Human intelligence is a peacock feather


In the 1950’s, physicist Enrico Fermi asked a seemingly innocuous question over lunch, “Where is everyone?” Those present immediately understood he wasn’t talking about anyone being missing from the dining room. Fermi was referring to aliens. Fermi wanted to know, why don’t we see evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial beings when we look out into space?

Why would there be intelligent life in outer space?

The universe is both astonishingly big and surprisingly transparent. We can look into the dark night sky and see light from 13.8 billion years in the past, showing us the emerging structure of the cosmos in remarkable detail. The sheer size and scale of the universe is beyond comprehension, with roughly two hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, containing upwards of 10^29 stars, that’s 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

To think we are alone in the universe stretches the bounds of credulity, especially when we consider some of the complex molecules we’ve found forming naturally in deep space. The Sagittarius B molecular cloud, as an example, contains billions of gallons of alcohol in the form of C2H4O, and copious amounts of at least one of the amino acids coded by DNA, glycine—CH2NH2COOH, along with various simple sugars. It seems ET is boozy and has a sweet tooth.

Space is a chemical factory. There are over five hundred different types of amino acid. Life on Earth uses just twenty. To our surprise, we’ve found meteorites containing seventy-five different amino acids, although only ten of these are used in biology.

Laboratory tests simulating the environment of space, have shown that these acids can naturally link to form chains, marking the beginning of the complex chemistry that underpins life on Earth.

Sagittarius B

Sagittarius B molecular cloud. Picture credit: dailygalaxy

When you consider that the Sagittarius B molecular cloud contains enough material to form three million stars like the Sun, each with its own unique planetary system, you realize life may be far more common than we suspect. There are literally millions of opportunities for life to form.

So if the lego building blocks for life are abundant in space, and if life arises naturally elsewhere in the universe, where is everyone? This is precisely the question that perplexed Fermi.

Once an intelligent species ventures into space, it should naturally branch out to explore the galaxy in much the same way Europeans spread throughout Earth once they mastered sailing. Given the immense age of the universe, and given how relatively quickly we should be able to populate the galaxy once we get going, Fermi’s question is a paradox—Where is everyone? There should be dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of other intelligent space-faring alien species out there, but there’s only silence.

Common solutions to Fermi’s Paradox

There are at least fifty potential answers to Fermi’s Paradox but here are the top ten.

  1. Hospitable planets like Earth are extremely rare and we are the first species to make it into space.
  2. Aliens are everywhere, but we can’t detect them because their communication is point-to-point and highly efficient.
  3. There’s a Great Filter, something that blocks progress to the stars so very few civilizations expand into space.
  4. Interstellar travel is too costly and too time consuming to undertake. Although under this scenario, we should still be able to detect other space-faring species.
  5. Earth is in a nature preserve, being deliberately isolated until we develop into a peaceful star-faring species. This is the Star Trek Prime Directive, although both isolating us and deliberately hiding all knowledge of other galactic civilizations seems unrealistically complex to be practical.
  6. Aliens keep to themselves. Either they’re not interested in exploration or they’re weary of provoking other more hostile aliens to attack. After all, it’s not smart to shout in a jungle.
  7. ET has transcended physical form and escaped mortality by living in virtual reality in a computer server farm on the edge of the galaxy.
  8. Forget ET, we’re living in a virtual reality similar to the Matrix so space isn’t real.
  9. We are ET. The movie Prometheus explores this possibility, but as life has evolved for at least 3.6 billion years on Earth, for this premise to hold, ET would have to be a very primitive microbe that encountered Earth billions of years ago.
  10. Aliens are already among us but keeping their presence secret. Although this is a popular notion it’s highly unlikely.
Seti @ Home

Picture credit: Seti @ Home

Great Filter

The Great Filter addresses Fermi’s Paradox by suggesting life might be common throughout the universe, but it may have a torturous, hazardous path to the stars.

Looking at our own history, we can seen numerous gates/checkpoints life had to pass through before Homo sapiens arose.

For billions of years, life on Earth consisted of nothing more than microbes. It took an absurd amount of time for life to make the jump from single-celled organisms to multicellular plants and animals. What if that was a fluke?

There’s been dozens of mass extinction events that could have obliterated life on Earth, but somehow life survived. And if an asteroid hadn’t wiped out most of the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago, mammals may never have diversified into their current forms.

When considering the Great Filter, one question that arises is—which side of the filter are we on?

Even now, there’s no guarantee we’ll make it to the stars. Any number of possible doomsday scenarios may yet play out, from nuclear war to the rise of a terminator-like artificial intelligence, or an engineered disease. Any of these may drive us to extinction. We could still be filtered out of the celestial equation. Even such promising advances as nanotechnology could ultimately be our undoing.

If the Great Filter that has held back interstellar colonization for others was the leap from single to multicellular life, we’ve already made it, as we are well beyond that. If the Filter turns out to be our own warring, self-destructive nature, we may not make it to the stars. Stephen Hawking goes so far as to say, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.

Intelligence

Fermi’s Paradox has one critical, underlying assumption—intelligence will arise naturally elsewhere in the universe. But what if this assumption is wrong?

What does it take for intelligence to flourish?

Although life may thrive on thousands, perhaps millions of other planets throughout the universe, a closer look at the evolution of intelligence on Earth suggests the Great Filter may be more of a Great Brick Wall. Intelligence is not a default for evolution.

Natural selection is the winnowing process by which organisms have adapted to life on Earth. Too many seeds fall, too many puppies are born, and too many microbes divide for them all to survive in the long term.

E. Coli, as an example, doubles every 20 minutes. If it could E. Coli would cover the entire planet in a day and a half. By the end of two days, E. Coli would weigh considerably more than the entire planet, molten core and all. Clearly, that doesn’t happen, and the reason is E. Coli doesn’t have unlimited resources and cannot divide unchecked.

Charles Darwin’s astonishing insight in On the Origin of Species was that those bacterium, seeds or puppies that do survive, survive for a reason. If one out of a thousand seeds flourishes into a tree, the question is—why that particular seed? What allowed that seed to thrive? If it was blind luck, there’s no evolutionary advantage. But if it was because of a genetic trait, a trait that made the seed slightly lighter so it could float on the wind, or slightly thicker so it couldn’t be digested by an animal, then that trait will be passed on to the next generation, and so gradual change dominates evolution.

It’s tempting to think that intelligence is the result of natural selection, as our intelligence certainly gives us an advantage over other animals and has allowed us to dominate life on Earth, but that’s not entirely correct. Intelligence is not necessarily a survival trait.

There are varying degrees of intelligence in nature. Intelligence is found in species such as corvids and cephalopods, cetaceans and apes, but we don’t find any intelligence as advanced as our own. Why? This is an important question, as when we look at evolutionary traits that bestow advantages such as sight or flight, we see convergent evolution happening on a vast scale.

Convergent evolution describes how entirely different, seemingly unrelated species evolve similar traits, like dolphins and sharks both having dorsal fins even though sharks evolved 450 million years ago, while dolphins are mammals that returned to the sea a mere 50 million years ago.

Take sight as an example. Sight has evolved independently at least 40 different times. Being sensitive to light conveys such an overwhelming evolutionary advantage it spawned an arms race between predators and prey. As marvelous as our sight is, our vision is nothing compared to that of the Mantis shrimp that sees twelve primary colors compared to our three. The Mantis shrimp sees a broader spectrum of light than we do, and can also distinguish different types of polarized light, something we need sunglasses to detect.

The point is—sight provides such an immense evolutionary advantage, we see sight emerging throughout the animal kingdom, and in ways that dwarf our own vision. The same is true when it comes to flight, with birds, bats and insects all adopting different methods to take to the air. We don’t see this when it comes to advanced intelligence. And it’s not just that we don’t see whales as smart as us. We don’t see any other species in the Homo genus with our level of intelligence, and yet we’re sure they once existed. Think about how astonishing that is. We are the only remaining species on this branch of the evolutionary tree of life. Why?

There are twenty thousand different species of butterfly. There are three hundred and fifty thousand different species of beetles. There is only one Homo species. Us. Sapiens.

If intelligence provided an evolutionary advantage, why don’t we live in a world with Homo neanderthals and Homo erectus? It’s tempting to think of neanderthals as brute cavemen, but our own ancestors weren’t faring much better at the time.

Neanderthals were highly intelligent, with a level of ingenuity and cognitive awareness well beyond that of chimps or dolphins. They had complex social structures, caring for their sick, burying their dead, working with stone tools, painting on walls, making jewelry and even playing musical instruments. Although the evidence is scant, there’s reason to consider Neanderthals were ocean faring, having established colonies on such remote islands as Crete. We still don’t fully understand why it was Homo sapiens that eventually planted a flag on the Moon and not Homo neanderthals.

Homo sapiens

Evolution of the Homo genus. Picture credit: Nova

When we consider the evolution of human intelligence, we have to think beyond ourselves. We’re simply the latest rendition of Homo, a complex genus that branched from hominids to become Homo sapiens. Roughly 4-5 million years ago, we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, that is to say, from that point our ancestors gradually branched out into a number of species that eventually led either to extinction or to Homo sapiens. The physical traits we have are hominid/homo traits, they’re not unique to Homo sapiens. We inherited these traits from those that came before us, including our intelligence.

If intelligence isn’t a survival trait, then what is it? How did intelligence arise?

Following on from On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, describing another often overlooked aspect of evolution—sexual selection. Like natural selection, sexual selection describes a mechanism by which species adapt, but instead of survival traits allowing an animal to reproduce, sexually desirable or sexually dominant traits allow an animal to mate. In both cases, the end result is passing successful genes onto future generations.

Natural selection is blind and indifferent, whereas sexual selection is in the eye of the beholder.

Lophorina superba is the "superb bird of paradise"

Lophorina superba is the “superb bird of paradise.” Here a male dances before a female, enticing her to mate. Picture credit: Birds of Paradise

Natural selection refines traits necessary for survival. Sexual selection doesn’t. Sexual selection is extravagant and, on occasion, can be wasteful, perhaps even detrimental when maladaptations arise.

Deer have antlers developed as the result of sexual selection, being used for fights over mates, but these can cause an untimely death when caught up on bushes. The Irish Elk may have gone extinct due to a combination of factors, from human hunting to the inability of males to negotiate wooded areas, and even the excessive nutritional demands of its antlers on its diet.

Irish Elk may have gone extinct due to the excesses of sexual selection

Irish Elk may have gone extinct due to the excesses of sexual selection: Picture credit: Christies

In the same way, peacock feathers attract pea hens while placing a burden on flight when escaping predators. Over time, this dichotomy balances out or a species goes extinct.

For millions of years, the survival of the Homo genus relied on making stone tools and harnessing fire, skill in hunting and scavenging. This dependency caused intelligence to become a desirable trait, an indicator of biological fitness. Both men and women, when selecting mates, had a natural preference for someone with a level of intelligence capable of mastering these skills. This isn’t to say geeks are sexy, but that there was a minimum level of intelligence below which prospective partners would be seen as repulsive. Once established, a positive feedback loop led to a level of intelligence far in excess of that required by hunter-gathers, bringing us music, art, literature and science, and yet the evolution of Homo sapiens was by no means guaranteed.

Intelligence came at a price. Big brains are burdensome. Whereas giraffes can walk within minutes of being born, human children take years to mature to the point of being physically independent, placing a strain on the overall survival of the species. For the rest of the Homo genus, such a development may have compounded with other pressures and led to extinction. Like peacocks struggling to flee from predators, numerous species of the Homo genus arrived at an evolutionary dead-end, unable to juggle sexually selective pressures against natural selection. Somehow, we got lucky and the advent of agriculture allowed civilization to emerge.

If the level of intelligence required to reach the stars is a sexually selected trait and not the result of natural selection, we may well be alone in the universe. If sexual selection is a requisite for advanced intelligence then the good news is, we’ve already passed through the Great Filter, but we may very well be one of only a few species to emerge among the stars. After 3.8 billion years of evolutionary development, it seems advanced intelligence isn’t natural, it’s sexual. We may well find life on other planets, but the proportion of intelligent life might be exceedingly low given how specialized intelligence is in nature.

Human intelligence is a peacock feather, an extravagant excess developed due to sexual preferences, and this may well explain why we don’t see intelligent life elsewhere in the universe as the level of intelligence required to build a rocket ship is far rarer than we ever imagined.

SONY DSC

Peacocks are examples of sexual selection in extreme. Picture credit: 281 Photography

I’m an optimist. With all the focus NASA has on imaging distant planets, I think we’ll find life flourishing elsewhere in space within the next few decades. I’d like to think SETI will prove me wrong about advanced intelligence being exceedingly rare because of its dependence on sexual selection, but it is worth considering the concept and adding it to the discussion around Fermi’s Paradox.

The Future is Now


My guest in this blog interview is Canadian author and poet, Samuel Peralta, the driving force behind The Future Chronicles—an entire series of anthologies exploring different aspects of science fiction and fantasy literature.

Four books

Sam, where did you come up with the idea for The Future Chronicles? What was your motivation behind this series?

I never meant to create The Future Chronicles. The plan was to write a grand SF novel series, beginning with a book called Labyrinth Man.

My dilemma was, how do I create a readership for Labyrinth Man – which was based on a world where telepaths and robots existed – when my readership was geared towards poetry? My idea was that I would write strong short stories based in that universe, and submit them to anthologies or magazines, and that the readers who discovered me there would find their way to Labyrinth Man.

TraumaRoomTo put that idea in motion, I wrote two spec stories – Trauma Room (a Labyrinth telepath story) and Liberty (a Labyrinth robot story) – made them the strongest I could, and submitted them to anthologies I knew were being put together, the first by David Gatewood and the second by John Joseph Adams, both well-known editors.

Fully expecting that both stories were rejected – they were my first SF stories, after all! – I organized The Robot Chronicles among a group of friends as a vehicle for my robot story, along with a follow-up I called The Telepath Chronicles. I also began asking more well-known authors, like Hugh Howey and David Simpson, if they’d be contributors to my anthologies.

To my surprise, Gatewood gave me the green-light on a new time-travel story, which was Hereafter; and Adams accepted Liberty! Those two books would, in part, propel me from nowhere into the Top 100 SF Authors list on Amazon – and jump-started a readership.

Since Liberty was now placed, I wrote a new story, Humanity, for The Robot Chronicles, later convincing David Gatewood to helm the title as editor. We never expected The Robot Chronicles to be as big a hit as it was — so in parallel to Telepath, we began planning The Alien Chronicles — and suddenly it was a bona fide series. The Future Chronicles was born. And I still haven’t finished Labyrinth Man.

There’s a considerable amount of effort that goes into financing a series like this, not to mention the logistics of herding authors like cats, arranging for editors, cover design, promotions, etc. You must really love the concept to risk investing so much time and effort.

I believe that the rise of electronic reading devices, and the way that people have begun to parcel their valuable time, has led to a resurgence of the short story. Science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) has become more mainstream, and is being accepted on a par with any literary effort – witness the success of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro with books their readers barely realize is science fiction.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 8.30.23 pmAnother of my beliefs is that there are scores of independent authors out there who have amazing voices, but who can’t be heard because they don’t have a chance in the spotlight. What the Chronicles does is give them a chance in that spotlight, to have their names alongside established writers like Hugh Howey, Ken Liu, and Robert J. Sawyer. Once they’re in a book that hits the top levels – in both quality and readership – they know what is possible. They know, as I like to say: The best is yet to come. Instead of giving up, they keep writing, readers find them, and we are all blessed with wonderful stories that may not otherwise have been written.

What’s validated this vision of a new Silver Age is that readers have embraced the series – all Chronicles titles to date, including those edited by Ellen Campbell, have become the #1 bestselling SF or Fantasy anthology in turn. Three of them have broken through to the Amazon Top 100 bestseller list for all books; The Alien Chronicles went as high as #6, and another, The A.I. Chronicles, got there without any promotion besides its readership.

I’m amazed that I can be part of that kind of phenomenon, part of bringing new and relevant voices to the spotlight. The energy is what keeps me going.

How have you found working with independent authors? Although it’s less so today, there is still a stigma attached to indies. What are your thoughts on the indie revolution? Is it really transforming the publishing industry?

Independent authors are like jazz musicians – they can be incredibly talented in their own right – but they don’t mind jamming with other musicians. In essence, that’s what we’re doing in the Chronicles, putting together concert tours with friends from other bands. I’ve forged some real friendships.

In terms of transforming the publishing industry, I don’t think there’s any question that independent authors are making an impact. The Martian started life as an independently-published novel. It’s only one of a number of independent works that are coming into the mainstream.

You’ve explored robots, telepathy, aliens, AI and dragons. On the horizon, there’s zombies and alternative histories. What else do you have planned for the series?

As you mentioned, The Z Chronicles and Alt.History 101 are coming soon. The latter is the first of a new ALT Chronicles series which will be a different twist on The Future Chronicles.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 8.37.28 pmComing up for the fall are The Time Travel Chronicles and The Cyborg Chronicles, both being edited by Crystal Watanabe; and The Immortality Chronicles, being edited by Carol Davis. I’ve just commissioned a new editor, Jeff Seymour, to helm The Galaxy Chronicles, and there are a number of other titles in the works. We’re planning on releasing a new anthology every 1-2 months, which is a blistering pace for anthologies.

As an independent author that’s appeared in three of the chronicles, I love the way The Future Chronicles provides a showcase of independent writing. It’s fun. It’s a chance to break out of the author hermit shell and collaborate with peers. It’s an opportunity to reach new readers. What success stories have come out of The Future Chronicles?

How do I start? There are so many. I’ve loved the way some of the stories that originated in the Chronicles have spawned new successful series. For example, Susan Kaye Quinn‘s “Restore” in The A.I. Chronicles, was a lead-in to her book The Legacy Human, and her Singularity series. Vincent Trigili‘s ongoing Silverleaf Chronicles was a direct result of his writing “The Storymaster” for The Dragon Chronicles. A.K. Meek‘s “The Invariable Man” was popular enough that he expanded the world and released The Invariable Man: The Novel.

Will Swardstrom, best known for his work based on Hugh Howey’s world of Wool, told me that he got his first true fan mail after his story “Uncle Allen” appeared in The Alien Chronicles. I’ve had readers tell me they’d never read science fiction before – but now they would, after reading one of our titles.

There are new success stories every time we launch a new anthology. We have over 100 contributors to The Future Chronicles series now – authors, artists, editors – and to me, every single one is a Chronicles success story.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors? Given all the writers you have reviewed for The Future Chronicles and all the books you read, what do you think makes a good story? If you had to crystalize a great story into a handful of concepts or guidelines, what would they be?

To be successful, you must read a lot, and write a lot. Read to see what works and what doesn’t. Write so that your craftsmanship gets better, so that you begin to hear your own unique voice. And keep writing. Never forget the editing stage. And when you’re done, read your story aloud to yourself, so you can hear the rhythm, feel the tension, or lack of these, and tighten, tighten, tighten.

A great story has narrative momentum, characters the reader desperately want to succeed or fail, and a resolution that is a closure, a catharsis. It’s an over-simplification, of course, but that’s what I look for. If you must know, I live by Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling. All 22 of them.

Thank you for taking the time to conduct this interview, and for your support of independent science fiction.

Check out The Future Chronicles series on Amazon

Book Review: What We Left Behind by Peter Cawdron


pcawdron:

Independent book blogger TJ Hapney gives her thoughts on What We Left Behind

Originally posted on TJ's New Book Blog:

behindDescription/Blurb:

Everyone has a different term for zombies. I call them Zee because that’s the term my mother used before she turned, speaking about the whole horde as though it was just one individual. Grammar has no place in the zombie apocalypse…

Hazel is a regular teenager growing up in an irregular world overrun with zombies. She likes music, perfume, freshly baked muffins, and playing her Xbox—everything that no longer exists in the apocalypse.

Raised in the safety of a commune, Hazel rarely sees Zee anymore, except on those occasions when the soldiers demonstrate the importance of a headshot to the kids.

To her horror, circumstances beyond her control lead her outside the barbed wire fence and into a zombie-infested town.

“Five, Four, Three, Two—count your shots, Haze,” she says to herself, firing at the oncoming zombie horde. “Don’t forget to reload.”

Review 5 of 5 Stars

Those who read…

View original 468 more words

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


pcawdron:

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…

flowers?
Polar bears?
lichens?
worms?

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.

View original 727 more words

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

Where:

  • 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…

18ripzjli2hxxjpg

Two.

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

Sloan

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.”

tyson-quote

Jupiter


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. The Hilda asteroids are like ball bearings rolling around in the valleys.

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.

dd

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.

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


pcawdron:

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!

Website/blog: http://chimerasthebooks.blogspot.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Chimeras/166368693451952
Twitter: @eegiorgi
Chimeras: http://smarturl.it/chimeras

Seriously,

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

audiobookbannersmall

Interstellar


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!

interstellar-movie-hd-wallpaper-and-poster

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.

Interstellar-water

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.

Black-hole-model

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


pcawdron:

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


pcawdron:

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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