Iain M. Banks, Science Fiction Genius, Dies at 59

Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks

It’s always hard when a person who inspired you in life dies. And for me, there are only a handful of people beyond my circles of family and friends who have, in some way, shaped my thinking.

But through his novels, Scottish writer Iain Banks had such a powerful impact on my teenage years that he, in no small way, gave me a new appreciation for science fiction and in doing so helped me pursue a higher education in astrophysics. Sadly, as he announced with his trademark wit only two months ago, Iain had terminal gall bladder cancer and today has died at the heartbreaking young age of 59. He will be sorely missed by the fiction and science fiction communities — he was a plain-speaking, powerful voice in life and a skillful genius when describing the worlds he created on paper.

My signed copy of Iain M. Banks' "Matter" -- my mum sat in on one of Iain's book readings in Bristol that I couldn't attend and got a signed copy of the novel for me -- one of my most precious books.

My signed copy of Iain M. Banks’ “Matter” — my mum sat in on one of Iain’s book readings in Bristol that I couldn’t attend and got a signed copy of the novel for me — one of my most precious books.

Now, I’m not the biggest of readers, but when you pick up an Iain Banks (a.k.a. Iain M. Banks for his science fiction novels) book, it’s hard to put down. His first science fiction novel Consider Phlebas introduced us to the epic Culture universe — a vast interstellar multi-species civilization, of which Earth and humanity had been enveloped. The very notion of a post-scarcity, pan-galactic race seemed to hit the sweet spot of my imagination, so I hungrily read all of Iain’s Culture series, feeling the very notion of what science fiction is change in my brain. In a particularly tumultuous period of my life, I took on Iain’s fictional writing too, reading the deeply unsettling The Wasp Factory.

Iain’s writing is a constant source of surprise to me — he has this unique ability to shock, enlighten and entertain while creating such a fine tapestry of plot twists and deep characters that you quickly become lost in his words.

But for me, Iain’s imagination forced the very limits of science fiction, expanding my thoughts on what is possible in our Universe. This is why, while struggling with mathematics in my undergraduate years at the University of Aberystwyth that Iain M. Banks’ work became a welcome escape. When I began questioning some of the fundamental ideas behind physics and developed a thirst for advanced and, quite frankly, unfathomable concepts in astrophysics, Iain’s books became a huge source of inspiration.

Although many facets of my life threw me on a course that would eventually see me tackle a PhD in coronal physics and send me on a life-changing trip to Hawaii and ultimately land me in California, with my beautiful wife Debra, 5 rabbits and a job with the task of communicating awe-inspiring space science to the world, Iain’s fictional universe has always been there, complementing my life in a very real way.

I will always remember Iain and will continue reading his novels so that inspiration endures beyond his death. People who inspire you are few and far between, so when someone changes the way you think through the medium of their writing, you should never let them go.

Goodbye Iain, the Culture will forever be my inspiration.

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The White House Approves NASA’s ‘James Bond’ Asteroid Bagging Mission

Screengrab from the NASA "Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission" animation (NASA LaRC/JSC)

Screengrab from the NASA “Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission” animation (NASA LaRC/JSC)

It’s been a looooong time since I last updated Astroengine.com, so first off, apologies for that. But today seems as good a time as any to crank up the ‘engine’s servers as the White House has rubber-stamped a manned NASA mission to an asteroid! However, this isn’t what the President originally had in mind in 2009 when he mandated the US space agency with the task of getting astronauts to an asteroid by the mid-2020′s.

In a twist, it turns out that NASA will be basing their manned asteroid jaunt on a 2011 Keck Institute study. To cut a long story short (you can read the long story in my Discovery News article on the topic: “NASA to Hunt Down and Capture an Asteroid“), NASA will launch an unmanned spacecraft to hunt down a small space rock specimen, “lasso” it (although “bagging” it would be more accurate) and drag the wild asteroid to park it at the Earth-moon Lagrangian point, L2. Then we can treat it like a fast food store; we can fly to and from, chipping off pieces of space rock, return samples to Earth and do, well, SCIENCE!

Great? Great.

Overall, this robotic capture/manned exoplration of an asteroid saves cash and “optimizes” the science that can be done. It also lowers the risk associated with a long-duration mission into deep space. By snaring an asteroid in its natural habitat and dragging it back to the Earth-moon system, we avoid astronauts having to spend months in deep space. The EML2 point is only days away.

But when watching the exciting NASA video after the news broke today, I kept thinking…

asteroid-grab2

But that wasn’t the only thing I was thinking. I was also thinking: what’s the point? It’s flashy and patriotic, but where’s the meat?

The human component of this asteroid mission has now been demoted to second fiddle. Sure, it will utilize NASA’s brand new Orion spacecraft and be one of the first launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), but what will it achieve? Astronauts will fly beyond Moon orbit, dock with the stationary space rock and retrieve samples as they please, but why bother with astronauts at all?

It is hoped that the robotic asteroid bagging spacecraft could launch by 2017 and, assuming a few years to steer the asteroid to EML2, a human mission would almost certainly be ready by the mid-2020s. But by that time, sufficiently advanced robotics would be available for unmanned sample retrieval. Heck, as telepresence technology matures, the EML2 point will be well within the scope for a live feed — light-time between Earth and the EML2 point will only be a few seconds, perhaps a little more if communications need to be relayed around the Moon. Robotics could be controlled live by a “virtual astronaut” on Earth — we probably have this capability right now.

The most exciting thing for me is the robotic component of asteroid capture. The advances in asteroid rendezvous and trajectory modification techniques will be cool, although scaling the asteroid bagging technique up (for large asteroids that could actually cause damage should they hit Earth) would be a challenge (to put it mildly). At a push, it may even be of use to a theoretical future asteroid mining industry. The rationale is that if we can understand the composition of a small asteroid, we can hope to learn more about its larger cousins.

The human element seems to be an afterthought and purely a political objective. There will undoubtedly be advancements in life support and docking technologies, but it will only be a mild taster for the far grander (original) NASA plan to send a team of astronauts into deep space to study an asteroid far away from the Earth-Moon system. The argument will be “an asteroid is a stepping stone to Mars” — sadly, by watering down the human element in an already questionable asteroid mission, it’s hard to see the next step for a long-duration spaceflight to Mars.

From this logic, we may as well just keep sending robots. But that wasn’t the point, was it?

Take a look at the video and decide for yourself:

Big AGU Announcements: Curiosity Team May Not, But What About Voyager 1? (Update)

A view from Curiosity's front hazcam of the sandy Mars soil the rover scooped samples of for analysis by its SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A view from Curiosity’s front hazcam of the sandy Mars soil the rover scooped samples of for analysis by its SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

UPDATE 2: So it turns out that Curiosity does have data to suggest that organics and perchlorates may be present in the Mars soil. As NASA keeps reminding us, this is not “proof” of organics, it’s “promising data.” Regardless, the media has made up their own mind as to what it means. As for Voyager 1, my speculation that it has left the solar system wasn’t quite correct… close, but she hasn’t left the heliosphere, yet.

UPDATE 1: That whole thing I said in my Al Jazeera English op-ed about being blinkered on the organics explanation for the “big” news on Monday? Well, case in point, as tweeted by @MarsToday on Sunday night, perhaps Curiosity has discovered further evidence for perchlorates on Mars. I have no clue where this information is sourced, and I’m not going to speculate any more, but if perchlorates have been discovered in Gale Crater, it would support the findings of NASA’s 2008 Mars Phoenix lander findings of perchlorate and possible liquid water brine in the arctic regions of the Red Planet. Place your bets…

Over the last bizarre few days, a key NASA scientist (almost) spilled the beans on a “historic” discovery by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity. Then, speculation ran wild. Had NASA’s newest Mars surface mission discovered organics? Feeling the need to stamp out the glowing embers of organic excitement ahead of the Dec. 3 AGU press conference, NASA said that there would be no big announcement on Monday. But then the agency went even further, issuing a terse statement to point out that the speculation is wrong. “At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics,” said NASA.

So now we’re left, understandably, wondering what lead MSL scientist John Grotzinger was referring to. I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t misquoted by the NPR journalist who happened to be sitting in his office when the MSL team was receiving data from the mission’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. And if we take NASA’s damage-controlling statements at face value, Grotzinger was just getting excited for all the data being received from the rover — after all, the entire mission is historic.

As a science media guy with a background in science, I totally ‘get’ what the MSL team are going through. Scientists are only human and whether or not Grotzinger was getting excited for a specific “historic” find or just getting generally excited for all the “historic” data streaming from the rover, is irrelevant. Perhaps he should have been more careful as to the language he used when having an NPR reporter sitting in the same room as him, but that’s academic, I’m pretty sure that if I was leading the most awesome Mars mission in the history of Mars missions I’d be brimming over with excitement too. The scientific process is long and can often seem labored and secretive to the media and public — rumors or a few slipped words from scientists is often all that’s needed to spawn the hype. But for the scientific process to see its course, data needs to be analyzed, re-analyzed and theories need to be formulated. In an announcement as important as “organics on Mars,” the science needs to be watertight.

However, I can’t help but feel that, in NASA’s enthusiasm to “keep the lid” on speculation, that they are setting themselves up for a backlash on Monday.

If the AGU press conference is just “an update about first use of the rover’s full array of analytical instruments to investigate a drift of sandy soil,” as the NASA statement says, won’t there be any mention of organics? Will this be a similar announcement to the sampling of Mars air in the search for methane? The upshot of that Nov. 2 press conference was that the Mars air had been tested by SAM and no methane (within experimental limits) had been discovered… yet. But this was a sideline to the announcement of some incredible science as to the evolution of the Martian atmosphere.

This time, although there may not be “definitive,” absolute, watertight proof of organics, might mission scientists announce the detection of something that appears to be organics… “but more work is needed”? It’s a Catch 22: It’s not the “historic” news as the experiment is ongoing pending a rock-solid conclusion; yet it IS “historic” as the mere hint of a detection would bolster the organics experiments of the Viking landers in the 1970s and could hint at the discovery of another piece of the “Mars life puzzle.” And besides, everything Curiosity does is “historic.”

In NASA’s haste to damper speculation, have they cornered themselves into not making any big announcements on Monday? Or have they only added to the speculation, bolstering the media’s attention? Besides, I get the feeling that the media will see any announcement as a “big” announcement regardless of NASA scientists’ intent. Either way, it’s a shame that the hype may distract from the incredible science the MSL team are carrying out every single day.

For more on “Organicsgate,” read my Al Jazeera English op-ed Mars organics speculation butts heads with scientific process.”

Meanwhile, in deep space, a little probe launched 35 years ago is edging into the interstellar medium and NASA’s Voyager Program team are also holding an AGU press conference on Monday. Although there have been no NPR journalists getting the scoop from mission scientists, it’s worth keeping in mind that Voyager 1 really is about to make history. In October, I reported that the particle detectors aboard the aging spacecraft detected something weird in the outermost reaches of the Solar System. As Voyager 1 ventures deep into the heliosheith — the outermost component of the heliosphere (the Sun’s sphere of influence) — it detected inexplicable high-energy particles. The theory is that these particles are being accelerated by the magnetic mess that is the outermost reaches of the Solar System. But there is growing evidence in particle detections and magnetometer readings that the probe may have just left the Solar System, completely escaping the heliosphere.

A big hint is in the following graphs of data streaming from Voyager 1. The first plot shows the increase in high-energy cosmic ray particle counts. These high-energy particles typically originate from beyond the heliosphere. The bottom plot shows lower-energy particles that originate from the solar wind. Note how the lower-energy particle counts fell off a cliff this summer, and how the high-energy particles have seen a marked increase at around the same period:

High-energy cosmic ray count as detected by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

High-energy cosmic ray count as detected by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

Low-energy cosmic ray count as detected by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

Low-energy cosmic ray count as detected by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

So, in light of the media-centric Curiosity debate over what is “historic” and what’s not “historic” enough to be announced at conferences, I’m getting increasingly excited for what the Voyager team have got to say tomorrow. It’s inevitable that Voyager 1 will leave the Solar System, but will NASA call it at the AGU? Who knows, but that would be historic, just without the hype.

Intercontinental Travel Is Impossible…

(Imagine an island long, long ago, in an ocean far, far away…)

“Intercontinental travel will never happen. The nearest shore is thousands of miles away. This means that even if we had the ability to row five miles per day from our little island, it would take years to get there!

To rub (sea) salt into the wound, the nearest shoreline is probably not a place we’d want to visit anyway. We’ve heard that beasts of unimaginable horror lurk over the horizon. Even worse, what if that undiscovered country is a desert-like place, or a disease-ridden tropic? Perhaps water doesn’t even flow as a liquid! Imagine trying to live in a land covered with ice. What a thought!

To put it bluntly, our little island is quarantined from the rest of the world. But it’s not a quarantine where we are locked inside an impenetrable room, we’re quarantined by a mind-bogglingly vast expanse of ocean. We live here with only a rowing boat for transportation — you can do some laps around the island in that rowing boat, but that’s all.

Forget about it. Don’t look at those distant shores and think that some day we’ll be able to build an engine for that rowing boat. A little outboard motor wouldn’t get you very far — you’d likely run out of gas before the island is out of sight! Heck, you’ll probably starve before then anyway.

Just go home. Why are you still planning on building a big boat — that sci-fi notion of a metal-hulled “ship” no less! — when you should be worrying more about your little island? We have problems here! Our resources are dwindling, people are starving! Your dreams mean nothing in our everyday lives.”

What am I talking about? Read my Discovery News op-ed to find out…

Mars Rover Curiosity is a Steampunk Creation

The left eye of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took this image of the camera on the rover's arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), during the 30th sol of the rover's mission on Mars (Sept. 5, 2012).

The left eye of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took this image of the camera on the rover’s arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), during the 30th sol of the rover’s mission on Mars (Sept. 5, 2012).

During the Sept. 6 press conference from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission scientists discussed updates from Curiosity’s progress in Gale Crater. It’s hard to keep up with the incredible deluge of images and scientific data as the six-wheeled rover roves toward its first target — a geologically interesting location called “Glenelg.” Mission managers hope to use Curiosity’s drill for the first time when the rover arrives. Expect mission updates and some pretty cool photos to appear on Discovery News throughout the day.

There was one photograph, however, imaged by the rover’s Mastcam that was showcased in today’s briefing that fascinated me. Shown above, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) can be seen on the rover’s robotic arm (with dust cap still in place). All the instrumentation and wiring has a very cool Steampunk-esque quality to it.

When I “met” Curiosity at the JPL clean room last year, I was also fascinated by its ugly functionality. By “ugly,” I don’t mean repulsive, I actually fell in love with the robot that day. But with any space mission, function succeeds form and Curiosity is no different. Instruments jut out from a central box; cables snake over all surfaces; gold and silver components are scattered across the deck like opulent jewels; and the whole thing is supported by some seriously heavy duty wheels that wouldn’t look out of place attached to a Bentley cruising through Los Angeles.

Back then, I stared at the Mars exploration machine, whose one purpose is to do science in an alien land, and thought how alien the thing looked. But in all the ugliness of an apparently random assortment of instrumentation, Curiosity has an undeniably beautiful character. Also, it has a WALL-E-like “head” in the form of the blocky ChemCam atop its mast. And now I know what its character is after seeing this latest robotic arm photo; it’s a creation that wouldn’t look out of place in a Steampunk museum or imagined in a H. G. Wells novel. However, this isn’t sci-fi, this is real. We have a nuclear-powered rover on Mars. Sometimes it’s too hard to put such awesomeness into words.

After Historic Discovery, Higgs Flies Economy

Real superstars: Peter Higgs congratulates ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti after she announced her collaboration's discovery of a Higgs-like particle (CERN/ATLAS/Getty)

Real superstars: Peter Higgs congratulates ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti after she announced her collaboration’s discovery of a Higgs-like particle. Credit: CERN/ATLAS/Getty

I am endlessly baffled by modern society.

We have reality TV stars whose only talent is to shock and annoy, and yet inexplicably have millions of adoring fans. We also have sports superstars who get paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game they love, and yet they still get elevated to God-like status.

And then there’s Professor Peter Higgs, arguably the biggest science superstar of recent years.

The 83-year-old retired theoretical physicist was one of six scientists who, in the 1960s, assembled the framework behind the Higgs boson — the almost-unequivocally-discovered gauge particle that is theorized to carry the Higgs field, thereby endowing matter with mass. The theory behind the Higgs boson and all the high-energy physics experiments pursuing its existence culminated in a grand CERN announcement from Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday. With obvious emotion and nerves, lead scientist of the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS detector Joe Incandela announced what we’ve all been impatiently waiting for: “We have observed a new boson.

So, we now have evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson — or a Higgs boson — to a high degree of statistical certainty, ultimately providing observational evidence for a critical piece of the Standard Model. This story began half a century ago with Prof. Higgs’ theoretical team, and it culminated on July 4, 2012, when results from a $10 billion particle accelerator were announced.

After the historic events of the last few days, one would think Peter Higgs would have been at least treated to a First Class flight back to his home in Scotland. But true to form, Higgs had other ideas:

Later, Higgs’s friend and colleague Alan Walker recounted the low-key celebration they held after learning of the breakthrough, one of the most important scientific discoveries of recent years.

Walker said he and Higgs were flying home from CERN in Geneva this week on budget airline easyJet when he offered Higgs a glass of Prosecco sparkling wine so they could toast the discovery.

Higgs replied: “‘I’d rather have a beer’ and popped a can of London Pride,” Walker said.

via Discovery News

In a world where “celebrities” are hailed as superhuman, to hear that potential Nobel Prize candidate Peter Higgs took a budget airline home, after history had been made, typifies the humble nature of a great scientist and puts the world of celebrity to shame. Money and fame matters little to the people who are unraveling the fabric of the Universe.

On a different (yet related) note, Motherboard interviewed people on the streets of Brooklyn and asked them if they knew what the Higgs boson is. Most had never heard of it, let alone understood it (which, let’s face it, isn’t a surprise — many science communicators still have problems explaining the Higgs mechanism). But I wonder if the same group of people were asked if they knew what a “Snookie” was; I’m guessing they’d have no problem answering.

People may not read the news, but they sure have an innate knowledge of who’s in the gossip columns.

Life: Not So Grim On The Galactic Rim?

M80 -- an old globular cluster in the Milky Way -- is full of metal-poor stars. Do they still have exoplanetary potential? (NASA)

M80 — an old globular cluster in the Milky Way — is full of metal-poor stars. Do they still have exoplanetary potential? (NASA)

The galaxy may be brimming with habitable small worlds and many older star systems could possess the conditions ripe for advanced alien civilizations to evolve. This prediction comes in the wake of new analysis of data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope and ground based observatories by a team of Danish and American astronomers.

Led by Lars Buchhave of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, the team has revealed that stars containing low quantities of heavy elements — known as “metal poor” stars — are still capable of nurturing exoplanets with Earth-like qualities.

“I wanted to investigate whether planets only form around certain types of stars and whether there is a correlation between the size of the planets and the type of host star it is orbiting,” Buchhave said.

After analyzing the elemental composition of stars hosting 226 small exoplanets — some as small as the rocky planets in the Solar System — Buchhave’s team discovered that “unlike the gas giants, the occurrence of smaller planets is not strongly dependent on stars with a high content of heavy elements. Planets that are up to four times the size of Earth can form around very different stars — also stars that are poorer in heavy elements,” he concluded.

The Kepler mission, for example, is actively carrying out a search for exoplanets that pass in front of their host stars (events known as “transits”). With Kepler’s sensitive eye, it is capable of detecting exoplanets of similar size to Earth, or even as small as Mars.

Interestingly, as it surveys Sun-like stars, Kepler can detect tiny, rocky worlds that orbit within the “habitable zones” of their stars. It’s no huge leap of the imagination to think alien life may have evolved on some of these worlds.

But a problem facing astronomers hunting for bona fide “Earth-like” exoplanets is that many older stars have low quantities of heavier elements (such as the silicon and iron) that small rocky worlds need to become… well… rocky. But Buchhave’s discovery suggests that stars once considered infertile may in fact have a shot at birthing small exoplanets.

Jill Tarter, Chair of the SETI Institute, points out that this could be a boon for the search for intelligent extraterrestrials. “The idea that very old stars could also sport habitable planets is encouraging for our searches,” she said in a SETI press release on Wednesday.

Tarter also highlights the fact that life took a long time to evolve into an advanced technological state on Earth. Therefore, should there be small habitable rocky worlds orbiting ancient stars (as this research suggests), perhaps alien life far older and more technologically advanced than ourselves are out there.

Although this seems to make logical sense, it may not make biological sense. Metal-poor stars might have the ability to create small worlds, but just because there are likely many small worlds out there, it doesn’t mean life can be nurtured. But then again, regions of the Milky Way once considered to be devoid of exoplanets may now have a stab at providing a planetary habitat for extraterrestrial biology to gain a foothold. Whether or not these metal poor stars host the right ingredients for the building blocks of life probably won’t be known for some time.

In 2009, I wrote an article (see “Life Is Grim On The Galactic Rim“) that grabbed the attention of National Geographic writer Ken Croswell who quoted my Astroengine.com article in the December 2010 edition of the magazine. In the text, I discussed some research that investigated the strange lack of protoplanetary disks around a selection of metal-poor star clusters in the outermost regions of the galaxy. The lack of a protoplanetary disk means a lack of exoplanet-birthing potential and a grim outlook for life to evolve in regions of the galaxy distant from the galactic core.

The conclusion of this 2009 work appears to contradict these most recent findings and the suggestion that advanced alien civilizations may have evolved around metal-poor stars. Whether these stars are the exception rather than the rule, or whether their low metallicity influences the size or visibility of their protoplanetary disks would be an interesting factor to consider.

Although SETI searches have yet to turn up any signal from an advanced alien technology, Kepler is proving that stars — regardless of their metallicity — have the ability to host small rocky worlds. Should life have taken hold on these worlds, then perhaps, some day, we may intercept an interstellar phone call from one of them.

This topic and a myriad of others will be discussed on June 22-24 where the world’s leaders in the field of alien and exoplanet hunting will meet at the Hyatt Santa Clara hotel in California’s Silicon Valley for SETIcon.

UPDATE: After tweeting this article, @spacearcheology retweeted my link with the following comment:

This is something I neglected to consider in the original post. If there are indeed many more small rocky worlds out there — particularly around metal-poor stars that are, by their nature, ancient — why the heck haven’t we detected any ancient extraterrestrial intelligences yet? This has just become the Fermi Paradox PLUS…