Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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Books Read 2018 -the story so far

Night Without Stars, by Peter F Hamilton

Another doorstop from the Void sequence. Rattles along at a fast pace despite its length, as is usual for Peter.

October, by China Mieville

A fascinating history of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. The manic confusion of the actual events caused me to laugh out loud at one point.

Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway

Multilayered story of death and surveillance in a future UK, but so much more as well. One of the pleasures is finding out quite what is going on as past, present, future and far-future mingle. Or do they?

Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer

Volume 2 of her Terra Ignota series. The alleged utopia of the 25th century is changing, and not for the better.

The Furthest Station, by Ben Aaronovitch

Light novella set in the Rivers of London universe with things happening at the end of the Metropolitan line.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Fascinating novella, and I really must read the sequels!

The Labyrinth Index, by Charles Stross

I know this is about to be published but I read it earlier this year. The Laundry goes international as Nyarlathotep is now Prime Minister (worse even than May)and the US has forgotten the president. I think the White Elephant is the real star in this.

Emergence: Corporation Wars 3, by Ken McLeod

The trilogy concludes with revolutions on several fronts and some very interesting biology on a superhabitable planet.

Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

A look at the nature of intelligence as revealed by the very non-human intelligences of octopi and their relatives. Fascinating stuff.

Guardians of Paradise, by Jaine Fenn

Should have read this ages ago. The continuing machinations of the alien Shidhe, the secret rulers of humanity.

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

Magic, time travel, government agencies, secret histories, this has it all.

The Obelisk Gate, by NK Jemisin

The fallout from the vast volcanic eruption in The 5th Season continues, and the world is developed more, but definitely something of a middle book.

Dark State, by Charles Stross

More world walking in the Merchant Princes universe, but with the next generation.

Rosewater, by Tady Thompson

A slow alien invasion, as seen from Africa. Interestingly different.

Places in the Darkness, by Chris Brookmyre

Crime and criminality in an orbiting station that is meant to be crime free, and a lot more besides.

Elysium Fire, by Al Reynolds

A return to the Glitter Band and Prefect Dreyfus. Did not grab me as strongly as the first Dreyfus book (The Prefect, now re-released as Aurora Rising). This gave the impression of being a reaction to brexit and maybe about writing himself back into this particular setting.

Austral, by Paul McAuley

A changed human in the changed landscape of post-warming Antarctica. Very well written.

You Don’t Know Me, by Brooke Magnanti

All roads lead to Cameron Bridge (which I think is Fort William) in this thriller come murder mystery.

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Science for Fiction 2018: Resources

We had a great Science for Fiction this year. Many thanks to all who came and to the excellent speakers we had.

Some of the speakers promised to pass on links and other resources which will be collected here as they arrive.

First up some links etc. from James Murray who spoke about Synthetic Biology:

Book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay:

Free pdf: https://withouthotair.com/
Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0954452933/davidmackay0f-21

Carbon monoxide as a metabolic energy source for extremely halophilic microbes: implications for microbial activity in Mars regolith.

Low Pressure Tolerance by Methanogens in an Aqueous Environment: Implications for Subsurface Life on Mars

Perchlorate-Coupled Carbon Monoxide (CO) Oxidation: Evidence for a Plausible Microbe-Mediated Reaction in Martian Brines


Supermassive black hole eats a star – and we see it!

Thirteen years ago, my colleague Prof Peter Meikle came into my office and asked “Dave, you know something about merging galaxies?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well,” he said, “something odd has happened in Arp 299.”

Arp 299 is a merger between two galaxies which has resulted in a burst of star formation and fuel falling onto the supermassive black hole in at least one of the galactic nuclei. What Peter had found was that one of the galactic nuclei had suddenly got much brighter in the near-infrared, but this was not visible at optical wavelengths. This meant that whatever had happened was enshrouded by a lot of dust so that only longer wavelength radiation from the event could reach us.

What ensued was a campaign using many telescopes on the ground and in space to monitor this event and try to work out what was causing it.

At first we thought it was a dust enshrouded supernova, which is understandable given the starburst going on in Arp299, but as time wore on, and the nucleus continued to shine brighter in the near-infrared, it became clear that whatever the power source might be, it was more powerful than even a luminous supernova.

Eventually Seppo Matilla, who was leading the project, got some deep high resolution radio observations which showed a new jet of radio emission in this nucleus. This is a clear signature of emission from a supermassive black hole, and the energetics suggested that a star about twice the mass of the sun was being ripped apart and swallowed by a supermassive black hole in this nucleus, with about 20 million times the mass of the sun. This is what is known as a Tidal Disruption Event.

You can read more about this on Imperial’s website:


and can also see our actual paper in Science:



Yet more sexual harassment in Astronomy

I’m glad that more details on this case are now public, including the name of the perpetrator, Dr Filipe Abdalla. UCL’s actions in this case are also reprehensible.

Let’s hope that google searches on the name Dr Filipe Abdalla will soon have the details of his sexual harassment coming up on top.

In the Dark

Yesterday I saw a thread on Twitter commencing with the following tweet by Dr Emma Chapman (now of Imperial College):

You can find the whole thread here; and here is one of the documents that have now been published:

I have met Dr Chapman and knew that she had endured sexual harassment in the recent past, but did not know any of the details of her case because they remained confidential until yesterday. They relate to sexual harassment by her PhD supervisor, Dr Filipe Abdalla of University College London (whom I don’t know personally). It has taken Dr Chapman two years to get documents relating to this case discosed publicly. I also didn’t realise that episodes of harassment of other women was involved or that Dr Abdalla, who remains in post at UCL, has apparently been indulging in retaliatory behaviour towards those who have made compaints against his conduct.

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Strike Days

I will also be taking part in the strike action discussed here by Peter Coles.

In case you weren’t aware, from tomorrow (22nd February) the University and College Union (UCU) is taking industrial action over proposed drastic cuts to staff pensions funded by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). You can find some background to the pensions dispute here (and in related articles). A clear explanation of why the employers’ justification for […]

via UCU Strike Action — In the Dark

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Books Read 2017 – Part 2

The Stars are Legion – Kameron Hurley

Fun and very different space opera. Lots of squishy biological stuff.

Roboteer – Alex Lamb

Another space opera, with a nasty oppressive Earth empire against the genetically modified.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K Le Guin

A classic, and deservedly so.

Hyperobjects – Timothy Morton

I don’t usually read philosophy treatises so this was a bit of an experience. By the end I felt he had some interesting points to make about things that are so big – like climate change – that they can’t be easily encompassed or conceived, but he did make this point several times in most chapters.

Nine Fox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Chinese SF where calendars are weapons, and the weapons are weird.

The Massacre of Mankind – Stephen Baxter

A sequel to the War of the Worlds. Baxter enjoys destroying Metroland a bit too much.

Coffin Road – Peter May

Interesting thriller set on Harris. Very atmospheric.

Binary Storm – Christopher Hinz

Prequel to the excellent Liege Killer (and its less good sequels) written long after the original. Happily much more like the original than the sequels.