Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Want to get your science checked?

Those of you who follow this blog will have undoubtedly noticed that I don't post much any more. The number one reason for that is I've been in the throes of a PhD with very little desire to write about science/astronomy/astrophysics outside of work. Basically, blogging here stopped feeling like something fun to do and started to feel like more work, which is not what I wanted.

Defying Doomsday, an upcoming anthology
If you've been paying close attention, you may have seen my book blog, which I have been maintaining because talking about books is entirely unlike talking about science, even if they are science fiction and fantasy books. If you haven't already checked it out, you can do so here. I'm also editing an anthology, Defying Doomsday, which is currently being crowdfunded. You can read more about it here.

However, I still feel strongly about getting the science right (or at least, not horribly wrong) in fiction. To that end, I am selling five science checks as part of the crowdfunding for Defying Doomsday. If you've always wanted a professional astrophysicist to look over your story and tell you which sciencey bits are done well and which aren't so good, now's your chance! Here's what it says on our Pozible page:

Story Science Check
Tsana Dolichva, whose day job is astrophysics, will provide a professional science check of your work, assessing and critiquing the scientific validity of a piece of your fiction (up to 10,000 words) PLUS a limited edition hardcover copy of Defying Doomsday (exclusive to Pozible backers) PLUS the ebook edition of Defying Doomsday (all formats) AND your name in the book with our thanks

(For longer pieces please contact us and we can sort something out!)

I am more than happy to make arrangements to look at longer work if that's what you would prefer. It's a pretty good deal; not only do you get to have your science checked, you also get to support an awesome anthology! And if you're wondering, I have done some science checking before, including for professional authors.

Here's a bit more about Defying Doomsday:

Defying Doomsday is an anthology of apocalypse-survival fiction with a focus on disabled characters, which will be edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, and published by Twelfth Planet Press in mid 2016.

Apocalypse fiction rarely includes characters with disability, chronic illness and other impairments. When these characters do appear, they usually die early on, or are secondary characters undeveloped into anything more than a burden to the protagonist. Defying Doomsday will be an anthology showing that disabled characters have far more interesting stories to tell in post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction.

The anthology will be varied, with characters experiencing all kinds of disability from physical impairments, chronic illnesses, mental illnesses and/or neurodiverse characters. There will also be a variety of stories, including those that are fun, sad, adventurous and horrific.

The stories in Defying Doomsday will look at periods of upheaval from new and interesting perspectives. The anthology will share narratives about characters with disability, characters with chronic illnesses and other impairments, surviving the apocalypse and contending with the collapse of life as they know it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An infographic

I am a great believer in science for the sake of science. But a lot of politicians people aren't and need to be convinced of the merits of things like space travel and telescopes. To that end, here is an info graphic you can throw at the next person who tells you science is a waste of money. It's probably safer than throwing a punch.

Source: GreatBusinessSchools.org

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Colours of Space (and Currents)

I recently read (well, listened to) The Colours of Space by Marion Zimmer Bradley. You can read my proper review over at my book blog,  but here I wanted to discuss some of the science that popped up in the book.

The title of the novel — The Colours of Space — refers to the stars being much more brightly coloured when seen in space, as compared with when seen from inside the Earth's atmosphere. (There's another reference there to plot elements as well, which I won't spoil, but I read the main reference as being to the multi-coloured stars.) The thing is, the phenomenon, as described in the story, is not entirely real. Yes, stars come in different colours, but those colours range from red to yellow, white and blue. There are no green stars. 

Interestingly enough, this isn't the first time I've encountered the idea of green stars in old science fiction. I understand where the misconception comes from — wanting to move through the optical spectrum with increasing temperature — but that's not quite how it works. Have you ever seen something glow "green-hot"? No. That's because green is in the middle of the visible spectrum and when it's the peak wavelength of a black body, the object is still emitting strongly in the neighbouring red and blue wavelengths which, when they're all combined, appear white. Similarly, blue stars (and red stars) aren't blue like the sky; they look pretty white because the star is still emitting strongly in the other visible wavelengths.

The Orion Nebula. Image credit: NASA/ESA
On the other hand, it's not unreasonable to think that Earth's atmosphere would bleach out the "real" colours of objects in space. After all, hills and whatnot in the distance often look paler than up close (because of water and often pollution in the atmosphere). But we can still see distinct colours of stars even from Earth and even, if you have binoculars or a good camera, the colours of nebulae (which are entirely prettier than mere stars). The constellation of Orion is a good example. Betelgeuse is a red giant (down the bottom of Orion if you're in the Good Southern Hemisphere), the Orion Nebula looks purplish (on the "handle" of the bit that looks like a saucepan from the south), the Horsehead Nebula (in Orion's Belt) is on the pink side, and the rest of the stars are yellow, white and blue but all look fairly white (from Earth AND space).

This reminds of another old book in which the underlying premise is based on now-outdated and hilariously erroneous science: The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov. In that book a rather important plot element is that supernovae are caused by clouds of gas (the titular currents) drifting around space and every now and then changing the elemental makeup of stars enough to make them explode. (I think specifically it was clouds of carbon, but I don't have the book nearby to check.) We now know that this is mostly nothing like what causes supernovae.

There are two types of supernovae: core-collapse and Type Ia. Core-collapse supernovae occur when a massive star (more than around ten times the mass of our sun) runs out of fuel in its core and can no longer maintain its size and collapses in on itself and explodes. To put it very simply. Type Ia supernovae occur when a white dwarf (the corpse of a star originally like our sun) has another star nearby feeding it matter. When the white dwarf gets too massive to maintain its fundamental (proton and electron) structure, it will collapse in on itself and explode (and become a neutron star).

Just because these books are based on science we now know not to be true, doesn't mean they're not worth reading (although I suspect it contributes to them being out of print). Have you read any other books with science that was reasonable when they were written, but doesn't stand up to the test of time and progress?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Friction in space and on Earth

This post is in response to a comment I got on my previous post "More thoughts on the importance of science in science fiction" where Shannon commented/asked (I'm only quoting the question-y part of her comment):
It really is a hard concept to grasp, the no-friction-in-space thing. I don't think I really get it - I'm not sure how to visualise it, for a start - but I don't understand how a space ship - of the super-advanced, sci-fi kind - can't slow down. I mean, it's mechanical and computerised and runs on fuel; on Earth anything we build for transportation will slow down especially if there's a mechanical failure etc. I know in space you can't "stop", you'd only drift, right? I'm hoping you can explain this a bit more to me because I really do want to understand!

(The more time I have to let this concept dwell in my brain, the more I'm starting to get it. So what does happen when you, in sci-fi, go from "warp speed" or whatever they like to call it, to, well, not?)

On Earth (or really, anywhere that isn't the empty vacuum of space) moving objects slow down because they lose energy through friction — rubbing against other objects. Commonly on Earth, the source of friction would be land, water and/or air.

Some examples:
  • The motor of a boat needs to stay on to keep the boat moving, because if the motor is turned off, the boat will be slowed down by the water pushing back against it.
  • If you ski straight down a hill (let's say a small hill for safety reasons) you will accelerate (get faster) while you're going down hill, but once you reach the flat bit at the bottom you will eventually slow down and stop without having to stop yourself. This is because of the friction between the snow and your skis. Generally, skiing works because there's much less friction between snow and skis than, say, between shoes and dirt, but there isn't zero friction. When you were going down the hill and getting faster, there was still friction, but at that point gravity pulling you downwards was stronger.
  • If you drop something from a great height (tall building, aeroplane), gravity will make it accelerate as it falls down. However, the air pushes back on it, upwards (or more generally, in the opposite direction to the movement) and eventually will prevent the object falling any faster. (With air, the friction is directly related to the size and shape of the object and how fast it's going, but I won't get into the maths.) The maximum speed the object can reach while falling is called terminal velocity.
  • On the other hand, if there is no air — for example on the moon — there will of course be no friction from air and things like feathers which normally fall very slowly (because of all the little fuzzy bits catching on the air) will fall at the same speed and acceleration as a lead ball (or whatever). This will also work in a vacuum chamber where all the air has been removed. Here is a video of an astronaut on the last Apollo mission dropping a hammer and a feather at the same time:

    And a gif of the same if you can't be bothered watching and listening to the 47 second clip:

  • Brakes on cars and whatnot work by intentionally increasing the friction on the axle to slow down the spinning speed of the wheels
Now let's talk about how spaceships slow down in space. I want to emphasis that my complaint with Across the Universe wasn't that the spaceship was slowing down, but that it was slowing down by itself. Things can only slow down by themselves if there is friction around (so really they're not slowing down by themselves but because of friction, but we don't usually think about or notice friction so it seems like its happening by itself).

In real life, spaceships slow down (and manoeuvre) by firing their engines in the other direction. It might be a bit easier to picture on a smaller scale. Consider an astronaut on a spacewalk. Let's pretend they're not tethered to their ship and that the ship is out in deep space away from the gravitational influence of any planets. To be able to move around, the astronaut will have a gas tank (or similar) that will allow them to press a button to move forward. The gas will shoot out backwards for a couple of seconds, and the astronaut will move forwards. At this point, if the astronaut does nothing, they will continue moving in a straight line indefinitely. Basically until they run into something. The same thing happens with a spaceship: gravity and obstacles not withstanding, after it fires its engines for a bit to accelerate, it will keep going in a straight line at the same speed until something else happens to stop it. This clip from WALL-E is a good example (thanks to Shaheen for the suggestion). Also note that once they start spinning, things will continue spinning until something else makes them change, which you can see a bit of in that clip.

That doesn't mean things can't stop or slow down in space. Our astronaut — assuming they're not unconscious — can fire their gas in the opposite direction (to manoeuvre properly they'd have to have several directional options, six for complete manoeuvrability) to slow down. The spaceship can also fire thrusters in the opposite direction to slow down (either by having two sets or by rotating the main ones). Coming to an absolute complete stop is a bit tricky because a) you would have to balance forces very exactly and b) there's not much to use as a reference for how fast you're going out in space, but matching speeds with another ship is doable. And the astronaut slowing down enough to not break a wrist colliding with his ship is also useful. My older post about turning around in space addresses some issues with why just stopping and going in the opposite direction isn't the most efficient way of doing it.

The very last part of the question was:
So what does happen when you, in sci-fi, go from "warp speed" or whatever they like to call it, to, well, not?

The short answer to this is, whatever you want. Warp speed and hyperspace and other "let's cheat to go faster than the speed of light devices" aren't real. They're generally not based on real physics, or if they are, it's very extrapolated and speculative and could well turn out to be just as implausible. That said, faster than light travel is a staple of science fiction and I'm not suggesting we should eliminate it because it's implausible. If all science fiction stories used only slow or relativistic (which means close to the speed of light, when weird things happen. My post about it) then there'd be a lot of very slow stories which would get boring. Variety is nice.

As long as the rest of the science is plausible, then I don't have a problem with a bit of faster than light travel and faster than light communication. If the writer doesn't feel up to making up a semi-plausible sciencey explanation, then my personal preference is not to try explaining how the FTL works at all. Because they usually stuff up some minor point which annoys me disproportionately.

Monday, March 25, 2013

More thoughts on the importance of science in science fiction

Today I was directed to a blog post about how important science is in science fiction using the hideous crime against science example of Beth Revis's Across the Universe, which I blogged about here. (From the sound of it, the blog author may have read my post or someone else's similar reaction to the book.) The blog author asks how important is accurate science really, and is there a line? The rest of this post is based on my comment over there.

I think there is definitely a line. Stuff like faster than light travel, teleportation, artificial gravity (in some circumstances) are fair game to use in fiction with no or only hand-wavey explanations. (In fact, sometimes trying to be too specific with them can be detrimental.) Everyone either knows that stuff isn't real or can very easily google it to find out. And it has a distinct plot-based purpose: if everyone wrote relativistically accurate science fiction (no faster than light travel), it would be very boring. When getting from A to B isn't the point of the story, using an accepted trope to speed things up is totally fine. Same with power sources for spaceships. That's an area where there will definitely be heaps of progress in the future that we can't necessarily predict and so hand-waving is fine.

What isn't fine is getting basic and fundamental concepts wrong like the ship slowing down in space that Revis did. Note that she also had a hand-wavey power source in said spaceship and THAT is fine. But thinking there's friction in space? No. It's a popular book for teens and it's actively confounding a concept that's actually quite difficult to teach. Pretty much no one (and certainly no teen) has been in space and so books and movies are all most of us have to base our intuition on when it comes to how stuff in space works. For things on Earth, it's easy to think about our everyday experiences and predict (from a basic physics point of view) what will happen. On Earth, stuff DOES gradually slow down. In space it doesn't and that's a concept that some kids, when learning physics for the first time, find difficult to grasp. It's a disservice to further confuse the issue.

And for the record, usually if an author tries to do their research, it's obvious in the writing.


Now, when I was searching for a link to something Revis said in an interview about her research for this book (or lack there of), I came across the FAQ on her website. One of the questions and responses is:
Q: WAIT A MINUTE. I think I found a scientific error in Across the Universe.
A: Well–there’s a chance I messed up. BUT if you’re one of the ones who noticed the REALLY BIG scientific error…well, I’ll just say that there IS a sequel, and it DOES address this, and maybe it’s not that the book is wrong, but that the characters have the wrong idea…
I can only assume the "REALLY BIG" scientific error is the friction in space thing that's made me so angry. I'm not 100% convinced that it and associated sciencefails are properly addressed. I can think of one scenario that would make it "the characters are wrong but the science isn't", and from the plot of book one and the hints I've seen around the web for the events in books two and three, it doesn't seem likely.

Have any of my readers actually read the second book? Is it worth my time (and money) reading it just so I can blog about the problems in it? So far the answer to the second question has been "no" and picking up the second book in a shop and flicking through it didn't exactly fill be with the desire to jump back into that world.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review: Blue Silence by Michelle Marquardt

This  review is posted as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge. I have cross-posted it from my review blog. I have now completed the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2012, and you can read my de-brief here.

Blue Silence by Michelle Marquardt was originally published in 2002 and is sadly now out of print. Although I see it's in stock at Infinitas as of this writing. It was a winner of the George Turner Prize (as my edition proclaims on the cover).

The story opens when a mysterious ship docks with one of the space stations in orbit around Earth. The ship is, on the outside, an exact replica of one that was sent out into deep space 180 years ago, and then never heard from again. The difference? This ship has new drive technology which was only invented a couple of years ago. And instead of the seven original crew members, it's full of stasis pods and five hundred creatures, half of whom look human, half of whom look almost human.

None of the aliens know where they came from or why — they have no memories before waking up docked with the space station — and the authorities on the space station don't really know what to do with them either.

Senator Maya Russini is the leader of the group of people who first board the ship. A mission which one of the group does not return from alive. Are the aliens dangerous? What do they mean for the various political machinations happening within the space station's government and between them and other governments?

I liked Maya. She was an excellent example of a female character that doesn't need to run around kicking people in the head to gain power. She's also secretly a telepath (secret because she didn't register when she turned 21), but in a nice twist, she's the weakest kind of telepath, only able to read emotions, not thoughts. I think Marquardt has done a good job of portraying a society in which women are equal without making a big deal of it. (There are, in the end, more male characters, but that's mostly because the two main aliens are male.)

Her friend Ienne, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, also gets involved with the aliens. Unlike Maya who mostly regards them as suspicious and dangerous, Ienne is always looking for a way to use them to his advantage (there's a treaty they and another space station are wrestling over). He also goes out of his way to be rude to everyone with the occasional exception of Maya.

As I noticed when I was past half-way, Blue Silence is a very character driven story, unusually so for science fiction. The world does not need saving, nor does any war break out. Instead the action comes directly from the interactions between the characters, including two of the aliens who I don't think I can say much about without spoiling key elements. There is excitement and there's no missing the climax, but it's not like a plot driven story where all the action was building up to an inevitable climax and world-saving event. In the end, we know more about the aliens, but we don't know everything. Some answers are only hinted at or presented as speculation. In a way, this was slightly annoying because I like to know all the answers (arguably why I'm a scientist in real life), but it worked for the book. The story wasn't about the people trying to study the aliens, it was about people whose paths happened to cross theirs.

Also, the science, which I feel obliged to comment on, was well done. It wasn't a technology-oriented story, but having been published ten years ago, there was a risk the technology would feel a bit dated now. It didn't. They didn't have smart phones, but they did have pagers which were functionally mobile phones and received the equivalent of email on ubiquitous computers. There was also a discussion on the merits of different kinds of space stations (mimicking Earth versus giant building floating in space) which was interesting.

I highly recommend Blue Silence to anyone looking for something a bit different in their science fiction. It also emphasises the variety we have in the Australian science fiction field, something you might miss if you only looked at the most recent few releases.

4.5 / 5 stars

Friday, December 7, 2012

Year-long days and living in them

This blog post was inspired by an email conversation with someone regarding the possibility of a planet having year-long (or half-year long) day/night cycles. The original question was whether this is even possible and whether such a planet would be habitable.

From a purely astronomical point of view, this is definitely possible. There's no reason why you couldn't have a slowly rotating planet at around the same distance from it's sun as Earth is (well any reasons that do exist are fairly theoretical so we can ignore them). That said, if the planet is similar to Earth and its sun is similar to ours, then you kind of have to have the same length year because the length of the year (ie how long it takes to orbit the star) depends only on the mass of the star and the distance from it. This is due to Kepler's Laws, which I have previously discussed here. If you made no changes to star/planet distance, the year length would have to be the same.

Image nicked from Wiki here. The little red line
represents the same point on the surface of
Mercury. The numbers are the order in which
the positions happen: 6, 1, 2 are night for
the red line and 3, 4, 5 are day, roughly.

You could also have something similar to Mercury which has three rotations (called "sidereal days" which are measured relative to the stars, not the sun) to two years. Because it rotates so slowly, weird stuff happens with its solar days (the light/dark periods, completely ignoring the positions of stars) so that in one year it experiences half a solar day. Mercury is like this because it's so close to the sun. It could have been tidally locked (the same side always facing the sun – discussed further, including for Mercury in particular, here) but the gravitational effects of the other planets in the solar system caused this more unusual resonance.

However, if we're talking a planet as distant from the sun as Earth is, there's no danger of it becoming tidally locked in the sort of cosmological time frame we're currently living in. The time taken for the angular momentum between planet and star to be distributed into the tidally locked configuration takes longer the further apart they are (and the less massive when they're close enough). The Earth-moon system will eventually become more tidally locked: the moon already faces the same side towards us all the time, and eventually the same side of Earth will always point towards the moon.

But that's a bit of a tangent, back to planets with long days and nights. You could have a planet rotating as slowly/quickly as you like, but you should be mindful that the people living there would almost certainly have a way of distinguishing between sidereal and solar days. Ancient people on Earth already had this worked out (the difference between sidereal and solar days is why the stars move across the sky with the seasons).

Living there

Uranus: almost completely sideways.
If you did have a planet with a year-long day, the periods of day and night would be roughly equal in the same way they are on Earth, just scaled up. It could vary a bit depending on the planet's axial tilt (how much the line between the poles is tilted relative to the plane of it's orbit — Earth's is around 23º and changes slightly when earthquakes occur) so the more inclined the axis, the more extreme the seasons. If there was no or very little axial tilt, there wouldn't be seasons. The other variable in day/night lengths is the latitude. Further away from the equator sunrise and sunset would last longer and the shortness of winter days and length of summer days would be more extreme (as on Earth, but a different axial tilt could make this more so). If there was no axial tilt, the poles would be in a state of twilight permanently. The other extreme is something like Uranus which has a 90º-ish axial tilt so that during a southern summer the south pole points towards the sun and during a southern winter the south pole gets no sun at all. Spring and Autumn are the transition period. The equator is in twilight during summer and winter and has more "normal" days, like what we're used to, during spring and autumn.

Also, astronomical plausibility aside, I'm not convinced complicated life could naturally arise on a planet with a super-long day/night cycle, due to the long periods of boiling (day) and freezing (night). In terms of temperature-stability, probably only the twilight areas would be habitable. I suppose you could have migrating species (but that also has problems because in staying in permanent twilight they'd need sufficient landmasses connecting the two poles). Also, you'd probably get some sort of storms around the twilight zone, since the temperature would be in in a state of flux. I'm not an expert on atmospheres or meteorology, though, so that's a (-n educated) guess and I can't be too specific. But in short: our 24 hour days are what keeps Earth's temperature relatively temperate and suitable for life.

There's be fewer issues for microbial life to arise but I don't know that anything larger would be viable. Maybe at the poles: if the planet was slightly closer to its star than Earth is, there could be non-migratory life living near the poles and with a stable orbit and rotational period, it should survive. Since the non-polar regions wouldn't have naturally arising complex life, there could be with completely different ecosystems/forms of life at either pole with only something like microbial ancestors connecting them.


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