The colorful history of an occultist JPL founder

“After his girlfriend ran off with [L. Ron] Hubbard, he decided to create his own girlfriend and summon an elemental.”

This WIRED article features a brief history of rocket engineer Jack Whiteside Parsons, a founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory who “developed the first castable solid propellant used to power aircraft.” Parsons came at a time when space exploration via rocketry was still considered science fiction (and science fiction was considered extremely silly).

According to the article, Parsons’ interest in rockets was inspired by SF literature. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t mention his inspiration for his bat-shit insanity.

from NASA’s website

From Parsons’ Wikipedia page:

“There was a widely used astronomy textbook published in the early 1930s which said that rocket flight was impossible. It was something that was really not even on the fringes, even beyond the fringes of respectable science.”
—Clayton Koppes, author of JPL: A History of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Big innovations and small: Neal Stephenson @ Solve for X

While the subject of Neal Stephenson’s speech is our culture appears to be moving away from big innovations (increasingly taller buildings, space exploration, faster jets, constantly pushing the limit of what’s physically possible etc.), what really struck me the second time I watched the video was his prediction that, a hundred years from now, 99% of the population might believe the moon landings were faked. People who know otherwise would be marginalized as “conspiracy theorists” in such a scenario.

That’s a pretty dark vision of the future if you ask me.

For the record, I don’t think that will happen. Certainly not in the next hundred years. Feasible? Sure. I’ll give him that. Nonetheless, the statement illustrates an important point. As Stephenson puts it: there are people actively trying to make that kind of future a reality. Maybe engineering big things will be sufficient enough monuments to remind people why human achievement matters and why real science should be trusted. Maybe not. Either way, it’s some interesting stuff to think about.

Comet ISON plays Icarus… and wins

Like I’ve tried to tell so many people who don’t get Reddit, it’s pretty useless if you don’t sign up for it and subscribe to only the subs you like. Indeed, the first thing I saw on my personalized feed this morning was this post. Comet ISON, for a short time last night, was thought to have been burned up by the sun. 

gif courtesy bsteinfeld, compiled from NASA thumbnails

As you can see, at least some of the comet made it.

It made me wonder just how fast this sucker’s moving. Phil Plait calculates it’s moving 1500 times faster than a commercial jet or 0.1% the speed of light. He originally calculated it was moving twice that speed, but posted a correction with the following message:

“making mistakes are a part of life. The best thing to do is own up to them… and then use them as an excuse to talk about physics. Yeah, I think that’s for the best.”

Words to live by. See this website for more on the comet’s predicted trajectory.

Asimov’s Predictions for 2014 (from 1964)

Here is a video that shows Asimov knew a thing or two about predicting the future:

the predictions Asimov got right in 1964

The problem is the video only shows the predictions Asimov made at the 1964 World’s Fair. Even so, his predictions are 600% more impressive than any purported psychic who ever lived and not nearly as vague. For the full list of Asimov predictions, click here.

Did Einstein really give a shit about bees?

Here’s a documentary that reminds us of an “Albert Einstein quote” that I thought Mark Wahlberg made up in The Happening:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” According to Snopes, it isn’t likely Einstein ever said that. It appears the quote was made up sometime in the 1990s. I have a feeling the people who treat environmentalism more like a religion than a science are really going to blow this quote up until the general population actually believes it. Since the quote appears in at least one Hollywood movie the damage may already be done.
So, the next time friends mention Einstein’s bee quote it’s probably a good idea to politely stop them. Ask them how’d they feel if you put words in their mouth after they’re dead. There’s always enough evidence for the truth without resorting to making stuff up.
* * *
This work week has been a real ass-kicker so please excuse the lack of updates. We’re probably putting the movie on hold until the Oklahoman weather isn’t so much like a tropical furnace. Most of the scenes we have left are scheduled to be shot outdoors. 
At the moment I’m writing a fantasy novel. I wouldn’t call it dark fantasy, but I definitely wouldn’t call it high fantasy either. (I don’t have any dragons or elves or anything you’d specifically find in D&D or Tolkien stories.) As is such, I’m reading a lot more fantasy than I usually do. I’m trying to catch up on Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, which I should have read through a long time ago considering I’ve always admired Moorcock’s work, and I’m listening to A Song of Ice and Fire while I’m at work or doing things around the house. No, I haven’t gotten to the Red Wedding. Please stop talking about it, Internet. I get it. I should have read this shit a long time ago. I’m fixing that now so the less-discretionary television viewers don’t end up ruining it for me. Which they seem to be trying to do time and time again.
I’ve said so many times recently that I don’t want to jump back into indie publishing yet, but honestly, the story I’m writing now feels right for Smashwords. You should also know I’m a flip-flopper. Anyway, the plan is to finish the first draft of this fantasy story and then get the last science fiction novel I wrote ready for prime time.
I know. Talking about writing is about as interesting as a shoe. I’ll show myself out now.

Dark energy and SETI: things that matter more than a lot of people think

Right off the bat I’ll mention we haven’t worked on our little movie in a while. All I can say is that’s been a relief. We probably won’t be working on it this weekend either, which means things have more or less returned to normal lately. Honestly, making a movie can suck. It takes far too much time from my writing… and, uh, video games.

a primer on dark energy
Our little movie also means I don’t always get to catch Science Friday, but I just listened to the May 10th episode. The show features Saul Perlmutter, a Nobel Prize-winning authority on dark energy (not to be confused with dark matter, dark energy is the force that’s responsible for the increasing speed at which our universe expands… or in other words the stuff that makes my most cherished science fiction novel of my teenage years slightly obsolete). Perlmutter joins Jill Tarter, the SETI astronomer Carl Sagan used as a basis for the main character in Contact. 
Point #1 of this post: If you have a young daughter you can’t find many role models better suited than Tarter. She says when she was a kid she wanted to be an engineer because all the engineers she knew of were men. Hell, even if you have a son you can’t find many role models better than that.
I love it when scientists from two different fields come together (see: NDT and Richard Dawkins ask each other fundamentally simple questions). At one point Tarter suggests dark energy itself could be the result of some extraterrestrial technology. Perlmutter’s reaction to this is surprising because he actually agrees. I should point out that he quickly says he wouldn’t bet on it though; Tarter gets a kick out of this.
The scientists touch on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: a lot of people (and politicians) don’t understand the return value of curiosity-based research. I’ve always found time dilation to be the most amazing fact in the universe, but there are probably millions of people who think it’s “just a theory” (by my count this is the most irritating, ignorant combination of words in the English language) that doesn’t have a practical application. Perlmutter points out that without Einstein’s research entire industries wouldn’t exist, not least of which is global positioning systems, because they make practical use of things that travel at the speed of light. Tarter then hypothesizes about the existence of zeta rays, partly tongue-in-cheek, to point out that whatever we need to detect extraterrestrial life maybe hasn’t even been invented in our society yet. She says it’s going to be guys like Perlmutter and research in things like dark matter that will bring those technologies to us. 
Again, here’s the link to the segment: Exploring an Ever-Expanding Universe. It’s a damn good listen.

Radiolab: "Sleep" (The Tetris effect)

Radiolab is my favorite show on NPR. It alone is a solid reason why any politician who wants to defund public broadcasting must never be taken seriously is a fucking moron. In the latest episode of the incredibly entertaining and informative show, the investigators find the most important piece of science literature on dreams in the last forty years focuses on the Tetris effect, the phenomenon in which gamers see Tetris pieces in their sleep. A researcher found that 60% of his test group dreamed about Tetris after playing it for prolonged periods of time.

My friend and I played several hours of Civilization 5 last Saturday and both of us had dreams about the game. My girlfriend admits to experiencing the Tetris effect when she played a lot of Bejeweled. I’ve gotten it from Minecraft and paintball among other things.

The Last Circus, the (not-so) big 3-0, and the brilliance of Lucifer’s Hammer

This blog post is going to be all over the place. Not very professional, but then again I’m not a professional blogger. I just use this space as a warm-up for the writing I take seriously. 
So here’s the trailer for The Last Circus (aka Balada Triste de Trompeta), but don’t watch it. It really is best to go into the movie fresh, without any idea of what you’re about to see, just so long as you’re not the type who’s sensitive to simulated sex and violence. And if that’s the case, what are you? Six?
a movie clip related to The Last Circus
I have two or three complaints about The Last Circus, but they’re so minor it’d be trivial to mention ’em. Want my review? Here you go: it’s a great movie, damn near perfect. That’s all you need to know. No need for a two or three page review.
So I just turned 30. Same shit, different day as the characters in the awful Dreamcatcher might say. My girlfriend’s going through a family crisis and I’m watching her parents’ dogs until the waves calm. Meanwhile I’ve been reading Lucifer’s Hammer. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for years. The time has finally come and it’s been getting a lot more attention than these damn dogs.
And holy shit. I had no idea what I was in for. This is the best piece of disaster fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. It reads like an extremely vivid nightmare.
Sagan said that building our civilization on science and technology, but not understanding it, was “a recipe for disaster.” Lucifer’s Hammer is the worst case scenario in a world in which tax payers and politicians don’t understand the return value of scientific research—the worst offender in recent memory was Sarah Palin who publicly made fun of fruit fly experiments. Perhaps “worst case scenario” is misleading because the events in the book become more plausible everyday it doesn’t happen. Only the most hopeful (or completely ignorant) could hope the planet won’t be struck by a life-threatening object while humans are living on it, especially when you consider it’s happened numerous times before we were here. As one character points out the chances of an extinction-level threat occurring on our planet is almost a certainty given enough time. 
Indeed, a pretty big impact event might be happening as soon as 2014—not here on our planet, but on Mars, just next door. 

It would be an event on the same sort of scale as the impact that drove the dinosaurs extinct 65m years ago. If it really is that big, and if the comet were to hit the side of Mars facing Earth (it seems that it might do, but it might also hit the far side), then the blast could well be visible to the naked eye, even in daylight.

While Jupiter’s size and influence acts like the inner planets’ magnet-like security system for such things, it’s foolish to expect it to thwart all such events. As Lucifer’s Hammer points out (as well as Arthur C. Clarke in his more optimistic novel, The Hammer of God) comets are incredibly unpredictable because the closer they get to the sun, the warmer they get and the ice tends to vent, which changes the object’s trajectory like crude retros. 
Niven and Pournelle make the civilization-destroying comet in their book a character in and of itself, one that’s almost as old as the universe. The way they write about its past almost makes you think it’s been destined to hit us all along, which really beefs up the sense of dread. The characters are plentiful and they’re real enough to care about. The decision to set the story in the seventies was probably the right decision at the time (the book is well known for its sense of urgency), but now the novel sort of comes off as dated, particularly in a scene which features Johnny Carson. Quick fix: just imagine it’s an alternative universe. 
The scientists in the novel spend several pages assuring humans there’s nothing to worry about, but continuously revise the odds as the comet grows closer. The “one in a million chance” of impact eventually dwindles to “one in a thousand” and, well, bad things happen. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of characters who insisted tax payers’ money should be spent on “problems a little closer at home.” Even environmentalists don’t worry much about comets and space rocks even though they’re probably the biggest threats. 
Does it hit? Do the scientists thwart it? Any summary on the internet will give the answer away and, as with The Last Circus, I suggest going into it cold. Let the book surprise you. It will. I guarantee that.