DO NOT schedule travel based on a date you see here. Launch dates collected from NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, Spaceflight Now and others. Please send any corrections, updates or suggested calendar additions to hweitering@space.com.

NASA budget. Is this another case of fake news or does Trump actually support space exploration?

“I’m delighted to sign this bill,” Trump said. “It’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed, reaffirming our national commitment to the core mission of NASA, human space exploration, space science and technology.”

“With this legislation, we support NASA’s scientists, engineers and astronauts and their pursuit of discovery,” he continued, adding that the new legislation would support jobs. “This bill will make sure that NASA’s most important and effective programs are sustained.”

Links To The Lab

By Carl Slaughter: A roundup of science news.

DARPA:  Truly mad scientists funded by truly mad bureaucrats.  All in the name of, you guessed it, national security. Newsweek profiles The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World, by Sharon Weinberger (Knopf, 496 pages) — “New History of DARPA Reveals Wacky, Terrifying Schemes”.

Quasistatic Cavity Resonance.  That’s a mouthful.  It just means recharging your gadgets wirelessly.

“Wirelessly charging a cell phone or laptop in a cubicle would be awesome, but what about a garage that juices up your electric car without a plug, or a gym locker that keeps your wireless headphones topped off for your next workout? The possibilities are pretty much endless.”

Body Heat. Remember Laurence Fishburne explaining to Keanu Reeves that the human body is a potential battery?  It’s not science fiction any more.  Meet the body heat-powered smart watch.

“If there’s one thing that’s keeping the smartwatch movement from gaining mass market traction, it’s the fact that they need to be charged more often than almost any other device.”

Pie in the sky. First successful drone pizza delivery.  If you live in an apartment building, don’t start cheering yet.  Domino’s chose New Zealand over Australia because drone delivery is banned in Australia.  Either the Kiwis like pizza and the Aussies don’t or the Kiwis like drones and the Aussies don’t.

After testing drone delivery systems for some time, Domino’s finally rolled out its aerial pizza delivery service for the first time, successfully sending pizzas to residents of Whangaparaoa, New Zealand.

As Quartz reports, the small rollout, which includes just one Domino’s location and a drone delivery radius of about a mile, is still a big milestone for unmanned delivery services. Domino’s plans to expand the delivery radius to just over 6 miles in the near future, along with additional drone fleets at other restaurant locations.


Laser on steroids. Laser on steroids. Won’t fit in your holster.  Price the size of some country’s GDP.

Gone in 10 seconds. “Your television show, Jim, is no longer science fiction.” “Self-destructing phones are finally a reality”

Say cheese. Big Brother is scanning.

Filmmakers have long used focus groups and test audiences to determine how to best tweak their vision for maximum crowd appeal. It makes good business sense, and can increase the likelihood that you enjoy a film in the long run. Now, the science of getting moviegoers out of their homes and into theaters just got kicked into overdrive thanks to a new study that shows how neuroscience and brain scanning can actually forecast whether a movie will be a hit or a bust.

Robot language. “Elon Musk’s lab forced bots to create their own language”.

Have you ever experienced the dread of overhearing two people, speaking a language you don’t understand, begin laughing wildly? You just have to wonder what it is they’re talking about, and if it’s a joke at your expense. Heck, maybe you even check your teeth to make sure you aren’t walking around with half of your lunchtime ham sandwich stuck to your gums. Now, thanks to Elon Musk’s OpenAI lab, we’re one step closer to experiencing the exact same thing, only with software bots doing the talking.

Cyborgs at work. Employees getting implanted with microchips.

Bees do it. Don’t give up on saving the bees, but in a worst case scenario, pollinator drones to the rescue.  And like a lot of other inventions, they resulted accidentally.

Juno Arrives at Jupiter on the Fourth of July

The mission’s five-year transit to Jupiter resonates with the opening of classic Star Trek, and timing the arrival of NASA’s Juno spacecraft for the Fourth of July is a Roddenberry touch. (Think “Omega Glory.”)

And in sci-fi movie style, NASA dramatizes the hazards of operating so close to Jupiter in this mission trailer:

On July 4, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will plunge into uncharted territory, entering orbit around the gas giant and passing closer than any spacecraft before. Juno will see Jupiter for what it really is, but first it must pass the trial of orbit insertion.


Ironically, given the July 4th theme, if the probe doesn’t survive nobody on Earth will see those fireworks.

You’ll have the option of viewing live coverage of the orbital insertion tonight.

Monday, July 4 — Orbit Insertion Day

9 a.m. PDT (Noon EDT) — Pre-orbit insertion briefing at JPL

7:30 p.m. PDT (10:30 p.m. EDT) — Orbit insertion and NASA TV commentary begin

10 p.m. PDT (1 a.m. EDT on July 5) — Post-orbit insertion briefing at JPL

To watch all of these events online, visit:

Live coverage on orbit insertion day also will be available online via Facebook Live at:

To hold you til then, here’s a video of today’s press briefing.

On July 4, just hours before NASA’s Juno spacecraft was scheduled to arrive at the planet Jupiter, NASA held a press briefing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to provide a status update on the mission. Once in Jupiter’s orbit, the spacecraft will circle the Jovian world 37 times during 20 months, skimming to within 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) above the cloud tops. This is the first time a spacecraft will orbit the poles of Jupiter, providing new answers to ongoing mysteries about the planet’s core, composition and magnetic fields.


Once, When We All Were Scientists

By James H. Burns: There was a time, when we all were scientists…

Or many of us wanted to be!

There were certain hallmarks of growing up somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s, if you had an interest in science…

First off, were those amazing How and Why Books of Wonder. The artwork in many of which is still superb, and whose texts, in certain editions, remain first class introductions to their subjects!

The most unusual element to these volumes may have been what in New York, anyway, seemed to be their excellent distribution in pet shops!  In both local pet stores of my youth (one of which occasionally had a tiger on display!), were spinner racks filled with the books.il_570xN_656847232_ej5t

The Science Service Science Program books were another talisman of the times…

The Science Program 5-1/2 by 8-1/4 inch volumes, were offered as  a monthly subscription  from Nelson Doubleday Inc. Each sixty-four page “digest” was in two-colors, but their special feature was a centerfold of beautiful full color photo stamps, which the reader could then attach in the appropriate “boxes” throughout the book.

Album slipcases which could hold a number of the volumes were also included with the subscription membership.

(Doubleday also used this overall format for other series, including the National Audobon Society Nature Program and the American Geographical Society Around the World Program.)Science-Program-Advertisement-1960 COMP

z0205goz0rk9jnDifferent Introductory membership kits throughout the 1960s, could include a poster, as well as the Mercury model seen here.  By my era, in the early 1970s, the model offered was a lovely rendition of the lunar module on the moon, with Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin upon the surface.Science-Program_Membership-Card-Back

“The Science Service,” itself remains an active organization as the publishers of Science News magazine.

With a name-change to the Society For Science and the Public in 2008,the group also publishes Science News For Students online (as well as The Science News website), and is one of the sponsors of the Intel Science and Engineering Fairs and Talent Searches, and other events.

Its contributions to the children of another time were also significant, on many fronts.

The Science Service was launched in 1921 by newspaper publisher Edward W. Scripps and California zoologist William Emerson Ritter, under the name the American Society for the Dissemination of Science, as a news service to make the latest scientific information available to the public. One year later, they started distributing their own periodical, Science Newsletter to “satisfy curiosity from educators, and the general public.”

One of the group’s greatest boons to youthful encouragement was their series of small science kits, Things of Science. Each month, a new small blue box (or sometimes a manila envelope) would be sent out, containing several “samples;” or the parts to make a basic but effective apparatus (some times out of cardboard cutouts!)  or other material, along with a miniature pamphlet with experiments.

(Kits through the years included “Aerodynamics,” “Liquid Crystals,” “Pendulum,”‘ “Buoyancy,” “Hydroponics,” “Optical Illusions,” “Seeds….”)

Things of Science was evidently the invention of Watson Davis, who was director of the Science Service from 1928 until 1967. It developed when the Service would send out samples to accompany articles. Things of Science officially commenced in 1940, and it was soon realized that its main audience was schools and science clubs, and other youngsters!

(One early mailing contained dinosaur bones, pounded into slivers, so that every member could have his own prehistoric specimen!)

Things of Science was sold to another company in 1981, who kept the club going for another nine years.  Historian George B. Moody says that at some point, the Science Service reacquired the rights to the series….

There were other instruments of wonder in many like-minded American homes. I can’t remember a time when my Dad didn’t have a “Star-Finder” in one of his bookshelves.

And the Edmund Scientific catalog was filled with a cavalcade of delights.

Intriguingly, I don’t remember my family ever actually ordering anything from the catalog, but it was the possibilities that were always so enticing. (I must admit, I still would like six-foot weather balloon, although I’m not quite exactly sure why…)576d12a9f2e4e21d485e474299c2ee78

And then, there was the Gilbert Chemistry Set….  An astonishing amalgam of chemicals and equipment, and experiments neatly printed out on index cards. I set up my “laboratory” on an old desk in the basement.

What, exactly, was I hoping to discover, as a ten-year old?

But I can still remember the sense of trust implicit when my father said I could use the bunsen burner on my own. And the thrill when my folks picked me up my first Erlenmeyer flask.

Earlier, there had been the fun of working with the microscope my Dad passed on down to me. And there were always a couple of telescopes somewhere nearby. But for some skygazing, it was my father’s World War II binoculars, brought home from Europe in 1945, that seemed to be the most stable.

Somewhere around my house were copies of Popular Science, Mechanix Illustrated…  Set apart, in a special place, were the Life magazine issues from 1955 debuting “The Epic of Man” series (with extraordinary depictions of primitive humanity), and the still remarkable Complete Book of Outer Space, from 1954.

Surely, there were signposts of your own scientific life as a girl or boy.

But all these ruminations lead me to one more pioneer of our nascent knowledge, someone who helped educate the young in years and temperament for over a couple of generations, through some of the most crucial periods of our history.

It also brings us to the aforementioned mystery that you just might be able to help solve…

When I was a little boy in the 1960s, there was a column in the newspapers, “Uncle Ray’s Corner.” (I suspect that the feature was in The New York Post, back when that was actually considered New York’s liberal newspaper.)

I can remember being disconcerted when Uncle Ray’s column was suddenly gone from the daily, just a while after I had discovered it. Like other kids, I had clipped and saved some of the installments, in a notebook which was now destined to have too many empty pages.

I remember “Uncle Ray’s Corner” as being a science column, an early stop for those enchanted by the era’s sense of exploration. But apparently, the articles were across a wide range of subjects, anything that might interest a school-age child.

My parents actually said they remembered “Uncle Ray,” from their own younger days, but I didn’t see how that was quite possible…

Until the dawn of the internet.

When I finally got actively online, later than many, in 1999. I’d occasionally look for information about Uncle Ray, but with little luck. Whatever kindness and good fellowship of awareness had been in his columns, had made an impression that lasted decades.

Suddenly, years later, I was able to begin finding listings for some of his old books.

Uncle Ray was Ramon Peyton Coffman. Beginning in the 1930s (if not earlier), he wrote such volumes for “young people” as The Child’s Story of the Human Race, Uncle Ray’s Story of the Stone Age People, Famous Kings and Queens, and New World Settlement.  (There was even a Big Little Book edition, Uncle Ray’s Story of the United States.)

Commencing in the late 1940s, Coffman was also responsible for Uncle Ray’s Magazine, subtitled “Adventures in Fascinating Facts.” It seems to have been devoted to any of the myriad of historical, scientific and current world events that might interest kids.

A few years ago, an obituary tribute to Coffman popped up from the Madison Wisconsin Central High School Records.

The obit says that Coffman was born circa 1896, in Indianapolis, and grew up in Madison.  He attended Yale and Columbia Universities, as well as the New York College for Social Research, and earned a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1927.  Coffman lived in Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin from 1935 until 1949, and then resided in several states, “often returning to Madison.”0_0_4858_6927

uncle ray clipping“Uncle Ray’s Column” was launched around 1925, “to teach children about science.” Appearing in many newspapers in the United States “and several foreign countries.” It ran, it seems, through 1970.

Coffman passed in June, 1989 in Palo Alto, California, survived by four children, Gratton, Peyton, Roger and Kathleen Davis.

Why all this curiosity from me about Coffman?  His column was from a time when more of our society celebrated the simple pleasure of knowing about things. It’s extraordinary to think that Coffman’s career as a popular educator spanned the time before jets, and the splitting of the atom, and, of course, the space age; from before the Depression, to the heart of the tumult and joy of the 1960s…

The internet must be a godsend for scientifically inclined children, but the beauty of a column like Ray Coffman’s was that it was there for anybody in the newspaper, from a precocious tot to a like-minded adult.

Surely, those who helped set so many of our paths of exploration should be remembered!

It strikes me as sad that someone like “Uncle Ray” has so little trace on the web. I’m hoping that some here can help expand our familiarity with this gentleman of elucidation.

I also have a somewhat selfish wish.

In the late 1960s, I sent in a request to the column: just for the asking, a reader could receive a special certificate proclaiming that you belonged to Uncle Ray’s club (or legion of fellow junior wonderers!).

I had that yellowish heavy-stock proclamation, attached to my science scrapbook from the 1960s, until less than two years ago, when due to an awful calamity, almost all my collection was destroyed.

I’ve found no sign of the Uncle Ray “diploma” anywhere on the net and would love to see it again.

(I had planned on scanning it, along with many other irreplaceable mementos from the era, and later, other histories.)

In fact, all the books and items seen here were once part of that assemblage.

But all these totems of the future, very happily, belong to all of us.

They are always nice to revisit, and remember such gifts of inspiration, and strive to create such passages for all our tomorrows.

Freeman Dyson Coming To Clarke Center

Dyson at Clarke Center poster

The Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination will host an Evening with Freeman Dyson on Wednesday, March 2 at 6:30 pm.

Freeman Dyson has been a household name in Los Angeles sf fandom since he provided the inspiration for Larry Niven’s Ringworld, but that represents only a narrow slice of his life’s work. Dyson, born in England in 1923, began his career as a mathematician before turning to physics in the 1940s. His papers on the foundations of quantum electrodynamics have had a lasting influence on many branches of modern physics. He went on to work in condensed-matter physics, statistical mechanics, nuclear engineering, climate studies, astrophysics and biology. He even received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (2000).

The event takes place at Qualcomm Institute/Atkinson Hall on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla, CA. The event is free, but registration on Eventbrite is required.

Stalking Chernobyl

The exploded Chernobyl Reactor today.

The exploded Chernobyl Reactor today.

By Hampus Eckerman: There is a connection between Sweden and Chernobyl. Sweden was the first country where the fallout from Chernobyl was detected and it was from there the first news of the accident spread around the globe. This even before Pravda wrote about the accident. The Chief of IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, was at that time a Swede — Hans Blix — and he was the first westerner to inspect the consequences of the disaster. The east coast of Sweden was one of the places outside of Ukraine that suffered the most fallout and there are areas where radiation is still much higher than normal. Around 1000 cases of cancer in Sweden are directly linked to the Chernobyl disaster. After the accident, Swedes opened up their homes on the west coast to let Ukrainian children come and visit during summer to build up their strength. I was only 16 years old at the time of the accident. I remember the newspapers questioning if it would be safe to eat elk meat (the local version of MAD Magazine jokingly talked about BecquerElks), but that is about it. Stockholm, where I live, is not one of the areas that was affected and I think I never understood the seriousness of the issue. For me, visiting Chernobyl had more to do with my interest in weird travel locations.

Headline: Reactor breakdown in Soviet. Subheader: Nuclear clouds over the whole north.

Headline: Reactor breakdown in Soviet.
Subheader: Nuclear clouds over the whole north.

Before leaving for Chernobyl, I dug up my old copy of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. For those of you that haven’t read it, the narrative of the book concern a visit from aliens to earth which causes a huge area to become affected. Strange lifeforms start to move around, the laws of nature seem to change and there are strange artifacts left that both governments and independents want to claim. The UN cordons off the area, saying that all items should be given to a specially created institute, but scavengers still sneak into the area to steal artifacts and sell to the highest bidders. These scavengers are called Stalkers.

There is no immediate connection between the book and Chernobyl other than a huge restricted zone that ordinary citizens can’t visit and where the earth itself has become poisonous. But in 1987, an Ukrainian game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R, was made based on the Strugatskys’ book and instead of letting aliens be the reason for the zone, they moved the narrative to Chernobyl in an alternative reality were a second explosion in the reactor made a much larger area toxic and caused strange mutations in animals. I only played the game a few times, but the feeling of it stayed with me. So I packed my book, thinking I was cool who remembered this connection.

Little did I know.


My Swedish translation of Roadside Picnic.

Chernobyl is a city around two hours from Kiev. It used to be inhabited by 14,000 citizens before the accident, but they were all evacuated. Now, somewhere between one-third and half of the houses have been made functional again and house around 5,000 workers who are still involved in the aftermath of the accident, nearly 30 years after it took place. It is placed around 15 km away from the nuclear reactor. Closer to the reactor is the ghost town of Pripyat. It used to house 50,000 people, who were all evacuated in around three hours. They only had one hour to gather a few of their belongings and were told that they would be able to return later on. This never happened. Between Pripyat and Chernobyl there are smaller houses that are being reclaimed by nature. Some of them are visible from the road during winter time, but during summer they are completely hidden by trees and leaves.

Radiation is patchy depending on fallout. There are hot spots, sometimes just a few meters wide, were radiation starts to climb and caused our Geiger counters to start screaming. Other places are quite safe. When going on a guided tour, you are strictly forbidden to enter forests or walk outside of the road. Nuclear dust still covers the area. You have to have clothing that covers both arms and legs. You are not allowed to eat or drink outside and before entering the canteen or leaving the zone, you are checked for radiation to see that you are safe. But those are the rules for us mundanes.

These do not apply to the Stalkers.

Old kindergarten near the town of Chernobyl.

Old kindergarten near the town of Chernobyl.

There have always been tours available for scientists and journalists. But for the general public, nothing like that was available until official tours started in 2011. What no one really counted on was the enormous amount of interest the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R would create. Suddenly there were a lot of people who became interested in the area, wanted to visit, but found no legal ways. Thus were the Stalkers created. And there were many kinds of them. Some who only were after the thrills of doing something they weren’t allowed to. Classic youth rebellion. Others started to create their own tours for visitors. Plunderers had existed since the evacuation, and also poachers. As nature has started to reclaim the houses, so has wildlife. Boars, wild horses, dogs, wolves, bears and more. And all of them named from Strugatsky’s book.

In an article from 2015, Slate Magazine tracks down this subculture. Much like in the book, they have to sneak past police patrols and ever-increasing security. They have to navigate in a toxic environment where eating and drinking by itself is poisonous. The effect is not immediate as cancer can take decades to develop, so they often ignore the basic safety precautions, drinking from the rivers and pools. As in the book, they bring home artifacts plundered in the zone which in itself makes the radiation spread. They are shot at, have to avoid dangerous creatures in form of wild life that may have taken shelter in deserted building. They sometimes make up small installations for tourists or put up things they find interesting on walls.

When my guide first started to talk about the Stalkers, I got a weird sense of déjà vu. I was walking around in areas I had seen both in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R game and in other computer games as Call of Duty and Counter Strikes. It is officially forbidden to walk inside buildings, but it is hard to hide during winter time where tracks can be seen in the snow where people have walked. Looking inside a building showed how realistic the Fallout games really are. When windows are broken and the interiors are subjected to winds, cold and snow, walls and floors start to crack. This together with people plundering what others had left behind made me feel like a cross between a Stalker and the lone wanderer of Fallout 4, trying to adjust to a new reality after the catastrophe. For a comparison between the different games covering Chernobyl and reality, see this nice article on Atlas Obscura.

Ferris Wheel displayed in all games based on Chernobyl.

Ferris Wheel displayed in all games based on Chernobyl.

It is also possible to visit a missile base around three hours drive from Kiev. It is a scary place to visit in how it reminds you of Dr. Strangelove. Not only is there a bomb of the same type as the one that is dropped in the movie placed in the courtyard (that tourists straddle for nice touristy photos, preferable with a cowboy hat in one hand). We were also told that the nuclear weapons there, with a power of in total 500 times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was connected to an automatic warning system for automatic deployment of the bomb. The Perimeter system was a system that analyzed data from a difference of factors as radiation, seismic activity and atmospheric pressure. If the system judged that a nuclear strike had occurred in Soviet Union, it would automatically deploy all existing nuclear missiles, bypassing any human decision making. It was in fact the doomsday machine from Dr. Strangelove.

A vile filer and wretched soul, riding the bomb. In the background, an SS-18 missile that was destined for US.

A vile filer and wretched soul, riding the bomb. In the background, an SS-18 missile that was destined for US.

It is one thing to read in articles about nuclear accidents and missiles. It is quite a different thing to see this in reality. To understand the real persons involved. In this I must applaud the museums of both the missile base and the Chernobyl (placed in Kiev). Both of them took care to tell the stories of individuals and how they were affected. The people who suffered radiation sickness, had to leave their homes for ever, died to try to save hundreds of thousands of others or who had to sit in a small tiny room for days upon days, waiting for a signal that might start a nuclear war. It was a humbling experience and, as both my guides said, a scary tale of the folly of humanity.

But it was the stuff of great Science Fiction.

How Star Wars Fueled the Future

Star-Wars-Technology-Hologram-Featured-Image1By Brandon Anthony: Star Wars‘ was revolutionary when it first came out in 1977, and not only from a cinematic perspective. The film was able to foretell — by piecing together a broad pastiche of sci-fi influences- – many of the most impressive technological feats of today. While we all may not carry working light sabers quite yet, we are closer than ever to mastering many of the tools that appear in the original trilogy. From the digital helpers like “Siri” that live in our smartphones to the commercial spaceflights advertised by the likes of Sir Richard Branson, Star Wars is no longer confined to silver screen.

Space Flights for All

For anyone who fancies a quick trip to space, a new era of exploration and tourism may well be at hand. This summer, NASA selected four astronauts to begin working with The Boeing Company and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to further open up low-Earth orbit transportation to the private sector. With the hopes of building a commercial market for space transportation, NASA’s endeavors could one day help everyday people experience a taste of what the characters of Star Wars feel when they rocket the Falcon “.5 past light speed.” A few minor accidents this year have slowed progress somewhat, but as long as there are enough well-to-do tech moguls out there to continue providing capital support the outlook for commercial trips to suborbital space remains optimistic.

Battle Robots

If there’s one thing the military does well, it’s invent scary new ways for us to wreak havoc. Battle robots and droids, for instance, are now being used in real wars, though the robots are still controlled from a distance by a human. Many experts predict, however, that the future of warfare may be fully robotic, and the semi-automatic robots used today for bomb disposal and surveillance will be replaced by “droids” that can do our bidding intuitively. While our robots don’t yet look like the B1 battle droids in Star Wars, we are getting closer to robots that can make decisions independently from people – both a thrilling and terrifying thought. For civilian life back home, some of that same automated technology is being used within self-driving cars and other “intelligent” machinery. The encroachment of all these “self-help” tools may one day render many of our most laborious tasks obsolete.

Holographic Virtual Reality

Though the technology for holographic virtual reality was invented in the early part of the 20th century, George Lucas was ahead of his time in his onscreen depiction of its maturity. The average person saw “real” holograms for the first time in Episode IV, when Luke received Leah’s request for help. Now, with Microsoft’s developers working to develop a new device called the “HoloLens”, we may finally get a chance to experience high-definition holograms in real life. Though holograms in any form are still not in everyday household use, it’s easy to imagine a future where friends can leave each other holographic messages rather than voice mails.

Advanced Lithium Batteries (Power Cells)

Advanced “power cells” are a reality now as well. Though the science behind them is certainly different then the energy cells in the film franchise, the importance of storing energy in a way that is both efficient and compact is increasingly important for our electrical needs today. Now our advanced lithium batteries smaller, lighter, and more powerful than ever before. According to Dominion Ohio, one of the country’s largest energy providers, battery energy storage may soon be utilized for utility-scale energy storage – allowing us to better store power produced from renewables such as solar and wind. In Star Wars, Luke and his uncle Owen are “moisture farmers” in the deserts of Tatooine; going forward in an era of climate change, Earth’s inhabitants would do well to continue to take a leaf from Star Wars approaches to energy and innovation.

Personal Assistants

Apple’s “Siri” and Amazon’s “Alexa” are today’s AI assistants. Much like C-3PO they were designed for human interaction and are meant to respond to their owner’s requests in as natural a way as possible. Though they currently live in our cell phones or data devices, it is not hard to imagine a future where their software is installed into robots. Nor will it be long before they can think and react independently. At that point we may have an entirely different set of concerns to worry about.

With the latest Star Wars still in theaters and continuing to break records left and right, one is left to wonder — how many of the innovations shown in The Force Awakens, will soon be in all of our homes as well? I certainly wouldn’t mind a lightsaber, but the BB-8 has the advantage of also doubling as a cat toy. As they say, the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.