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.

The British (Astronauts) Are Coming!

Lucky sod: Major Tim Peake, training British astronaut (BNSC)

Lucky sod: Major Tim Peake, British astronaut (BNSC)

Really, we are. But for the love of god old chap, make sure the first 2015 space station cargo run is packed to the brim with tea bags!

Ever since I heard the first UK government-funded astronaut was being trained to join the European Space Agency in 2009, I nearly wet myself. You see, when you’re a kid growing up in the UK, you can say: “I want to be a fireman,” “I want to be a policeman,” or “I want to be a doctor,” (I said the latter, which, as it turned out, wasn’t too far off.) You can’t say, for example: “I want to be an astronaut!” — to do that you’d have to emigrate, something my mum would never have endorsed to a starry-eyed 10-year-old.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s government deemed human spaceflight too expensive for our little island nation to shoulder in the 1980s, we Brits have been relegated to spectators in the human spaceflight arena (robotic spaceflight, however, is a whole different matter). But now, that’s beginning to change with the announcement that Major Tim Peake has been selected as a 2015 space station crew member.

Luvly jubbly.

Read more: UK to Send First Astronaut to Space Station

Colonists Beware: Don’t Camp at the Bottom of Martian Hills!

Trails of Mars rocks that have rolled down the slope of a crater rim as imaged by the HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona.

Trails of Mars rocks that have rolled down the slope of a crater rim as imaged by the HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona.

It’s always fascinating to see evidence of active geological processes on Mars. And with the help of the armada of robots in orbit and roving the Red Planet, there are plenty of opportunities to see the planet in action.

Take this recent image from the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) for example. In this striking scene — which is a little over one kilometer wide — the bright trails of rocks that have rolled down a sloping crater rim after being dislodged from the top are visible from space. The rocks have obviously bounced on their way, leaving dotted impressions as they rolled. Some have reared in wide arcs, following the topography of the landscape. Others have hit other rocks on their way down, dislodging them, creating secondary cascades of smaller boulders.

“The many boulder tracks in this image all seem to emanate from a small alcove near the rim of the crater,” describes HiRISE Targeting Specialist Nicole Baugh. “They spread out downslope and finally terminate near the crater floor. A high-contrast stretch of the area where the tracks stop shows lots of boulders, some still at the ends of the tracks.”

A rough estimate from the high-resolution imagery suggests some of these Mars boulders are over a meter wide. Future Mars astronauts beware: don’t camp out at the bottom of Martian hills! There’s no vegetation to hold big rocks in place or slow their speed. As previous observations of Mars “avalanches” suggest, weathering through the expansion of water ice (frost action) and/or rapid vaporization of carbon dioxide ice likely trigger pretty extreme downfalls of debris. It would be a bummer to travel all the way to Mars, survive the ravages of solar radiation, a daring descent and landing only to get flattened by a wayward chunk of rock when you set up camp.

I’ve always had a special joy for surveying HiRISE observations; it’s a very privileged window to this alien landscape that, in actuality, has many similar geological processes we find on Earth. And so here we have a collection of boulders that, somehow, became dislodged and stormed down from the rim of a crater. If we saw such an event in person, we might note the unnatural bounce these boulders have in the roughly one-third Earth gravity. But we’d also have to find shelter fast, as just like rolling boulders on Earth, those things will flatten you.

About Those ‘Habitable’ Exoplanets (RT America Interview)

On Monday, I appeared on RT America’s live news broadcast to talk exoplanets — particularly the three small (possibly rocky) worlds that orbit the stars Kepler-62 and Kepler-69. It was a lot of fun discussing ‘Goldilocks Zones’ and the possibilities of extraterrestrials. Enjoy!

Discovery News coverage of Kepler-62:

We Are The 4.9%

The AMS attached to the space station's exterior (NASA)

The AMS attached to the space station’s exterior (NASA)

This month is Global Astronomy Month (GAM2013) organized by my friends Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). There is a whole host of events going on right this moment to boost astronomy throughout the international community, and as a part of GAM2013, AWB are hosting daily blogs from guest astronomers, writers, physicists and others with a background in space. Today (April 11) was my turn, so I wrote a blog about the fascinating first results to be announced on the International Space Station instrument the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer — or AMS for short.

Although the AMS’ most recent findings suggest positrons with a signature energy indicative of the annihilation of dark matter — particularly hypothetical weakly interaction massive particles (WIMPS) — it isn’t final proof of dark matter (despite what the tabloid press might’ve told you). But still, it’s exciting and another component of our enduring search for 95.1% of the mass-energy of the universe that is locked in the mysterious and perplexing dark matter and dark energy.

You can read my blog on the AWB website: “Dark Matter: We Are The 4.9%

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:

Shhhhh… Do You Hear That? That’s The Sound Of The World Not Ending

Perfect solstice sunrise by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK)

‘Perfect solstice sunrise’ by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK on Twitter)

Now, call your friends, grab a beer and celebrate the end of the Maya Long Count calendar’s 13th b’ak’tun and the winter solstice. (Sorry doomsayers, I will not be giving you a reference for your post-doomsday interview, you did a crappy job of the Apocalypse.)

Also, send your congratulations to my sister, Colette! IT’S HER 30TH BIRTHDAY! Congrats Sis!!

On a side note, a few of us appeared on the #TWISmageddon 21 hour marathon to talk about the end of the world (or lack thereof), science and the human propensity for believing the Mayan doomsday bunkum. Thanks to Kiki Sanford, Justin Jackson, Scott Lewis, Blair Bazdarich, Nicole Gugliucci and Andy Ihnatko for a terrific Google+ Hangout. Who knew doomsday would be so much fun! (We start at about 1hr 45mins into the Hangout.)

EDIT: Is John Cusack skiing? He’d better be — that’s what he told me during the premier of “2012” in 2009! More: “What Will John Cusack be Doing on Dec. 21, 2012? Skiing.

“Skiing” he told me. Skiing.

Read more: No Doomsday! The Quick Reference Guide (Discovery News)