Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


Is there life on Venus?

Today is the day after our big announcement. I’ve known about this result for over 2 years and it’s great to finally be able to talk about it!

So what have we found? To quote from my own post on twitter:

We found the gas phosphine in the upper atmosphere. There is no known way this can be produced by normal chemical processes by lightening, volcanoes or asteroid impact in Venus. Life can & does produce it on Earth. So we have found evidence for unusual chemistry or maybe life.

So it isn’t definitely life, but it is surely something odd and unexpected.

Yesterday itself was a bit of a media whirl and today is shaping up the same way. I’ll be trying to blog more than usual (ie. blogging at all given recent performance!).

You can see more of what’s happening on Sky at Night (on the BBC iPlayer and repeated at 7:30pm on Thursday I think) and I’m sure there’s coverage on your local media of choice, be that newspaper, TV, radio or internet.

More news, as they say, when it happens.

Now I have an interview to do for the BBC World Service…

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All those who had planned to attend Science for Fiction this year have already been told, but in case there is anybody out there who has not heard, Science for Fiction this year has had to be cancelled since the buildings at Imperial are still closed to all except a few staff.

We’ve spent the last term teaching remotely.

I’m pondering if I can put up some slides from past S4F talks as a consolation prize for not being able to run this year. More on this soon.

Hope to see people back next summer when we can hopefully get going with Science for Fiction once again!

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Science for Fiction 2020

The Imperial College & Science Fiction Foundation workshop, for writers to meet and talk to scientists is back once again, and we again have rather more advance notice of the dates than we have managed in recent years.

The dates are 1-2 July, starting after lunch on the 1st and running all day on the 2nd. There’s a meeting of the London Fannish Circle (The Tun) that evening and I’ll be leading a trip there after we finish for anybody interested.

The cost will be £30 to cover catering. Some financial support is available via the Science Fiction Foundation if necessary. Overnight accommodation, if you need it, is extra.

Details of subjects to be covered are still being sorted out – and will in part be determined by what the attendees are after – but it will certainly include astronomy, physics and biology, possibly all mixed together.

If you are interested in attending drop me an email at d dot clements at imperial dot ac dot uk. Please include any specific requests for subjects to be covered, and if you have any dietary restrictions that would affect what we order for lunch and tea.

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Books Read 2019 Part 1

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson – an excellent book about the effects of climate change, about community, and about actor networks. Highly recommended.

Take Back the Sky by Greg Bear – the end of the trilogy that began with War Dogs. As the perspective has got bigger the agency and significance of the main characters has got less, which I’ve found in a number of big picture Bear books over the years.

The Million by Karl Schroeder – the other side of the Lockstep universe, with internecine conflicts among the million people who look after the Earth when everyone else is asleep.

Genesis by Robert Hazen – over 10 years old but still an excellent book on our ideas about the origin of life on Earth. Hazen is in favour of hydrothermal vents, as am I, but he knows far more chemistry and biology than me so his opinion probably should carry more weight.

One Way by Simon Morden – a killer is loose among the indentured builders of the first Mars base, and there is a distinct smell of rat in the air.

Binti Home by Nnedi Okorafor – second instalment in the trilogy of novellas, and we get to see Binti at the university the size of a planet and back at her home in Africa.

Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovich – another fun ride in the ±Rivers of London series, and some long running plot threads are tied up, but others grow. Trying to be spoiler free here.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie – the trilogy that started when Ancilary Justice blew into SF reaches its end.

Stone Sky by NK Jemisin – another end of trilogy book (that’s three so far!) as we find out what is really going on in the world of the Broken Earth. I felt book 2 didn’t work so well, but this brings the story to a very satisfying conclusion.

Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood – sequel to Moskva and an excellent return to the murky depths of cold war Europe.

Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear – a novella that acts as a sequel to the excellent Karen Memory.

Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds – a return the the fascinating world of Revenger with more intrigue and space piracy in a fully rebuilt Solar System that Dyson would only vaguely recognise.

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock – fascinating book looking at the future of families and reproduction, very well written and deserving of its Clarke award.

Embers of War by Gareth Powell – entertaining space opera with an intelligent ship full of people with multiple agendas on what is meant to be a rescue mission and turns out to be much more.

Perihilion Summer by Greg Egan – a close pass by a wandering black hole brings huge changes to the Earth and life becomes a race for survival.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu – chinese SF at its best, though I think it suffered a little from the hype surrounding it in the sense that I was expecting something even more astounding.

A novel that is not being called The Lost Boys by Charles Stross – a different view of life under the New Management in the Laundry universe, and what may be the first novel in a spin off series. Treasure hunts and machinations around a house of dreams.

Luna Moon Rising by Ian McDonald – another trilogy end, and a very good one as the family wars on the colonised Moon reach their climax.

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My Worldcon Schedule

When scientists write science fiction

Format: Panel
15 Aug 2019, Thursday 12:00 – 12:50, ECOCEM Room (CCD)

Write what you know. That bit of advice has been handed down to new writers with great regularity, but what does it mean for writers whose day jobs are in the science and technology fields? What advantages or challenges do they face when writing with a science background? What does it take to walk in both worlds?

Team-Up – How Scientists Collaborate To Solve the Unsolveable

Format: Panel
16 Aug 2019, Friday 10:30 – 11:20, Odeon 1 (Point Square Dublin)

The media portrays scientists as lone geniuses making brilliant discoveries conducted in isolation, with no lab assistants or colleagues. But increasingly science is actually performed by large teams. What is it like to actually work in science, and what are the implications for how and why science is done?

Early Science and Genre Fiction

Format: Panel
16 Aug 2019, Friday 12:00 – 12:50, Liffey Room-1 (CCD)

Early science included water mills for grinding grains and basic geometry for mapping stars. How would Renaissance science look to alien cultures? How will Greek philosophy be applied in the future? Who wouldn’t love to see the architectural engineering of Egypt applied to alternate realms? We’ll dive into the wealth of early science and recast it for future/alternate/alien worlds!

Tall technical tales

Format: Panel
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 17:00 – 17:50, Liffey Room-2 (CCD)

What kind of stories emerge from the lab when scientists gather round the campfire and have too much to drink? Will they involve exploding particle accelerators, the escape of dangerous diseases, or why you should never operate a centrifuge while drunk?

Really big telescopes

Format: Panel
19 Aug 2019, Monday 12:00 – 12:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)

If we can utilise the radio spectrum on planet Earth for astronomy, our descendants or alien species could build imaging interferometers the size of planets or even planetary orbits, and look for buildings on planets around Tau Ceti. What are the implications for exploring the universe – by us or aliens?

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Climate Change Tool from Science for Fiction 2019

The climate change modelling tool referred to by Jo Haigh at Science for Fiction today can be found here:


The flood modelling tool can be found here:


Other sites mentioned include:



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Books Read 2018

Yes, I’m very late to be finishing up last year’s book blog – so sue me.

Previously we had:

Night Without Stars, by Peter F Hamilton

October, by China Mieville

Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway

Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer

The Furthest Station, by Ben Aaronovitch

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

The Labyrinth Index, by Charles Stross

Emergence: Corporation Wars 3, by Ken McLeod

Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Guardians of Paradise, by Jaine Fenn

The Rise and Fall of DODO, by Neil Stephenson and Nicole Galland

The Obelisk Gate, by NK Jemisin

Dark State, by Charles Stross

Rosewater, by Tady Thompson

Places in the Darkness, by Chris Brookmyre

Elysium Fire, by Al Reynolds

Austral, by Paul McAuley

You Don’t Know Me, by Brooke Magnanti

And now for the continuation:

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

The horrors of racism outdo the mythos related horrors in 1950s America. Interesting format which is more linked novelettes than anything else, but seems to work well for the story he wants to tell. The mythos side is more sorcerers and magic as technology than anything cthulhoid, but that plays to the themes well.

Sweet Dreams, by Tricia Sullivan

Nice take on the possibilities of dream hacking and dream therapy, which I’m sure is also partly a comment on social media.

The Rig, by Roger Levy

Long novel including a crime lord’s saga and what it did to the galactic civilisation he lived in and helped to change. The disparate timelines aren’t clearly disparate at first which was a bit confusing, but it all came together in the end.

Dogs and War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Excellent novel of a world where augmented cyber-animals are used as weapons, told from their perspective. Really enjoyed this. Bees is one of the best non-human artificial intelligences I’ve come across.

Iron Gods, by Andrew Bannister

More happenings in the artificial stellar cluster known as the Spin. An interesting mix of space opera and cyberpunk. Looking forward to the third volume.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

A typically bleak far future from the man who does realistically bleak futures so well. When you’re on an endless mission to seed new FTL gates around the galaxy, spending most of your time in cryosleep, what do you do when you want to ferment a mutiny?