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…


Sunday Starlinks

March 2nd, 2014

Missed last week — busy for good and bad reasons, both.  Nothing serious, just busy.

Can quasars prove free will? I’m not sure, but read the article for yourself.

Mars in true color.

Detecting planetary atmospheres, including water.

Ten ways Star Trek isn’t Star Trek anymore. I have to say just the style and philosophy changes have made me lose my enthusiasm. It’s not what it was about any more.

Giant dragon skull on the beach. I love it! Great GOTs promotion!

Relevant to the trends in post-apocalypse fiction.

Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience. We don’t have one in Laramie, so I have no direct experience myself.

Seth McFarlane, Cosmos producer, wishes he’d met Carl Sagan. Me too.

Batman tech in real-life?

A Scientist-Author at the heart of hard science fiction. (Hint: Not me, but rather Gregory Benford.)


And David Brin with a TEDx talk:


Nebula Nominees and Launch Pad Alumni

February 25th, 2014

Here are the nominees this year, and I will put Launch Pad people in bold. I’ve been impressed with the applicants every year I’ve run the workshop, and some who were not yet seasoned award contenders have become such since Launch Pad (I can’t take much credit there). No, they’re not all writing a lot of astronomy/space physics into their work, but some are, and I’m very proud of that. Pat Cadigan directly credited the workshop with inspiration and confidence for writing her Hugo-award-winning story “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi.”

We’re still open for applications for the summer 2014 workshop being held in Laramie from July 13-20 this year.

2013 Nebula Nominees Announced
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America are pleased to announce the 2013 Nebula Awards nominees (presented 2014), the nominees for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation, and the nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Best Novel

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review)
Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
Hild, Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Harper)

Best Novella

‘‘Wakulla Springs,’’ Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages ( 10/2/13)
‘‘The Weight of the Sunrise,’’ Vylar Kaftan (Asimov’s 2/13)
‘Annabel Lee,” Nancy Kress (New Under the Sun)
‘‘Burning Girls,’’ Veronica Schanoes ( 6/19/13)
‘‘Trial of the Century,’’ Lawrence M. Schoen (, 8/13; World Jumping)
Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean)

Best Novelette

‘‘Paranormal Romance,’’ Christopher Barzak (Lightspeed 6/13)
‘‘The Waiting Stars,’’ Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky)
‘‘They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass,’’ Alaya Dawn Johnson (Asimov’s 1/13)
‘‘Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,’’ Henry Lien (Asimov’s 12/13)
‘‘The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,’’ Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/13)
‘‘In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,’’ Sarah Pinsker (Strange Horizons 7/1 – 7/8/13)

Best Short Story

‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth,’’ Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,’’ Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,’’ Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,’’ Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,’’ Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Doctor Who: ‘‘The Day of the Doctor’’ (Nick Hurran, director; Steven Moffat, writer) (BBC Wales)
Europa Report (Sebastián Cordero, director; Philip Gelatt, writer) (Start Motion Pictures)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, director; Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, writers) (Warner Bros.) (Past Guest Instructor Kevin Grazer was the science advisor.)
Her (Spike Jonze, director; Spike Jonze, writer) (Warner Bros.)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, director; Simon Beaufoy & Michael deBruyn, writers) (Lionsgate)
Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, director; Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, writers) (Warner Bros.)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Indigo)
When We Wake, Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin; Little, Brown)
Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson (Grand Central)
The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine)
Hero, Alethea Kontis (Harcourt)
September Girls, Bennett Madison (Harper Teen)
A Corner of White, Jaclyn Moriarty (Levine)

Damon Knight Grand Master Award: Samuel R. Delany
Special Guest: Frank M. Robinson

Late Monday Starlinks

February 18th, 2014

Over at Amazing Stories I explain, contrary to poll results, that astrology is not scientific. Someone doesn’t agree with me.

A possible dark matter detection signal. After looking more closely…wake me in another decade. Still, a nice example of real science and the real difficulties.

Professors, we need you! I’m doing my part, but there are too many parts…

The physics of speed skating suits. Apparently the Americans’ physics was poor.

Bill Nye schooling (willfully?) ignorant GOP congressperson on climate change. He’s been in the news a lot lately. This is a good role for him, I think, especially as he’s always very polite and civil.

Ten Mind-Blowing Implications of Quantum Mechanic’s Many Worlds Theory. Remember…it’s only a theory, more in the colloquial use of the word theory for once.

The science of Valentine’s Day as explained by Star Trek.

We need an asteroid deflector mission! I agree with Phil Plait.

The real reason women in fantasy art wear skimpy armor.

Listen to a 500-year-old song painted on a butt from hell. Had to link.

Spotted on io9, the rules of Human/Robot society:

NASA/Tor Collaboration to Promote Science in Science Fiction

February 13th, 2014

I got this email from Robert Roten, President of the local astronomy group here in Laramie, about a discussion they’re having:

In William Forstchen’s new science fiction novel, “Pillar to the Sky,”there are no evil cyborgs, alien invasions or time travel calamities. The threat to humanity is far more pedestrian: tight-fisted bureaucrats who have slashed NASA’s budget.

The novel is the first in a new series of “NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction,” which grew out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.

The plot of Mr. Forstchen’s novel hinges on a multibillion-dollar effort to build a 23,000-mile-high space elevator—a quest threatened by budget cuts and stingy congressmen. Forthcoming novels in the series will explore asteroid mining, wormholes and astrobiology.

Fact-based science fiction may sound like a contradiction, or a poor marketing strategy, in a literary genre that typically celebrates flights of fantasy. But Tor and NASA say both stand to gain. Novelists get access to cutting-edge research and experts in obscure fields. A NASA official says that shaping science fiction offers “an innovative way to reach out to the public to raise awareness of what the agency is doing.”

NASA has been hosting novelists at its research facilities for multiday tours titled, “Science Fiction Meets Science Fact.” At one mixer, in October 2012, some 20 sci-fi writers mingled with NASA experts at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

They toured the radar detector development lab, laser and electro-optics facility and cosmic ice laboratory.

“Getting a message across embedded in a narrative rather than as an overt ad or press release is a subtle way of trying to influence people’s minds,” says Charles Seife, author of “Decoding the Universe,” who has written about NASA’s efforts to rebrand itself. “It makes me worry about propaganda.”

Enidia Santiago-Arce, a NASA official who is coordinating the author-scientist exchanges, says the agency isn’t pushing pro-NASA story lines. The collaboration doesn’t include any NASA funding.

“They write whatever they want,” she said. “We provide them with people who have the expertise to help make it as accurate as it can be within the realms of science fiction.”

Robert Roten
President, Laramie Astronomical Society and Space Observers (LASSO)

I didn’t know about this NASA effort to bring in novelists, but it seems very complementary to Launch Pad, and I’m going to look into it.

Sunday Starlinks

February 9th, 2014

First, I wanted to let everyone know that Launch Pad is now accepting applications for the 2014 July 13-20th workshop until March 15. Please be encouraged to pass on the word to writers and other creators/editors who might want a crash course in modern astronomy with an emphasis on communicating scientific concepts.

Launch Pad alumnus David Levine reports about being NASA’s guest at the Kennedy Space Center. Well worth the read for the space fan.

NASA also brings us the Earth seen from Mars.

Funding issues in astronomy and a call to save Lick Observatory. I observed there many times, and was married there my first time. It would be a great waste, I agree. Maybe science crowdfunding?

I used to think I understood the basics of black holes, but there’s a lot of new ideas out there like this one: a new type of star that emerges from a black hole. Speculative, but interesting.

The Bill Nye-Ken Ham “debate” was a big deal this week on the internet. Here’s the basics. Phil Plait’s take. And another take.

New Complications in Science Reporting.

A bionic hand, this time with feeling. For real.

Reality catching up to science fiction? Old science fiction, maybe.

Scientists attach a stick to a chicken to investigate dinosaurs. Science is cool.

Nice infographic for time travel.

New nanotech tech that could lead to smart dust.

Spaceships made of bone? Bonepunk is coming!!! Ha ha!

The death of expertise. This issue has vexed me, too. And a suggestion that some TED speakers are not experts, or are misleading and this is bad.

Ants solving a chess problem I’ve solved before.

Ten scariest movie aliens? Not a bad list:

Monday Starlinks

February 3rd, 2014

Took time off Sunday to watch the Superbowl. Living near Denver, I support the Broncos. They needed a lot more than my support.

Let’s start with the highlight for me, a preview for COSMOS:

And…a 1976 letter from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Carl Sagan.

Overblown statements in press releases undermine science. Yeah, I understand the urge, but agree with the sentiment.

Operate a robot suit from appleseed!

And 3D Food Printer needs rebranding a Star Trek replicator, for sure.

Some southerners think the snow was fake. There’s a conspiracy for everything.

Another rich, clueless person spouting off from his Swiss resort about climate change and playing God. Or not. Another uninformed opinion.

Businesses need the scientific method. Duh.

The image that will break your brain. Shades of Snowcrash.

Clark Gregg on Agents of SHIELD ratings slide: “Losers Stopped Watching.” Actually, nice bit in character. I’m watching still, but not enthusiastically. Deathlok is going to be making an appearance, and I’ll reevaluate after that. I feel like it’s gotten better recently, but still fails to meet my expectations.

Stem cell breakthrough. Pretty cool.

Sunday Starlinks

January 26th, 2014

I’m teaching a new class this semester (Physics 1 for Engineers) and it has been taking a lot of time to get up to speed here, keeping me from doing much more than the weekly link post. Hope that will change soon. I have various bits of news (e.g., new funding for Launch Pad and an opening application window) that I’d like to share, too, and will soon.

First, Stephen Hawking on “no more black holes.” Here’s another take. This is a subtle issue and not yet resolved. As a practical matter, there are still black holes out there but they have some different features in their details than originally proposed.

There’s a new supernova in the relatively nearby galaxy M82. Another take. More on this huge deal.

NASA’s 30 Year Goal of Answering the Question, “Are We Alone?” It’s indeed feasible on that time scale.

Still, astronauts are waiting for a ride.

The coming avalanche of Chinese science. Mixed feelings about the article for me. Throwing money/people at a field really does help. Is it misguided here? Or is that wishful thinking from someone outside of China? I know that in my field, China just basically bought one of our top astronomers to establish a new world-class astrophysics center.

James Bond water-breathing tech is now a reality.

Jenny McCarthy’s mark on the world. Not limited to Playboy, unfortunately.

Yeah, why couldn’t R2-D2 speak English?

Sunday Starlinks

January 19th, 2014

Busy week with classes resuming and a small chest cold. Still, some cool stuff happening at various places online:

Standard cosmic rulers calibrated to 1%. No, it’s cooler than it sounds (I have a friend intimately involved), although no cosmic nuns.

The Millennium Simulation Project and the Virgo Cluster. If you want to simulate an apple pie, you’re going to need a bigger computer.

Is the universe made of math? Well, when I have ideas like this, I turn them into science fiction stories rather than pretending they’re science. Is my experimentalist bias showing?

How to use a black hole to power a starship. I did it similarly, but not identically, in Star Dragon.

Three arguments (picked from many others!) that should never be used against man-made climate change. Also, there was an interesting press release generating some articles like this one about the “quiet sun” and its potential impact on weather patterns (NOT Climate!). This is all speculative and in no way explains global climate change to date.

Meanwhile, “quiet black holes” are sneaking up on us. (I’m not “sneaking!” they object, like Gollum.)

Why go to Mars? Astronaut number one…

Batman vs. Superman delayed. I’m a little sad about this…unless it sucks.

Interesting take on Almost Human. Almost makes me want to check it out and see if the explanation jibes with why I haven’t been interested in watching it.

Make $30k a month loving bigfoot!

Animating art? An abomination or…more art? Sampling of the classics?

Can you engineer immortality? Very worthwhile TED talk. Addresses a lot of things in a short time. Come for the information, stay for the beard.

Sunday Starlinks

January 12th, 2014

I’m going to try to keep this brief, since it’s a school night and I have a few things left to prepare before the first day of classes tomorrow.

Over at Amazing Stories, I explain that I Love Science Fiction, But I Don’t Love THAT. Apparently it was the most popular article this week even though it doesn’t seem to be controversial (at least to the target audience).

OMG, THE BEST IPHONE ACCESSORY EVER! I am so getting this! The FLIR One turns your iphone 5 or 5s into a real thermal camera. Another article.

Strange star could host a neutron star at its core. Cool!

Which scientific ideas should be retired? Some interesting points.

Distinguishing Science from Nonsense.

Speaking of which, a couple of articles from the usual dumbasses about how the cold snap proved global warming is nonsense. Not!

And other anti-science folks are using bullying tactics on facebook and elsewhere. No, not every opinion is equally valid.

Scientists tell the truth. Funny! At least to a scientist. And shouldn’t undermine science.

What if the alien universe was terrified of humans? They’d be wise? ;)

Why you should upload yourself into a supercomputer.

A 3-D Printed Dragon!

There’s apparently been a lot of blogging about The Big Big Bang Theory tv show about the usual thing: is it funny or offensive to nerds? I made my peace over this a while back and enjoy the show. Some of the laughs are with the nerds, some at them — sometimes deservedly so, and I can recognize this and still laugh even while sympathizing. So, anywhere, here’s a bunch of them: The Problem with the Big Bang Theory, Got to Stop Saying Nerd Blackface, Random Thoughts over Nerd Blackface, and I Like The Big Bang Theory, Because Communism. Finally, let me say that if you like a show, keep watching it and don’t let others convince you about your own preferences. If you don’t like it, stop watching it, and let its fans enjoy it.

Ray Bradbury on Lists.

L. Ron’s great grandson spills the beans on scientology.

Wonder Woman rumor runs amok on the internet.

Taiwan’s new army uniforms are terrifying. Yes! The dark sf future is here!

A map to the zombie apocalypse.

Algorithms could help predict books success.

Why drugs are expensive. The legal ones, that is.

Sunday Starlinks

January 5th, 2014

Let’s start with lists of some of the best and worst science of 2013:

Biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2013.  The astronomy-related ones were decent.

Top junk science of 2013.  Agree with many of these.  I’m a fan of cryptozoology, but come on with the unprofessional bigfoot DNA shenanigans and the mermaid “documentaries.”

The headline of the article is wrong, but the article itself, about quantum effects limiting our ability to measure the acceleration of the expansion of space locally, is interesting.   I should make this a homework question next time I teach cosmology.

1000 Mars One finalists chosen.  Not me — I didn’t apply.  How about you?  I like their list of qualifications.

On correlation and causation…  Funny and true!  I just hate it, however, when climate change deniers try to use a similar but fatally flawed argument to dismiss the effects on CO2 and temperature.  When there’s a known physical mechanism and a prediction of a correlation that is found at the right level, that’s actually evidence in favor of an effect, not meaningless.   Still — Bite me, Jenny McCarthy.  I’m organic!

Bill Nye to debate Ken Ham, Creation Museum founder.  Mixed feelings on this, as public debates are far from the best way to determine factual information and this can only help legitimize Ken Ham, as fellow creationists will see him as the winner no matter what happens.

More evidence against time travelers.   I thought this was amusing.

Who really created Wolverine?  Interesting story.

Favorite jokes of scientists.

Why TED is a recipe for civilizational disaster.  I don’t know that I’d go that far!  I do agree with this sentiment: “I submit that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilizational disaster.”



End of Year Starlinks

December 30th, 2013

Yesterday, I drove 1000 miles back home from visiting family in St. Louis, so a delay in the starlinks for the week.

Woman stabbed father in a fight over constellations. We have the internet and phone apps — no reason for this any more!

Americans less likely to trust scientists, science journalists. They have some reason, especially in the latter case, but apparently a lot of it is because they think the scientists succumb to political ideology. Nope — it’s the deniers. Follow the money. If you can. And evolution is not up for debate anymore, but fewer Republicans believe it. The fact is that a consensus of scientists is the best (only?) standard for whether you should believe in something. If it’s tainted, it’s less tainted than everything else.

SMBC’s solution to the Fermi paradox. Not new, but well done.

The physics of melting gold in The Hobbit. A little geeky, even for me.

Iron Man saved my life
. I have that issue!

Why we should all fear the online mob
. It’s a very disturbing trend. No matter how righteous your cause, I’m not going along any more. These mobs breed censorship, intolerance, and injustice, even when they claim that’s what they’re fighting. Here’s a real-life example, but luckily there’s only hypocrisy here, no ruined lives.

How not to make a sexist tech product. Personally, I wish they’d make everything in purple, which is my favorite color, and easier to use.

io9 muses on death rays and plutonium.

Bananas as we know them likely to go extinct. And this has happened before. Probably easier to save than resurrect, but maybe not so easy.

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