Archive for August, 2010

Aug 27 2010

Weird Science

Published by under Astronomy,Physics

I love it when researchers turn up new data or new theories to explain old data that expose some interesting new gap in what we think we know about the universe. It’s from those interesting new gaps — like absorption lines in what should be a smooth spectrum — that lead to new science and new technologies. (Those absorption lines, in 19th century observations of the Sun, ultimately led to quantum theory — and modern electronics and lasers.) This week we’ve had several instances of this.

You’re probably aware that the universe is expanding, and even that it seems to be expanding at an increasing rate. This somewhat counter-intuitive observation has been explained by “dark energy”, some unknown force that is accelerating the expansion. But many scientists aren’t comfortable with dark energy; the numbers for the vacuum energy don’t work out, and it seems to violate conservation laws. Now, this presumed expansion acceleration is based on measurements of very distant (edge of the universe distant) supernovas. If there’s another explanation for those measurements, then the acceleration may not really be happening and thus we don’t need dark energy to explain it.

There’s another problem. Models of the Big Bang that started the universe predict the creation of a certain amount of hydrogen, deuterium (heavy hydrogen), helium, and lithium. Our observations of the first three match pretty closely the predictions — but we only see about one-third the lithium we think we should.

Cosmologists Marco Regis and Chris Clarkson think they have an explanation for both of these discrepancies. Scientists make the assumption that the universe is pretty much the same in every direction we look, that — celestial bodies aside — there’s nothing special about one part space over any other. Regis and Clarkson point out here that the above problems go away if don’t assume the universe is homogenous. But there’s one other thing: if that’s the case, and there’s a huge bubble of space that is lithium-deficient, then why is Earth in the center of it?

Speaking on inhomogeneities in the universe, two different deep sky studies by the Keck telescope in Hawaii and the Very Large Telescope in Chile have turned up unexpected differences in what’s called the fine structure constant, considered to be one of the fundamental constants of nature (it relates to how strongly atoms bind their electrons). The really interesting thing is that while the Keck observations suggest that the fine structure “constant” was once smaller, the VLT observations suggest that it was once bigger. (Papers here and here.) These two telescopes — one in the northern hemisphere, one in the southern — look at two different regions of the sky. This, especially in light of Regis and Clarkson’s conjecture, raises all sorts of interesting questions. (Such as: What affect does this have on chemistry — and biology — in different regions of the universe? Would a space ship travelling such distances drag its own fine structure constant with it, or would it change according to local conditions? And, what causes this “constant” to vary, and could we reproduce that effect locally? Larry Niven had disintegrator guns that worked by “suppressing the charge on the electron”; could that really be possible? If you could reduce the charge on a proton, wouldn’t that make fusion easier?)

Somebody (Asimov?) once said that real scientific discoveries are less often heralded by “eureka!” than by “hmm, that’s odd.” Looks like we have several “that’s odd” moments going on. Cool!

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Aug 18 2010

Writing Wednesday – 6

Published by under Writing

This week’s entry is going to be a short one, but with some amusing links.

Hearkening back to installment 4, on the usefulness (or not) of spelling checkers and proofreading, this YouTube video is priceless: The The Impotence of Proofreading (warning, language may not be safe for work).

And if you’re wondering why we science fiction writers are really in the business, this video is a hilarious: F*ck Me, Ray Bradbury (and no, this one is definitely not safe for work, and yes, I’m kidding about the reason for being a writer).

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Aug 12 2010

NASFiC, writing, and stuff.

Published by under Writing

No Writing Wednesday this week, today being Thursday. My time sense is still a little warped from NASFiC/ReConStruction this past weekend in Raleigh. It was a great time, and this time I stayed over until Monday morning which is part of why my time sense is screwed up. It feels like Wednesday to me.

The con was a little on the small side as such things go — the final attendance figures were somewhere in the 700-800 range, smaller than a regional like MileHiCon. I imagine part of that is the economy, and part of it may be that Raleigh’s a little harder to get to. Well, it is from Denver anyway. I went out via Newark and came back via Houston. My buddy Lou Berger came back via Tampa, I think.

But good things can come in small packages. There was a lot of great programming, and I got to meet and hang out with some fellow writers from Codex that I’d only met on-line before, including Lawrence Schoen, who I shared a table of contents with in Footprints and whose story there is up for a Hugo this year, and [at this point I am pausing with the sudden realization that if I start listing people, I’m going to feel obligated to list everyone, or feel bad about those I left out. Okay, I’m not going to list everyone, apologies and no slight intended to the rest of you] Mary Robinette Kowal, (2008 Campbell Award winner, current VP of SFWA) who hosted a release party for her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey. She’s a charming and intelligent lady, and a darn good writer. She reminds me a bit of Connie Willis in some ways.

Baen Books has their galactic headquarters near Raleigh (Jim Baen was smart enough to move out of expensive New York years ago) and there were a number of Baen folk in attendance (although they run a distributed operation). The Baen party Friday night was well attended and a lot of fun, with Toni Weisskopf being her usual intelligent and entertaining self. (And no, I’m not just saying that because I want her to buy my novel — although if I thought it would help, I might.) There were the usual Worldcon bid parties, too — Chicago in 2012, Texas (San Antonio) in 2013, and perhaps the best, London (UK) in 2014. These are all largely, so far as I know, uncontested, although there’s time for someone to mount another 2014 bid, and even a 2013 bid although the timing is tight on that one. Since London is my original home town, I’m supporting (technically, pre-supporting) their bid. They put a cool London 2014 video together to promote it, see how many SF/fantasy shows or movies you can identify. If London does win, then there’ll also be a NASFiC that year (location to be determined, I’m sure bids will start showing up as we get closer to the date.)

There are a lot of reasons that sf cons are worthwhile. I had a chance to meet with Analog editor Stanley Schmidt, who bought me (and writer Shane Tourtellotte) lunch in part so that I’d “feel obligated and send more stories” Stan’s way. That’s quite a compliment. I also find that the interaction with creative and intelligent people stimulates a lot of new ideas. I have several stories already in mind since coming back, and I’ve heard the same from other writers. You need to keep up the input to keep the output flowing.

And on that note, I need to sign off here and go write some of those stories down. Ciao.

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Aug 04 2010

Writing Wednesday – 5

Published by under Writing

“Writing Wednesday” may be a little short this time around, because of other time pressures.

This week I’ve been working on some editor-requested additions to a novel I have under submission. This falls under Robert Heinlein’s 3rd Rule of Writing: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial request.

A couple of comments on that: It does not mean sending out first drafts. Heinlein’s 2nd rule is “You must finish what you write,” and note that “finish” means “polish” as well as “complete”. He also said “to editorial” request, not to an agent’s request. Now, if you have one of the top agents in the business, you might consider any suggestions they might make — but if you’re reading this, you probably don’t, and they probably wouldn’t.

Not that you have to rewrite even to editorial request: if you don’t agree with the suggestions, or they don’t make sense to you, you can always refuse and (if necessary) offer the piece elsewhere. Daniel Keyes pulled his short story “Flowers for Algernon” back from Galaxy magazine because the editor wanted a happier ending. He later sold it to F&SF and it went on to win the Hugo Award for that year. When he expanded it to novel length he first sold it to Doubleday — until the editor there also requested a happier ending. Keyes returned Doubleday’s advance, had the novel rejected by five other publishers over the next year, and finally sold it to Harcourt. It went on to win the Nebula Award and has never been out of print since.

In my case, the novel is no Flowers for Algernon, and the editor’s suggestions are at a rather high level (add so many thousand words, and make sure these questions about the backstory get answered). How I incorporate them is entirely up to me.

The other thing I’ve been doing is prepping for ReConStruction, the 2010 NASFiC (North American Science Fiction Convention) being held in Raleigh, NC starting tomorrow (Aug 5) and running through Sunday (Aug 8). NASFiC is held at irregular intervals, whenever the World SF Convention (WorldCon) is held outside North America; it’s in Australia this year.

Like most SF conventions, NASFiC is not a huge commercial media-focused convention like ComiCon or DragonCon which attract tens of thousands of attendees (who then spend most of their time waiting in lines…). Most SF cons are much smaller, less than a thousand, and traditionally focus more on “literary” (ie, written) SF/F. That “more” is relative, there’s plenty of programming relating to movies and TV, gaming, costuming and so on. If you like science fiction, cons are a great place to meet others with similar interests; enjoy the costumes, the art show, the game room, the video room; discover new authors; find that perfect tee-shirt or carved dragon or who-knows-what in the dealer room; and/or be educated and entertained in the various panel sessions. For readers, it’s an opportunity to meet some of your favorite SF/F authors.

For aspiring SF/F authors, they’re an opportunity to learn more about the craft and the business, to network with other writers, and perhaps a chance to meet a few editors. (At least two of my editors will be at NASFiC; that’s one reason I’m going.) It also gives your fans (both of them (grin)) a chance to meet you, and for you to get your name in front of a few more potential readers and fans. That’s a whole ‘nother topic — and coincidentally Joe Konrath, master of self promotion (he’s done his own tours hitting literally hundreds of bookstores) is blogging today that he’s phasing that out. But he’s been there and done that, a lot. I think it’s still worth it for newbies. (Maybe not the 39-state multi-hundred store tours, but at least getting to places — like cons — where fans of your genre congregate.)

It turns out this isn’t as short as I thought it would be. Get a writer writing and it’s hard to shut them off, I guess. Next time I’ll probably report on ReConStruction and talk about who knows what else. Meanwhile, keep writing … or go have fun at a con.

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