Friday, July 24, 2009

We See Them Differently

New Scientist on celebrity neurons:
Apparently not content with a talk show, a monthly glossy and, well, mega-stardom, Oprah Winfrey has also penetrated the human brain. When people see her picture or hear her name, specialised "Oprah neurons" fire away, new research suggests.

Other public figures shouldn't be jealous. Our heads are also flush with cells attuned to Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, and even Saddam Hussein.

Uh-oh. As soon as the PR industry gets wind of this someone will fund a programme to work out how to insert customised celebrity neurons into our brains. Or in the case of Saddam and other WoT notorieties, delete them.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

In Living 3D

Now this is cute:
A new scanning technique allows expectant mothers to hold a life-size model of their unborn, developing child.
Data from ultrasound, CT and MRI scans are converted into 3D models, which can then be 'printed' as a plastic representation of the developing baby.

(From New Scientist.)

Although it could be taken too far: imagine growing up with representations of your foetal self in jars lovingly preserved amongst family photos. Wonder if it could be scaled up to model organs too? A 3D model of your brain would make a great desk ornament. Or why not model your heart, for the ultimate Valentine Day's gift?

Son Of Advertisments For Myself

Above is the finished cover of the US edition of The Quiet War, published by Pyr on September 22 ; just had word that hero editor Lou Anders has bought Gardens of the Sun too. Over here in the UK, the trade paperback of The Quiet War is about sold out, but there are still a few copies of the hardback to be had. But be not afraid: the mass-market paperback with be published September 10. I've just returned the corrected proofs of Gardens of the Sun to Gollancz; that's scheduled for October. I've seen a rough of the very lovely cover; hope to get hold of a copy of the finished version soon.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Personal Best

Here's a very simple but cool idea. SF Signal asked a bunch of people (including me) a cunningly constructed question: What are some of your favorite short stories in sf/f/h and what makes them so memorable? They've just posted a slew of excellent recommendations and thoughtful analyses, with links to free online versions of many of the selections. A great wiki-style anthology, bursting with all kinds of good stuff.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Plot Thickens . . .

Last seen on the Kessel run, swinging past Io with its crew mostly incapacitated and its electrical systems frying in the radiation belts, but still hoping to unload its string on the Jovian metallic hydrogen smelting plants . . .

Here We Go Again

The remants of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, torn apart by Jupiter's gravity, slammed into Jupiter's atmosphere between July 16 and 22 1994. Fifteen years later:
An amateur Australian astronomer looking through his backyard telescope has discovered that a large comet or asteroid has crashed into Jupiter, creating a hole the size of the Earth in the planet's atmosphere.

Accident? Coincidence? Some sinister anti-Jovian plot?

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Next Forty Years

As far as I'm concerned, the answer to the question of the future of space flight is simple. Mars. Mars Mars Mars Mars Mars. We should reboot and redraw the plans abandoned when the Apollo programme was terminated, and we should send a manned mission to Mars. Not because it's easy; because it's hard. Not because the Russians (or Chinese) might get there first. Cold War imperatives like that died when the Berlin Wall came down. No, we should send an international mission, for all humankind.

NASA, despite its ongoing budget problems and the planned withdrawal from service of the shuttle in 2010, is still the leading space agency. That the Russians have retained a robust system for achieving Low Earth Orbit is a tribute to its designers - the Soyuz family of spacecraft has its roots in the time of Apollo. And although there are plans to send a robot spacecraft to Phobos, Russia hasn't launched any interplanetary missions since the failed Mars 96 mission. There are Japanese, Chinese and Indian space agencies, not to mention the Europeans, too. Maybe one or more of these will pull off something astounding. And both the Japanese and Indian space agencies have made noises about manned missions to the Moon, but so far these are still in the golden vapourware stage. Only NASA has proven technology for sending human beings beyond Earth orbit, and landing them on the Moon. And NASA is at present the only serious player when it comes to mounting a manned interplanetary mission.

Right now, NASA is going through what can most kindly be characterised as a period of consolidation. In Charles Bolden, a retired general and former astronaut, it has a new leader who is widely considered to be a champion of human spaceflight. But President Obama has ordered a wide-ranging review of NASA's activities, and there are already deep cuts in the ubmanned space exploration programme. This, and severe cost-overrun problems with the Mars Science Laboratory, the next generation Mars Rover equipped with tools to search for signs of past and present life, and scheduled to be launched in 2011 has already led to the cancellation of the 2020 Europa Jupiter mission. The MSL and other unmanned robot explorers are heavier and far more complicated than their predecessors because they need to mimic the capabilities of human explorers. So as far as Mars is concerned, why not collapse the two programmes into one, and send humans to Mars by 2030?

Right now, NASA has no firm plans to do that, only good intentions. Instead, it's focusing on a return to the Moon, using the Orion/Ares I/Ares V transportation system - the Constellation programme. This is a beefy launch system that can boost a large payload into low Earth orbit, or send a four-person crew to the Moon, in the Orion crew exploration vehicle. In other words, it's a programme that will give NASA the capabilities it had forty years ago. Sure, Orion is larger and more robust than Apollo, but apart from an extended mission profile and a larger crew it won't do anything that Apollo couldn't do. I don't think that means it should be cancelled in favour of a vigorous push for a manned Mars mission. Too much has been invested in the Constellation programme; we need a large booster to shift materials into Earth orbit; it's important to go back to the Moon if only to prove to ourselves that we can. But I don't think that the second stage of the programme, establishing a permanent presence on the Moon, is in any way necessary. If you want to learn how to live on Mars, go to Mars. Instead, Orion could be used as a stepping stone for deep space missions to Near Earth Objects - asteroids that at some point in their orbit intersect Earth's. This would pave the way for a manned mission to establish a forward base on Phobos (check out Geoffrey A. Landis's Footsteps to Mars for more details), a stopping-off point and a supply base for a mission to the surface of the red planet.

Impossibly ambitious? Foolishly optimistic? Maybe. A waste of money better spent on problems right here on Earth? These guys don't think so. And hey, there are always going to be problems here on Earth, and most of the money will stay right here, employing an army of specialists and engineers, stimulating new technologies. There's been a large amount of looking back, these past weeks, and regret for what might have been, if the Apollo programme hadn't been abandoned. Let's not make the same mistake again.

Forty Years Ago Today...

. . . or early tomorrow morning, if like me you were in the UK when the Eagle landed. You can follow the final stages of mission in real time, or replay the whole thing, at

More Shocking Truth

'. . . satellite beams back "All shook up."'

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Shocking Truth Behind The Previous Post

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