Launch Pad Dates

January 27th, 2015

Launch Pad will run from June 1-7, 2015, this year. We will open for applications on February 1. Thanks to new and very welcome funding from SFWA, we plan to reinstate travel stipends as we have had in the past, so Launch Pad will be more affordable than ever.

Please spread the word!


Sorry for the blog slowing to an astronomical time scale, but I needed some time away to focus on my personal life and my research. I plan to resume more regular posting in the near future, here, and at Amazing Stories.


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 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.

A possible Launch Pad style workshop for Quantum Physics?

November 13th, 2014

Chad Orzel is proposing to create such a workshop, called the Schroedinger Sessions, targeted for science fiction writers. He is trying to determine the interest level in order to support a grant proposal to fund his workshop. Please help him out and take the poll:

SF Signal Podcast

November 3rd, 2014

I’m one of the guests for the latest, which you can find and listen to here.  There were some smart, interesting, and funny things said.  I was especially pleased to be on with Ed Bryant, whose Cinnabar blew my mind as a kid.


Sunday Starlinks

October 12th, 2014

I’ve had some distractions in my personal life affecting my blogging rate.  Trying to catch up a little tonight…

First, in case I don’t blog again before the 23rd, let me make you aware of a partial solar eclipse happening over North America.  We’ll be watching from Laramie.

Pretty deep article about the missing baryons.  This is not the dark matter you’ve heard of, but the baryons that didn’t end up galaxies.

What does 200 Billion Stars really mean?  Great photo of the Galactic center here.

A nice explanation of the so-called “M-sigma relation” that is one topic I work on.

A jargon free history of the universe.

Why scientists aren’t trusted by Americans.  And how a lot of people, including intellectuals, don’t really understand science.  I’m not actually sure I agree with the premise of the second article, at least in detail, however.

Flexible tentacle robots being designed.  Shades of the X-bots in my second novel Spider Star.

Kind of a sensationalist article about potential problems with the Mars One plan, but an interesting point about ecosystems onboard a space mission.  Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars.  Also see Marianne Dyson’s book about real life science fiction doings, like riding the vomit comet.

Five theoretical ways to capture a star.

The science of wormholes in Interstellar.

Ten science jokes for nerds.

And this is wild — 19 Playgrounds To Haunt Your Nightmares.  OK, some are just inappropriate or funny, but a few, man!  And creepy things kids say about their imaginary friends.

I don’t know why I wasn’t aware of this before, but there’s a Jim Baen memorial short story contest that looks very hard sf/space positive.  I’m going to check out some past winners and think about entering myself.

What literary writers can learn from genre writers.

Lord of the Ringworld (AKA Larry Niven).

Check out the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.  Wish the art was different, but a fun character for sure.

Some really nice takes on Batman costumes here!

15 people with real-life superpowers.

More on genetics vs. practice.

If bigfoot is real, should one be shot?  Science has one answer here…and it’s bloody.  One reason I’m in astronomy and not biology.  If you try, be more careful than these people.

Dungeons and Dragons, then and now.  The art was pretty silly in the old days, but I loved it…

Lt. Uhura and NASA’s latest spacecraft:

Sunday Starlinks

September 21st, 2014

Trying to get some papers and proposals revised or written, so the perfect time to blog.

A mention in a Sky & Telescope article.

A tiny galaxy has a black hole that’s too big. This ruins a nice relationship. Maybe it’s important. Or maybe the relationship just breaks down in small galaxies.

Nine sci-fi flicks with no basis in science. I disagree with a few (e.g., Gravity wasn’t science fiction and was surely based in science even if some liberties were taken). Sorry, slideshow.

And somehow, this one is science with a basis in science fiction. Making mice smarter by splicing human genes into them.

Original Star Trek reviewers didn’t get it.

A bit of badness regarding language diversity in the Star Trek reboot. I always had issues with the universal translator gimmick, as it seemed to be applied inconsistently.

How close are we to Star Trek propulsion? Short answer, not that close.

Biggest comparison of science fiction spaceships is complete. I’m thinking my next novel or story needs a really large spaceship!

Science fiction needs new dreams. I agree, a little. I think there is new stuff out there, but it’s not being loved like Star Trek, Star Wars, or even Twilight. Another take from the New York Times.

Ten things in Idiocracy that already came true. Ow, my brains!

Why smart people are not always rational. Oh, I know! Unfortunately true, and why we need science.

Comedy to promote science? Or tackle anti-science at any rate.

Skintight spacesuits coming?

Why we hate Umbridge (from Harry Potter) so much. And we do. Or I do at least.

The government of Iceland says a sea monster exists. Cool! Could be! Although I think it will be much less cool as a named animal in a zoology textbook, because oar fish and sun fish are pretty cool, but not sea monster cool.

Climate change will be expensive. I tend to accept some conservative arguments based on economics (when they’re actually based on economics and not ideology). Maybe the economic argument — which some people make to avoid doing anything about climate change — will be the one they respond to. Or utility companies can just teach teachers to be “skeptical”. Maybe they could give equal time to this White House science adviser.

Science applied to our criminal justice system shows the system is lacking.

NASA’s new private space contracts. Also, NASA’s voyager probe proves that “homos” are perverts. You can’t make this stuff up.

An introduction to Lagrangian points.

How Stephen King teaches writing.

I want this Ouija Board living room set. Hope someone will make it.

542 Batmen take the field together. Fun!

Why writers are the worst procrastinators. These arguments apply to scientists, too. I know the pattern for both fields all too well.

Sunday Night Starlinks

September 8th, 2014

I’ve had a lot going on and the semester starting up, so blogging has been extra light. I do have a bunch of links I want to put down for the record…

I did blog at Amazing Stories last week: The Perfect Science Fiction Formula Forgotten?

And related to my post in some ways: Science Fiction has Lost the Plot.

Ten space myths we all need to stop believing. They’re not including me in the “we” I think…

The best science fiction books according to some scientists. Some good ones there.

Really good writing advice from Stephen King. I agree with essentially all of it, and wish I followed all of it.

The legacy of Jay Lake. Still missing my friend.

Some hate on old people at Worldcon. Poor, biased article, I am thinking.

Jesus is the “magic force” that keeps the universe from “flying apart.” No, he isn’t. And if he is, he’s doing a terrible job because the universe is not only flying apart, it is doing so at an ever increasing rate.

Stephen Hawking is terrified of an alien invasion. Well, a bit sensationalist, don’t you think? Seth Shostak thinks we’ll find them. Maybe this will be the way (infrared search for waste heat).

Popular Science article about Bill Nye that may be of interest.

A new article on the defunding of Lick Observatory. I’ve used it many times in the past and it made some great discoveries. A shame.

Amazing photo of the Milky Way over Yellowstone.

Is our universe a hologram? Doubt we’ll resolve it as suggested.

Einstein’s “secret” to learning anything. A little oversold.

I wish everyone followed these rules when arguing with someone over a different viewpoint. I try to do this, at least when I think of it. Sometimes I’m busy and dismissive, like too many, especially on the internet.

A review of The Rift by Walter Jon Williams, which features the Astroscan telescope, by the creator of the telescope.

Weird column in the Guardian about science fiction that starts by asserting it isn’t a genre…yeah, this is the kind of semantic nonsense the genre doesn’t need.

Better and more interesting column about H. P. Lovecraft.

Your IQ changes over time.

Does standardized testing mostly test test-taking ability? Maybe…

Analogies by high school students. Love these! Makes me want to write something ridiculous where I could try to top them.

The stupid, burns! Boy arrested for writing about killing his pet dinosaur. Decreasing faith in school officials and police.

Questioning the 10,000 hour rule, or at least putting it in better perspective.

Really insightful article about working a 40 hour week as an academic. I’m afraid I fail, and should take the advice offered here.

Six ways Batman has beaten Superman.

What I learned from debating science with trolls.

Sunday Starlinks

August 17th, 2014

First, let me congratulate the 2014 Hugo Award winners, a list which includes several Launch Pad alumni like Ellen Datlow, Anne Leckie, John Joseph Adams, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Perhaps someday all the winners will be Launch Pad alumni… ;)

Someone else has noticed the problems with the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back.

What a sensationalist scare piece on an unlikely asteroid impact looks like. No thanks, Daily Mail.

A comic explanation of the Science Channel. I smiled.

So you want to be an astronaut? Do you have the right (mental) stuff?

An article at Wired is calling for less dystopian science fiction. I tend to agree with the call. Some is fine, but when it becomes too large of a fraction of the total, it does have negative effects in my opinion. I’d like to see a little more inspiration myself.

Einstein’s forgotten cosmology. Interesting historically, but wrong.

Moore’s law keeps chugging along. But will it continue?

Who wants to be teleported? Not sure about me, but like McCoy, this guy doesn’t!

What makes for great teaching? I found some inspiration here.

(Marvel) superhero height chart. Fun. Remember, Wolverine is supposed to be SMALL, tough, and hairy, like his namesake.

Sunday Starlinks

August 10th, 2014

First, let me start with former Wyoming student Shannon Hall’s efforts to bring everyone the true story of searching for alien worlds like our own: Debunking Earth 2.0. Please consider helping out her efforts.

A really nice, only semi-technical, summary of the overwhelming evidence for the Big Bang Theory. I may use this link next time I teach cosmology, although it’s a little awkward for the non-majors and a little under explained for the graduate students. Still, it’s nice.

Man sues NASA for not investigating alien life. This is like the opposite of NASA, actually, and they pursue this issue vigorously when there’s plausible evidence (e.g., the Martian meteorite).

An xkcd comic about a thesis defense…appropriate, now that I’ve been on both sides of the table a few times.

13 Scientific Terms You Might Be Using Wrong. I admit, there were a couple outside my own field I was shaky on.

Ten great novels that will make you passionate about science. I’m not sure all are that great, or will make you passionate about science, but definitely some good, science-rich books on the list.

Telecommuting killed sci-fi’s great dream? Not sure if I buy the thesis, exactly, at either end…but interesting to read and think about.

The trailer to The Theory of Everything, a biodrama about Stephen Hawking. I found the trailer very moving, and look forward to the movie. We’ve all had set backs in our lives, but few have had as much success after as big a fall. While there is life there is hope…

Sunday Starlinks

August 3rd, 2014

Going to see Guardians of the Galaxy shortly (hope this doesn’t happen!), but time enough to post some links.

NASA “confirming” the space drive thing is all over the internet this past week. I remain skeptical. Here’s some reasons why.

And be skeptical of observational studies in general. Especially the sensational ones.

24 Frames: Great Movie Starships. Slideshow.

Movies don’t just get the science wrong. Taking a classics scholar to see Hercules.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson tells GMO critics to “chill out.” For the most part he’s right — there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with something being “GMO” just because it is “GMO” — and there’s little science that convincingly shows any GMO products being significantly harmful. Many GMO critics are biased and science deniers, like climate change deniers, and must overcome those biases if they want to be taken seriously rather than continue to demonstrate the naturalistic fallacy to embarrassing degree.

Writing advice from Chuck Palahniuk. While I am in general agreement that his advice results in better, more evocative writing, I know many successful writers who don’t follow it and who make boatloads of money, because some readers don’t read for the things that Palahniuk values.

Why your dissertation should be the worst thing you ever write.

Real Geniuses: what they are like. Is the Big Bang Theory accurate? Also, smart people stay up late. (I’ve posted versions of this in the past, but came across this newer article, which I’ll link to even though I’m not a fan of the way it is written.)

How artificial super intelligence will give birth to itself.

And following up that…why we should be prepared to leave the planet Earth.

Sharknado 2 sets ratings record for SyFy. Guess we’re going to keep getting bad original movies. :( Wish they’d try to make good ones instead…

Sunday Starlinks

July 27th, 2014

Launch Pad always takes a lot out of me, and it can be hard catching up and regrouping the week after. Guess I’m in that phase…

Speaking of Launch Pad, here are some reports from Christian Ready, Sarah McCarry, Andrew Liptak, Gabrielle Harbowy, Susan Forest, and Jenn Reese.

And I blogged about religious people talking about aliens over at Amazing Stories last week, after creationist Ken Ham suggested NASA stop looking for aliens because they’re going to Hell. Not to discount Mr. Ham’s opinion, but I think we should keep looking anyway. And let me remind you: NASA thinks we’ll be successful relatively soon.

On warp drive and exoplanets.

And as a preface to the next link, a solar flare did not nearly destroy the Earth two years ago. Solar flare nearly destroyed the Earth two years ago.

21 Books that changes Science Fiction and Fantasy forever. Forever is a long time, and not all these books have yet withstood the test of time, but not a bad list, with only a couple of poor choices in my humble opinion.

Science fiction authors pick their top science fiction movies. Plenty of good choices to go around, and they’re not just from famous authors for a change.

Why don’t Republicans like Neil DeGrasse Tyson? (Apologies for the generalization. Video)

The scientific secret behind Batman’s hidden identity. I don’t buy it, actually. There’s an assumption here that no one will take a picture of Batman (perhaps in a variety of wavebands) and use a computer to match features.

Observing at Apache Point for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey at night (time lapse):

Launch Pad Sunday Starlinks

July 13th, 2014

Short list for today — got a lot to do with the workshop commencing! Let’s get started…

First, a taste of science in my subfield: NASA’s WISE findings poke hole in black hole doughnut theory. As with most contradictory ideas, false dichotomy is false and we probably just need a more nuanced understanding.

Common science myths most people believe. With Lucy coming out and the stupid “humans only use 10% of their brains” nonsense, this is timely.

BBC instructs staff to stop staging “debates” with the anti-science fringe. Sometimes there aren’t two equal sides that both deserve equal time. The balance point of a seesaw is not necessarily in the middle.

16 Weird Toys for Kids. Quite a few are SF/F/H themed, at least the way I see them. Certainly the zombie monster car is cool! Tooth monster is also awesome. (Slideshow, sorry.)

Stan Lee’s Legacy. A fair look at Marvel’s Stan Lee.

The problem isn’t America’s colleges, it’s America’s students. I tend to agree — read the article and the demographics issues before disagreeing.

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