Saturday, September 12, 2009

Random Linkage

A Boy For Every Girl? Not Even Close: Scientists Trace Evolution Of Butterflies Infected With Deadly Bacteria
'"We were surprised at the speed with which change in sex ratio could occur," said Emily Hornett of the University of Liverpool. "Between 1886 and 1894 in Fiji, the male-killing bacterium rose from 50 percent to over 90 percent frequency, changing the sex ratio from 2:1 to 10:1."'
(Here’s your real-life precedent for female-only utopias.)

LCROSS Mission Selects Crater Cabeus A As Target for October 9 Impact
'NASA announced this morning that the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission has selected the target for its planned impact. The selected crater is Cabeus A, which is centered on the lunar nearside at 82.2 degrees south, 39.1 degrees west. The actual target site is offset from the crater's center to the north, within a permanently shadowed area. Data from Lunar Prospector suggests that the targeted part of the crater could contain as much as two percent water in the upper meter of soil.'

Dandelion rubber
'Most natural rubber comes from rubber trees in Southeast Asia, but this source is now underthreat from a fungus. Researchers [at the Fraunhofer-Instituts für Molekularbiologie und Angewandte Oekologiehave] optimized the Russian dandelion to make it suitable for large-scale rubber production.'

Physicists propose 'Schrödinger's virus' experiment
'Suspending a cat between life and death is one of the best-known thought experiments in quantum mechanics. Now researchers from Germany and Spain are proposing a real experiment to probe whether a virus can exist in a superposition of two quantum states. Such superpositions are typically the domain of smaller, inanimate objects such as atoms. But the team believes that their technique, using finely tuned lasers, will soon allow for the superposition of something much
closer to a living organism.'

'Though not famed for their intellect, single-celled organisms have already demonstrated a surprising degree of intelligence. Now a team at the University of the West of England (UWE) has secured £228,000 in funding to turn these organisms into engineering robots.'
(Isn’t this kind of how Blood Music started?)

Astronomers spot space shuttle’s massive leak

'Sky watchers across North America witnessed a strange event on Wednesday night. As space shuttle Discovery glided silently overhead, the orbiter sprouted a flamboyant comet-like tail.'

Friday, September 11, 2009

Gardens Of The Sun, Part Two, Chapter Five

The motor crew had worked up detailed plans for the exploration of Neptune and several of the dwarf planets at the edge of the Kuiper Belt, but after the expedition to the Pluto System returned to Miranda the Free Outers voted against further trips. Neptune's largest moon, Triton, was a highly promising piece of real estate, to be sure, but it had been comprehensively mapped by human visitors and robot probes, and at present Neptune was on the opposite side of the Solar System. There was no urgent need to go there just yet, and it would be a waste of resources and time better used to improve and expand the settlement on Miranda, and to equip the rest of the Free Outers' little fleet with the fast-fusion motor.

Newt Jones wasn't disheartened by the vote against further expeditions. In fact, he was energised by defeat, convinced that sooner rather than later he would be proven right. He worked long hours on the conversion programme, discussed refinements to the design of the motor with his crew of tech wizards. Macy Minnot returned to her work with the biome crew, tweaking and improving and enriching the habitat's ecosystem. And then, just sixty days after the expedition returned, everything changed.

Read More . . .

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Tireless Self-Promotion

Yep, another book. The UK mass-market paperback of The Quiet War, officially published today. The hardback cover was pretty cool; this one's even cooler. Do I need to tell you to do the right thing by it?

And - yet again - there's more! Cowboy Angels has been rendered into an eBook. You can buy it via WH Smiths or Waterstones. And I've just received copies of the US edition of The Quiet War, and the UK hardback of Gardens of the Sun, both of which look pretty damn fine.

Currently reading: John Carey's biography of William Golding; The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Just watched: District 9.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Coming Soon

Reminiscent of a classic Chris Foss cover or an outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is an artist's impression of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's new uncrewed supply ship, the H-II transfer vehicle, approaching the International Space Station. The HTV is to be the payload of the first of Japan's new heavy-lifting rocket, due to be launched this month. And Japan isn't the only player in the ISS supply business - see New Scientist for more details.

(The ISS really is a big beast - to give you an idea of scale, the HTV is 10 meters long, and the Soyuz spacecraft (the station's lifeboat) docked at bottom left is about the same size. Cost aside, it really seems like a dumb idea to shut it down in 2015-16.)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Gardens Of The Sun, Part Two, Chapter Four

The spy woke slowly and painfully, trapped in the stiff embrace of his pressure suit, inside the coffin-sized confines of the dropshell. He felt as if he’d been beaten by experts and afterwards staked out in the scorching heat of some desert on Earth. Bruised to the bone, joints stiff and swollen. A black headache pulsing like a poisonous spider inside the tender jelly of his brain. His tongue a shrivelled corpse glued to the floor of its foul tomb. He sipped tasteless recycled water through a tube and wincingly plugged into the dropshell’s myopic sensorium. He’d slept for seventy-two days and now Rhea was directly ahead, a bright pockmarked globe hanging beyond the broad hoop of the rings and the bulge of Saturn’s equator.


EDIT: bad link fixed - thanks Jean-Daniel!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Into The Night

While browsing Emily Lakdawaller’s inestimable blog at the Planetary Society’s site the other day, I came across this great list of active planetary probes - where they are and what they are doing in various parts of the Solar System. What really caught my attention was the entry right at the end of the list: a reminder that the two Voyager probes are still going strong.

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977 on Grand Tour trajectories that took advantage of a favourable alignment of the outer planets. I was in the middle of my Ph.D studies back then; the space shuttle prototype Endeavour flew for the first time; Elvis died; and Star Wars was released. In 1979 both Voyagers swung past Jupiter, discovering volcanoes on Io and evidence for an ocean beneath the surface of Europa. I gained my Ph.D that year and began my first stint of postdoctoral research; Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister; Sid Vicious died in New York; Y.M.C.A. was the best-selling single in the UK. The next year Voyager 1 reached Saturn and swung past Titan to investigate the moon’s dense atmosphere, a manoeuver that flung it out of the plane of the ecliptic and ended its planetary tour (instead of flying past Titan, it could have gone on to reach Pluto, in hindsight a better option, but back then we didn’t know that Pluto had three moons and an active atmosphere).

Voyager 2 reached Saturn in 1981, the year I started work in the University of California, Los Angeles. Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer married; President Reagan was shot in a failed assassination attempt; the first personal computer was launched by IBM. In 1986, when Voyager 2 swung past Uranus and discovered that one of its moons, Miranda, looked as if it had been shattered and badly reconstructed, I was working in Oxford University, Chernobyl blew its top, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated soon after launch, and Phil Collins won a Grammy. Not a great year, all in all. Voyager 2 reached Neptune in 1989, discovering evidence for active geysers on the ice giant’s largest moon, Triton. In the same year I moved to St Andrew’s University in Scotland to take up my first (and last) real job after a decade of scraping by on postdoctoral grants; the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Empire began to crumble away; George Bush the First succeeded Ronald Reagan as US President; the Chinese pro-democracy movement was crushed at Tiananmen Square; the first full episode of The Simpsons was screened.

Twenty years later, The Simpsons is still going; I’ve written a bunch of short stories and two novels that have made extensive use of images of the outer planets and their moons taken by Voyager 1 and 2; and the two probes are still sending data back to Earth. Voyager 1 is 110 Astronomical Units - 16.5 billion kilometres - from the sun, beyond the Kuiper Belt and every known large body in the Solar System apart from long-term comets; Voyager 2 is presently some 90 AU from the sun. Both probes have passed through the termination shock point, where the velocity of solar wind particles falls below its speed of sound and becomes subsonic. At some point, as yet unknown, they will pass through the heliopause where the flow of solar wind particles is halted by pressure of gases in the interstellar medium, and enter true interstellar space. They will continue to transmit data about the Solar System’s boundary until they no longer have enough power to run any instruments, around 2025, 48 years after they were launched. They’ll continue to fall through interstellar space (unless they are intercepted by alien probes) until, after a couple of billion years or so, their fabric finally disintegrates. They carry with them greetings from Earth, including two golden phonograph records (remember them?) containing images and sounds from Earth. One of the musical tracks is Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting blues lament, ‘Dark Was Night, Cold Was The Ground.’ Never as dark, nor as cold, on Earth, as the long night through which Voyager 1 and 2 are sailing.

(Clip from Wim Wenders' contribution to Martin Scorsese's The Blues; Ry Cooder used Johnson's music in his soundtrack for Wenders' Paris, Texas, released in 1984, two years before Voyager 2 reached Uranus.)

Xposted at Pyr-o-mania.
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