Life and death among the stars

The Hubble Space Telescope turns 25 this year, and it has transformed our view of the cosmos, giving us unique insights into the astonishing universe in which we live. I thought it would be interesting to look at the life and death of stars in the context of Hubble’s 25th anniversary.

The pretty pictures we’re most familiar with from Hubble are a treasure trove of information for astronomers.

Hubble has undergone several refit missions while in space, improving its optics. Here’s an example of just how much our view of the stars has increased over the past quarter of a century.

As it is, even with the grainy imaging, this is an astonishing photograph of the aftermath of a supernova that took place 168,000 light years away. To put it in context, “we” (Homo sapiens) were working with crude stone axes somewhere around the horn of Africa, yet to venture out into Europe and Asia, when this star exploded, shining with the radiance of a hundred million suns!

Several hominid species went extinct while the light from this explosion rushed through the void of space to get to us, and just a few decades ago, it finally arrived, revealing the tumultuous death of a star.

Supernova 1987s with improved optics and image processing

Supernova 1987a with improved optics and image processing

Hubble had another look with its upgraded image processing and we got a glimpse of the aftermath of this explosion in stunning detail.

All is not what it seems. Imagine an hour glass. If this star was at the center of the hour glass, then the two, large, faint rings you can see would be either end of the hourglass. Only these rings aren’t the result of the supernova itself, NASA thinks these are “smoke rings” blown off by a blue supergiant some 20,000 thousand years earlier.

While these faint rings are are racing outward at 100,000 mph, the thick inner ring is part of the actual supernova explosion and is racing out at almost ten million miles an hour! The inner ring will overtake the outer ring at some point in the future.

At the heart of the supernova, the stellar remnants have probably collapsed into a neutron star or possibly even a black hole. But the death of one star leads to the birth of others as new chemical elements are formed and flung into space to become the nebulas that will eventually collapse to form another generation of stars and planets.

Hubble has given us a glimpse into how our own solar system formed.

Ignore the blue stars in the foreground of this picture and look at the star cluster of roughly three thousand reddish stars in the heart of the nebula.

Our sun emerged from a stellar nursery just like this, roughly 4.8 billion years ago. These stars are only one or two million years old. They’re babies. The hydrogen they’re comprised of is still to undergo fusion and allow them to ignite as a true star. They formed out of the brilliant nebula visible around them like a cocoon. As they radiate, they’ll send more shockwaves into this gas cloud and cause even more stars to form.

Perhaps one day life will arise around these stars just as it did around our sun, certainly, all the raw materials are there. The only other ingredient needed is time, and the universe has plenty of that as well.

Thank you Hubble.

Thank you NASA.

You have enriched our world with the beauty of the heavens.

If you’re interested in astronomy, be sure to enter into the Cosmos Magazine competition to win a Dobsonian telescope.

The lonely bricklayer – A scientific allegory


Scientific research is always important, even if it seems esoteric and unimportant to some. Dr. One Pagan discusses examples in this blog post.

Originally posted on Baldscientist:

The lonely bricklayer – A scientific allegory

More than once people have asked me what good is my research for. This is one of the most common questions that is first and foremost in the mind of the general public. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most difficult questions to answer. This is especially true for fundamental research (as opposed to applied / technological research). After all, if you are working specifically on anticancer medications, not a lot of explanation is needed. The same applies to let’s say, engineering, if you want to build better bridges, for instance.

But, why study…

Polar bears?

Etc… This question is a little more difficult to answer, because in a real sense, one does not know the potential usefulness of apparently trivial information. A very readable article with some reasons why fundamental science is valuable can be found here.

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What are the chances of finding life in outer space?

In his book, The Improbability Principle, Professor David Hand makes the point that extremely unlikely events are often quite common.

At first, this sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not, and it has serious implications for SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.

We have a difficult time comprehending large numbers and recognizing their implications. For example, the chance of being struck by lightning in any given year is around 1 in 300,000. Not odds you’d normally worry too much about, right?

The chance of being struck by lightning is absurdly low. But when you consider that there are 7+ billion people on the planet it all of a sudden becomes obvious that being killed by lightning is actually quite common. Around 24,000 people are killed every year by lightning, and another ten times that number are seriously injured!

Our ability to intuitively understand probabilities involving numbers in the hundreds of thousands, millions, billions or trillions is poor. We just don’t deal with these numbers in every day life so we have no comprehension of what they mean in practice.

When you consider statistical probabilities, the chance that NO ONE will be killed in the next year by lightning is a stunning 10^-10133 that’s 10 with over ten thousand zeros following it!!

When we consider the possibility of life in outer space, there’s two very important aspects to consider.

First, there is unequivocal evidence for life in outer space. Earth!

Second, knowing life arose at least once, we know life can arise. What we need to do is to determine what the probability of life arising elsewhere actually is. That’s no easy feat, but as science continues to learn more about the origins of life on Earth, the picture will become clearer.

There have been a number of attempts at quantifying the probability of life arising elsewhere in the universe, most notably, the Drake Equation, but recently an alternative has been suggested called the Seager Equation that seeks to narrow the focus from the generalized question “What’s the chance of life arising ANYWHERE?” to a very pointed and specific “Based on what we know, what are the chances we will be able to find life elsewhere in the next decade by detecting biosignature gases?

Seager Equation


  • N is the number of planets with detectable biosignature gases
  • N* is the number of stars within the sample
  • FQ is the fraction of quiet stars
  • FHZ is the fraction with rocky planets in the habitable zone
  • FO is the fraction of observable systems
  • FL is the fraction with life
  • FS is the fraction with detectable spectroscopic signatures

If we inject realistic figures based on our current scientific understanding and the ability of a new generation of satellite telescopes like the James Webb to search for exoplanets, this is what we get…



That’s two planets with signs of life!!!

Now, some might question the assumptions in this equation, pointing out that FL (Fraction with Life) is high being arbitrarily set at one, and they’d be right. But there are other factors that are deliberately understated. The sample size is 30,000 stars. The James Webb Space Telescope is capable of scanning 500,000 stars in the immediate neighborhood, each with potentially dozens of planets, not just a paltry 30,000.

What probability do you want to assign? At this point, we really have no way of really knowing what some of these values are, but we do know that there are at least 70 billion trillion (7 x 10^22) stars in the known universe.  Other estimates are several orders of magnitude higher again, at an octillion or 10^29


Picture credit. Sloan Digital Sky Survey map of the known universe. At this scale, no stars are visible. Individual galaxies like the Milky Way are also invisible. Only clusters of galaxies, super clusters and filaments containing millions of galaxies can be seen.

Remember our lightning example. Even highly improbable events can be common place given big enough numbers. If the chances of life arising around a given star are stupendously small, at one in a trillion or 10^11, there would still be trillions upon trillions of planets with life in our universe.

Interestingly, though, if the odds were that low, then the chances of life arising in our galaxy are less than one as there’s less than a trillion stars in the Milky Way, which could explain why we haven’t found anything. But for the odds to be that low, there would have to be something “wrong” with the majority of galaxies (as the majority of galaxies have less than a trillion stars). Point being, even if we take a worst case scenario, it seems highly unlikely we are entirely alone. The odds are against it.

Personally, I think the search is only just beginning. We’ve looked at so little of the universe, it’s no surprise we haven’t found life elsewhere. In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Life doesn’t exist anywhere but Earth? That’s like filling a cup with ocean water and saying there aren’t any whales.”



Jupiter is a colossus among the planets in our solar system.

Everything about Jupiter is extreme. The Great Red Spot is an anticyclonic storm  three times the size of Earth and has been raging for at least 350 years.

With a magnetic field 20,000 times stronger than that of Earth, the radiation surrounding the planet is 1000xs the lethal dose for a human, damaging even heavily shielded space probes.

Jupiter is so big you could fit all the other planets inside it and is far closer to becoming a star than it is to being a planet like Earth.

Stars are formed because gravity causes hydrogen and helium to undergo pressure-induced fusion. Earth is roughly a million times smaller than the Sun, but Jupiter is only a thousand times smaller. And yet, if Jupiter was just 20xs bigger it would be considered a brown dwarf star. At 80-100x bigger, Jupiter would undergo fusion and shine as a red dwarf with enough light to allow you to read at night. As it is, Jupiter already glows when viewed in infrared light!

Jupiter is a vacuum cleaner, sucking up debris.

Jupiter shields the inner planets from asteroids, shepherding asteroids and keeping them in stable orbits around the Sun.

Without Jupiter, asteroid impacts like those that wiped out the dinosaurs could be so frequent complex life would never have evolved here on Earth.

At first, this animation might look a little confusing and counterintuitive, but it’s a fantastic example of how gravity shapes space.

Notice the different orbital speeds. Close to the Sun, Mercury is like a race car. Venus is slightly slower, then Earth, then Mars, then the Hilda family of asteroids (in magenta) and the Greeks (in front of Jupiter) and the Trojans (trailing Jupiter).

Space isn’t flat. Picture the animation above occurring in the fundraising coin well below and you’ll get a good mind-picture of how gravity works.

Space is like a coin well, only there's no friction so the coins keep going around and around and around

Space is like a coin well, only there’s no friction so the coins keep going around and around and around

Imagine Jupiter as a bowling ball rolling around a trampoline. Anything that gets too close is going to get sucked in. But what about objects that aren’t too close and are also in motion on our trampoline? How will they behave? Remember, in space there’s no such thing as being stationary. Everything’s in motion, and so asteroids find themselves in equilibrium with Jupiter and the Sun and appear to “sit” in the Lagrange points (in green) on either side of Jupiter.

If we take another perspective, imagining we’re in motion directly above Jupiter as it orbits the sun, then the massive planet appears stationary and we get an idea of how these asteroids have stabilized in their orbits.

The triangular shape of the Hilda family of asteroids is an illusion. Each individual asteroid is in a highly elliptical orbit, but there’s so many of them crisscrossing each other they give the appearance of a triangle relative to the Lagrange points.

Without Jupiter the inner solar system would be chaotic

Without Jupiter the inner solar system would be chaotic

The (green) Greek and Trojan asteroids on either side of Jupiter are in motion around the Sun at roughly the same rate as Jupiter and are held in these spots by the way gravity balances between Jupiter and the Sun (which are roughly equidistant from these clouds of asteroids).

Being in a lower, closer and faster orbit to the Sun, the Hilda asteroids “bounce” between these Lagrange points and the point directly opposite Jupiter.

topographical map

Topographical maps help us imagine three dimensions in two

If we compare Lagrange points to topographical maps, “Able Hill” and “Baker Hill” would be our two (green) Lagrange points with the Greek and Trojan asteroids sitting on the hilltops. Jupiter would be in the valley in-between, while the Sun would be down at sea level.

Jupiter’s phenomenal size gives it a massive influence over the distribution of asteroids in our solar system, protecting Earth for billions of years and allowing life to flourish.


Picture credit:NASA. The moon Io orbits high above the clouds of Jupiter

Looking up into the night sky, Jupiter appears insignificant, little more than a tiny dot in the darkness, but it has played a dominant role in shaping our solar system and may be the key to why life was able to avoid being peppered by asteroids. Without Jupiter, Earth might be a planet full of microbes and nothing else.

You’re invited!

Four books

It’s time to party!

I’m excited to announce The A.I. Chronicles comes out on Friday, March 13th. If you enjoy independent science fiction, stop by and join the Facebook party (Friday night in the US, Saturday morning in Australia)

Promoting novels is a bit like shouting at a rock concert. You can try, but you’re not going to be heard. The only real way to market a book as an independent author is to engage with readers. Word of mouth trumps all the supposed “best seller” tricks.

If you’ve read any of the books in this series, please leave a review on Amazon. It’ll only take a minute and you’ll help dozens of independent authors.

You’ll never see these books advertised in Times Square or in USA Today, there’s just no way an independently produced book can snag those spots. The only marketing we have is you and your enthusiasm for speculative science fiction.

So come along and join the party. I’ll bring the virtual pizza and beer :)

Thanks again for supporting independent scifi.

Cancer: bad luck or bad journalism?

Recently, there’s been a lot of press about cancer being caused by bad luck, but is it?

There’s two questions we should consider. How accurate is the science? And then how accurately is the science being reported?

How accurate is the science?

Science is built around transparency and repeatability, with scientific papers being subject to rigorous peer review to examine their method, results and conclusions.

In this case, the scientists involved have picked up on a legitimate correlation between the risk of cancer arising in a particular organ and the number of cell divisions that occur in that organ. Lots of cell division = higher risk. It’s an interesting insight, but it doesn’t mean cancer is the result of bad luck.

How accurately is the science being reported? 

As with so much that goes on in the media, most of the articles I’ve seen on this topic have been nothing more than a rehash of other articles without too much thought or analysis.

All too often, “automatic content creation” replaces actual journalism. Whenever you see roughly the same information repeated mindlessly, you’re probably looking at a content aggregator rather than actual human content.

auto content creation

The great irony of the internet age is content is growing at an exponential rate but quality is falling away. In the 1900s, the consummate knowledge of mankind doubled every century, prior to that, such doubling is estimated to have occurred only once a millenia. By the end of World War II, our collective pool of knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Now, the amount of information in the world doubles every year.

The problem we face going forward is identifying trustworthy, reliable knowledge in the sea of verbiage. Automatic content creation is a plague on the internet. Best solution? Check the sources an article is based upon. No source = no value.

In this case, the science isn’t being accurately reported as the conclusion that cancer is the result of bad luck is not the conclusion of the study.

Yes, organs with lots of cell division carry a higher risk of developing cancer, but it’s a broad, general observation. Lifestyle (epigenetics) has a huge impact, as does genetics. Look closely at the published graph showing the results of this study. There’s a big clue in that one of these cancers is listed twice.

Cancer rates

Remember, this graph is logarithmic, meaning although the values on the axis look evenly spaced, they’re not. Each marked value is exponentially further away from the last value. 10^5 is a hundred thousand while 10^7 is ten million, and 10^9 is a billion, etc.

Now, look at lung cancer. There are two values, one for smokers the other for non-smokers. They’re not the same. Why? Because lifestyle choices make a MASSIVE difference, on the order of 18 times more difference when you do the math!

The cancer risk is 18 times higher in smokers than non-smokers. Since roughly 18 percent of the adult US population are smokers, this suggests that for lung cancer, about 75 percent of the risk is due to smoking — Guardian

No other cancer in this study has been broken down by known drivers.

The incidence of melanoma (skin cancer) is known to be directly linked to sun exposure damaging DNA. Split out those that developed melanoma after years of exposure to the sun against those that developed melanoma even though they protected themselves with sunscreen, hats, etc, and you’ll probably get a very similar result to the smoking/non-smoking difference. Also, genetics play a huge role in melanoma, with light skinned/fair haired people being far more susceptible to this cancer.

Another stand out is HPV as this is a cancer we know is caused by a virus, and we’ve developed a vaccine for it, yet it also ostensibly follows the pattern of cell division = higher risk. Clearly, there’s more research to be done and better categorizations to be made to take into account these other contributing factors.

Cancer is an astonishingly complex disease. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no simple answers, like “It’s all just bad luck.” But there is an abundance of wonderful research being done on how to prevent and how to treat cancer.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — Benjamin Franklin

Eat healthy meals. Exercise regularly. Avoid exposure to known carcinogens. Protect yourself from the sun, etc. None of that advice has changed with this study.

Don’t leave cancer to dumb, bad luck.

My Top 10 (actually 18) Books of 2014


Top 10 Books of 2014 as chosen by independent science fiction writer Will Swardstrom

Originally posted on Will Swardstrom - Author:

It’s December, so that can only mean one thing – end of the year Top 10 lists! I did my favorite reads of 2013 last year, so now this can be a yearly thing. Just like last year, most of the books I read over the last 365 days or so were independently-published. Just like last year, I really believe we are in the midst of a publishing renaissance thanks to the new digital publishing tools at our disposal.

Personally, I did manage to get my second novel published, but everything else I published ended up being short stories (a couple will even be showing up in the first couple weeks of 2015). Due a lot of family situations, including a major addition to my family in August, writing just wasn’t as much of a priority during a few stretches. I can say I was able to get about 1/3…

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What will First Contact be like?

Is there life in outer space?

Although there’s plenty of conjecture in the media and a host of imaginative science fiction stories on this subject, we already know the answer to this question.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Wallpapers

Yes, there is life in outer space! 

There’s no uncertainty, no doubt, no question at all. Life exists in outer space. Earth itself is definitive proof that life can thrive in the harsh environment of space.

At first glance, such an answer might seem disingenuous, as what people really mean when they ask, “Is there life in outer space?” is … “Is there any other life?” but this is a genuine answer. Our universe is a harsh, hostile environment, and yet life has flourished with astonishing diversity on at least one planet—Earth.

The answer to the question, “Is there any other life in outer space?” is “We don’t know, but we have no reason to think there isn’t.”

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus first established that the Earth revolves around the sun. The single biggest hurdle he faced in promoting his heliocentric theory was that everyone assumed the Earth was special. Earth wasn’t “just another planet” like Mars or Venus. Earth was the center of creation! Copernicus proved otherwise.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: ArtsElectronic

Even now, five hundred years later, people still struggle with Earthism (if I may be allowed to coin such a phrase) assuming Earth is somehow special and unique in the heavens. The reality is, Earth is a rather small planet in orbit around an unassuming star in a modestly sized, nondescript galaxy.

Everything we’ve learned about astronomy suggests there are a ridiculously large number of similar, Earth-like planets out there, perhaps as many as 40 billion in our own galaxy!

There are at least two hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Each of these stars can potentially host dozens of planets.

Earth is as unique as a snowflake, but so is Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. Contrary to popular belief, snowflakes are somewhat identical when they form and, as wonderfully varied as they are once they reach the ground, they’re not entirely unique.

Earth is astonishing and beautiful, but it is no more or less important or unique than any other planet. Consider the other planets in our solar system, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and the rest. They may lack complex life but they’re just as extraordinary as Earth, and there’s a distinct possibility that the moons of Saturn and Jupiter could harbor microbial life!

In the 1950s, Enrico Fermi looked out at the stars and posed the question, “Where is everybody?” Fermi had done the math and realized given the size of our galaxy and how long it has been around, we should see the Milky Way teeming with life.

Fermi’s Paradox has become a mainstay of astronomy ever since, with scientists trying to understand why the heavens are silent, and yet the answer may be surprisingly simple.

Picture credit: XKCD

Picture credit: xkcd – The Search

Seth Shostak, in his non-fiction book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter, points out how astonishingly difficult and time consuming it is to search through space.

Seth gives the analogy of someone sitting next to a haystack, sifting through a thimble full of hay looking for a needle to highlight how little we have accomplished in our search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Only this particular field we’re sitting in has at least two hundred billion other haystacks!

Space is unimaginably big. The average star seen with the naked eye is roughly a hundred light years away, and yet the distribution of stars that make up our galaxy spans a hundred thousand light years!

On the darkest night, we see only a tiny fraction of the stars in our own galaxy, something like 0.000005% of the stars out there.

Picture credit: Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Picture credit: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Look out at the stars tonight and the chances are the starlight falling on your eyes first radiated into space before you were born. That light has been racing through space over the course of your entire life, only to arrive now and register in your eyes for a fraction of a second.

When you look at the numbers, First Contact is a question of when, not if, and yet First Contact won’t be anything like the movies.

Stephen Hawking is concerned about First Contact, noting that, historically, First Contact with an advanced civilization never ended well for the original inhabitants. American Indians, Aztecs and the Australian Aborigines all suffered at the hands of the more technologically advanced colonial Europeans, but First Contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence will be quite different.

Rather than working against us, First Contact is going to be extremely one sided in our favor, and the reason is simple—we will detect ET long before ET detects us.

Remember, looking into space is akin to looking back in time.

If we detect an alien civilization at the modest distance of 3,000 light years away then we will see that civilization as it existed 3,000 years ago. Should they happen to be looking in our direction, they’ll “see” us as we were in 1000 BC—King David ruled in Israel, the Assyrian empire dominated the Middle East, Rome wasn’t founded for another three hundred years.

ET would “see” a technologically silent planet with a curious atmosphere that they might consider a candidate for life, but they’ll have no direct evidence for intelligent life. 

Even if our extraterrestrial neighbors can travel faster than the speed of light and can reach Earth in a relatively short period of time, they would still have no way of knowing there was civilized life on Earth for thousands of years to come. In short, we can see them, but they can’t see us.

In this way, emerging celestial societies, such as Earth, have an advantage over more technologically advanced societies in that we can eavesdrop. We can remain incognito as we learn about ET.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Tiny Humanity. Yep, that blue dot is as far as our radio signals have reached into space

If we detect an alien civilization anywhere beyond that tiny blue dot, they’re not going to know about us for a very looooong time.

So what is First Contact likely to be?

Contact is somewhat of a misnomer. First Detection is more appropriate.

If we look at the kinds of signals broadcast by humans, some of the strongest signals come from “dumb” technology, things like weather radar or navigation radar at airports. There’s not too much that could be inferred from detecting such a signal from an alien civilization other than that the signal wasn’t produced naturally. If we picked up their equivalent, we’d know they were there, but it would take years to glean more than that. 

More interesting signals, such as radio and television, are designed for local reception. Although such signals leak into space, they weaken according to the inverse square of the distance they reach—double the distance, quarter the strength, etc. As they’re not intended to span star systems, they’re going to be absurdly difficult to detect as they’ll be so faint they fade into the background noise.

ET may use some kind of point-to-point solution for communicating between planets or stars, something like a laser. Being effective over large distances invariably means there’s less leakage, less opportunity for us to eavesdrop. We would miss something like this entirely.

One hallmark of civilization is the consumption of power. Converting energy into usable power is notoriously difficult to do efficiently. Invariably, there’s always some kind of leakage. Engines are noisy, they get hot, etc, so when looking at the heavens we look for the telltale signs of industry. We may very well detect the heat signature of an advanced alien civilization before detecting their radio waves.

Picture credit: HALO

Picture credit: HALO – A Dyson sphere around a star would give off infrared radiation we could detect

Another possibility is a deliberate broadcast. In this scenario, ET recognizes the difficulty of interstellar travel and broadcasts his intentions either via radio waves (cheap to send) or by sending out Von Neumann probes (such as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey). In essence, this is the equivalent of the time capsules we buried in grade school, leaving something for future generations to examine. 

More than likely, though, First Contact/Detection will be accidental on ET’s part and not a deliberate message, and that will limit what we can learn from them.

First Contact is going to be a long, slow process, but it will change our outlook on life and the universe just as radically as the telescope Galileo first pointed at Jupiter. 

When it comes to First Contact, we’re going to have to be patient.

Peter Cawdron is the international bestselling author of such speculative First Contact novels as ANOMALY, XENOPHOBIA and MY SWEET SATAN.

Scientist Fiction

Recently, while working on the Telepath Chronicles, I got to meet Elena Giorgi, a native of the virtual land of Facebook.

Elena is a scientist writing science fiction, specializing in thrillers, and she’s got quite a yarn to spin.

Not only

Not only is Elena an author, she’s a remarkable photographer

Here’s my interview with Elena.

Writing is an arduous task, a labour of love. What inspired you to start writing science fiction?

That’s an interesting question, because in fact, I grew up reading the classics and a lot of literary fiction, and indeed that’s all I wrote for the longest time. I studied theoretical math in college and graduate school, and as much as I love rigor and logic, I soon grew tired of all the abstraction with no immediate application. Quoting from a guest blog I did for the STEM Women website

“Pure math is beautiful and perfect. There’s Banach spaces, and then Hilbert spaces, and then Banach spaces of Hilbert spaces, and Hilberts of Banachs of Hilberts… It’s like getting lost in one of Dr. Seuss’s pictures. Oh, the thinks you can thinkYes you can, but… do you want to?” 

I switched to genetics in 2004 and never looked back. That’s when I started also envisioning all these fantastic science fiction scenarios because truly, if you think human imagination has no limit, wait until you see what Mother Nature came up with through genetics and epigenetics. It’s mesmerizing! You think vampires are cool? Wait until you learn about epigenetic chimeras! We have alien colonies right in our body, millions of aliens who can actually control how fat and/or lean we are by expressing (or not) certain genes in our guts.

So, in a nutshell, that’s how I started writing science fiction: because I fell in love with molecular biology and genetics. :-)

As a scientist, can you tell us a little about your work on developing a vaccine for HIV?

MosaicsMy mentor, Bette Korber, designed a couple of vaccine constructs a few years ago, before I started working in her group. The problem with HIV is that the virus mutates so rapidly that the immune system can’t keep up with it. Think of influenza, for example: it mutates fast, too, but because within one season every infected person more or less shares the same virus, we can still vaccinate people with a different strain every year. Well, with HIV, every person has a different virus. Imagine that: with over 30 million people currently living with HIV/Aids, how are we going find a vaccine that can protect from that many viruses?

Bette and the other wonderful scientists working in my group came up with some genetic sequences that could summarize all the diversity in the HIV population, so that by vaccinating with a handful of strains you can protect people against millions of circulating variants. The problem with that is that these genetic strains had to be reconstructed in silico, in other words, on a computer. No HIV virus found in nature right now will be able to give you that kind of protection. However, a vaccine created with a computer instead of being found in nature has to overcome many more hurdles before it can go into human trials.

When I came on board we had ongoing experiments on animals, and my role was (still is) to analyze the experimental data and statistically validate the results. The good news is that the results have been great in animal studies, and human trials just started this past October. We are all very excited about this.

Being a scientist by trade, does it bug you when movies like Prometheus take shortcuts and hash the science? (I couldn’t believe they took off their helmets inside an alien tomb!)

22271138You know, sometimes “knowing too much” can really take away the enjoyment of movies and fiction.

For me, it’s not just the science. I learned a lot of forensics and police procedural when researching for my book Chimeras, so now shows like CSI are totally ridiculous to me.

And indie author to indie author: you wouldn’t believe how many errors I catch in traditionally published books. It drives me up the wall, because these are the same editors who couldn’t believe the science in my books, and then they go off and publish poorly researched (or not researched at all) books.

Can you tell us a little about your latest writing project?

I’m planning and jotting down ideas for a third book in the Track Presius series, a hard-boiled detective thriller where crimes revolve around medical research and genetics. I’m also about 1/3 into the sequel of Gene Cards, which instead is a futuristic thriller featuring Biothreat special agent and Muay Thai fighter Skyler Donohue, her white hat hacker friend Peter Wang, and the extravagant medical examiner Dr. Erasmus Montoya. As if that wasn’t keeping me enough busy, I’m working on a short for Samuel Peralta’s next anthology in the Future Chronicle series, and I’m half way through a YA fantasy novella, which may or may not turn into a serial (we’ll see).

If you could have one of your books turned into a movie, which one would it be and why?

Chimeras, for sure! It’s a hard boiled detective thriller with enough action (but lots of science too!) to make it a fun ride. If I’m allowed a little plug, the audio book just came out, and it is a bit like watching the movie. The narrator did an amazing job! I’ll admit I’m biased, though. ;-)

What do you love most about science fiction?

I love just about everything about science fiction, but if I were to pick one favorite aspect, it would have to be the speculative one. When I read a book, I want something that leaves me pondering, and science fiction has that power because many of the premises are drawn from our every day life and projected into other worlds, or other realities. It’s fun to speculate about our future or envision the possible consequences of our behaviors as a species.

Thanks so much for the opportunity, Peter!

Twitter: @eegiorgi


Seriously, make sure you check out Elena’s books and her magnificent art work

You can find Elena’s writing on Amazon and her amazing photography and artwork is available on sale on SmugMug



Christopher Nolan’s latest movie Interstellar is a blockbuster in every sense of the word.

I loved it. Yes, there’s some handwavum (particularly toward the end) and there are gaping unexplained paradoxes and an impossible escape from beyond the event horizon of a black hole, but what a visual feast!


Nolan has to be commended for his vision.

At three hours in length, Interstellar is epic. The breadth of the storytelling is mind boggling.

To be critical and nitpicking of a movie like this is to miss the art. I’ll raise a few points here, but they’re not criticisms, more observations I think you’d enjoy considering.


The portrayal of time dilation is chilling to behold. Sure, the effect is exaggerated to an extreme in the movie, but it’s an amplification, not an error.

There’s a few implausible things, like not observing a planet from orbit before setting down and getting wiped out by tidal waves, but in the 90s, who would have thought the twin towers would be felled by terrorists in hijacked planes? Oh, by the way, we once had tidal waves like that here on Earth.

It has taken billions of years for the Moon to recede to where it is today. Shortly after its formation, the Moon would have been considerably closer and would have caused tides hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet high, meaning life emerged on Earth when it resembled a cosmic washing machine.

For those kind of tides to occur on a planet orbiting a black hole, the planet would need a rotation period of about two hours (making a very short day) but being so close to such a large object, the planet would probably be tidally locked like our moon (which would result in no tides). But it was uber cool!

The ice clouds were another visually cool but physically impossible concept in the movie, with spaceships flying between upside-down mountains.

The portrayal of the accretion disk around the black hole, though, is extremely well done.


Imagine staring at Saturn with its thin, flat rings, only somewhat paradoxically you can see the rings curve both above and below the planet, THAT is what you’re looking at here.

The accretion disk of a black hole is relatively flat and straight, swirling around the equator, but gravitational lensing causes the light from the far side of the black hole to bend up, over and around the hole, giving the appearance of a halo that’s not actually there. It’s a bit like sticking a pole into water and seeing it appear to bend, only the light is being bent by the strength of gravity.

Fly around the equator and the black hole will always look exactly as it does in this shot because there is no halo standing up behind it, that’s an illusion of gravitational lensing. Fly above the poles and look down and you’d see the ring, only the ring would look much closer than it actually is as the lensing would draw it together.

Beautifully done.

Interstellar is well worth the price of admission.

Be sure to see Interstellar on the big screen.

9/10 stars from me.





Sci-Fi November – Review: The Telepath Chronicles – An Anthology of Science Fiction


I’m excited to be part of the Telepath Chronicles, an anthology of independent science fiction writers. Here’s a review by Michael Patrick Hicks.

Originally posted on Michael Patrick Hicks:

telepath chronicles

About The Telepath Chronicles

Telepathy. Just a far-fetched bit of science fiction “hocus pocus.” But is it? With today’s giant leaps forward in technology and biotechnology, with people constantly surrounded by sophisticated yet invisible communication networks, and with a rapidly increasing understanding of the brain’s inner workings . . . is it so hard to imagine that we might be able to develop direct mind-to-mind communication?

Or might it not be the case that evolution alone, in the right circumstances—if not on this planet, then on others—could give rise to creatures with telepathic abilities?

This collection of fourteen stories explores the ramifications of a future where telepathy is real. From that first glorious moment of discovery, to the subsequent jealousies and class divisions, to the dangers of weaponization and the blessings of medical miracles, The Telepath Chronicles promises to take you inside the creative minds of some of today’s top…

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Book Review/Author Interview: My Sweet Satan by Peter Cawdron


Here’s a book review and author interview focusing on my latest novel, MY SWEET SATAN

Originally posted on TJ's New Book Blog:

SweetBook Description/Blurb:

The crew of the Copernicus are sent to investigate Bestla, one of the remote moons of Saturn. Bestla has always been an oddball, orbiting Saturn in the wrong direction and at a distance of thirty million kilometers, so far away Saturn appears smaller than Earth’s moon in the night sky. Bestla hides a secret. When mapped by an unmanned probe, Bestla awoke and began transmitting a message, only it’s a message no one wants to hear: “I want to live and die for you, Satan.”

Review 5 of 5 Stars

I first encountered Peter Cawdron’s storytelling when I found Anomaly on the free book list one day a couple of years back. What a find that was as he’s one of my favorite new authors that’s come along in the past few years. His work has improved each step of the way from the first book I read…

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DOUBLE Book Review – Revolution & My Sweet Satan


Here’s a review of two books I released this month.

Originally posted on Will Swardstrom - Author:

Today – in my first blog post in over a month (more on that later) – I’ll be giving you a DOUBLE REVIEW. That’s right – two reviews in one blog post. Good for you both books are by Australian author extraordinaire Peter Cawdron.

Cawdron has had the book My Sweet Satan on Pre-Order for about a month now and it is just releasing this week. But, while we were all waiting for that book to drop, he snuck in another short story: Revolution.

revIn Revolution, Cawdron paints a picture of a world similar to our own, but with technology advanced a bit. Alexander Hopkins is getting home on a red-eye flight from Russia when that world slams into him with all the force Homeland Security can muster.

The breadth of the story is short, so I’ll keep my review brief as well, but you want to catch…

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Just a rock?

Rocks are wonderful. They’re true four-dimensional objects.

Technically, other than a black hole, everything has four dimensions, stretching in three dimensions and existing for some length of time in the fourth, but rocks are remarkable for their astonishing longevity. Compared to your average rock, our lives are rice-paper thin in terms of how far we stretch in time.

Our local museum has an assortment of fossil fragments on sale in the gift shop. For $20 you can purchase the fossilized tooth of megalodon, an extinct species of shark that makes the Great White look like a tadpole.

What's that in the water beside Megalodon? Oh, a toothpick!

What’s that in the water beside Megalodon? Oh, it’s a toothpick!

For $15 you can snag a trilobite that’s roughly 400 million years old.

As for me, I think it’s comical that money changes hands so someone can “own” a 400 million year old fossil. The time this fossil spends in my possession is ludicrously brief relative to its age, and I can’t help but wish it another 400 million years of existence beyond the pitiful 20-30 years it spends on my shelf.

We see rocks and fossils in three dimensions, but they exist in four. If we could “see” time as we see length, these fossils would be absurdly long. If we translate time into length, and consider our entire lives as roughly a centimeter in length (about the length of your thumb nail) then that trilobite would stretch from New York to Los Angeles!

Rocks are chrononauts. They’re time travelers.

In October of 2012, Lisa Webber heard a a thump on her garage roof. Little did she know as she watched TV, but her house had just been struck by a meteorite.

Picture credit: Ames Research Center

Time lapse photograph of the Novoto meteorite. Picture credit: Ames Research Center

The next day, after reading about a meteor in her local paper, Lisa and several other residents became curious about those bumps in the night and found fragments of meteorite on their roofs. Far from being “just a rock” the Novoto meteorite has revealed a surprising amount of detail about the early solar system.


Not quite the same “deep impact” you see in the movies, but far more interesting. Picture Credit: SFGate

Rocks are time capsules. They’re durable, and they capture geological events like a camera takes photographs.

The details “recorded” by the Novoto meteorite, are nothing short of astonishing.

Here’s what NASA scientists have been able to determine from this tiny fragment of rock, overlaid against a brief, rough sketch of the history of life on Earth.


The Novato meteorite fragments are an example of how science can painstakingly retrieve information stored over billions of years to gain better insights into our universe.

Think about that next time you kick a rock down the street!