The human colony on the planet Argo has long explored and exploited the technology left behind by an extinct alien race. But then an archaeology team accidentally activates a terrible weapon... Read More.
Praise for Star Dragon
"Seldom does a storytelling talent come along as potent and fully mature as Mike Brotherton. His complex characters take you on a voyage that is both fiercely credible and astonishingly imaginative. This is Science Fiction."
-- David Brin
"Star Dragon is terrific fare, offering readers a fusion of hard science and grand adventure."
-- Locus Magazine
"Star Dragon is steeped in cosmology, the physics of interstellar travel, exobiology, artificial intelligence, bioscience. Brotherton, author of many scientific articles in refereed journals, has written a dramatic, provocative, utterly convincing hard science sf novel that includes an ironic twist that fans will love."
-- Booklist starred review
"Readers hungry for the thought-provoking extrapolation and rigorous technical detail of old-fashioned hard SF are sure to enjoy astronomer Brotherton's first novel."
-- Publishers Weekly
"Mike Brotherton, himself a trained astrophysicist, combines the technical acuity and ingenuity of Robert Forward with the ironic, postmodern stance and style of M. John Harrison. In this, his debut novel, those twin talents unite to produce a work that is involving on any number of levels. It's just about all you could ask for in a hardcore SF adventure."
-- Paul di Fillippo, SCI-FI.COM
First, let me say we have too many “National Days of…” and “International Days of…” whatever. I find this kind of thing a mostly useless stunt most of the time. Months and years, too, of course. At least the longer time periods allow serious efforts to celebrate or promote something. I’m sure on the internet somewhere I kind find lists of thousands of things sharing the days of the year as excuses to talk about topics of personal interest.
While I still have about 20 minutes tonight, let me contradict the above sentiments to pay homage to something I’ve never seen before: a national day of reason. Here’s another story for another city.
If we’re going to do silly symbolic things like this, about damn time reason got a little lip service.
I did some science today, like I do most days, so I guess I celebrated.
I watched most of the first episode on TV last night. It’s worth watching. The show features teams of engineers, mostly younger and photogenic engineers, and most male in a way consistent with engineering demographics, competing in challenging engineering problems. I’m sure I’ll watch again. I love creative, technical challenges and watching people compete to solve them. (Confession: I do have a B.S. in electrical engineering from the Jurassic era.)
The bad? Well, terms like “big brain” and “pure genius” don’t go so well with engineering to me. Engineering does take brains, but it doesn’t take genius, and as the show aptly demonstrates, success or failure often hinges on other elements more critical than brains. These are team projects, and social skills count for a lot. As well as the ability to weld quickly, at least in the first task.
The worst thing, however, in my opinion, was how every time they featured an individual engineer they showed their name along with…wait for it…their IQ! How hokey! Again, it’s hard to be a dunce and be a good engineer, but education, experience, and social skills count for more in this kind of competition where everyone is smart enough to be a good engineer. Personally, I’d rather see that emphasized. Creativity is also not so well correlated with IQ scores, necessarily, but that’s the kind of intelligence that helps in this sort of competition. Also, sending the message that only geniuses can be engineers isn’t the one I’d like to send to young people watching the show. Anyone who has fun with legos or Minecraft can aspire to be an engineer, not just people with IQ scores above some minimum.
Anyway, I do recommend it aside from the above issues.
US House Science Committee Attacking Science, Again…
May 1st, 2013
This has been a rough week for me on the funding front, getting two NSF grant proposals turned down. I expected it at some level, since the odds have gotten so bad (about 10-12% in astronomy, last time I saw hard numbers). So you have to have a great proposal, or at least one that is uniformly viewed as great. I don’t feel bad about one of the proposals — it’s a project that features a great, general purpose utility but the science driver itself is less compelling and will need to be strengthened to be competitive. The other one I felt better about and thought I’d made a strong case, but got some criticisms that were off base, in my opinion. The kind of criticisms someone who is biased, or skeptical without being a true expert, might make. That’s frustrating. At least I know which points need more justification to counter that for the revision for next year.
This means I get paid for 9 months this year instead of 11 or 12, and don’t have funds to support students who will have to find alternative funding (e.g. teaching as available, or two work with other faculty). It sucks to be unfunded. I still have one hope for a smaller grant that is still pending via NASA, so we’ll see.
Even when I’m critical of an individual review panel, in general I approve of the procedure. Peer review is appropriate, and non-experts cannot be trusted to evaluate the science proposed. Science is, for better or worse, very specialized, and it’s very difficult to be a generalist qualified to judge even every subtopic within their general area.
So I continue to irked by non-scientists second-guessing the NSF and its review panels. While they may not fund every under-appreciated proposal submitted their way, the ones funded are, in my experience, very worthy of the funding.
1) “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
3) “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”
NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the “intellectual merit” of a proposed research project as well as its “broader impacts” on the scientific community and society.
Now, this seems targeted primarily at political science and other social sciences, likely in an attempt to head off research that might appear liberal. It is far broader, however, and another attack on basic, fundamental science in favor of applied science.
Applied science and technology is important, but funding it alone is near-sighted and a flawed approach, as history shows.
It’s very rarely clear what research will be “groundbreaking.” No one predicted that better determination of supernova luminosities would lead to the discovery of dark energy, for instance. And is basic knowledge about the age of the universe or the Earth itself “of utmost importance to society at large?” It’s valuable and worth doing, very much so in my opinion, but there are close-minded culturally bereft souls out there who only seem to care about things like money and security. If not, they would not offer such criteria.
This is an attack on astronomy and other basic science every bit as much as it is an attack on the social science that fellow conservative politician Tom Coburn (R-OK) specifically singles out as unworthy of funding except in the case of economics or national security.
Smith’s specific proposal is titled the oxymoronic “High Quality Research Act.” These criteria will surely keep some high-quality research from being funded. Science is making educated guesses and rolling the dice. We don’t know how to ensure what the dice will roll. The procedure already picks loaded dice, but there’s no guarantees. Smith ought to know that and keep his nose out of science unless he can actually help it rather than cripple it. He should be ashamed of himself, but somehow I doubt it.
I think the National Science Foundation ought to be able to review the bills from the House Science Committee, and offer their criteria as part of a “High Quality House Bill Act,” at least on scientific topics. As it stands now, I’m disgusted with this congress.
There’s something so awful about this, I want it and am considering chipping in. I have a soft spot for Ed Wood movies, and this won’t even be in that class, except in the pure passion and commitment Jack T. Chick puts into these ridiculously over-the-top stories. There’s a chance I’d watch this over and over and laugh out loud every time. Anything that makes you laugh so much can’t be all bad!
I just became aware of this crazy stupid quote from congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) from 2010:
Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can’t transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It’s just something to think about.
These are our representatives who make policy decisions and aren’t smart enough, or are too biased, to realize they don’t know a damn thing about science. I laughed at first, but we should all be angry at a system that puts such people in positions of power.
And in the other corner, upstart Uwingu, a new company looking for alternative ways to fund science and science education.
Disclaimer: I am a member of the IAU and have also donated money to Uwingu.
Basically, the IAU is a large (10,000) member group of astronomers who are old school and claim to be the only official body with the right to name objects in the sky or features on them. There hasn’t been any real alternatives to them with any serious scientific credentials, only scam companies offering to name a star after grandma for $35.
Uwingu has challenged that with a contest designed to raise money involving naming a recently discovered planet in the Alpha Centauri system. The winning name is apparently Albertus Alauda. I’m tempted to side with the IAU if this is what a system of paying for votes leads to. In the future, using such a system, companies and rich people can start naming planets after grandma.
Anyway, there’s some disagreement. The IAU does kind of like to play “name police” and I myself once got an email from someone on that committee to tell me I needed to use a different name for an object in one of papers — which was already published.
Uwingu founder, astronomer Alan Stern, doesn’t care and doesn’t see a problem. He thinks the sky belongs to everyone, and what really determines the name of things are people who refer to things by name, not necessarily an official, stuffy organization.
Personally, I’m conflicted. I’m not very happy with either Uwingu or IAU here. Maybe if the name selected was better, I’d favor Uwingu, but if they become recognized as a company with authority to name for a price, we’re going to start getting planets out there named Mobil-Exxon and L. Ron Hubbard. Maybe it’d be worth it if that money were then channelled into science and education. On the other hand, I’ve never been real pleased with the way that a small group in the IAU has so much power to name things and does not have to follow the recommendations of the discoverers of objects. It is kind of a stuffy, bureaucratic group. But maybe that’s what we humans expect to lend authority and officialness.
For the immediate future, I just plan on using the phrase “the exoplanet discovered in the Alpha Centauri system.”
“I will apologize for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could. But the studio literally took the movie away from us. It was terrible. My visual effects supervisor had a nervous breakdown, so I had to be in charge of that. I called James Cameron and asked ‘What do you do when you’re doing all the effects yourself?’ But the movie did fine.”
Well, it’s not clear that he’d have fixed all the science issues with more time, but who knows?
I’ve always kind of thought of Michael Bay as a director without much of a desire to make memorable, quality film. I may be wrong about that. I’d be pleasantly surprised. And maybe a lot of the flaws have to do the writers.
The writers were Jonathan Hensleigh and…J.J. Abrams. Hmmm…
The talented Todd Vandemark is in town this week helping our department make some videos to help advertise / humanize our department to prospective physics and astronomy students, so I have videos on the mind. I’ve been thinking about them, researching, and seeing what’s out there and finding some cool stuff.
You may or may not realize this, but almost every super-cool astronomical image you see from Hubble or any professional telescope starts as several black and white images, usually with cosmetic defects and a splash of cosmic rays (high energy particles from space that pass through CCD detectors during long exposures and leave streaks in an image). Typical Hubble images can have a few percent an individual image ruined by cosmic rays.
The very sensitive CCD detectors we use do not come in color. They just detect photons. If we want color information (and pretty pictures) we have to put colored filters in our optical path, and then compare/combine the images later. It’s an art as much as a science, making the beautiful images at least, and I found several videos showing the general process. Neither have that many hits, but are deserving of them from the interested. Have a look:
Apparently there’s a bunch of these from a meeting, both with individual speakers (Lawrence Krauss, Brian Greene, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Tracy Day, and Neal Stephenson) and more general debate. This is the one I’ve gotten to watch so far, but I bet they’re all worth checking out.
Is it bad science or a game of thrones? Deepak Chopra and friends are upset that Ted/Tedx is trying to keep new age woo, pseudoscience, and other crap out of their conferences. He got a reply, which is more than a full-of-shit mystic deserves, but it’s polite, except for maybe the reference to Big Macs (sorry, McDonalds!). Chopra continues with his nonsense, pretending they’re “halfway there,” and gets his friends to pile on. Blaming of militant atheists bonuses! Chopra and his buddies are being kept from doing real science by guys with guns, apparently.
What looks like it’ll be the next space alien body hoax. Or just misidentification plus wishful thinking. Things like this interest me. There’s the longshot chance that one of them will actually be for real, but better is the opportunity to do some good science and show people what is believable and why, and what is not credible.