Launch Pad 2016 Now Accepting Applications

January 20th, 2016

Through March 1, we will be accepting applications for the 2016 edition of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers.  The workshop will run from June 1-7, 2016, and as usual will be held at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY.


Current/Recent News

January 15th, 2016

I’m streamlining the blog, as I’m not actively blogging any more.  I need to focus my energies on astronomy and science fiction, and social media has largely usurped blogs from my perspective.  I’ll continue to post occasional updates here as they come up, e.g., Launch Pad announcements, story or novel news, perhaps still pieces on science and science fiction.  To that end, let me note that we’re close to announcing Launch Pad dates and a call for applications for 2016 so look for that.

The Fatal Science Flaw of the Premise of Interstellar

December 21st, 2014

This is a repeat of an article I originally posted at Amazing Stories.

There have already been a lot of scientists and science popularizers and others looking at the science of Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film Interstellar. Kip Thorne, the eminent Caltech scientist powering much of the science, has written a book and there’s even a TV documentary.

Interstellar is a gorgeous film with fantastic visuals that takes us to places I’ve never seen before on screen, namely the environment around a supermassive black hole some 100 million solar masses, dubbed Gargantua. I enjoyed the film while watching it, but felt unsettled about some things. I hoped these things would make more sense in hindsight, but they don’t unfortunately.

Let me be clear. I recommend seeing Interstellar, and enjoying the many things it got right and the spectacle it created. The rest of this post will be my take over the science elements relying on my expertise as an astrophysicist who studies supermassive black holes and as a science fiction novelist who tries to put exotic but accurate astrophysical environments in front of readers. This is the kind of blunt and honest report I’d write to a screenwriter asking me to provide feedback on the scientific aspects of their story.

There are a few things early in the story I’d be critical about (e.g., our characters apparently drinking beer seven years after the blight has wiped out wheat), but let me focus on the astrophysics, aspects of which I have not seen considered elsewhere. More specifically, let me focus on the astrophysics that makes the entire plot of Interstellar kind of ridiculous.

First, we have an accretion disk around our supermassive black hole. The disk is apparently “anemic” even though it has temperatures like that of the surface of our sun. Even an “anemic” organized disk like this around a black hole of a 100 million solar masses, as Gargantua apparently has, puts out too much heat and hard radiation for any planets to survive anywhere close to it. Drop its output, and you lose the organized, thin disk that is clearly present. Furthermore, there is no orbit that can stay far from this disk. There won’t be any planets. And if there were planets, somehow surviving and somehow in a place where they are the right temperature to colonize, they would not stay that way for long. The output from these disks varies on human timescales. We freak out, and rightly so, about a tiny temperature change here on Earth that is nothing compared to what a planet around Gargnatua would experience. There is no way I can make these planets make sense.

A blighted Earth is a million times more habitable than any planet could be in Interstellar. Venus, Mars, or the moon even.

I’m sure the idea for the movie came about to highlight effects like time dilation close to the event horizon of a black hole. That part in the movie doesn’t even make sense. A “planet” with a time dilation as depicted in the movie would have to be within 100 meters of the event horizon, which is a pretty tiny distance to fit an Earth-sized planet. And there wouldn’t be a radio signal from any previous mission that could be detected, because there would be a similarly extreme gravitational redshift putting into a very long wavelength part of the electromagnetic spectrum, with a correspondingly weaker signal strength.

Our rocket-powered lander could also not manage the delta vees required to get to this location and get back out. A shame, after a multi-stage rocket was shown to get off the Earth. We lose all semblance of reality for the technology on display.

There are other nits to pick, but there’s no need to pick them after making this main point: colonizing the unrealistic planets shown in Interstellar is akin to colonizing a wooden raft in the caldera of an active volcano. It’s not justifiable as a “Plan A” or a “Plan B” or even Ed Wood’s “Plan 9″ (which is more feasible).

If I were revising this very flawed script and wanted to highlight the features of a black hole like the time dilation, here’s how I would do it. Make the blight something more like radioactive contamination with a half-life of a few thousand years, and get rid of hibernation technology. Let the black hole become a time machine to go into the future to a time when the Earth is safe again. That’s my best idea for salvaging something that just doesn’t work.

It’s unfortunate that we get so many of these movies these days, where some effort has been put into the science, but not applied evenly to the entire story. I’m thrilled to have the gravitational effects of the black hole portrayed so accurately, and to get real physical effects like time dilation having real effects on the story, but the story itself is flawed. I am reminded of the Star Trek reboot, where so much effort was made to get Saturn and Titan right, but no one seemed to realize that having a faster-than-light warp drive means that the event horizon of a black hole is not actually a problem to escape.

OK, I’ll stop being Professor Buzzkill now. If you liked the movie, please keep liking it. It was cool and got a lot of things right, and will, I hope, pave the way for more big-budget movies set in interesting astrophysical environments.

Launch Pad Attendees for 2014

May 16th, 2014

I am happy to announce the list of those participating in this summer’s Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers!

Here they are in no particular order:

Lisa Yee
Malinda Lo
Jenn Reese
Meg Howrey
William Ledbetter
Ann Leckie
Amy Sterling Casil
E. C. Meyers
Marc Halsey
Geetanjali Dighe
James L. Sutter
Anne Toole
Sarah McCarry
Andrew Liptak
Susan Forest
Gabrielle Harbowy

There are some very talented people here with a diverse range of backgrounds and audiences. I’m looking forward to meeting them in July!


Some Criticisms of the New Cosmos

March 9th, 2014

I watched the premiere of the new Neil de Grasse Tyson-hosted version of Cosmos tonight on Fox.

The goal was to update the science of Carl Sagan’s show — we have learned a lot in the last 30+years — and present it in as entertaining way as possible. Tyson says:

“The goal is to convey why science matters to the person, to our society, to us as shepherds of this planet. It involves presenting science in ways that connect to you, so Cosmos can influence you not only intellectually but emotionally, with a celebration of wonder and awe,” says Tyson. “Science should be part of everybody’s life. The prerequisite is not that you become a scientist. It’s that at the end of the series, you will embrace science and recognize its role in who and what you are.”

I strongly agree with those goals, and the show was for the most part visually striking and fun. While I had some concerns about the animated sequence showing Bruno’s execution for proposing a view of the universe that the Catholic Church did not agree with, the story was largely correct.

Where I want to criticize is in some scientific and technical details that the show just got wrong. I can forgive other kinds of errors, but this is really a show that needs to get these correct. If you see inaccuricies here, you can’t really trust anything, can you? This isn’t a professor answering a question off the cuff in public in realtime; this is an expensive, polished show with plenty of time and cause to be factually accurate.

Here are three points I thought were largely or totally wrong that need correction. I’ll take this opportunity for a teaching moment.

1. The graphics showing the asteroid belt, and the Kuiper belt, did not reflect reality. It showed a high density of large objects that would appear to crash into each other regularly. This is the same misconception that The Empire Strikes Back fell into. While there are systems of gravitationally bound asteroids (e.g., binaries, “rubble piles,” etc.), the general case is that you could fly a spacecraft through them a thousand times and not only not hit anything, you’d not be likely to even see anything. This was just an error and reinforces misconceptions.

2. Tyson referred to using night vision technology to see into the (thermal) infrared — cool objects in the universe. Wrong. While night vision does see slightly into the near-infrared (about 1 microns), it is primarily a light amplification technology. Thermal imagers are what we use to see cool dust, gas, and the coolest stars. Compare both technologies here.

3. Tyson, discussing the Big Bang, repeats a commonly held misconception that is wrong. He said that the entire universe came from a point smaller than an individual atom. If he’d used the modifier “observed” or “observable” in front of universe, I’d have given him a pass. But after making such a big deal about infinity earlier in the episode and bringing up the point of only part of the universe being observable, I can only call this a significant error. The reality is that if the universe is infinite today (and indications are that it is, and that is the adopted standard model), and therefore could never have been finite in size. Think about it. How do you change something from a finite size to an infinite size? The answer is that you don’t. A better way of thinking about the Big Bang was that the universe approached infinite density, but without approaching zero size.

So while I am pleased to see a show like Cosmos back on network TV in a good timeslot, I am worried that the quality control is lacking. I don’t know who gets input into the scripts and graphics, or who gets final say, but they’re not doing a good enough job in my opinion. If I were teaching astronomy 101 or cosmology this semester, I’d be discussing these points in my class — as well as assigning the show as homework.

P.S. Starlinks in the next day or two…

Transformative Science Fiction Movies

November 20th, 2013

A friend and I were talking over beers the other night, and discussing the handful of movies that had transformed the experience of going to the cinema. They contain unique elements not seen before, and influence everything that comes after. Some of the transformation is simply in the realm of special effects, but some of the differences are more profound. Let me explain by providing a list with some words of explanation for each. In reverse order…

Gravity (2013).  I have never seen a movie like this before (a refrain that will hold for other entries, too).  Watching the movie in 3-D IMAX felt like the closest I could imagine coming to a space experience.  This will be the standard for films set in space for years to come, and many of the techniques used to shoot this will become standard (a refrain that will hold for other entries, too).

Avatar (2009).  This was the first movie I saw in the modern 3-D, and the most amazing realization of science fictional world-building I’ve ever seen.  The work that went into this film was amazing.

The Matrix (1999). The “bullet time” special effect alone raised the bar for all other movies to follow.

Jurassic Park (1993). This was the first movie I saw in which I thought dinosaurs looked authentic and believable. The integration between the CGI and the human actors defined state of the art. Go watch any other movie from the late 1980s/early 1990s and compare.

Blade Runner (1982). This is the realization of the dark, gritty cyberpunk dystopia hitting the big screen in a big way for perhaps the first time. This marks a turning point in many respects for broadening the spectrum of visions of the future.

Alien (1979). While alien monster movies were not new in 1979, this film forged new ground. Ripley is not an obvious hero, just a working stiff on a dirty space barge, and notable for being female but not a damsel in distress or a Barbarella style sex kitten. The “John Hurt moment” redefined how shocking a movie could be.

Star Wars (1977). The special effects were amazing for its day, and the impact of the franchise was perhaps unique in the history of movies.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The science and special effects were fantastic, and the way its slow pace and big shots reflects the size and isolation of space is unmatched. The amount of respect for the intelligence of the audience would be unheard of today, even if many original viewers were stoned while watching it.

King Kong (1933). A big step back in time, surely skipping a lot of worth entries, but King Kong surely was a milestone in the special effects business, and defined how many big monster movies would be done for decades to come.

Honorable mentions: Blair Witch Project/Cloverfield (2008), for pioneering the found footage format.

This list is far from comprehensive, especially going back to before I was born when it is harder for me to recognize the transformational films.  What have I missed?


Superheroic Science!

November 18th, 2013

I took the weekend off the big proposal deadline Friday. I’ll do a starlinks post soon, but in the meantime, the video of my recent talk in Gillette, WY, on the science of superheroes is now available. Enjoy!

Comments welcome.

Probably 1/5 Sun-Like Stars Have Earth-Like Planets in Habitable Zone

November 4th, 2013

A couple of years ago, following the initial Kepler data release, I thought the numbers indicated it was at least 1/100, and likely much higher. Better statistics/analysis seem to indicate a number like 1/5:

“What this means is, when you look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, the nearest sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye. That is amazing,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura, who led the analysis of the Kepler and Keck Observatory data.

Keep in mind that they all won’t be perfectly “Earth-like” — Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect that makes it less than habitable, for instance. But it does mean that we’re probably closer to living in a Star Trek style universe, with lots of “M-Class” planets and potentially a lot of life in the Milky Way.

The Science in the Movie Gravity: an Interview with Science Consultant Kevin R. Grazier

September 20th, 2013

I have my interview up at Amazing Stories today. Why not click through there, read it, and leave a comment if so motivated?

The Geek Test: What’s Your Score?

August 30th, 2013

To take the 50 question test below, give yourself two points when you answer “yes” to the questions below beginning, “Have you ever…”

1. Attended a small (< 2000 people) science fiction convention?
2. Attended a one of the major science fiction conventions (e.g, Worldcon, Dragon*con)?
3. Attended a Comic-Con or media-oriented Convention (e.g. Shoreleave)?
4. Voted for an award at a Con (e.g. Hugo award)?
5. Played Dungeons and Dragons?
6. Played any other paper/dice role-playing games (RPGs) like Tunnels and Trolls or Gamma World?
7. Played a Live-Action Role Playing Game (LARPed)?
8. Played an RPG using minatures?
9. Played an RPG using minatures you painted yourself?
8. Played an RPG video game?
9. Spent more than 8 hours in a single sitting playing a single video game?
10. Spent more than 50 hours in total playing a single video game?
11. Played Everquest, Asheron’s Call, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Halo, or Diablo?
12. Played Settlers of Catan?
13. Played Magic the Gathering?
14. Attended a filking event?
15. Sang at a fiking event?
16. Wore a costume in public as an adult?
17. Made a costume for yourself as an adult?
18. Wore a costume in public when it wasn’t Halloween?
19. Entered a masquerade contest?
20. Won a prize at a masquerade contest?
21. Read a story in Asimov’s, Analog, Amazing Stories, or Fantasy and Science Fiction?
22. Written a speculative fiction story?
23. Written fanfic?
24. Submitted speculative fiction for possible publication?
25. Gotten the autograph of a speculative fiction writer?
26. Read a speculative fiction novel?
27. Read a graphic novel?
28. Read a comic book as an adult?
29. Read manga?
30. Read Lord of the Rings?
31. Read Watchmen?
32. Read some Sandman?
33. Read Snowcrash?
34. Read Starship Troopers?
35. Read a Harry Potter book?
36. Read Dune?
37. Watched an episode of one of the Star Trek series?
38. Watched more than 50 episodes of Star Trek?
39. Discussed whether you preferred Kirk or Spock?
40. Discussed or read Kirk/Spock slash?
41. Watched all the Star Wars movies?
42. Complained about Jar-Jar Binks?
43. Watched an episode of old Doctor Who?
44. Watched an episode of new Doctor Who?
45. Watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
46. Learned which superheroes are Marvel, and which are DC?
47. Been disappointed by a superhero movie because of changes from the source material?
48. Watched anime?
49. Watched 2001: A Space Odyssey?
50. Had a discussion about the endings of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, or the Prisoner?

What’s your score?

Maybe I’ll revise this, if there’s much interest, and expand it to 100 questions. I could be a little more general, maybe, and I’m sure I’ve missed some categories (for instance, there’s little internet or technology specific here). What would you suggest to improve the test?

How Do I Get There (Another Star?) — Let Me Count the Ways

April 17th, 2013

I am inspired today by Starship Century, a symposium at UCSD May 21-22, involving Gregory Benford, David Brin, Geoffrey Landis, Joe Haldeman, Neal Stephenson, Alan Steele, etc., almost everyone you might think of from the science fiction side, and a lot of folks involved from the science side (Freeman Dyson, Robert Zubrin, John Cramer, etc.).  I’m tempted to go, and will look into it.

What are the plausible ways to get to another star?

There are a number of them with a number of strategies.

The parameter space is something like this:

1. Speed of spacecraft.  We know how to get some speed here, from ion propulsion, solar sails, nuclear propulsion, even if things like Bussard ramjets have technical issues.

2. Relativity bonus (subjective time onboard reduced).

3. Warping of space (literally or via wormhole, hyperspace, etc.).

4. Hibernation/suspended animation.

5. Generation ships.

6. Sending/seeding life to be born en route or on location.

7. Becoming biologically immortal.

8. Becoming mechanically immortal.

9. Sending robots of whatever AI level.

10. Unforeseen tech/magic.

There are a lot of ways to get to another star in some fashion.  The scientists who claim that the energy/time considerations are too great are myopic and silly.  An advanced technological species can solve the problem by finding some corner in the above multi-variable parameter space, and humans can do it this century if sufficiently inspired and willing to invest.  While Mars is challenging, and stars are orders of magnitude more challenging, there’s a solution or two.

Let me suggest two nice books on this topic: The Starflight Handbook and Interstellar Travel and Mutli-Generational Space Ships.

Any other parameters I missed?  I mean, it’s a matter of time and energy and traveler lifetime.  All can be adjusted within limits, even if we never manage to warp space or open worm holes.

Educational Videos for Science Fiction Writers and Critical Fans

April 2nd, 2013

What’s wrong with giant bugs?  Or human bodies exploding in the vacuum of space?  Or the answers to any of a bunch of other questions science fiction writers need to know to craft their story?

I’ve written blog posts about some of these in the past, but started noticing videos with similar explanations and thought it would be fun and useful to compile some of these.  Enjoy and learn.

Space exposure:

Giant Bugs:

Fall into a black hole:

What’s the temperature of space (not simply answered — depends if you’re in the inner solar system or deep space, and what you’re measuring). Two videos:

This one is really cool. The physics of space battles and artificial gravity. (And this poster, BTW, seems to have a lot of great videos about the science of science fiction scenarios e.g. cloaking devices, phasers, etc.. I’ve subscribed.)

Let me stop there for today. The discovery of this last series of videos is going to take me a while to go through, and I’m interested in watching most of them. I know most of this stuff, but I always learn something new, if only about better ways of presenting it.


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