Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


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Infrared Astronomy: First Draft Done

So, the first draft for the Infrared Astronomy book is done!

Lots more still to do of course – today I went through and totted up about 15 figures and diagrams that still need to be done, but I also did one of them, so they hopefully won’t take too long. I also have esteemed colleagues, both from astrophysics and writing, reading the draft to provide comments on both the content and the writing.

The whole experience of writing non-fiction has been interestingly different to writing fiction. At some level I have lots of things to write about in non-fiction but have to find a story, while in fiction I have the story, and have to build other things around that. But it’s not that, and not just that.

The other odd thing I’ve found is that non-fiction writing seems to exercise different writing muscles to writing fiction, at least for me. At the same time as writing the book I’ve been working on fiction as well – nothing large, just some short stories – and I haven’t found that an hour or so of non-fiction writing before I come home interferes with an hour or so of writing fiction once I get there. The only difficulty is in having enough hours in the day!


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Is Gravity Science Fiction?

I just wrote the following response to an article and blog comment on lablit.com suggesting that the film Gravity should not be classified as Science Fiction. I thought I should add the comment here as well.

What’s the beef with science fiction?

There are several issues with Gravity that to my mind make it more Science Fiction than Science Fact. The convenient locations of the various places on orbit is already noted, but there are other operational issues in Gravity which elide the facts to make it more convenient (and survivable) for the characters. These include the amount of time taken to put on (and take off) a space suit, and the amount of time it takes to repressurise an airlock.

But above and beyond all these, is the key science fictional idea that drives the film: Kessler syndrome, the hypthesised debris cascade that would result as space debris hits other satellites causing even more debris, and eventually wiping out everything in low Earth orbit (LEO). Even ignoring the fact that the data linking satellites, TDRS, that are used to link communications across LEO are in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and thus immune from the effect – something the film ignores to add narrative tension – the Kessler syndrome is not something that has been probed to be real. It’s plausible, but it is not a scientific fact, confirmed (thank goodness) by experiment.

To my mind that makes Gravity science fiction more than anything else. Hard SF, for sure, since they try as hard as possible to get everything else as right as they can given the story they want to tell, but SF nevertheless.

I’d contrast this with another film that is borderline SF: Deep Impact. This posits the possibility of a large asteroid impact threatening all life on Earth. Most people would call this film SF, but, unlike Gravity and the Kessler Syndrome, we know that such giant impacts have happened in the past – one wiped out the dinosaurs.

Would you classify that as SF, like most people, or as something different?

I think what lablit.com does is great, and have a couple of things published there, but the site is oddly allergic to science fiction, trying to distance itself from something they have, to my mind, more in common with than differences.


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Cambridge Science Festival: Science as the Spark

I’ll be on a panel at the Cambridge Science Festival this Thursday:

Science as the Spark – literature inspired by science

How has scientific inquiry lead to literary works? Why is the literary presentation of science relevant to scientists and to society?

This panel, chaired by Dr John Holmes, will skirt the cliches to ask illuminating questions, investigating why a number of talented scientists, historians and artists structure their work at the intersection of these worlds.

Panel members:

Chris Beckett, novelist and short story writer, 2013 Arthur C. Clarke best novel award for Dark Eden, Edge Hill award for The Turing Test.

Dave Clements, novelist and short story writer, 2013 Sir Arthur Clarke award, astrophysicist at Imperial.

Laura Dietz, novelist, convenor of the MA in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin.

Kelley Swain. poet and novelist, lecturer in Humanities in Global Health for Imperial?s Global Health BSc, past Writer in Residence at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.

Thursday 20 March, 7pm-8.30pm, Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, CB1 1PT – Lord Ashcroft Building, LAB005

It’s free, but seats are going quickly, so book now!


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BICEP2 and gravitational waves in the CMB

From what we can tell from the papers, it looks as if the signature of gravitational waves from the epoch of inflation has been found in the cosmic microwave background. But trying to watch the technical presentations over the net from CfA has been a major exercise in frustration as everyone and his dog tries to look at the same feed.

This is certainly a very modern problem.

What does this result mean? It means there is pretty good evidence for new physics that would drive cosmic inflation. Quite what this physics might be is unclear, but rest assured that every theorist will have several different and mutually contradictory theories explaining this result real soon now.


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Me and Jonathan Ross

A week ago I was involved with what has been called a twitterstorm concerning the appointment of the UK media personality Jonathan Ross as tosatmaster – ie. master of ceremonies – for the Hugo Awards at the 2014 World SF Convention taking place in London in August this year. A lot was said both for and against him as toastmaster, and for and against the process that led to him being asked. After a rather fraught day (and longer for members of the convention committee – I am not one), Jonathan Ross stood down.

I am not going to rehearse most of the arguments for and against him, and I am certainly not going to delve into the ad hominem and, at times, hurtful comments made by both sides. That has been discussed far too much already. But, in thinking about this paroxysm, and about some of the reasons advanced for and against, I’ve come to realise that I’m viewing SF and fannish activities rather differently to some people in the publishing industry and elsewhere.

Specifically, a number of writers and publishers, including Sarah Pinborough and Danie Ware, saw Ross’ withdrawal as a missed  opportunity for ‘a huge boost for the whole community in terms of publicity and credibility, reputation and sales’. Oddly, except perhaps for the sales side in the short term, I think Ross would have represented a step backwards in all of those areas.

What are Danie, Sarah and others seeing in Ross as being a boost for SF? Ignoring the specific arguments for and against Ross as an individual, he is a major UK celebrity (though largely unknown outside the country). Having such a celebrity handing out the Hugos might have drawn in the press, which would have led to greater visibility, credibility in mainstream media circles and, maybe, increased sales.

But what kind of celebrity is Jonathan Ross? He’s a media figure, famous, at some level, for being famous. He is a product of UK celebrity culture which, at its root, is interested in fame only, not content. Yes, Ross is a comics writer and his wife is a Hugo winning scriptwriter, but neither of those are what will come to the mind of the press when they think of him. He would just be another celebrity adding media glitz.

The thing is, I think SF is far more than just another media phenomenon, and that measuring success in terms of media credibility and short term sales figures is, frankly, missing the whole point.

Science Fiction is different. It is not like other fictional genres, such as crime, fantasy and genre literature. It can have similarities to them, and has to play by similar rules if it is to tell workable and saleable stories. But it also has other concerns. At its best, SF not only tells stories about engaging and realistic characters, it also builds new worlds for those characters to live in, and poses realistic challenges about the future of the reader (or viewer of a movie etc.). This is not universal in SF, and this is not unique to SF – there are works in other genres that can do the same thing (though I would classify many of these, such as 1984 and The Handmaids Tale, as works of science fiction even if the authors might not have done that at the time of writing).

This gives SF a more important role than it being a simple media classification, as something where a short term sales boost at the cost of portraying it as just another celebrity-obsessed community, might actually bring long term damage.

This is why I spend much of my time working to build and promote the science programme at SF conventions. SF at its best goes beyond the world, beyond the simple medium and its content, and offers glimpses at other possibilities, at how science works and what its results are, at the threats and potentials of the future and in the world around us. Jonathan Ross has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that, and yet that is what I see as being the core of what SF is, and what SF does. The Hugo toastmaster should be part of that, someone who represents that broader context. It shouldn’t just be another media figure promoting just another media bunfight.

The credibility I seek for SF is not among arts correspondents on newspapers and TV, the kind of people Jonathan Ross would pull in. Thanks to the persistent gulf between the Two Cultures in much of the UK, these are issues they will not examine and cannot, in the short term at least, understand. Indeed, they might misunderstand SF and the Hugos completely, accidentally or otherwise.

A different kind of credibility is needed, one that goes beyond the usual silos of the media business because SF goes beyond those silos, allowing us to imagine different futures and, on that basis, change the present. This is why organisations like the Global Business Network hire SF writers to build ‘what if’ scenarios for the future, that help solve real problems today. One of GBNs greatest successes was the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa (and discussed in Wired many years ago).

What other kind of fiction can do that?

And if the public face of that fiction just another media celebrity, will the chances of SF doing that again be increased or decreased? I think the latter is far more likely.

That is why, even without the reputational baggage that follows Jonathan Ross around, deservedly or otherwise, I think he was a very poor choice as Hugo toastmaster.


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Astronomy Valentines

There was a meme going round twitter yesterday for scientist valentines. I ended up committing a couple which seemed to go down quite well, so I thought I would inflict them on you via my blog, just in case you missed them. You have been warned:

R band is red,
B band is blue,
I can’t see I,
and neither can you.

And:

I band is red,
J band is redder,
If you think K comes next
You’re not an infrared astronomer
Both are inspired by astronomical filter systems and, in the latter case, the difficulty with the alphabet that my colleagues in infrared astronomy seem to have.
Of course someone has since claimed to be able to see in the I band, but there are mutants everywhere.
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