Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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Science for Fiction 2019

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

The dates are 3-4 July, starting after lunch on the 3rd and running all day on the 4th. 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 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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Mars Space Defence defeated again

In a complete stroke of luck my writing group was meeting last night, just at the time that InSIGHT was landing on Mars. As we’re all SF writers we took a break from pawing over manuscripts and pouring wine, to watch, and it was quite impressive.

The today I got interviewed about the event. You can find the interview here:


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Publication and other news

Two items of interest today:

Firstly, I’m pleased to announce that Analog has just bought my most recent short story, titled Sailers of the Second Sun. No word on publication date at this stage, but i will let you know here when it is out.

Secondly, I’ve had a paper discussing the Fermi Paradox and life in the Solar System accepted for publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. The paper is based on something I presented (in absentia) at a BIS discussion meeting last year. You can find the paper here: https://arxiv.org/abs/1811.06313

I thought little of this until I got the College’s Press Briefing today, where I found out that the Daily Express has picked up the paper:

“Aliens to be discovered in two decades top British scientist claims” Daily Express – “A new report from a British expert says it is a ‘realistic’ possibility that aliens will be found in under two decades. Not only could aliens be found, but they will be ‘intelligent, interstellar travelling and colonising life.’ according to the study. The research paper from Dr David L Clements [Natural Sciences], of the Imperial College London, states that the ‘necessities of life’ – such as water – are so ‘common in the Solar System’ that it ‘may be filled with life.'”

I like the ‘top British scientist’ bit!

The full report is available here:


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Parliamentary Standards: How to Complain

If you find an MP’s behaviour or language unacceptable you can do more than just moan about it. You can complain to Kathryn Stone OBE, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards standardscommissioner@parliament.uk

I just did:

I wish to complain about Theresa May MP’s language in a recent speech where she described EU citizens as ‘jumping the queue’.

EU citizens exercising their right under EU treaties to live and work in the UK are no more jumping the queue than those UK citizens, like myself, who have used those same treaties to live and work in EU countries.

Use of emotive language like this is an appeal to racism and xenophobia, something of which there is already far too much in the UK. Mrs May’s speech may well inspire further racist attacks, and it certainly does not enhance the standing of EU citizens who live, work, make and care for families in the UK.

These shameful dog whistle statements to the basest parts of the UK psyche must stop.



Maybe you’d like to as well.

I’ll let you know what sort of reply I get.

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You may recall that a few months ago I wrote a post about Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics, and who is moving to Cambridge next year to take up a Lectureship. Yesterday I heard the news that Dr Wall (who is currently at Stanford) has been awarded a New Horizons […]

via A Breakthrough for a Bigot — In the Dark

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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: