Posts Tagged ‘Larry Niven’

My Love Affair with Space

On the eve of the final mission of NASA’s – and the nation’s – 30-year-long space shuttle program, I present to you a video love letter – my newest piece for Time Magazine’s website, wherein Tara and I journey to Florida to witness our first launch.  STS-133, in February, was the last mission of space shuttle Discovery…

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My Love Affair with Space on

Astronomy in Science Fiction

When I attended the University of Texas, in Austin, back in the last century, I took a few astronomy classes and the most interesting one was called “Astronomy in Science Fiction.”

Through the fog of memory that sits like interstellar dust between me and Total Recall, I can only say with a level of certainty limited by more than just Heisenberg’s equations that we read at least one novel for the class – Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – and numerous short stories,Tau Zero by Poul Anderson including the classic “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov and a few Larry Niven stories.  I’m pretty sure “There is a Tide” was one of them, and perhaps “The Hole Man.”  I recommend them all.

We read the stories and then we discussed the astronomy and science concepts contained in them.  It was fun and educational, a great way to teach and learn science.

Mike Brotherton had a similar idea, which is not terribly surprising, considering he’s both an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Wyoming, and a science fiction author himself.  He’s written two hard-SF novels – Star Dragon and Spider Star – and some short stories, one of which is featured in his new anthology (one of the perks of being the editor of a book is the increased odds of being included in it).

Diamonds in the Sky is available for free online and was funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.  How cool is that?

According to Mike’s website, its purpose is…

“to provide stories with ample and accurate astronomy spanning a range of topics covered in introductory courses.  Instructors in high school and college may these stories useful, as some students may learn concepts more easily through story than from lecture.  Fans of science fiction with good science should also enjoy these stories.  Contributions include both original stories and reprints from some of the top science fiction writers working today.”

One of the stories, “Planet Killer,” is co-written by my friend, Kevin Grazier, who is a planetary scientist at JPL and the editor of The Science of Michael Crichton, The Science of Dune, and the upcoming The Science of Battlestar Galactica (he’s also science advisor to Battlestar).

I mentioned Diamonds in the Sky in the new article about me at The Manitoban Q&A: Brian Malow, science comedian.

Early in the interview, student journalist Trevor Bekolay asked about the role of storytelling in teaching science and we talked a bit about science fiction’s influence.  It was certainly a big influence in my life – and continues to be.  I credit Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Larry Niven, in particular, with captivating me early on with their creative use of real science concepts in their science fiction.

It’s a great way to get acquainted with science – in the context of an engaging story.

Check out Diamonds in the Sky for free online.

Diamonds in the Sky

Q&A: Brian Malow, science comedian

Related post: 
Science Comedian in The Manitoban

Science Foo Camp 2008: Chapter 2 – The Hotel

The SciFoo experience begins before the first session – even before we get to the Googleplex (Get thee to the Googleplex!).

There was the Wiki, as previously discussed, for first virtual encounters.  Then SciFoo weekend arrived.

On Friday afternoon, my taller half and I checked into the Wild Palms Hotel in Sunnyvale.  Sadly, jealously, Tara would not be joining me at the unconference.  As I frolicked at the vast Google empire, she’d be getting to know every square inch of our little hotel room.  Whereas I’d be interacting with 200 scientists and science and science fiction writers, she’d be interfacing with a stack of science and science fiction books.  I’d have Neal Stephenson; she’d have The Diamond Age.  I’d have Ann Druyan; she’d have Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

Shuttles would begin ferrying campers to the Googleplex around 5:15pm.  Tara and I went down to the hotel lobby a little early to join the gathering crowd.  We rounded a corner and bumped right into Esther and George Dyson, sitting exactly as captured here in their natural habitat by Betsy Devine.  They were very sweet and wished us first-timers a great experience.

Minutes later, Prabhat Agarwal introduced himself.  Prabhat is a former condensed-matter physicist who now works for the Future and Emerging Technologies Unit at the European Commission.  His job is to identify and support new areas of information-related science, and he told us about his personal interest in how we recognize something as new.  I’m still convinced that we rely mostly on the new-concept smell.

Jim Hardy has a pic from a few minutes later of Tara and me talking to Brian Cox and his wife Gia Milinovich.  Tara and Gia are in opposition, and I’m nearly totally eclipsed by Brian.  John Gilbey’s left eye makes a special uncredited appearance.  [Jim sends along this link to a bigger version]

This was the first of several conversations I’d have with Brian and Gia.  Brian is a particle physicist who works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva.  Gia calls herself a science groupie and broadcaster.  She’s worked on some pretty cool stuff like the CERN podcast and Walking with Robots and the new X-Files movie.

They are not only a couple but also a couple of the people I’d see the most throughout the weekend.  We ended up in a lot of the same sessions, although I was sorry to miss Brian’s LHC session.

We talked a bit about the LHC and laughed about the well-publicized fear that it would create micro-black holes that would destroy the Earth.  Although there is a chance that MBH’s will be created, it would require that the universe contain a few extra unseen dimensions, an aspect that is wished for by string theorists and others but still unproven (at least by us terrans in our local 4-dimensional spacetime realm).  Also, if created, the black holes would be so small and likely disappear so quickly (due to Hawking Radiation) that they may be undetectable by the LHC’s sensors.  A far cry from devouring the planet.

For an excellent fictional treatment of a similar catastrophe on Mars, check out Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning short story, The Hole Man.  Much fun!

A few minutes before we started boarding the shuttles, Steve Goldfinger introduced himself to me and Tara.  He lives up in the Marin area, as I recall, and we live in SF.  Steve is co-founder of Global Footprint Network.  We sat together on the ride to the Googleplex, discussing sustainability (his field) and science comedy (mine).

Steve also mentioned having been impressed with some science fiction by Kim Stanley Robinson – although we laughed when he accidentally called him “Kim Stanley Andersen,” which I suggested was a mash-up with Hans Christian Andersen.

I don’t know which Robinson work he was talking about but sustainability was a major theme (which it often is for Robinson) and it was not the Mars Trilogy (perhaps the Three Californias Trilogy or his most recent novels Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below).

As we arrived at Google, Steve and I exchanged business cards.  I had a great time chatting with him, but after we left the shuttle, I only ever saw him in passing perhaps once more.

Tara reads Niven & Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye. On the nightstand: Asimov's The God's Themselves, Sagan & Druyan's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight. Tara is a voracious reader.