Clarke Okay in Sri Lanka

Arthur C. Clarke resides in Sri Lanka, and many have expressed concern about his safety following the regional disaster. Friends of Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog) are in contact with Clarke and obtained the following statement as well as permission to circulate it to anyone interested. (Los Angeles fan
Bill Warren was the source of this copy.) Clarke writes:

Thank you for your concern about my safety in the wake of Sunday’s devastating tidal wave.

I am enormously relieved that my family and household have escaped the ravages of the sea that suddenly invaded most parts of coastal Sri Lanka, leaving a trail of destruction.

But many others were not so fortunate. For hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans and an unknown number of foreign tourists, the day after Christmas turned out to be a living nightmare reminiscent of The Day After Tomorrow.

Among those affected are my staff based at our diving station in Hikkaduwa and holiday bungalow in Kahawa – both beachfront properties located in areas worst hit. We still don’t know the full extent of damage as both roads and phones have been damaged. Early reports indicate that we have lost most of our diving equipment and boats. Not all our staff members are accounted for – yet.

This is indeed a disaster of unprecedented magnitude for Sri Lanka which lacks the resources and capacity to cope with the aftermath. We are all trying to contribute to the relief efforts. We shall keep you informed as we learn more about what happened.

Curiously enough, in my first book on Sri Lanka, I had written about another tidal wave reaching the Galle harbour (see Chapter 8 in The Reefs of Taprobane, 1957). That happened in August 1883, following the eruption of Krakatoa in roughly the same part of the Indian Ocean.

Arthur Clarke, 27 December 2004

Black Hole Hunter

Gamma ray bursts are the most powerful events in the universe, surpassed only by the energy discharged when Bob Eggleton leaps onstage to accept a Hugo and does That Thing With His Hair. Astronomers theorize collapsing stars produce black holes, sending gamma rays shooting across space. The bursts are short-lived, much like Arnie Katz’ fanzine titles, so it’s not easy for astronomers to react and make observations. Now NASA has sent the fastest-swiveling space science observatory ever built into orbit, launched November 20, to scan for the “birth screams” of black holes.

Black hole” is a phrase coined by American John Wheeler in 1968 to describe an object with a gravitational force so powerful that not even light could escape its pull. (Fans who don’t know the difference between a black hole and a neutron star will see that date and be wondering how Larry Niven won a Hugo for something before scientists gave it a name.)

NASA’s new orbital observatory, named Swift for its speedy pivoting and pointing, finally made it off the pad after weeks of delays caused by hurricanes and a three-day postponement due to rocket trouble.

The concept of something like a black hole dates back to the 18th century, when the English and French rivaled each other for world leadership in science as well as war. Either England’s John Mitchell or France’s Laplace first thought of the notion. Historians know Mitchell used Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity and corpuscular light to calculate that a star 500 times larger than the sun would have enough gravity to prevent light from escaping.

Astronomers have never seen a black hole directly, but infer their existence the radiation created as material feeds the object, not unlike the way fans know Bob Tucker is present in a crowded room party, although blocked from view, after everyone suddenly calls out “ Smoooooth!

In contrast to astronomers, who like to study these things from a safe distance, science fiction writers make their characters drive right up to the edge of black holes and fall in. Of course, for writers this is simply a word picture of their careers as they send manuscripts off to publishers whose interminable response times make it seem like their work has disappeared into a singularity with a New York zip code.

Stories are certainly the easiest way for people to visualize the experience of entering a black hole. Otherwise, what constitutes “falling in” can only be fully understood after years spent studying advanced equations (an unlikely choice among people squandering time by clicking on articles at How long does it take to fall in? Ted Bunn answers:

“Let’s say you start at rest from a point whose distance from the singularity is ten times the black hole’s radius. Then for a million-solar-mass black hole, it takes you about 8 minutes to reach the horizon. Once you’ve gotten that far, it takes you only another seven seconds to hit the singularity…. Once you’ve crossed the horizon, in your remaining seven seconds, you might panic and start to fire your rockets in a desperate attempt to avoid the singularity. Unfortunately, it’s hopeless, since the singularity lies in your future, and there’s no way to avoid your future. In fact, the harder you fire your rockets, the sooner you hit the singularity. It’s best just to sit back and enjoy the ride.”
It’s just human nature to poke and prod and try to find out things man was not meant to know. So stubborn astronomers continue to learn all kinds of trivia about black holes. (1) The x-ray radiation emanating from black holes has two components. (2) The Hubble telescope

has detected the noise of gas being slurped into a black hole (and it bears no resemblance to Joe Haldeman slipping into that tub of lime jello; and most remarkable of all, (3) Stephen Hawking and Roger Ebert now agree that nothing escapes from a black hole.

NASA’s Swift observatory is a $250 million collaboration by NASA, Italy and Britain. Unless you think Santa is bringing you one for Christmas, you may have to settle for what you can afford and research black holes the old-fashioned way, by downloading the free board game based on the international Space Very Long Baseline Interferometry Program (SVLBI).

Neptune, But Not Soon

Science requires much more patience than science fiction. NBC never let Star Trek finish its five-year mission, yet NASA has two teams developing missions to Neptune that would take 12 to 20 years just to reach the planet and begin collecting data.

Each team proposes to use a different propulsion system and its own distinctive schemes for exploring Neptune and its unique moon, Triton.

John Newman commented in a 1958 science article for Nebula Science Fiction, “Curiously enough, we know less about the conditions on the surfaces of most of the planets of the System than we do about the surfaces of many of the stars… Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have so highly compressed and deep atmospheres that their true surfaces are invisible.”

Recent missions have explored the first two planets mentioned. Neptune is the favored target between the last two because of the oddities about its moon, Triton — for example, it has a retrograde orbit, in the opposite direction of Neptune’s rotation, a fact that encourages speculation Triton may be a Kuiper Belt object captured by planetary gravity.

NASA’s first Neptune team envisions something like the Cassini Mars mission that could use conventional rocket propulsion and gravity assists to reach the planet in 12 years. Orbit would be achieved through aerocapture , which puts the vehicle in orbit after one pass, in contrast to the aerobraking technique used for Cassini Mars which requires multiple orbits and repeated burns by a spacecraft’s engine.

The second team’s plan would use a nuclear fission reactor and ion propulsion to arrive at Neptune in 20 years, because an ion engine takes time to build up enough thrust. However, an ion thruster is 10 times more efficient than a chemically powered engine. One has been powering the Deep Space 1 spacecraft since its launch on Oct. 24, 1998.

Both missions would land probes on Neptune, but deploy them in a different manner according to each team’s own ideas about probe survival and usefulness.

Neptune hasn’t attracted a lot of interest from sf writers. On the other hand, scientists have yet to learn enough about the place to disqualify the science used in what few stories are set there. Indeed, Sydney fans noticed in 1999 that the passage of time has actually been kind to one space opera, Edmund Hamilton’s The Universe Wreckers, in which Neptunians terrorize the solar system. When the book was written, Pluto hadn’t been discovered. But by the time the Sydney Futurian Society got around to discussing the story, in 1999, Neptune was further away than Pluto anyway.

Baltimore Club Wins Tax Appeal

Stop payment on the tax check! Maryland’s Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, agreeing that its clubhouse deserves a tax exemption.

There had been a split decision in two earlier cases. The Maryland Tax Court (with jurisdiction over property taxes) ruled that the clubhouse should be exempt, but the decision was overturned on the next round in the Baltimore City Circuit Court where the judge sided with state authorities and said, “I don’t think promoting science fiction is what is deemed to be the operation of an educational institution.”

The Maryland Court of Appeals’ opinion, filed December 15, grouchily sniped at the way the Circuit Court misinterpreted the Maryland Tax Court’s original ruling: “[The Circuit Court] took considerable umbrage at the Tax Court’s rejection of a standard for defining educational purpose… That is not what the Court said, and it is not what the Court meant.”

Unfortunately, the judge at whom the remarks are directed took his own life November 11.

The reasoning applied by the Maryland Court of Appeals in this decision is summed up in the following comment:

In upholding the Tax Court’s decision in this case, we do not dismiss out of hand SDAT’s concern that the property was open only three days a week; nor do we embrace as a general proposition that a limited use of property for an exempt purpose is irrelevant. As noted, the Tax Court drew a distinction between property used for both exempt and non-exempt purposes and property being used solely for an exempt purpose but only part of the time. That distinction itself has some limits; to qualify for an exemption the property must be primarily used for an exempt purpose. In this case, given the overall use of the property in question, including the on-going storage of materials necessary to support the educational functions carried on by BSFS, the Tax Court in this case did not err in finding that the primary use was for an educational purpose.