Oct 9, 2009

LCROSS fact and fiction

In my science fiction ghost story, Moon Hammer, I imagined that there were high resolution images of the LCROSS impact site. However, what I imagined went far beyond the quality of images shown by NASA immediately after the impacts.

As shown in these images from NASA (to right), the visible light camera that they flew into the surface of the Moon today was not very sophisticated (FAR, CLOSER, CLOSEST). The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been releasing images of Apollo moon landers, but those images do not have the type of spatial resolution that I imagined for my story: images good enough to show bodies on the surface of the Moon. Additionally, the LCROSS mission targeted a location on the Moon that is thought to have remained in shadow for a long period of time. The cold environment of the shadows might have accumulated and retained water ice. However, such a shadowy location is not a good bet for high resolution visible light imaging. In the video below, they switch to infrared imaging just before impact into the shadowed region of the Cabeus crater. You can hear them say that "very small" craters are then seen within the Cabeus crater rim shadow (5:25 of video) just before impact of the instrument platform.

The main mission goal for LACROSS is detection of water in the debris plume ejected by the rocket booster's impact (the first of the two impacts) into the surface of the Moon. Preliminary data indicate that NASA was able to detect (infrared camera image inset labeled "IR") a flash due to the Centaur booster's impact and what seems to be the newly created crater at the impact site ("Centaur crater", see images, above right). Most importantly, the spectroscope apparently detected a signal (the little blip in the graph) that upon analysis may allow for detection of water.

Images from other points of observation, including the Hubble Space Telescope, are expected later today. Results from LCROSS spectroscopy data analysis (search for water) might be reported in two weeks.

Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society provided a nice summary of the LCROSSS images from NASA
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter detects heat signature of LCROSS impact
Hubble - initial results of water spectroscopy were reported to be negative.
Kitt Peak, Arizona, "observers recorded a flare of light at the orange sodium-emission wavelength."
Palomar Observatory does not detect ejecta plume

Images. These are all images from NASA.

Oct 8, 2009

LCROSS in fiction

While waiting for the LCROSS impacts I'm thinking about possible titles for the audio podcast version of Moon Hammer.

"Halloween 2009: The Ghostly Inquisitor"


"Nobody expects the Lunar Inquisition"

Your suggestion is welcome.

(Moon Hammer is a science fiction ghost story. A witch hunter from the 15th century returns to haunt the people of Earth.)

Image: source

Oct 6, 2009

Time Travel and Mental Powers, Part 2

This blog post is a continuation from Time Travel and Mental Powers.

Today I read the first chapter of Paul Levinson's novel "The Plot to Save Socrates". It reminded me of the first story I ever wrote that is set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe. That story is called "Exodemic" and a major element of the plot concerns a virus that is discovered on Earth...a virus that was used to protect Observers, humans not born on Earth who visit Earth in order to observe the development of human civilization on Earth. "Exodemic" is mostly concerned with events after 1759, but I included a prelude from 322 B.C.E. in which Aristotle is taken off of Earth by an Overseer.

It is fun to imagine that extraterrestrials might have first visited Earth hundreds of millions of years ago and that the entire history of our species has been monitored and recorded by "Observers". In the Exodemic Fictional Universe there is no need to imagine time travel that carries people with advanced technology back into what is for us the past history of Earth. If extraterrestrials long ago started the practice of taking lifeforms off of Earth, then we can imagine that some humans were long ago taken to live in a secret underground base on the Moon where they developed advanced technologies and accepted the task of observing, but not disrupting, the on-going development of Earthly civilization.

However, in what I hope is a tribute to Asimov, I am trying to create a sequel to his novel "The End of Eternity". As I have discussed before (Painting Corners), Asimov was unable to find a good conclusion for his Foundation stories. I hope that "The Start of Eternity", a kind of fan fiction, can provide a suitable conclusion by linking Asimov's Foundation stories into the Exodemic Fictional Universe. Will the "The Start of Eternity" mean the end of Time Travel?

After reading Paul Levinson's knol about "How Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Demon Finds a Stage in the Foundation and Dune Trilogies", I started thinking about secret groups of people with "Mental Powers" in the Foundation and Dune Trilogies and the Haldus Order of The Search for Kalid. To what extent might humans with "mental powers" secretly influence, shape or control the course of human events? If a "mutant" subpopulation of humans with "Mental Powers" existed, how would they use their powers and how would they interact with the bulk of humanity?

It might seem that I have raised two different issues here, Time Travel and Mental Powers. However, within Asimov's Foundation Universe, maybe these two issues are linked. What if it was human invention of the "positronic brain" that allowed for both "Mental Powers" and Time Travel? If so, then invention of positronic circuits becomes the critical event in the "Foundation Reality". "The Start of Eternity" explores this idea. The story is still under construction and collaborating authors are welcome.

Image. Public domain.

Time Travel and Mental Powers

By "mental powers" I mean abilities such as telepathic communication of thoughts, precognition and the "mantalic" abilities described by Issac Asimov in some of his science fiction stories. Time travel is another popular plot element in science fiction. I am a fan of Asimov's Foundation Universe and the way he united it with his Robot Stories. I also like the idea that his time travel story The End of Eternity can be linked to the Foundation Universe by means of telepathic robots who used time travel to assure that the Foundation would come into existence.

Time Travel and Mental Powers are popular science fiction plot elements that have long made me uncomfortable. Along with Faster-Than-Light space travel, I have no reason to suspect that Time Travel and Mental Powers are possible. I enjoy hard science fiction and I always feel most comfortable when stories stay away from plot elements that seem to contradict what we know about the universe. However, I've been trying to become more open to plot elements like Time Travel and Mental Powers. For example, I worked hard to get comfortable with telepathy in "The Search for Kalid". To do so, I had to invent an entire "science of telepathy" that I could imagine as speculative future science.

I've long been puzzled by the way that Asimov seemed to pull the idea of telepathic robots "out of the blue". My first step towards finding a way to accept telepathy within the context of "hard science fiction" was the story Mnemtronium. The idea behind that story is that it might be possible to discover some "new physics" that would make telepathy possible. I'm pleased with the way the idea of "T particles" developed as a plot device for telepathy in "The Search for Kalid" and I look forward to further developing the idea in "The Start of Eternity", particularly in the context of robots with positronic brains.

When I started writing stories set in what I call the Exodemic Fictional Universe I did not allow myself the luxury of Faster-Than-Light space travel. However, I'm certainly dealing with FTL travel in The Start of Eternity and I was able to live with FTL communication in VirileMail. Of course, "The Start of Eternity" also deals with Time Travel (as imagined by Asimov), although my intention is to arrange things so that Time Travel becomes impossible by the end of "The Start of Eternity". I still have mixed feelings about FTL travel in science fiction. I think there are many interesting science fiction stories that could be written about a future without it, but most people just reflexively assume that outer space is boring unless you can travel quickly from world to world. I'm very troubled by time travel in science fiction. Asimov's "The End of Eternity" has some appeal because it puts a limit on the use of time travel. Without such a limit, time travel scenarios tend to degenerate into silly fantasies such as "time travel wars" where people endlessly revert each other's changes to time.

I started thinking about Time Travel and Mental Powers today when I was playing around on Facebook. I began experimenting with Twitter earlier this year and I finally got around to starting a Facebook account. I found a Facebook group devoted to Asimov and a discussion post there from Paul Levinson. This knol contains the topic of that Facebook post (the Facebook post links to where you can listen to an audio version). I'll explain in my next blog post how Levinson's topic (How Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Demon Finds a Stage in the Foundation and Dune Trilogies) and his novel "The Plot to Save Socrates" got me thinking about Time Travel and Mental Powers...and exactly what I'm thinking along those lines.

Image. I made this as a cover image for "The Search for Kalid". This image was made by using a few copyleft images: Details and Credits.

Oct 3, 2009

The Mythic Principle

In 1950 Enrico Fermi suggested that Earth should have been visited long ago by visitors from a distant star. However, we seem to have no good evidence of such visitors. This is now known as the
Fermi Paradox.

Fermi's intuitions about the likelihood of life in the universe and the possibility of interstellar travel led him to ask: Where are the space aliens...shouldn't we see them? Other scientists have suggested that Fermi was overly optimistic.

The Rare Earth Hypothesis suggests that life in general, and human-like life in particular, is much less common in the universe than Fermi imagined. Human-like life could be rare in the universe either because 1) the conditions necessary for it to arise are rare or because 2) once it does arise it is self-limiting, say by destroying itself or by transforming itself into something else.

As Carl Sagan used to say, we have only just started to wade out into the cosmic ocean. What other forms of life should we expect to find in the universe? In his book "Contact", Sagan imagined first contact with life forms who were spectacularly more technologically advanced than we are. In contrast, the "Hollywood Principle" says that space aliens need to be very much like us and that it makes sense to imagine visits by beings from other stars who have roughly the same kinds of technology that we now have.

Need to be? Makes sense?

It "makes sense" from the perspective of needing to make silly television shows and movies in which Earthlings endlessly battle space aliens. Sixty years ago the fantasy wars were against rampaging Injuns, now they are against rampaging Klingons. Yawn.

The "Hollywood Principle" says that producers in Hollywood are forced to subject us to the kinds of fantasy aliens that Hollywood knows how to market. The Anthropic Principle suggests that since we exist as conscious observers of the universe, the universe must have been formed in just the right way to produce conscious observers. Some people have suggested various "strong" versions of the Anthropic Principle such as: the universe was "designed" with the goal of generating and sustaining human-like observers.

Why the strong human intuition about our world being created or designed? Fundamental to human nature is our ability to have a Theory of Mind, or as Dan Dennett put it, it is human nature to adopt the Intentional Stance. Our brains evolved tricks like mirror neurons that force each of us to automatically assume that other people think in the same way that I know (from personal experience of our own mind) myself to think. This provides us with a powerful survival strategy by which we each compete against and cooperate with other humans and by which we survive and pass on our genes. This fundamental aspect of human nature is so important and so powerfully built into us that we automatically apply it to everything, not just to our interactions with other humans. When the Intentional Stance is applied to the universe, we imagine that there must have been a creative force that designed the universe as a nice place for us to live. This fundamental aspect of human nature leads, eventually, to optimistic assumptions about the likelihood of life in the universe and it leads us to the Fermi Paradox.

So what is the "Mythic Principle"? I suggest that the Fermi Paradox arises from human nature. The "Hollywood Principle" says that while we are waiting for evidence of ET to become available, we can make big $$$$ by imagining space aliens who want to have sex with us, or at the very least, who can provide us with a 90 minute fantasy war on the big screen. The "Mythic Principle" says that we can reject the silliness of Hollywood and ask: what should the nature of space aliens and their interactions with Earth be in order to allow us to imagine the most entertaining stories?

I think that the "Mythic Principle" leads us down the path taken by science fiction story tellers like Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. Technologically advanced (and I mean VERY advanced) space aliens should have been here long ago, so what kind of stories can we imagine that involve some variation on the theme of "ancient astronauts" in which those visitors to Earth were vastly more sophisticated than we are? By going down this path I have arrived at what I call the "Exodemic Fictional Universe". Stories within the Exodemic Fictional Universe include the idea that space aliens are not interested in allowing us to know that they long ago visited Earth. Humans, as a form of life, are potentially very destructive and, as Carl Sagan used to say, we might be a self-destructive species that will not survive our technological adolescence. In his science fiction novel Contact, Sagan asked if there were "tests" that the human species had to pass before being allowed to join the galactic culture of advanced extraterrestrials. His answer was "no", but "shit happens", and it can sure feel like we are being tested. If the human species does not last long enough to make contact with space aliens, will those space aliens view our passing in much the same way that we think about the Dodo?

The "Mythic Principle" suggests that the correct human response to the Fermi Paradox is to do our best to imagine stories about space aliens that are consistent with the existence of the Fermi Paradox. The kinds of stories I like involve technologically advanced space aliens who intentionally "hide from us" and leave us wallowing in the Fermi Paradox.

Some stories that are set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe:
Manmahtiti Bebobinmahtiti (short)
Moon Hammer (13,000 words)
Fly Paper (21,000 words)
Cellular Civilization (57,000 words)
VirileMail (70,000 words)

Image. Public domain image of Enrico Fermi. Source

Oct 2, 2009

Taking Turns

"One-word-at-a-time" was one of the first types of collaborative writing that was explored at the Fiction Wikia. Participants were supposed to take turns adding one word at a time to a growing story. This type of collaboration is a good way to get new participants involved with wiki editing. A serious problem with this type of collaboration is that it only takes one person who is trying to be "random" to derail a developing story. I previously made this rather harsh statement:

"We really need tools that allow collaborators to choose exactly who can participate in a particular story writing effort. If someone is causing trouble, they must be excluded from the collaboration."

Another type of "taking turns" collaboration is "One-paragraph-at-a-time". According to the rules that were established for this collaboration, authors "don't discuss the plot with other authors". Such a restriction puts a serious strain on the process of collaboration. In my experience, good writing collaborations are built on good communication between authors. For example, live internet chat is a good tool that can be used by collaborating authors.

An option for writing collaboration that falls between "One-word-at-a-time" and "One-paragraph-at-a-time" would be to have authors take turns writing one sentence at a time. A recent experiment at Twitter comes close to this, but uses Twitter's arbitrary 140 character size limit for successive contributions. The collaboration is called abookduct. Using Twitter to do a writing collaboration that can be coherently sustained through time is a serious challenge. Before I could participate I had to create a document where I could put together the individual tweets all in one place. Hopefully there will soon be a website where these growing stories from Twitter can be compiled (update: see this website). In any case, this is an interesting example of how to use social media to start writing collaborations and find potential collaborating authors.

I suggest that tweets starting with

#abookduct #001a #m

can contain information about the story (not actual story content). "m" is for "meta", and a meta-tweet helps authors of the story communicate useful information that can aid in collaboration. For details on how to participate see

Image. Sierpinski pyramid by Peter Bertok. License: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0