Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Talk at the University of Illinois

I'm giving a talk at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, this coming Friday at noon on the topic of Science and Science Fiction, followed, at 3:00, by a scintillating colloquium in the Astronomy Department on parametrizing dark energy.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Announcing the Society of Catholic Scientists

I am happy to announce the formation of the Society of Catholic Scientists. You can tell it's official because we have a website:
The website is still skeletal at this point -- we'll be making additions over the coming month. But you can check out the Board of Directors -- there are some high-powered scientists involved. (I am not one of them. Nor am I a low-powered scientist. I am medium-powered).

Our first major event will be a conference in Chicago in April. The conference dates are on the website, but more details will be posted as they become available.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Enrico Fermi Reimagined as a Marshmallow Bunny

Speaking of Enrico Fermi (as I did in my previous post) brings to mind a competition that the University of Chicago sponsored seven years ago. The competition, open only to U. of Chicago alumni, was to recreate a scene from the campus using Peeps, those marshmallow bunnies and chicks that appear mysteriously every year around Easter and then just as mysteriously disappear. (No one actually eats them, do they?)

I leaped to the challenge, but immediately faced two obstacles. The first was that as a  Ph.D. alumnus of the university, I had spent all of my time at Chicago chained to my desk, with my advisor sliding food under my office door at irregular intervals. So I had no memory of any famous campus scenes to recreate. But one scene did come to mind -- this iconic photo of Enrico Fermi:

There's actually a mistake in this photo -- can you find it?  Answer at the end of the post.
Every physics department has its heroic figures -- creatures of myth and legend who bestrode the department when giants walked the Earth -- and Fermi plays this role at Chicago. But having chosen my Chicago scene, I faced a second obstacle: a complete lack of artistic talent. As I am an oldest child, my mother saved all of my kindergarten artwork, and it clearly shows my development as an artist -- in the course of the year I progressed from drawing stick figures in black crayon to drawing stick figures with many colors. And I haven't gotten any further since then. So I enlisted the assistance of my (then) 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, And here is what we (and by "we", I mean "she") produced:

Enrico Fermi, the marshmallow bunny.  The error in the original photo is repeated here -- how's that for verisimilitude?
So did we win the competition?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fermi Meets Sagan

My (very) short story, "Fermi Meets Sagan," will be out in the December issue of Analog.  It was inspired by this nonfiction article I wrote for The Conversation website.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

I just finished reading The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson. Before I discuss my impressions, the usual disclaimer applies: De gustibus non est disputandum. I have only one criterion when I evaluate a work of science fiction -- did I enjoy reading it? So if your own tastes are similar to my own, you might find my comments interesting. Otherwise feel free to ignore everything I say.

My own interests run strongly toward "hard" science fiction, and I am a particular fan of "idea" stories -- these are stories where an amazing speculative idea is central, rather than character, or writing style. I also like clever endings. All of this is much easier to pull off in short fiction than in a novel. These kinds of stories are characteristic (in the golden age) of Clarke and Asimov, and more recently authors like Vernor Vinge and Greg Egan. Stephen Baxter is also someone whose novels I ought to enjoy, but I've never been able to make it through them. Why not?  I haven't got the faintest idea. I warned you that my opinions are totally subjective -- sometimes I cannot even explain them myself. I do like Baxter's short fiction, though.

As I've aged, I've developed a greater appreciation for realistic characters and a more florid writing style. Perhaps this is incipient senility. It's the latter (wonderfully-drawn characters, not senility) that is Robert Charles Wilson's particular strength. When he's able to combine this with a Big Idea (as he did in Darwinia and Spin) the result is some of  the best science fiction I've ever read.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Technology is Dead, but the Words Linger On

In my earlier post I talked about listening to a "book on tape."  It wasn't really on tape, of course -- I was listening to the book on CD. I haven't listened to a book on a cassette tape in over a decade. But the expression "books on tape" lingers on, despite the extinction of the actual technology.

There are lots of other words and expressions that have far outlived the original technologies that they refer to. Have you recently "cc'ed" anyone on an email message? That expression refers to "carbon copy" -- a method for making duplicates of typed manuscripts. The typist would insert a layer of carbon paper (coated in dry ink) between two sheets of paper and -- mirabile dictu -- the typewriter would produce identical text on both sheets of paper!

Carbon paper -- it's a messy as it looks

Carbon paper was already on the way out even when I was young -- superseded by photocopiers. Another holdover from the typewriter era is the "carriage return."  This originally referred to slapping a lever whenever the typewriter got to the end of the line, flinging the carriage (the cylinder holding the paper) back to the beginning of the line, while at the same time rotating the cylinder to pull up a new blank line on the paper (clever, huh?)  Typewriters have vanished, but the carriage return (or <cr>) lives on in their digital descendents.  [At this point I should mention that I was required to take a typing class in high school for one semester. At the time, I considered it to be totally worthless, but when computer keyboards became ubiquitous 20 years later, I realized it was the most useful class I had ever taken. I commend my high school for its foresight].

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What was the Universe Doing at Your Age?

Pretty much nothing, but that's an interesting story in itself.

Let's assume that you're between the ages of 10 and 100 years old (luckily, many things in cosmology depend only on orders of magnitude). When the universe was the same age as you, it consisted of a soup of protons, electrons, helium nuclei, and radiation. But the soup was very hot -- the temperature was a few hundred thousand degrees Celsius. At that temperature, the radiation was actually more dense than the matter!

But in terms of exciting events, nothing much was going on. The two major events that we understand pretty well in the early universe are the formation of some of the light elements when the universe was a few minutes old, and the release of the cosmic microwave background radiation when the universe was a few hundred thousand years old.  In all of the time in between, the universe just expanded and cooled. Or at least we think it did.