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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Could Kepler Detect Borg Cubes? Why Not.

That's no sunspot.

"That's no sunspot."

Assuming Star Trek‘s Borg Collective went into overdrive and decided to build a huge cube a few thousand miles wide, then yes, the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope should be able to spot it. But how could Kepler distinguish a cube from a nice spherical exoplanet?

With the help of Ray Villard over at Discovery News, he did some digging and found a paper dating back to 2005 — long before Kepler was launched. However, researcher Luc Arnold, of the Observatoire de Haute-Provence in Paris, did have the space telescope in mind when he studied what it would take to distinguish different hypothetical shapes as they passed in front of his theoretical stars.

The big assumption when looking for exoplanets that drift between distant stars and the Earth — events known as “transits” — is that the only shape these detectable exoplanets come in are spheres. Obvious really.

As a world passes in front of its parent star, a circular shadow will form. However, from Earth, we’d detect a slight dimming of the star’s “light curve” during the transit, allowing astronomers to deduce the exoplanet’s orbital period and size.

The transit method has been used to confirm the presence of hundreds of exoplanets so far, and Kepler has found over 1,200 additional exoplanet candidates. But say if astronomers paid closer attention to the shape of the received light curve; spherical objects have a distinct signature, but say if something looked different in the transiting “planet’s” light curve? Well, it could mean that something non-spherical has passed in front of a star. And what does that mean? Well, that would be a pretty convincing argument for the presence of a huge planet-sized artificial structure orbiting another star. Artifical structure = super-advanced alien civilization.

Arnold tested his theory that all manner of shapes could be detected by Kepler, assuming the transiting structure was on the scale of a few thousand miles wide. In this case, Arnold was testing his hypothesis to see whether we could detect an advanced civilization’s “shadow play.” Perhaps, rather than beaming messages by radio waves, an advanced civilization might want to signal their presence — SETI style — by blocking their sun’s light with vast sheets of lightweight material. As the shape passes in front of the star, the slight dimming of starlight would reveal an artificial presence in orbit.

By putting a series of these shapes into orbit, the aliens could create a kind of interstellar Morse code.

Of course, this is a rather “out there” idea, but I find it fascinating that Kepler could detect an alien artifact orbiting a star tens or hundreds of light-years away. Although this research is only considering orbital “billboards,” I quite like the idea that Kepler might also be able to detect a large structure like… I don’t know… a big Borg mothership. Having advanced warning of the presence of an aggressive alien race sitting on our cosmic doorstep — especially ones of the variety that like to assimilate — would be pretty handy.

Publication: Transit Lightcurve Signatures of Artificial Objects, L. Arnold, 2005. arXiv:astro-ph/0503580v1

The Ultimate Paternity Test: Are We Martian?

"Dad?" A scene from War of the Worlds.

This rather outlandish, sci-fi notion comes straight from the fertile minds of researchers from MIT, the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University who are proposing a biology experiment that could be sent on a future Mars surface mission. If their hypothesis is proven, we wouldn’t only have an answer for the age old question: Are we alone? but we’d also have an answer for the not-so-age-old question: Did life from Mars spawn life on Earth?

The idea goes like this: countless tons of material from Mars has landed on Earth. We know this to be true; meteorites have been discovered on Earth that originate from the Red Planet. These rocks were blasted from the Martian surface after eons of asteroid impacts, and the rocks then drifted to Earth.

If there was once life on Mars — a concept that isn’t that far-fetched, considering Mars used to boast liquid water in abundance on its surface — then perhaps some tiny organisms (not dislike the hardy cyanobacteria that is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of life to evolve on our planet) hitched a ride on these rocks. If some of these organisms survived the harsh conditions during transit from Mars to Earth and made it though the searing heat as the meteorite fell through our atmosphere, then perhaps (perhaps!) that is what sparked life on Earth.

You may have heard a few variations of this mechanism, it is of course the “panspermia” hypothesis. Panspermia assumes that life isn’t exclusive to just one rocky body like Earth, perhaps life has the ability to hop from one planet to the next, helped on its way by asteroid impacts. Not only that, but perhaps (perhaps!) tiny microorganisms could drift, encased in interstellar dust, akin to pollen drifting in the wind, seeding distant star systems.

Naturally, when considering the distance between the planets (let alone the light-years between the stars!), one might be a little skeptical of panspermia. But it certainly would help us understand how life first appeared on Earth. After all, it’s not as if the solar system has a natural quarantine system in place — if Mars had (or has) bacteria on its surface, perhaps they have been spread to Earth, like an interplanetary flu bug. Also, as experiments are showing us, microorganisms have an uncanny ability to survive in space for extended periods of time.

So, according to my esteemed Discovery News colleague Ray Villard, the MIT team led by Christopher Carr and Maria Zuber and Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, are proposing to build an instrument to send to Mars. But this instrument won’t be looking for signs of life, it will be testing the hypothetical Martian DNA and RNA. Should this interplanetary paternity test prove positive, proving a relationship between Earth Brand™ Life and Mars Brand™ Life, then this could be proof of some extraterrestrial cross-pollination.

Although this is complete conjecture at this time, as there is no proof that life has ever existed on Mars (despite what research in dodgy research journals tell us), it is certainly an interesting idea that would not only test the hypothesis of panspermia, but also give us a clue about the potential human colonization of Mars.

To quote Ray:

This could give us pause about sending humans to a germ-laden alien world. It would be an ironic twist on the H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” where invading Martians succumb to the common cold from Earth microbes.

See, Wells’ Martian warriors should have done genome testing first.

It’s Official: “2012” Sucked

Just in case you didn’t know, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 wasn’t the best of movies.

Actually, from a science perspective, it sucked.

It sucked in so many ways that I can’t be bothered to list why it sucked (so have a read of my Discovery News review instead).

Now, I’m happy to announce that NASA agrees with me. They think 2012 sucked so much, they’ve branded it the most “scientifically flawed of its genre.”

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, agrees with what I’ve been saying all along (especially since all that “Institute for Human Continuity” bullshit hit the internet). He said at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory meeting:

“The film makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012. [NASA] is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”

Even though NASA agreed that Bruce Willis’ Armageddon was bad, it couldn’t compete with the scientific atrocities 2012 inflicted on its audience. The killer neutrinos, planetary alignment, crustal shift, geomagnetic reversal and super-duper-massive tsunamis proved too much. 2012 has even toppled The Core as worst sci-fi science movie. Now that is impressive.

But what does it all mean? Apart from us science snobs having a chuckle on our blogs, I doubt it will make the blind bit of difference. Why? This is why:

“On the opening weekend of 2012, the movie pulled in 65 million in U.S. ticket sales and an additional $160 million internationally, easily covering the $200+ million budget.

Movies aren’t about scientific accuracy, and it would seem that the hype behind 2012 can stand alone as the biggest moneymaker of all.

Fear sells, science doesn’t. The subject of doomsday will always be a blockbuster. Unfortunately, through the miscommunication of science, fear is usually the end-product.”

– “2012” Sells Tickets, Sells-Out Science

Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all. Now, have a laugh:

Thanks to @mars_stu and @RogerHighfield for the inspiration.

EDIT: An earlier version of this blog post stated that the Science and Entertainment Exchange was involved with NASA’s decision to make 2012 “most scientifically flawed” movie in its list. I have received an email from the Exchange’s director that this is not the case. I have therefore edited any mention of the Exchange from the blog (even though my source, the Adelaide Now, still references the Exchange).

Life is Grim on the Galactic Rim

The White Star approaches the Shadow's homeworld of Z'ha'dum on the Galactic Rim.

The White Star approaches the Shadow’s homeworld of Z’ha’dum on the Galactic Rim.

It would appear that scientists have confirmed that the outer edge of the Milky Way is a bad location for life to even think about existing.

This research reminded me of the “Galactic Rim” in the 90’s sci-fi TV series Babylon 5. The Rim is the mysterious region of space right at the edge of our galaxy where only the hardiest of explorers dared to venture. As explained in the season 2 episode of B5, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum,” Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) discovers that his wife (when exploring The Rim) went missing on a planet called Z’ha’dum. It turns out that an angry ancient alien race — called the Shadows — lived on this mysterious world and their discovery led to them being used in all kinds of plots during the latter four seasons of this awesome sci-fi show.

However, the existence of any kind of life (let alone life as complex as the evil Shadows) in the badlands of the Milky Way is looking very unlikely.

Located some 62,000 light years from the core of our galaxy (over twice the distance of the Earth from the galactic centre), two very young star clusters in the constellation of Cassiopeia have been studied. Chikako Yasui, Naoto Kobayashi and colleagues at the University of Tokyo, Japan, found these clusters in a vast cloud of gas and dust called Digel Cloud 2. The stars inside these clusters are only half a million years old, and the majority of them should possess proto-planetary disks (which is characteristic of local star-forming regions). However, it would appear that these stars contain very little oxygen, silicon or iron (i.e. they have very low metallicity) and only 1 in 5 of the 111 baby stars analysed in both clusters have disks.

If proto-planetary disks are rare, this means there will be a rarity of planets. This is an obvious bummer for life to form. After all, Life As We Know It™ is quite attached to evolving on Earth-like planets.

So why are these young stars lacking proto-planetary disks, when local star forming regions don’t seem to have this affliction? The authors of the paper, soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, suggest that these stars did have disks, but some mechanism is rapidly eroding them.

The most likely scenario is that low metalicity proto-planetary disks are more susceptible to photoevaporation. Simply put, these disks evaporate when exposed to EUV and X-ray radiation from their parent stars far more rapidly than disks that are metal-rich.

Therefore, if an alien race was able to form, they’d be very rare or they’d be very different from what we’d expect “life” to be like (i.e. they thrive in low metalicity star systems). Sounds like the mysterious Shadow homeworld of Z’ha’dum would be a very rare sight on The Rim of our Milky Way after all.

Publication: The Lifetime of Protoplanetary Disks in a Low-Metallicity Environment, Chikako Yasui et al., 2009. arXiv:0908.4026v3 [astro-ph.SR]
via New Scientist

#DefyingGravity Eats #FlashForward Dust

flash-600

Oh dear. Just when I was actually beginning to care about the cast of Defying Gravity, it was cancelled half-way through the first season. I was a little annoyed about this as #DefyingGravity on Twitter was fast becoming a weekly ritual; a group of us die-hard sci-fi viewers scoffing at the science atrocities the ABC show was inflicting on us. In fact, the bad science, when coupled with a spaceship full of horny crew mates (a.k.a. friends with benefits… why not?) almost made it compelling viewing (almost).

Apart from hammering home the inevitability of astronauts having sex in space, I almost stood up and cheered when, in the last episode (called “Love, Honor, Obey“), the cast did a great job at explaining the quantum physics thought experiment, Schrödinger’s cat. As the crew was stuck inside a shielded compartment to protect themselves against an impending solar flare (it turned out to be a false alarm), mission control had no way to communicate with the crew. Steve Wassenfelder, the out-of-shape physicist, likened the crew to Schrödinger’s cat; to mission control, as they had no way of knowing whether they were alive or dead, the crew were in fact alive and dead. Clever.

The show also handled the solar flare event pretty well, although they avoided a lot of the details (but kept it within the realms of possibility, as opposed to some movies I won’t mention).

Then, after some fractal tomato plants (I didn’t say all the science was kosher), the crew opened mysterious Pod 4 to see…

…I don’t know what they saw as that was the cliff-hanger of the last episode. I’m sure I’ll end up watching it on Hulu.com, but I don’t think it will be the same without mocking it live on Twitter with the #DefyingGravity contributors (you know who you are).

Then, as quickly as Defying Gravity dropped off our screens, another compelling sci-fi series appears on ABC featuring a competent-looking cast (led by Joseph Fiennes and John Cho). It’s called FlashForward, and after only the first episode, I’m hooked. It’s actually the same feeling I had when I watched the very first episode of Heroes.

In FlashForward, we start off in Los Angeles, looking into several people’s lives, when suddenly the entire planet blacks out for 2mins 17seconds. During that time, everyone has a vision of 6 months into the future.

The series is based on the 1999 novel Flashforward by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, and the premise is pure sci-fi joy. In fact, I was lucky enough to be sent a behind the scenes video by Times.com science comedian Brian Malow (be warned, there’s a fairly huge spoiler, but it’s an awesome spoiler that will get you nodding with joy… but you’ve been warned):

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9/29650554001?isVid=1&publisherID=293884104

Robert J. Sawyer calls himself a “hard science fiction writer,” so it will be very interesting to see how the show deals with the speculative quantum-conciousness link. Still, it has to be better than that silly mag grav idea in Defying Gravity.

In other news: The lovely Eliza Dushku will live-tweet during the season 2 premier of Dollhouse (on FOX) if she gathers 100,000 Twitter followers before it airs… in 20 minutes on the West Coast. She’s only on about 92,000 at the moment, so it’s not looking likely. Still, I’ll be watching!

I finally have my sci-fi schedule back on track!

The Google Logo, H. G. Wells’ Birthday and the War of the Worlds Invasion Site

goog_e

UPDATE: For an update, check out my follow-up post: Google Crop Circle Doodle: A Celebration of Vector Graphics and H. G. Wells’ Birthday?

OK, so now I’m hooked. This evening, the Google logo changed into a doodle of a crop circle (above). This may seem a little innocuous, after all, Google is always jazzing up their logo with celebratory bits of art. But what did this resemble?

For starters, this isn’t the first time this has happened. A couple of weeks ago, another mini brain-teaser was posted with a flying saucer “beaming up” one of the “o”s in Google. CNET blogger Chris Matyszczyk managed to follow the clues and deduced that the missing “o” could be found in the numerical clue of one of @Google’s tweets. The numbers related to letters in the alphabet and spelled out, “All your O are belong to us.” This was in reference to the classic game Zero Wing (creator of the now famous gamer war cry “All your base are belong to us). It was the computer game’s 20th anniversary.

The logo was explained, the missing “o” was explained and it all related to an event (i.e. the Zero Wing anniversary).

So now we are presented with another conundrum. What does it mean? We have crop circles (linking to the search query “crop circles“, thanks @astrobio74 for pointing that out), a missing “l” in “Google” this time…. and a tweet from @Google with the map co-ordinates: 51.327629, -0.5616088.

Typing the longitude and latitude into Google Maps takes us to a location in Woking, Surrey, UK. The exact address is on Woodham Road in a village/town called Horsell.

Doing a search for the exact address and digging around the houses turned up precious little, until I typed in “Horsell” into Google. In the results is Horsell’s Wikipedia page. Horsell was made famous as being the place where Martians invaded in H. G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel, War of the Worlds.

Jumping over to the War of the Worlds Wikipedia page, more information unfolds:

Much of the The War of the Worlds takes place around Woking and nearby suburbs. The initial landing site of the Martian invasion force, Horsell Common, was an open area close to Wells’ home. In the preface to the Atlantic edition of the novel, he wrote of his pleasure in riding a bicycle around the area, and imagining the destruction of cottages and houses he saw, by the Martian heat-ray or the red weed.

Great, so I’m almost 100% certain this little Google treasure hunt is pointing to War of the Worlds in some way. But why would Google pick today to do this?

A little more digging into H. G. Wells himself points to a possible answer (although I’m not totally convinced this is the sole reason). Next Monday marks the 143rd birthday of H. G. Wells (on 21 September, 1866). 143 years doesn’t strike me as a significant number, but the trail seems to lead here.

I’m now trying to work out where the “l” in “Google” fits into all this…